The Rule of Always and Never

As comfortable as I am with myself, my character, and my ethics, I’ve made peace with a basic fact: if I was put in a situation to protect my children, I honestly don’t know what I would be capable of doing. It’s my ethical Achilles heel. When I feel myself judging others I ask myself whether I would do something that bad to protect my children.

And of course I really don’t know.

That’s why when I was listening to a podcast this week called Why People Do Bad Things, it resonated with me. The podcast explores a specific fraud and the broader implications on business ethics. It makes the case that the world is not broken up into good people and bad people, but rather that good people placed in certain situations can make bad decisions. 

I spent a large part of my formative professional years in audit roles, and during those years we talked a lot about how to build effective process controls so that good people weren’t tempted or couldn’t make big mistakes. Basically, we were trying to make sure any one person couldn’t get away with something — we always knew that collusion was harder to protect against. And what really surprised me from the podcast was how easily groups of people can talk themselves into doing something unethical. How the rationalization can spread, like a disease.

Like most people, I want to believe the best about myself, that if I was the next link in a questionable chain I would be the voice of reason. I would speak out — I would act with integrity over self-Interest and peer pressure. But there are thousands of examples throughout human history where that hasn’t happened. And so I have one thing I do to keep aware of that; I call it “the rule of always and never.”

Whenever I hear my kids use the words always or never, I caution them. Those are strong words, I say. They reflect a level of certainty that humans are rarely capable of and should be used sparingly. For things like gravity. Or sunrises. They don’t get to be used for “you never let me have ice cream” or “I always brush my teeth”. Those statements don’t meet the standard. I want my kids to think about the power of those words and not throw them away on a trifle or pretend some superhuman ability to fight human nature.

I pull out the rule when I hear someone talking about another person’s actions in circumstances they haven’t faced. Or when I hear a political pundit. It’s the voice in the bad of my head that says, “Are you sure you really know, Mel? Never? Always?” It’s my ultimate reminder of empathy and that my span of experience, as wide as it might be for a girl from a small Midwest town, is still very narrow.

Once, my incredibly witty firstborn caught me saying, “we never use never and always,” which made me feel proud and sheepish at the same time. And that’s the point, isn’t it? That we’re all human and fallible — and we should remember that.

Always.

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