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Sauron’s One Ring, the centerpiece of J. R. R. Tolkien’s classic fantasy “The Lord of the Rings”, corrupts all – even the mightiest. Gandalf the Grey shuns it telling Frodo: “I would use this ring from a desire to do good… But through me, it would wield a power too great and terrible to imagine”. That Ring of Power is described as evil in itself; driving men to a mad pursuit of wealth and power.
2,400 years before Tolkien’s masterpiece, Herodutus in his “Histories” tells of another magical ring. In that case, and as related years later by Plato in “The Republic”, a ring is discovered that empowers the wearer to become invisible at will. The corruption of the ring bearer, however, is traced to the frailties of human nature (See Wikipedia: The Myth of the Ring of Gyges). In summary the story is one of a shepherd who finds a ring, discovers its power and feeling freed from all personal accountability for his actions, murders the King, marries the Queen, and rules the land.
Plato asks if it is fear alone that makes us do what is right. Freed of inhibitions, fearless of consequences, would we become corrupt? This posting considers such questions and related themes. Inspired by insights gained from Dan Ariely’s book “The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty”, let’s discuss why people lie to others and themselves, all the while believing they’re as honest as their peers, if not more so. A New York Times Best Seller, Dr. Ariely’s work is a nice read if you’re interested in examining one of the darker sides of human nature.
Why would anyone, or a business where reputation is all-important, tolerate outrageous behaviour done in their name and yet take no meaningful action to right the wrongs? They might instead feign amazement, even anger, at the misdeeds. Perhaps they’ll try to convince the customer there isn’t a problem at all or, in an attempt at intimidation, insist they have actually done you a favor in the hope you will quiet down and go away! The most interesting response, however, is that of genuine, even heartfelt, disbelief in the wrongness of the deed. Caught in the act, so to speak, the reaction is essentially one of denial rather than face the ugly truth.
Self-deception regarding personal honesty is a recurring theme in Dr. Ariely’s book. One factor that enables us to rationalize our acts of dishonesty is the concept of distance from an act. If there is an agent buffering the person and the deed, then that person may hold themself not directly responsible or even blameless. In the case of a company, management or ownership may claim ignorance of actions by those it employs, e.g., telemarketers, commissioned salesman, subcontractors, etc. With this distancing of responsibility come the inevitable rationalizations or excuses that aim to shift accountability to others. The last lines of defense, all very sensible within limits, come from the placement of mechanisms such as liability insurance, mandatory arbitration, limitations on damages, etc buried among numerous contract agreement clauses. Each of these mechanisms serve to reduce the fear of consequences, either for mistakes or even outright acts of dishonesty, until accountability simply vanishes.
If you are dealing with a reputable company, all of the above would be trumped by a basic sense of fair play and pride in performance. Not so for a company that has lost its moral compass. Made “invisible” by isolation, blame-shifting, contractual protection clauses, and self-righteous arrogance, greed rules the day. When the bottom line is the only one that counts, when any excuse is a good excuse, corruption is inevitable.
“For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” Mark 8:36
NOTE: The picture of “The Dark Lord Sauron and The One Ring” was downloaded using the English Wikia. The original content was at http://lotr.wikia.com/wiki/Sauron. The list of authors can be seen on that page. As with this post, the content of Wikia is available under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike License 3.0. The picture of “The Myth of the Ring of Gyges” was downloaded from Wikimedia. The original content was at http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Der_Ring_des_Gyges_(Ferrara_16_Jh).jpg. As with this post, the content of Wikimedia is available under the Creative Commons Attribution.