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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