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Got morals?

Monday, June 21, 2010
posted by Rita Handrich

A recent Gallup poll says that 3/4ths of Americans think morals in our country are getting worse. Respondents in the poll blame declining morals on key factors—“a lack of respect for other people and a more general decline in moral values and standards”.  But we judge others harshly as though we are the only ones who actually have good moral values. And we see ourselves as being in the minority. The few and the morally upstanding.  It reminds me of the old saw about fishermen exaggerating their successes— “All fishermen are liars except you and me, and I wonder some about you!”

Gallup isn’t the only one who finds these themes. One segment of the Gallup poll responders pointed (as evidence of moral decline) to the scandals the politically powerful have been entangled in all year long. And a recent Kellogg School of Management study looked at just those people.

Remember the old saying “I am my own worst critic”?  Well, that actually isn’t likely to be true.  Sorry.  The Gallup study examined moral hypocrisy in powerful people. What they found will not surprise those who have read the salacious headlines over the past year: power and influence results in a huge disconnect between our pronouncements of public judgment and our private behavior.  That is, we judge others more strictly and judge ourselves more leniently.

“Those other people are morally deficient and weak. As for myself, I am behaving based on situations and events external to me.”

Toward others, we see it as an internal failing.  Bad wiring, bad genes, moral deficiency.  For yourself, flaws are circumstantial.  You might also think of this as a 2010 version of the old “Do as I say, not as I do”. The long and short of it is, the more power you have, the more hypocritically you think you can behave. It is as though the rules do not apply to you.

  • In litigation, if your client is the one behaving badly—you want to point out as many of the situational factors as you can that drove your client’s behavior.  Take responsibility for the acts, but not a moral failing.  Mistakes are forgiven, but bad character is forever. If it is possible to take responsibility for some bad acts, but not all, try that. Talk about what your client has learned and how s/he will take responsibility to act more honestly and consistently in the future.
  • If you are on the other side—you want to push home the message that these bad acts represent moral hypocrisy of the worst kind—here is someone who asked us to trust them, who made high and mighty moral pronouncements—and then behaved in this dishonest and hypocritical fashion behind closed doors.  “He isn’t like you and me!”

We all believe we are more moral than the rest of us. It’s much easier for the accuser to point a finger and find the bad-actor purposely deceiving and acting badly/nefariously than it is to dig one’s way out of a bad situation after being publicly exposed. Just ask Mark Sanford, Eliot Spitzer, Mark Foley, Larry Craig, Tiger Woods and all the other headliners in the past few years.

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