“How did that happen?” I find myself asking that question far too often these days.
How did a good guy get involved in illegal activity? How did a great company forget its moorings and slide into unethical behavior? How did an honored university get carried away from its foundations by the current of culture? And how did incivility, vile insults and threats, and outright lies become such a staple in our national discourse?
To find an answer, I started thinking about the times in my own life when I ended up being and doing things I never intended, things I knew down deep weren’t best or even right. Here’s what I found.
For most of us, our ethical convictions provide the guardrails of our thoughts and actions. We set them firmly so that when we begin to knock into them, we’re reminded that we are at the edge of wrong thinking and unethical behavior. The stronger the guardrails, the firmer the accountability, and the more ethically ordered the life.
But what about when the ethical guardrails are allowed to decay, to shift, to become soft, and easily pushed aside? What happens when convenience or pragmatism or greed or pride or lust — or whatever! — starts to erode our ethics in ways we become better and better at rationalizing? I think we all know because we’ve all experienced it. More to the point, we all have a front-row seat on the devastating results happening in our society right now. When ethics erode, chaos and corruption explode.
I’ve identified the process of this erosion. It is simple and deadly, and we all know it despite the fact we often ignore and deny it in ourselves.
The erosion of ethics starts with complacency. We become lazy in life, especially in those disciplines that thwart the temptations to evil in our world. We start thinking we’re strong enough, good enough, and certainly better than most.
One of the deadly fruits of complacency is compromise. We start giving ourselves a hall pass ethically from time to time. We don’t consider that shaving the edges off of our ethical beliefs poses a threat. After all, we’re really good, strong ethical people and little indiscretions here and there won’t matter. They don’t constitute a major fault line. We’ll be OK.
On too many occasions I’ve sat with married men and women who, through tears of deep anguish, told me they never intended to have the affair. Somehow, little incremental lapses made leaving their ethical lane easier and easier as rationalization replaced conviction and pushed them around the bend into corruption.
That’s the formula. Complacency empowers compromise, which makes us easy prey for corruption. And what’s worse, by the time we espouse corruption, we’ve often become professionals at spinning evil as good, lies as truth, and self-gratification as an inalienable right.
As we look, both at our own lives, and those on the national scene, it is obvious America needs an ethical revolution. We must demand better of ourselves and our leaders. We need to fight a two-front war on ethical erosion with the weapons of truth, civility and love of neighbor.
We must oppose the notion that truth is relative, and everyone gets to decide what is true for themselves. We must reject incivility in all its forms, and remind ourselves that listening is a virtue, tolerance is an essential, and robust discourse, including civil disagreement, is required if a pluralistic society is to remain both free and united.
Where do we start? We’re told all politics are local. In the same vein, all ethics are personal. Ethical people create ethical families, neighborhoods, cities, states and countries. The good of America begins with us. We can’t do everything but we can do something. And what we can do, we should do.
And what we should do, by the grace of God … let’s do!
David Hegg is senior pastor of Grace Baptist Church and a Santa Clarita resident.“Ethically Speaking” appears Sundays.