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Commentary: There’s No Such Thing as a Morality Guarantee

ethics and morals

by Kenneth Rudich

One of the more difficult things to consistently navigate in business and life is the challenge of staying morally and ethically upright.  The corollary to this is that life can be a long process, untidy influences abound and the human condition is nothing if not imperfect.

Sometimes there are gray areas and other times it’s clear-cut.  Either way, bad decisions can occur when the incentive for allowing a lapse taps into a person’s weaknesses or insecurities.  In this situation, the natural inclination for most decision-makers is to evaluate which type of response will serve them best, as opposed to framing the decision solely based on what is morally and ethically right. 

The nature of what’s expected in return exerts an influence as well. 

Sometimes the decision-maker is hoping either to avoid or lessen the distress it might inflict on him/her in return (which also could include the desire to preserve something deeply cherished).  This is the type of scenario many involved in the Penn State scandal faced.  The chain of events throughout show a clear pattern of people attempting to minimize the level of distress they were going to personally encounter as a result of the information they held.  Either they passed the moral responsibility onto someone else, hedged about what they knew, or tried to ignore anything serious was happening. 

Another possibility is to acquiesce for the purpose of acquiring something coveted, such as wealth, fame or status.  This scenario has a long and well-established history for playing itself out.   Almost anyone over the age of thirty can name at least ten people who’ve succumbed to an ethical or moral lapse for the sake of gaining something they really wanted, but may not have been able to get without sacrificing their integrity.

Time is another factor that typically enters into the decision-making process.

People who seek to avoid or lessen the distress will often adopt a short-term response that postpones any confrontation with a harsher alternative.  Sometimes the postponement lasts long enough for the problem to go away by itself, just disappear; but it’s also common to see a pattern of escalation in which the problem grows increasingly worse or more complex over time.  This last was surely the case in the Penn State calamity.

People who lapse for the sake of acquiring something tend to frequently want the gratification of it as soon as possible.  Instead of using postponement tactics, they try to accelerate the arrival of what they seek.  For instance, rather than spending the time it takes to earn a degree, a person might buy it or falsely claim to have one.   

In the wake of the Penn State debacle, I’ve grown to believe no one can absolutely guarantee they will never fall prey to the occasion of committing an unethical or immoral act.

It doesn’t matter how steadfastly you work to avoid it, or how strong your convictions are in terms of being against it, or that it entirely cuts against the grain of who you are as a person.  In the final analysis, there are just too many variations of pressure and/or circumstance that can sneak up and surprise you.  Blink at the wrong moment and it can happen just that easy and just that quick, even among people who appear to be the unlikeliest of candidates for it.

Though there are few nobler things in life than striving to lead a moral and ethical one…and in the end, ultimately succeeding…never assume it’ll automatically happen just because you’ve got it in your head that a lapse can’t happen to you.  


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