It has been suggested throughout history that the risk of public humiliation is the greatest deterrent to immoral behavior. As early as Plato’s story of Gyge’s ring, the proposition has been advanced that if you knew you couldn’t possibly get caught [the ring discovered by the shepherd Gyges made him invisible], it is in our nature to do things without restraint.
In this age of camera phones, email, texting, security cameras and many other forms of digital observation, it is increasingly difficult to do something without being seen. In many ways, that is a good thing. Transparency, especially among government and business leaders is to be encouraged. Even Hillary couldn’t hide her emails forever on her personal server.
I would argue, however, that the risk of public embarrassment is not the deterrent that we think it is. Consider people like Bill Clinton, Elliott Spitzer, Tiger Woods, Anthony Wiener, and a line up of other notable figures who, having been outed for their conduct, stood before the cameras, usually with a wife at their side, publicly apologized, and then got on with life.
Not considered in this theatrical mea culpa are the victims of their behavior: the spouses, children, employees, colleagues, relatives, friends and others whose lives have been damaged directly or indirectly because of their indiscretion. Google “Monica Lewinsky” to get a good idea of the harm that can be caused to another human being when power and selfish neediness trump concern for the consequences.
I’m not talking about sociopaths who have no conscience when it comes to others. They may be beyond hope. But the vast majority of leaders in government and business do have souls and at least some kind of moral core. The problem is that people in positions of power and privilege don’t always act in a way that considers the harm their actions may have on others. They think they can get away with indiscretion, and even the risk of losing one’s job, reputation, and family are not sufficient deterrents. These are but personal risks, and when one acts only out of selfishness, then the risk is selfishly focused as well.
Let me give you one example of what I mean. In the 1980’s, Rev. Jim Bakker of PTL Ministry was embroiled in a sex scandal involving Jessica Hahn. He and his wife, Tammy Faye, were indicted for embezzling millions from their ministry. Jim was convicted and sentenced to federal prison. Tammy Faye divorced him. They certainly knew what they were doing was wrong. But the risk of getting caught was not sufficient to keep them from acting.
I have to wonder, though, if they ever considered the number of people whose very livelihoods depended on their ministry and the impact their behavior would have on them? If they had had the opportunity to play forward a video of the significant harm that came to their personal friends and supporters as a direct result of their greed, would they have acted on their selfish impulses? I don’t know of too many human beings who would be so cold hearted as to say: “My closest friend will lose his job, lose his home and have to declare bankruptcy as a direct result of my decision to steal this money, but I am going to do it anyway.” It certainly raises the ante on the cost of risk.
Of course, instilling this factor into everybody’s conscience isn’t possible – or is it? Can an ethic of probable consequences be developed in the work place – especially among senior leaders – as a way to keep leaders grounded on a foundation of basic moral principles. And more important, can anonymous support systems for leaders be developed and employed to help keep executive leaders from thinking that the only harm that can come from aberrant behavior is to them and not to other people? I believe the answer to these questions is “yes” and it is my hope through this consulting practice to provide exactly that kind of support for chief executives who may find themselves walking through an ethical minefield.