Practical Application of the Word of God
“Whosoever desires constant success must change his conduct with the times.” The Prince – Niccolo Machiavelli
While the exact phrase “the end justifies the means” is never found in Machiavelli’s renowned 1532 work, The Prince, there is absolutely no doubt this is one of the distilled philosophies that you come away with after reading it. I remember reading it in high school and being bothered by it, but in rereading it a few years back, perhaps because this is just the way the world – individually and collectively – with very very few exceptions does things now, my sense of bother had deepened to disgust and a conscious rejection of all the tenets and principles in the book. Machiavelli, it seems, would have fit right into the 21st Century with his promotion of situational ethics and relative morality or total immorality in every aspect of life.
This post is about ethics and process. Ethics is defined as “a system of moral principles;” and “the rules of conduct recognized in respect to a particular class of human actions or a particular group;” and “that branch of philosophy dealing with values relating to human conduct, with respect to the rightness and wrongness of certain actions and to the goodness and badness of the motives and ends of such actions.” By “process,” I mean how and why we, individually and collectively, do things to achieve a desired outcome.
Let me say at the outset that ethics and process is a constant struggle, and many times we’ve absorbed so much of what’s going on around us – “that’s what everyone else is doing,” – and we live in an ADHD world that leaves us little free time – unless we make the conscious choice to create free time – to think through our processes – and we have adapted to a world philosophy that justifies being unethical to achieve goals (the mantra of this is “well, it’s not hurting anybody,” which we’ll discover is absolutely untrue, except the people getting hurt are not the ones we might think). Additionally, we’ve fallen into the trap of believing that the outcome of something is what is most important, not how we got there – that the end justifies the means.
It is my belief that how we got there is far more important and significant than the end result. If the process is wrong, flawed, faulty, deceitful, or in any other way dishonest, the end result is nullified. Because defects of character, a lack of integrity, and disregard for ethics characterizes the process. Some examples of this process-ethics problem on an individual level are things that as I read them I continually ask myself “is this something I’ve done, am doing, or would do?” I believe that being very aware of all my processes – and asking myself “is this right or is this wrong?” and “is it at its very core honest or dishonest?” – in life is critical to having right character and unimpeachable integrity, because, when it’s all said and done, those are the only things I will leave this life with. As Marc Antony so eloquently says in his eulogy of Julius Caesar, “The evil that men do lives after them; The good is oft interred with their bones:“
A story last week in The Atlantic about the housing bust had these two quotes from one of the investigators with Digital Risk, a company that exists solely to catch mortgage fraud. The first quote is a bit surprising: “pastors—dozens of them—who doctored bank statements, bought houses they couldn’t pay for, and then filed for bankruptcy. “’…The nice thing about pastors is that their church shares information when asked,’ Alpan says. ‘Pastors are always an easy [fraud] claim.'” The second quote seemed, to me, to sum up, in general, society’s, individually and collectively, default process: “‘It’s not just lawyers and pastors and CEOs who lie and scheme. It’s nurses and schoolteachers, too,’ he says. ‘Everybody’s guilty; no one’s up to any good.'”
How about the educators in Atlanta, GA who were involved in cheating on the state’s standardized testing, in which more federal funding – and teacher and administrator jobs – were at stake for low test scores? This is the epitome of a unethical and dishonest process being employed by individuals for a “good” – although in my opinion, keeping these educators in their jobs would not have been good for the students – goal. What kind of example did they set for the kids they were entrusted to educate? They taught them that cutting corners, cheating, and lying were acceptable if those behaviors achieved the end goal. Am I the only one who believes these kids took that lesson – and process – to heart and everything they do from here on out will be suspect, process-wise?
On an even more personal level, how many of us have fudged the deductions on our income taxes to either avoid paying or to pay less than what we legitimately owe in taxes? Many non-monetary charities – furniture, clothes, etc. – simply allow you to tell them the value of your donation and they sign it and give you the receipt. If we donated to one of these, were we honest about the value of our donation? Did we take other deductions that we weren’t allowed to or inflate the amount of other allowable deductions? That’s an unethical, deceitful, and dishonest process.
Our individual unethical and dishonest processes aggregate in the organizations we are members of professionally, socially, and religiously. Common and frequently-used examples of how these processes look at the organizational level (and because I’ve been in technology – and often that includes being in the inner workings of organizations, especially as they have become inextricably linked over the course of time – since the beginning of my career, there isn’t much I haven’t seen and heard, but a lot I’ve had to say “no” to or, with time because my process, which is, to the best of my ability, to be honest and ethical no matter what, to simply not be asked even though the people who are asked and say “yes” end up talking to me about it and I tell them “don’t expect the people you’re doing this for to visit you in that federal penitentiary”) include:
And technology is not the only area where we see the ever-increasing trend toward unethical, deceitful, and dishonest processes. There is rampant federal and state tax fraud. I know of one example where at least a year’s worth of financial documents was fabricated using PhotoShop to hide what had really been the true financial documentation of the organization. Even some charitable contributions have the dark shadow of unethical and dishonest processes behind them. A recent account was given by the chairman of an organization in which he detailed how he circumvented “the system” – which included evading costs and time doing it the honest and legal way would have required – to get a piece of medical equipment to a someone in a foreign country and it was all justified – Jeremiah 17:9 – because it was a “good deed.” And this is just the tip of the iceberg.
It’s not hurting anybody, right? Wrong! There may not be identifiable victims of the fraud being perpetrated, but people who are counting on veracity are being defrauded. Additionally, the person/people executing the unethical, deceitful, and dishonest processes are definitely hurting themselves. Right character, good character, and integrity are much more easily destroyed than they are created. The first time we use an unethical, deceitful, and dishonest process, there is usually a pang of conscience that accompanies it – if indeed, we’ve developed any kind of conscience at all.
I’ve found that if I have to spend a lot of time debating on whether I should do something or not, process-wise, and there’s a knot in my stomach to accompany the indecision, then the wisest thing is stop and review my process for integrity, honesty, and ethical correctness. However, if we ignore the pang of conscience and do it the way we want to anyway, our character is damaged. The next time the wrong way to do something to achieve a goal presents itself, it will be easier to do, because the pang of conscience has been diminished.
So why does it matter what the process is as long as the outcome is achieved? Because once this way of doing things comes into and is accepted in just one of our processes, it eventually spreads to all of our processes. We become what we think and act on: unethical, deceitful, and dishonest from the core outward. We become unreliable, untrustworthy, and unconscionable. We also become teachers, by our examples, that any means justifies the end, and we contribute to the declination of a society that we all resoundingly lament and criticize as being what we’ve become.
Take the time to examine your processes. The good that will come of that – including all the immediate gratification that you’ll have to forego to do things the right way – will be worth it now and in the long run.