Sunday, October 26, 2008


Something curious is going on.

During recent weeks a number of readers responding to polls on my column's blog have told me that they think a given action is wrong -- but that they plan to keep on doing it anyway.

Granted, my polls are anything but scientific -- the sample is small and far from random, since it's the self-selected minority who have chosen to participate -- but still this is something new. I'm used to people defending their actions and arguing that, even if some people criticize them, there's nothing wrong with what they're doing. I haven't previously had many people simply state that they are consciously choosing to do something that they themselves consider to be wrong.

Often, the percentage of willful wrongdoers is small: 14 percent of readers say that they know it's wrong to keep an extra newspaper mistakenly taken from a vending box, but that they'll do it anyway. The same percentage say that it's wrong to lie to political pollsters, but nonetheless would do so. Similarly, 17 percent of my readers say that they know it's wrong to call in sick when not actually sick, but have done that very thing themselves.

The percentages are much higher in some instances. When asked whether it would be wrong to continue using cable-television service that they were erroneously not being charged for, 30 percent say that, though they know it would be wrong, they'd continue using it anyway. And back when Scrabulous was still available on Facebook -- before a suit from Hasbro, the makers of Scrabble, forced the creators to take it down -- a full 53 percent of readers said that it was not OK to play the game, given the alleged trademark violation, but added that they'd continue playing anyway.

These responses raise some intriguing questions.

Do these people really think that what they're doing is wrong? Perhaps not -- if they did, by definition, they'd be compelled to stop. It may be that they feel socially pressured to condemn their own actions, but that's a far cry from truly believing that they're doing something wrong.

To many people, it seems, an action that's wrong isn't meaningfully wrong if those harmed by it are not everyday people but rather "deep pockets" targets such as employers or large corporations -- a newspaper, say, or a cable-television company.

But that shouldn't make a difference: The wrongness of an action is inherent in the action itself, regardless of who may be harmed by it or how significant the harm might be to them. Shoplifting is equally wrong, for example, whether it's from a mom-and-pop candy shop or the biggest store of the mighty Wal-Mart chain. It's not from whom you steal that's wrong, it's that you steal.

And finally, ethically speaking, is it better or worse to acknowledge the wrongness of something that you intend to continue doing anyway?

Well, perhaps it's more honest to admit that you know your actions are wrong, but you score no ethical points by coming clean about engaging in what you know to be unethical conduct. It may even be worse -- someone who does something egregious but who honestly thinks it's right is, at least, ethically consistent. That's more than can be said of the "yes, but" crowd.

Obviously for some people there is a disconnect between what they say they believe to be right and the way they choose to act.

The right thing is for them to get clear on why they believe things to be wrong vs. right, regardless of how they think others will perceive them, and to act accordingly. If you truly believe something is wrong, you shouldn't do it. If some reason compels you to choose an action, some reason that seems more important than your reservations about its wrongness, then clearly you have decided that it is actually the right course of action.

If you continue to find yourself doing things even in the face of believing that they are wrong, your action apparently is out of sync with your values. If it is, then simply stop doing it. Moral compromise is no laughing matter, and it makes little difference whether it's done for a fortune in stolen gems or for an extra newspaper.

c.2008 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Jeff, what a moral banquet this topic presents! I think that at least 40 years of fuzzy education and parenting has brought us as a society to this disconnect. There seems to be a confusion about very simple bottom line principals. The old "golden rule" still stands. I think that the guidepost for someone struggling with any of the situations you describe is the very simple question "Would I want it done to me?" As in stealing from, butting in line, taking advantage of, not writing thank-you notes (even!) etc. Do I want to live in a society where people have been raised to be so self-absorbed that every action is predicated on the question "What's in it for me?" I think of societies as brick walls - strong if the bricks are strong, but when the individual bricks start drying and crumbling from within, eventually the whole wall goes. How else could we find ourselves in the economic crisis we now face if the first question for everyone - from home buyer to lender to mortgage giant - wasn't "What's in it for me?" and "How can this make me happy NOW?"
Such small acts as swiping a candy bar may make minor ripples in society overall, but the justification is the same as for a murderer who knows that society holds murder to be wrong but does it anyway - "because I wanted to."