COMMENTARY 763.3: Willful Blindness: Ignoring the Moral Issues Before Us

On a bitter cold night, a Russian countess was taken to a play in a horse-drawn carriage. The driver asked the Lady whether they could take shelter in a nearby inn until the play was over as he was not feeling well.

The Countess thought the question impertinent and directed the two men to wait outside with the carriage in case she wanted to leave early.

The performance and intermission lasted nearly three hours.  The play included a heart-rending scenes about a nobleman who refused to allow two of his servants who had fallen in love to marry. In the end, both were killed when they tried to run off to be together.

The Countess was moved to tears and she commented to a friend that the cruelty of the nobleman in the play was barbaric and inexcusable.

She was still sobbing when she exited the theater and found a small crowd gathered around her carriage. She demanded to know what was going on, and the footman fearfully told her that the old driver froze to death while they waited for her.

The Countess was furious demanding who would now drive her home.

So, how could a woman sensitive enough to cry at the plight of fictional characters be so callous about the comfort and health of her own servants?

It’s called “willful blindness,” a defense mechanism allowing folks to see only what they want to see.

I saw a cartoon once that captured the essence of this point: A half-dozen executives are sitting around a conference table, and the chairman announces, “Miss Harris will now hand out the moral blinders.”

The key question is: What are we pretending not to know?

Are there things about nuclear power plants and their ability to survive natural calamities we are pretending not to know?

Are some school administrators willfully pretending not to know about irresponsible teachers or abusive coaches?

We all have moral blind spots. The challenge is to have the humility to find them and the character to fix them.

If you enjoyed this commentary, read Moral Courage – The Engine of Integrity.

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