The blog for The State Bar of Michigan–the fancy name for the organization of Michigan’s lawyers–recently asked this question: “Why do people who not only should know better but who have exemplary professional records and to all appearances are morally upstanding in other aspects of their lives sometimes commit appalling ethical breaches?” In other words, why do good people do bad things?
Haven’t we all had the experience of being shocked with news of a respected public figure getting caught doing something very wrong? The family-values preacher found with a prostitute. The Hollywood star who turns out to be a closet racist. The politician e-mailing naked pics to a woman not his wife.
But it isn’t just famous people who surprise us with their bad choices; our friends and neighbors do it too. The couple whose long-time marriage seemed unassailable gets a divorce when one finds out that the other’s been having an affair. The woman with a squeaky-clean rep and a head for figures embezzles money from the Little League. The bank president drives drunk and kills someone in a collision.
How many of us have heard news like that on the street or read an article in the newspaper and blurted out: “Oh my gosh! I never would have suspected that _____ would _____!” What’s the explanation? Why might a good person do a bad thing?
- Drugs and alcohol. Addictions lead people to do terrible things they would not otherwise think of doing. It starts small when I think I can keep my addiction ”under control”, but the drugs or alcohol end up controlling me. And leading me into very poor choices. Like stealing from good friends and loved ones to support my prescription-drug addiction.
- Small things lead to big things. I start out by taking small amounts from my employer’s accounts to cover my gambling losses knowing that I’ll pay it back later when I win. He won’t miss it anyway. Except I keep losing. And I decide to steal even more. Then he does miss it. What started out small has turned into something very big. It’s a slippery slope.
- It can’t happen to me. Do I have an overly optimistic opinion of my ability to avoid bad choices? Do I believe that ethical lapses are things that other people do? But not me. The Book of Proverbs tells us that pride goes before a fall. Failure to recognize that I am not only capable of good deeds but also–given the right set of circumstances–capable of great evil, makes me vulnerable to poor decisions.
- Mental illness. There are some medical conditions that make me susceptible to bad decision-making. Closed-head injuries can cause a personality change. The mania stage of bipolar disorder creates an exaggerated sense of one’s importance and decreases one’s willingness to defer one’s wants to the needs of others and the rules of society. When someone unexpectedly makes an out-of-character choice, maybe he’s just plain sick.
- Lack of preparation. Coaches tell us there’s no such thing as luck. What we call “good luck” is when preparation meets opportunity. Bad luck is when poor preparation meets a problem. The world rarely give me a period of quiet reflection and ethical contemplation before it asks me to make a choice. I am confronted with those choices unexpectedly and with little time to make the right choice. I have to be prepared ahead of time with well-grounded principles and a solid commitment to live according to my values.
- That’s not the real me. I call it the Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde syndrome. I believe I can conveniently separate myself into the bad me and the good me. Of course, the good me is the real me. The good me believes that the sheer weight of all the good things I’ve done excuses this tiny bad thing I did. But, really, I am Mr. Hyde as well as Dr. Jekyll. I’m responsible for all that I do, good and bad.
- Burnout. We live in the days of “do more with less”. Stressed-out, multi-tasking parents. Employers who try to survive recession by laying off employees and making the survivors pick up the slack. When I am tired, when I get worn down by the steady drip, drip, drip of duties that are never done, I get burned out. I cut corners. I make poor choices.
- Underestimating the power of emotion. We left-brain thinkers are uncomfortable with emotion. We don’t understand it. We underestimate its effect on our decisions. We tend to think that logic is the only force propelling our choices. But I get angry. I lust. I get greedy. And I feel all sorts of other emotions I refuse to acknowledge. When I don’t acknowledge my emotion, when I don’t account for it in my decision-making, it can lead me to make ill-considered–and ultimately poor–choices that get me into trouble.
- After-the-fact justification. I am so convinced that I am a good person who does not make unethical choices that I have developed the amazing ability to devise reasons why my terrible choice was actually a good thing, or was absolutely unavoidable, or was forced upon me. I am a gold-medalist at the mental gymnastics needed to justify my bad behavior. But there’s that nagging little voice that comes to me at 3 a.m. It’s hard to consistently fool that still, small voice.
- Ends justify the means. Beware the true believer! His cause is so just, his goal is so worthy, that no price is too great to pay on the epic journey toward fulfillment of that dream. You have to break a few eggs if you want to make an omelette! The end result may indeed be laudable, but history is littered with a tragic trail of eggs that were broken by good people thinking that their high-minded goal justified their hurtful decisions.
- Worn down by temptation. Bonus reason #11! Resisting temptation is not like weight training; one does not become stronger the longer one resists temptation. Steel is strong but it doesn’t become even stronger when it’s consistently exposed to water. It rusts. And deteriorates. And breaks. The water always wins. “Flee from temptation”, the Bible tells us. I think God really means it because it’s in there about four times! Just run. Run away. Quickly.
Luke’s gospel tells the story of a socially prominent young man–one whom I think made an honest effort to do the right thing and serve the people under his care–who came to Jesus and asked: “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
“Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good—except God alone.”
So, the question posed by this post is actually a trick question. The answer is that none of us is good. We make a mistake we when divide the world into good people (us) and bad people (them). All of us are capable of doing bad things, and –truth be told–all of us have done bad things. We’re desperately in need of grace and forgiveness. Ironically, acceptance of that truth will prepare us to make good decisions and will also help us receive without surprise or shock the bad decisions of others. There, but for the grace of God, go I.