In civilian life, I am a writing coach, and I preach a pretty hard line about practice and discipline. I help people get their prose into shape by “planning their work and working their plan”. I like to think of myself as a philosopher, but on most days I’m really just a glorified motivational speaker, and, I must admit, a bit of a moralist. I believe that an orderly writing routine makes you, for lack of a better word, a better person.
So I always blush when people ask me how my own writing is going. The truth is that I’m not nearly as disciplined and focused in my scholarship as I would like to be. I try to keep my commitments to this blog, of course. And to my own blogs elsewhere. And every now and then I will accept an invitation to write something for some particular occasion. But the slow, daily work of writing down what I know is probably as difficult for me as it is for everyone else, no matter how many times I say some variant of “just do it”. I’m as imperfect as the next guy.
Now, this blog isn’t about writing but about ethics. And here the same problem exists, though with perhaps even more uncomfortable force, a sense of “shame” if you will. As a member of the Ethics Education Committee, and as a blogger here at the Ethicist, I’m not just bound by the Code of Ethics but bound to promote it. Its preamble states:
AOM members realize that to maintain ethical standards they must make a personal, lifelong commitment to behaving ethically themselves; to encouraging students, supervisees, employees, employers, and colleagues to behave ethically; and to consulting with others when ethical questions arise.
It’s entirely fair to ask how well I live up to that ideal. Not only do I of course fail on occasion to take the most ethical of the available courses of action, I also sometimes fail to encourage it in others and–too often, I’m afraid–to make ethical questions explicit when they arise. How are we to deal with our ethical imperfections? How are we to deal with the ethical imperfections of our ethics educators? Good questions.
Many years ago (and I just realized that I may have reached the age when I can say “When I was young man…”) I wrote a high-spirited defense of hypocrisy. Geoffrey Klempner, who published my piece in his Philosophy for Business newsletter, neatly summarized the underlying idea in his editor’s note: “it is better, more conducive to moral progress, to fail to live up to one’s own high ideals than to adjust one’s ideals downwards to fit one’s practice.” I still believe that is true, and the brief surge of interest in income-proportional penalties for traffic violations, which famously resulted in a $103,000 speeding ticket, reminded me of the example I used back then. Indeed, I see now that the example can be improved.
Suppose you are an anti-speeding crusader and a holder of a relevant political office. In public and in private you rail against the threat that speeding is to our safety, and you are particularly offended by the nonchalance with which wealthy drivers, who also of course happen to own the fastest cars, approach the posted speed limits. To them, a speeding ticket is a negligible cost of car ownership (the whole point of which, they might say, is to get them to where they are going faster), along with insurance, gas, and the car itself. So you introduce legislation to make speeding tickets more of a deterrent force in their lives. And let’s say you get exorbitant $100,000 fines for sufficiently wealthy drivers passed.
And then, of course, you get caught speeding. The media would have what they call a “field day” with this. But why would we find it so funny? As long as you pay the fine, what’s the problem? In the moment, you decided that the risk of such ticket was worth running. You do not believe that you had an excuse that was sufficient to get you off the hook. But the possibility of getting a ticket does deter you from speeding under normal circumstances. It’s just that this particular date was very important to you to keep. So you went for it. And you got caught. It may even happen again but, because you do actually respect the law, and in exactly the way you meant it to be respected when you wrote it, it will happen very rarely. To my mind, that is a sound ethical position to take. (Have at it in the comments if you disagree!)
Closer to home, I’ve been known to ride a pretty high horse on academic misconduct, plagiarism in particular. Some people find my work in this area a bit overwrought, a bit pedantic. I’m sure there are people who would find it amusing if I got caught having plagiarized something. And I can’t say I don’t sometimes feel a bit of anxiety about that. Live by the sword, die by the sword, right? But in such moments I have to remind myself that I know what I would do to correct my error, and that it is in that moment, when I own my mistake and help the community recover from whatever damage my actions may have caused, that my ethical “character” is revealed. Everyone makes mistakes. It’s what happens afterwards that matters.
Given the world as it is, people as they are, there’s a sense in which we better hope that we’re all hypocrites. That is, we better hope that each of us is beholden to a higher sense of justice than our actions commonly display. We are striving upward.