The news has been buzzing recently with sad scandals. Presidential hopeful Herman Cain has been accused by several women of sexually inappropriate advances. Beloved football coach, Joe Paterno, believed to be a bastion of integrity in the ethically-compromised world of college football, appears not to have responded adequately when one of his coaches was alleged to have engaged in sex abuse of a child.
Admittedly, Cain and Paterno look pretty bad, not to mention many of the authorities at Penn State, where Paterno had been a coach until he was recently fired. Some have criticized the women who have now made public their complaints about Cain, on the grounds that they should have stepped forward sooner.
As we look at the moral failures of others, it’s easy to think that we would do better if we were in their shoes. We would not act inappropriate in the workplace. We would report anyone who did. We would never abuse a child. And if we had reason to believe that a friend or colleague had done so, we would call the police. We would do it right.
That may be true, but odds are we are over-estimating our moral sense and courage. Alina Tugend, in a recent article in the New York Times, “Doing the Ethical Thing May Be Right, But It Isn’t Automatic,” surveys many psychological studies that should cause us to question our own potential for acting unethically. For example:
Philip G. Zimbardo, professor emeritus of psychology at Stanford University and author of numerous books including, “The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil” (Random House, 2007), has spent a lifetime studying moral degradation. In 1971, Professor Zimbardo set up the infamous Stanford Prison Experiment, where the college student “guards” turned sadistic in a very short time, denying food, water and sleep to the student “prisoners,” shooting them with spray from fire extinguishers and stripping them naked. . . .
“The majority of people can get seduced across the line of good and evil in a very short period of time by a variety of circumstances that they’re usually not aware of — coercion, anonymity, dehumanization,” he said. “We don’t want to accept the notion because it attacks our concept of the dignity of human nature.”
Earlier in the week, David Brooks wrote a column that made a similar point to that of Tugend. In “Let’s All Feel Superior,” Brooks observed:
People are really good at self-deception. We attend to the facts we like and suppress the ones we don’t. We inflate our own virtues and predict we will behave more nobly than we actually do. As Max H. Bazerman and Ann E. Tenbrunsel write in their book, “Blind Spots,” “When it comes time to make a decision, our thoughts are dominated by thoughts of how we want to behave; thoughts of how we should behave disappear.”
The proper question is: How can we ourselves overcome our natural tendency to evade and self-deceive. That was the proper question after Abu Ghraib, Madoff, the Wall Street follies and a thousand other scandals. But it’s a question this society has a hard time asking because the most seductive evasion is the one that leads us to deny the underside of our own nature.
I think both Tugend and Brooks have a point. How easily we accuse others and excuse ourselves. As a Christian who takes seriously the sinfulness of humanity – including me – I am prepared not to overestimate my virtues. I can truly say, “There but for the grace of God go I.”
In fact, I have struggled with how to act in a situation not terribly different from that of Joe Paterno. Many years ago, a member of my church was a victim of spousal abuse. I knew that I was obligated to report the situation to the police, but I was fairly close to both the wife and the husband (who happened to be the victim, in this case). I did not find legal reporting to be an easy thing to do. In the end, I did what was right and called the police. Yet, I know how hard it can be to do “the right thing” in a situation where one is closely related to the people involved.
My guess is that there are thousands of people across our country who are terribly worried because, in the past, they did not report illegal behavior that should have been reported. Ironically, they might be even more fearful of speaking out now, given what has happened to Paterno. If you didn’t do the right thing years ago and come forward now, you may lose your job. If you remain silent, you may very well keep it. The stakes are high here, aren’t they? And the ethical challenges are difficult. It’s easy for any of us to think that we’d naturally do the right thing, but before we think too highly of ourselves, we ought to take a good, long look in the mirror.