COMMENTARY: A Test of Integrity: Does Personal Necessity Trump Moral Principles?

Years ago, my wife Anne was talking to a woman I’ll call Lila about another lady I’ll call Gwen. Gwen had just been laid off and since she had only worked for the company for a short time, she wasn’t eligible to continue the company’s medical insurance. That’s important because she was eight weeks pregnant, and the reason she took the job was to get medical insurance.

Gwen was upset and went to a lawyer. Together, they decided to threaten her employer with a lawsuit claiming the company terminated her because they found out she was pregnant.

Anne asked, “Is that what really happened?”

“Well, no,” Lila answered, “but Gwen really needs the insurance, and she hopes the threat will force the company to make a settlement.”

“But that’s dishonest!” Anne said. Shocked by Anne’s judgmentalness, Lila stressed again how hard it would be for Gwen if she had no insurance because she had no husband. She was artificially inseminated. Gwen thought of asking the company if she could keep her insurance by paying the premiums, but her lawyer said it would weaken her case.

Anne was incredulous. “Weaken what case? Her case is a lie! I know she’s in a tough situation, but how can Gwen possibly justify making a false claim?”

Lila concluded: “Gwen only did what she had to do.”

It’s one thing to feel compassion for Gwen. It’s quite another to justify fraud simply because she thought it was necessary. There’s a certain seductive force to necessity claims, but neither real nor perceived necessity gives anyone a moral free pass. Personal needs and wants just don’t trump moral principles. Remember, character is doing the right thing even when it costs more than you want to pay.

This is Michael Josephson reminding you that character counts.

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