Decency pays huge dividends

Posted on December 26, 2009
Filed Under Commentary, Economic & Political Philosophy | Leave a Comment

Someone once wrote that a person who is honest because he believes honesty is the best policy is no more pious than is a thief. If so, I sit on the same bench as the thief. I believe that honesty and facing up to the music when you screw up is, in the long run, just the sensible thing to do.

A friend once marveled at how my father and I always knew what the positions of our newspapers should be while he often had to spend hours agonizing over what he should do. I couldn’t take any credit for it. My parents had raised me with a firm understanding of what our family would do and what it would not do. I explained to my friend that it is as if there is a pipe that runs down through the centre of the universe. In the midst of the darkest storm, we can just close our eyes and hang on to that pipe. The pipe is what is right.

He had, properly I think, rejected the repressive religion of his youth. When faced with a moral issue, he had nothing to rely on but situational ethics. He needed a set of good principles.

One practical benefit of a good set of principles is that they save time. You do not have a lot of variables to consider and weigh.

Another benefit is that you do not need a photographic memory. If you do and say whatever is convenient at the time, you have to remember what that was. What was right, is right so you don’t have to remember.

My father had many great ideas. He noted that “Time” magazine had an economic panel that produced regular report cards on the economic performance of primarily the U.S. He thought it would be a good idea for “Time” and “Maclean’s” to have morality panels that would produce report cards on our moral progress.

Although popular opinion may be to the contrary, incidentally, I believe morality is improving. I am a little concerned that selfishness may be on the increase but I am quite convinced that tolerance and fairness continue to improve.

Part of moral behaviour is facing up to the music.  Like delaying gratification, by saving instead of borrowing, it can pay big dividends. A personal example came when I was caught driving impaired in a city away from home. My lawyer  suggested I could plead guilty and be sentenced there and no one would know. He said I could probably even continue to drive without being caught.

At the time, my newspapers had recently stopped publishing the names of drivers convicted of impaired driving because the justice system conspired to make it possible for big shots and friends of certain lawyers, prosecutors, judges and clerks to hide, bury or lose some proceedings and records.

However, for years I had published the names of hundreds of people convicted. Often those people or their families complained bitterly that I would never do to a member of my own family what I had done to them.

All of that made my decision as to what to do about my own case quite easy. Obviously the right thing to do was to publish it. Obviously, too, if I did not, it would always be lurking there in the dark background waiting to jump out and bite me on my hypocritic ass at some inconvenient time.

I arranged to have the case moved to my hometown and scheduled for a day when we had a paper coming out so no one could break the news before we did. It went on our front page.

I had an explanation, not an excuse, but an explanation, as to why I had been driving impaired. I intended to print that in my column. Then it occurred to me that everyone convicted of impaired driving had some extenuating story he would like to tell. It would not have been fair for me to use my column in a way they could not.

Promptly putting the story on the front page took away the legitimacy of any complaint that we would apply different rules to ourselves than to others. It also provoked some compliments and comments about increasing our credibility. Most importantly, it prevented anyone from ever using that event to expose me as a hypocrite.

I have no way to know but I don’t think it made any of the people who did not like me, like me less.

There was comical side effect of the story. A publisher friend in Nova Scotia saw it, cut it out and put a note “front page” on it to take home to show his wife. He wanted her to see how I had dealt with it. A member of his staff picked up a pile of copy from his desk and the clipping with it. The notation ensured it got on the front page of the “Liverpool Advance”.

My decision to publish was morally right but, in my opinion, it was also simply the most practical thing to do. I cannot take any credit for significant morality or courage in what was essentially in my own best interests.

On the other hand, is there any reason to think that morality should not be sensible? Is there any reason a moral guide should not be a practical guide?

In the short term, maybe. Thievery and cruelty may produce a short, medium or even a long term benefit but does it ever produce real happiness, love and self-esteem? Money and happiness can, I believe, go together if they are accompanied by a good heart.

I may know a few sanctimonious people who believe they are, if not perfect, at least considerably better than most of us. My mother used to say that, of all the jobs God has to do, the one people are most willing to help with is the judging.

Truly good people, however, know they are imperfect and are constantly trying to be better. As with anything, it is the effort that counts. As with anything that really matters, there is not just one winner. We can all have the victory, the rewards, of attempting to live a decent life.

The proof is in the obituary columns of every paper. How else can so many people be absolutely convinced that their parents and grand parents were the best ever?

And don’t we notice that, when someone talks about how loving, kind, generous and inspiring a parent or grandparent or friend was, we clearly see those same qualities in the speaker?

Doing the right thing is such a good long term investment that it continues to pay dividends long after you are gone.

DAC

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