The Doctrine of Relative Filth 716.1

In the early ’90s I was asked to spend a full day talking about ethics with the entire California Senate. I was their punishment. Three senators had been convicted the previous year, and voters had passed an ethics initiative requiring legislators to receive education on ethical principles.

This was a high-profile, high-prestige program, and I didn’t want to be naïve about Sacramento’s political realities and rationalizations. I spent days interviewing senators and staffers.

During one interview, a senior staffer confided, “We need this program. People lie a lot up here.”

I wondered if I should act surprised. “Lying in politics? I’m shocked!” I thought. But before I could respond, the staffer added, “I hardly ever lie.”

“Gee,” I thought, “do you hardly ever take bribes?”

Although his statement sounded like a confession, he wasn’t embarrassed at all. In fact, he was proud. Hardly ever lying made him feel morally superior. In a culture where lying is common, the occasional liar feels like a saint. In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.

I’ve heard variations of this justification (“I’m not so bad as long as others are worse”) so many times that I’ve given it a name: The Doctrine of Relative Filth.

It’s a rationalization used by cheating athletes and coaches, dishonest businessmen, and others to minimize their moral shortcomings by comparing themselves to others who have even lower standards.

What a pathetic defense! People of character aren’t satisfied being better than someone else. They strive to be the best they can be.

This is Michael Josephson reminding you that character counts.

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Comments 2

  1. Thank you so much. You are like a voice in the wilderness.
    “Over the last decade, G.E. has spent tens of millions of dollars to push for changes in tax law, from more generous depreciation schedules on jet engines to

  2. This has to do with people lying and trying to justify their lie by being not so hard on them self because other people are worse i see like if you have to lie to get your way you will should be ashamed in yourself not only are you disrespecting the one your lying to but your self as well i am a sales person before i use to lye to much to close the sale now i don’t have to lie at all because they respect the fact that i am honest and i don’t have to lie in order to close the sale this article should teach you how to build your character.

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