How many times have we heard someone say, “I’m not perfect but I’m basically honest.” It reminds me of an example provided during my ethics training of a man who had loaned $20,000 to each of three friends. The man told his friends that if he died before they repaid him, each of his friends were to put the payment in his coffin.
As luck would have it, the man died. At the funeral, the first friend put only $5,000 in the coffin, keeping $15,000. The second friend repaid only $10,000, claiming the deceased had owed him $10,000. The third friend placed a check for $20,000 in the coffin. All three broke their promise to their deceased friend and rationalized their behavior. Additionally, the third friend engaged in a subterfuge: the check was obviously meaningless, as it would never be cashed.
Rationalization and self-interest color our perceptions. The so-called doctrine of relative filth is self-deceiving: “I’m not so bad as long as there are others who are worse.” Lily Tomlin had it right when she said, “The problem with the rat race is that even when you win, you’re still a rat.”
Let’s take the imaginary example of someone who runs a local non-profit club. The club has by-laws and a set of rules. This individual knowingly and repeatedly violates the organization’s by-laws and rules. Would you consider this person less than ethical? Of course you would.
This person get’s away with this bad behavior because the board and membership are lazy: they want to “get along” so they “go along.” Would you consider the board members who fail to object to their leader’s unethical behavior to be as equally less than ethical? Of course you would.
And what of the membership’s responsibility to ensure honest governance? The membership has failed too. Edmund Burke aptly summed it up stating, “All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing.”
Because good people in the membership and on the board did nothing to stop bad behavior, the club receives a bad reputation not to mention the person running the organization and its board members. What happens in cases like this is a loss of members who want nothing to do with a club’s leadership that willingly and knowingly violate the by-laws and rules. As Lily Tomlin also said, “Everybody thinks it can’t happen here . . . until it does.”
Michael Josephson (Josephson Institute of Ethics) wrote, “people who want to be ethical, to do the right thing, must face up to the fact that they are often at a disadvantage in competing with people who are not constrained by ethical principles. Some find this unacceptable and abandon the . . . Golden Rule in favor of cynical and pragmatic formulations like ‘Do unto others before they do unto you.’” This behavior is self-deceiving rationalization, a self-satisfying but false justification for bad behavior.
“I’m not perfect but I’m basically honest,” really means one is honest unless the cost is too high. The true test of commitment to ethical principles occurs when self-interest and ethics offer contradictory ends. Ethical people are those who are willing to pay a price for their principles, to even lose if necessary. This is the bottom line ethics test. It is when we face this test and choose ethics over self-interest that we discover our basic virtue.
It is often said that ethics is doing the right thing, even if no one is looking. Ethics is not always in harmony with personal wants and needs. As Michael Josephson noted, “Ethics is about the way things ought to be, not about the way things are. Once the primacy of ethical principles is truly accepted, one treats them as ground rules, not suggestions. And that’s the challenge for a person of character.”