At lunch today, I had an interesting conversation. Part of it centered around the idea of integrity. My friend is a man of exceptionally high moral character. I don’t say that lightly. It takes a lot of courage to follow your beliefs regardless of the consequences. Few people have that sort of intestinal fortitude (i.e. they just don’t have the stomach for it).
History loves to hold up heroes like Gandhi and and Mandella, who stood by their beliefs in the face of horrendous pressure. Out there, right now, there are people of similar character. They may not be tested quite so vigorously, but make no mistake. They are uncompromising in the belief that who they are is defined by their ability to follow the path of righteousness. Even for them, there are consequences. They may not make the news, but on a personal level may be no less devastating.
Morality is not some sort of absolute. There are cultural variations. In some cultures, lying to protect someone else is perfectly legitimate and the sort of self-sacrifice that you would want your children to model when they grow up. Certainly, there are situations that are morally ambiguous in which one party suffers regardless of what choice is made.
I’m not talking about whether “you” believe that what someone else has done is right. I’m talking about what “they” believe. I may do something illegal that aligns with my moral code. I still sleep well at night. When my kids were growing up, we tried to instill the proper values in them. Once, when we were out at lunch, the kids wanted refills of their drinks. We did not see any indication that they offered free refills, but we agreed to ask. The waitress told us that she’s not supposed to, but she does it anyway. We said “no, thank you.”
We had to explain to the boys that the owner of the restaurant had priced the drinks assuming there would be no free refills. Further, the waitress is likely to get a nice tip for breaking the rules in favor of the customer. We had similar discussions at the movie theater ticket window. Because the boys were small for their age, when they were over 12, they could easily pass for younger. We often had to literally argue to be charged the proper amount.
The world is a very big place now. I think it is easy to depersonalize various situations and justify immoral behavior because we don’t know the people we’re hurting. Maybe we think that we’re just leveling the playing field for the little guy. If that’s how you feel, show the moral courage to really back it up. I’d have a lot more respect for that waitress if she went to the owner and said it is unfair to charge extra for refills. Maybe if she had told me that she had told the owner that she planned to offer free refills anyway and he chose not to fire her, I’d feel differently, but she was a moral coward.
We face moral decisions almost daily. Some are easy. Others have major consequences. We must choose to live with the consequences or compromise our integrity. It is a choice that is taken all too lightly by far too many people. Each bad choice we make appears to make our lives better, but in fact is drags society down a little bit more. It requires us to make stupid laws and regulations, lowers trust, and reinforces further bad behavior. The fix starts with you. Do you have the courage?