A little while back someone at my work was fired for theft. I’m sure this sort of thing happens all the time everywhere in the world, but I was still a bit shocked by it. I work for a pretty good company (benefits, wages, environment), so I didn’t understand why someone would put their job at risk; especially when this guy lost his job over theft of an item worth around $25. I mean, really?
I was talking this over with one of my co-workers, telling her I didn’t understand why someone would do it, especially when this will now be attached to his employment record and can impact his future. My co-workers response was that this guy simply figured he wouldn’t get caught.
The Fable of Gyges Ring
This situation made me think of The Fable of Gyges Ring, from Plato’s Republic. Just to be clear, I don’t normally go around reading things like Plato. I HAD to read it for school years ago (but have to admit it was actually pretty good). The Republic presents Plato’s ideas on justice and morality, and the part I remember the most is the fable of Gyges Ring.
In this story a shepherd finds a ring that makes him invisible and somehow this invisibility means the shepherd can take actions without consequences. Ummm, invisibility means no consequences? That seems like a bit of a stretch (and perhaps inspiration for Tolkien). But hey, the story was written over 2000 years ago so I guess we’ll have to cut it some slack.
Anyhow, with his newfound power the shepherd seduces the queen, kills the king and takes over the kingdom (because of course, that’s what we would all do if there were no consequences, right?)
Now here’s the interesting part. In discussing this tale, Plato theorized that if two of these rings existed, and one was found by a “just” man and the other by an unjust man, the ability to do what he wanted without consequence would cause the just man to become corrupted.
His suggestion was, it’s really only consequences that keep us in line and at our core we are all unjust.
What is Justice?
Are we inherently unjust? And what exactly does that even mean?
Merriam Webster defines justice as “the process or result of using laws to fairly judge and punish crimes and criminals”.
I’ll acknowledge that sometimes there is a disconnect between law and justice, but for the moment let’s accept that law is an attempt at placing rules around what is “right” or “moral”, and setting consequences for the violation of those rules.
Based on that, is Plato right? Is it really only the threat of consequences that keeps us in line and makes us act in a moral way?
Without consequences will people really just do whatever they want?
Learning Right From Wrong
In some ways I think Plato was right. After all, I do think we are born selfish. If you think about it, as infants all we understand is our own needs and other people are basically vehicles for this need fulfillment.
As a parent, my experience has been that right and wrong needs to be taught.
Children initially don’t understand why they can’t just do what they want, or take something they want. They need to learn about boundaries, and ownership. They need to learn the concept of exchange. Hell, even empathy seems to be something that is largely learned.
I may wish my children would just “understand” right and wrong, but they don’t. And while learning this, consequences are a practical way of helping them understand why they need to do the right thing.
Eventually I think people have to get to a point where we are no longer doing something to avoid consequences. Instead, they need to do something because they have come to believe it’s the right thing to do.
There’s a distinction between these two things (avoiding consequences vs. doing what we believe is right); and although it may seem subtle I believe it’s extremely important.
When we are doing something because we believe it’s the right thing to do, we have internalized that value. It has become part of our belief set.
At that point, the consequences from other people for violating that value aren’t important anymore. Because overriding any fear of what other people will think is the betrayal of our own core values. The disappointment in ourselves far outweighs any concern about being caught.
After all, we can hide things from others – but not from ourselves.
Which brings me to one of my favorite topics – integrity.
Integrity is all about how we live our lives. It’s about whether we actually live the values that we profess.
It’s really easy to SAY things. But to walk the talk, and to do it consistently? That’s a lot harder.
Now, I’m not trying to push my sense of morality on anyone here.
I readily acknowledge no one is perfect. We all have a darker side to us. We all have moments that we do things we later regret. We are all sometimes petty, selfish, stupid, ignorant – whatever.
Having integrity doesn’t mean you never do those things. Instead, it’s about how frequently do we stick to our values, and how badly do we stray from them when we don’t.
And because we know we ARE going to screw up sometimes, an important element of integrity is accountability. When we screw up (and yes, it’s a WHEN and not an IF) how do we handle it? Do we try to hide it? Do we blame? Justify? Or do we own it, accept any consequences from our actions and then try to use the moment as an opportunity for growth?
In relationships, it’s important to find someone with whom you share similar values. And I think a mistake people often make is they don’t actually get to know who their partner really is. Instead, they just assume their partner shares a lot of the same beliefs.
Unfortunately, the world isn’t black and white and right and wrong can at times be subjective. So when it comes to core values, simply assuming someone shares them can often lead to disappointment.
Here’s a little rule of thumb I have. If someone does something “bad”, and you are shocked because it seems so out of character for them – that’s probably a good thing. It means they either don’t do things like that often or they just rarely get caught (I’m a glass is half full kind of guy, so I’ll take it to mean they don’t do things like that very often).
If they do something and you find yourself going “sigh, again?”, then maybe that’s just who they are (or more accurately who they CHOOSE to be). And in that case, you’ve got to ask yourself if that’s a person you really want to be with.
Of course, WHAT they do is also pretty significant.
If someone is “mostly” awesome, but oh yeah they also happen to be a serial killer? That MAY be a problem for you.
Or maybe not, after all different people have their own boundaries on what’s acceptable and what’s not.
Murderer/sex offender/drug dealer are fairly universally accepted as “deal breakers” for relationships.
For many, finding out their partner is an adulterer/cheater is also a deal breaker (though many who believe that find things are a bit more murky than expected when actually faced with that situation).
To me, affairs show a complete lack of integrity. I see them as the ultimate selfish act, as they are all about choosing “me” at the expense of “we”.
I understand the conditions that lead to affairs. I understand when a couple is struggling, when someone feels unhappy in their relationship and/or with themselves. I understand that having other people show interest in you feels good, and when in a bad spot mentally/emotionally people want more of that feeling. I understand the dopamine rush that comes with new relationships, and the sense of freedom that comes with being able to do what you want, and not have to worry about the restrictions that come with relationships.
When you hear stories of people who have affairs, there are a lot of things they are feeling and a lot of reasons they do what they do. And I think I kinda/sorta get that.
Even still, I KNOW I would never have an affair (even if I had Gyges ring allowing me to escape consequences).
Because if you truly care about and respect the person you are with, an affair is completely disrespectful to that person. So I would NEVER do that to someone else.
And beyond that what I would be doing to someone else, I simply think that it’s wrong. And I know I could never live with ME if I were to do that.
I guess that’s the point of doing the right thing. It’s not about someone else. It’s not about consequences, and what other people would think if they found out.
It’s about you.
It’s about what you truly believe, and what beliefs you are willing to stand up for.
In the past while I’ve written about being authentic, and being true to yourself. Well, integrity and doing the right thing is a huge part of that.
Not saying one thing, yet doing another. Not hiding parts of yourself and presenting a different version of yourself to different audiences. Not denying fault, blaming or rationalizing your actions when you screw up.
But knowing who you are, and owning your choices and actions. Being who you are in all aspects of your life, and living a life you believe in.