The story unfolding in England about reporters at Rupert Murdoch’s tabloid hacking into voicemails is disturbing. It appears that the practice was extensive and had been going on for a long time.
For the offending reporters and editors, it was just business. Private information is a valuable commodity, and every day more is needed. That’s a lot of pressure, the kind of pressure that breeds a “whatever it takes” attitude unencumbered by ethical niceties.
We’ve seen it before — business executives manipulating reports and teachers falsifying test results to meet their goals. In all these cases, employees who violate basic norms of decency as well as the law say they had no choice. The possibility of losing their jobs was all the justification they needed.
Our instincts to “look out for number one” are natural and powerful, but integrity and honor stand no chance if we accept the idea that fear of losing a job or other forms of self-interest are moral “get out of jail free” cards.
Beware of the false necessity trap, the belief that anything necessary for our survival or well-being is justified. First, we often call things necessary when they are simply desirable. As Nietzsche said, “Necessity is not a fact, it’s an interpretation.” Second, personal necessity doesn’t trump ethics.
In fact, even from the perspective of long-term self-interest, it’s much better to resist than to surrender to pressure.
Losing your job isn’t nearly as costly as losing your honor. That’s why people of character do the right thing even when it costs more than they want to pay.
This is Michael Josephson reminding you that character counts.