Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
Support the news you rely on from NHPR and NPR with a gift today!

Resetting Your Moral Compass After An 'Ethical Slip'


Educators in Atlanta, bicycle racers both apparently found ways to rationalize behavior they would once have seen as unthinkable. Little by little, teachers allegedly allowed themselves to correct students' test papers; professional racers use drugs because, well, everyone else seemed to. In a recent article in The Christian Science Monitor, Courtney Martin argued these ethical slips could happen to anyone. People fudged their taxes, she writes, tell their doctors they don't really smoke, gossip even when they feel slightly gross about it, maybe even adhere to some questionable protocol at work that they used to think was unethical.

After a while, people can get used to these ethical gray areas. Instead of a sharp jolt to their moral barometers, these transgressions invoke just a dull twinge. Call and tell us about a time your moral compass went off course. 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. Courtney Martin is an author, blogger and speaker. She joins us now from our bureau in New York. Good to have you with us today.

COURTNEY MARTIN: Thanks so much for having me, Neal.

CONAN: And there seems to be a pretty fair leap between a little unseemly gossip and the kind of cheating reported in Atlanta.

MARTIN: Yes. Certainly, the sort of spectrum there is different, but what I was really curious about is, is the way in which I think when these controversies come up, we have a tendency as readers and viewers to really otherize(ph) the person, potentially even calling them evil or making judgments about them sort of writ large, when in fact I think we all have the capacity for what I call in the article, as you said, ethical slips. And so it's more interesting to me to kind of investigate our own capacity for these things rather than just shaming people.

CONAN: Interesting, we were just having a conversation about, among other things, corruption in prison and how guards there can slowly over time work their way from marijuana to heroin.

MARTIN: Well, exactly. And I think, you know, the other really important piece of that puzzle is about the system, right? That all of us are part of these systems and these cultures in which certain things are rewarded. When we look at the case in Atlanta, it's clear that the high-stakes testing created an environment where people just felt they were under so much pressure to achieve based on these particular metrics. And so it creates, you know, a culture that basically pushes you past your own personal ethical limit in order to achieve the way you're supposed to.

CONAN: And these - at least some of them and were allegedly - were some of the most celebrated educators in the country.

MARTIN: Exactly. And, you know, that really bring to mind the sort of too good to be true piece of wisdom, which we also see so strongly with Lance Armstrong or other ethical breaches we've seen in the past. Greg Mortenson and his...

CONAN: That's the "Three Cups of Tea," yeah.

MARTIN: ...girl schools in Afghanistan. Yeah, exactly. I think we have a media culture and we're also sort of implicit in this of kind of celebrating folks and turning them into gods when in fact all of us, you know, have the capacity for these ethical slips. And I think the more that people under the spotlight, the harder it is for them to get the real feedback they need to get from good friends about, you know, walking their talk and sort of keeping their ground - their feet on the ground.

CONAN: And part of it is peer pressure, clearly.

MARTIN: Yeah, absolutely. I mean I think, you know, especially when we look at something like Lance Armstrong's interview with Oprah and he kind of talked about little by little it was so normalized to be doping that it was hardly pressure. In fact, it was almost like a new peer normalcy. And I think we see that in the case of the Atlanta educators. Allegedly, there was a lot of top-down pressure, as opposed to peer pressure.

CONAN: Well, in the case of Lance Armstrong, I think he said: I looked up the definition of cheating, and it said to get an unfair advantage. Well, if everybody else is already using performance-enhancing drugs, I'm just evening the playing field.

MARTIN: Yeah. Wasn't that amazing? I just thought that was a fascinating quote. To me, the fact that he need to look up the definition of cheating was such a signal that he'd lost sight of his own inner moral compass. I mean, when was the last time we had to look up a word like that, right? It's something that we learned from the time we're tiny. And so I just - for me, that spoke so strongly of the way he'd lost his capacity to hear his own ethical voice.

CONAN: And though he is alleged - and he's not admitted this much - but to have brought other people in and been, in fact, a ringleader here, what he says sounds like a little bit - well, I'm really the victim here. I'm just a - you know, in order to compete on the field with all these other cheaters, I have to do, you know, take - well, I might have to use a little something.

MARTIN: Right, right. And I think what I really found so fascinating about that case - and again, this case in Atlanta - is that I think we all have these moments when we sort of, quote-quote, "psychological dope," you know? What are the moments in your life when, in order to feel like you can operate or play at that level playing field, you actually take advantage of things that, in your heart of hearts, you would know really aren't fair? You know, there are just so many instances of this, small instances in our daily lives where we feel somehow victimized by a culture that is unequal. And so we decide in our minds we can justify doing things that sort of put us up on the playing field. And slowly, I think, these things erode and become those moments where, all of sudden, you're the victim of something where, really, you are the perpetrator.

CONAN: And this is - sounds like the kind of psychology that leads to Ponzi schemes, among other things.

MARTIN: Exactly. I mean, it's hard not to think about, you know, the financial crash and some of the insulated behavior that went on there. I mean, one of the things I say in the article is that I really think the antidote to this issue is twofold, self-reflections that are really time away from the 24/7 kind of buzz of our lives where you can really hear your own inner wisdom, and good friends who will give you tough feedback. And, you know, you look at sort of the structure of most financial, you know, workers' lives, and it seems like they rarely had either.

CONAN: And it was all - the competitiveness was so intense, that that leads to people cutting corners, too.

MARTIN: Yeah, absolutely. I mean - and, you know, it's really interesting to see this emerging in such different fields, right? We have cycling. We have, you know, this really celebrated sport. Then we have education, which, you know, is an incredibly important issue psyching every single kid in America. And then we have the financial crisis. I mean, I think it's pretty fascinating how universal some of these elements are.

CONAN: And it can involve, I guess, you know, everybody likes to win, and that certainly counts cycling. And there's a lot of money involve if you win, particularly on Wall Street. In the case of the educated, they were not - well, at least, the original intent. Some of them got bonuses. But the intent was not to enrich themselves.

MARTIN: Well, I mean, some people would take issue with that. Beverly Hall, the superintendent of schools who is sort of the most in the spotlight at this moment, did get a lot in bonuses and, in fact, got a ton of public recognition. I mean, I think one of the interesting things that happens with cases like this is we think that those who go into education or the nonprofit work - like Greg Mortenson, who I mentioned earlier - are do-gooders. And so we sort of write off that, well, do-gooders are ethical, right? That these two things go together. But, in fact, that's a conflation. Just because you work in education or just because you are working in one of these fields trying to make the world better, it doesn't mean you don't - you aren't at risk for your own ethical slips.

CONAN: So we want to hear from our listeners today. When was there a moment when you saw your ethical compass wavering a little bit off true north? Give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. And we'll begin with Jim, and Jim's on the line with us from Pfafftown in North Carolina.

JIM: Hi. Good afternoon.

CONAN: Afternoon.

JIM: Yes. I am a physician, and have worked many different jobs, including local, small town emergency rooms in this area, where I - right near Winston-Salem. And this was years ago, but I still remember this embarrassing ethical lapse, where I divulged that the husband of one of my patients was, perhaps, a cocaine dealer, small-time. But there were always policemen in the emergency room where I was working, and they were always very inquisitive of what was going on. And for some reason, I let that slip. And for some reason, I've never forgotten it.

CONAN: Let it slip in the form of gossip, you're not going to believe this?

JIM: Well, sort of, yeah. You know, they were just - they were always very friendly and wanted to, you know, get to know you, especially being the physician in town. And I realized afterwards, you know, that I may have gotten not only that fellow in danger, but his - my patient.

CONAN: And to your knowledge, did anything come of it?

JIM: I do not know. That job was a short-term job, and I left shortly afterwards. But I have - ever since then, I've been very careful about not to divulge anything from a legal point of view or anything like that to the authorities. Of course, medical is medical, and the police are the police, and the two do not necessarily mix.

CONAN: And when did you realize that?

JIM: About that evening - I went home that evening and I go, oh, my God. What did I do? And so I'm - like I said, I've been trying to, I guess, make up for it for many years.

CONAN: Well, thanks very much for the call, Jim.

JIM: You're very welcome. Thanks for the show.

CONAN: Appreciate it. And, Courtney Martin, as you listen to that, there are ways to come to that realization - well, the first slip in our caller's case, but he has corrected it, at least what he says.

MARTIN: Yeah. I mean, that was music to my ears, I think, which is an example of someone who actually is tuned in to their own inner compass and actually course-corrected all on their own, which is pretty profound. I also am not surprised that the first caller is someone from the medical community, because I think when we look at the fields with the most pressure, certainly, medicine is another one of them, where because of the sort of system of rewards and because of all the pressure that so many healers are under, that it's not surprising if some of them fall prey to ethical slips.

CONAN: And let me ask you another question that has to do with the - we've talked about peer pressure and about the - and everybody likes to win. There's also an element in the two cases you cite: Atlanta, where there was a rock star educator, if you will, and, of course, bicycle racing, where Lance Armstrong was involved. Does charisma play a factor here?

MARTIN: Absolutely. I mean, I think part of this is really a question of whose voice do we hear the loudest, right? When we hold up someone as some kind of god and we start to hear their voice so loudly that it's hard for us to hear our own - or hear the voices of detractors, even, hear the voices of those who are trying to hold all of us accountable - that's when we really get in trouble. And that's part of why I think disconnecting from the Internet, disconnecting from sort of the rapid pace of our regular lives and taking moments every once in a while to just sort of reflect on where we're at and how we're doing in our work and in our lives is so critical, because those are moments when the volume on our own voices gets turned up in a really productive way.

CONAN: We're speaking with Courtney Martin, cofounder of the Solutions Journalism Network. Her piece "Atlanta cheating scandal and Lance Armstrong: How to avoid 'ethical slip'," appeared in the Christian Science Monitor. You can find a link to it at our website. Go to npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. And Patty's on the line with us, calling from Des Moines.

PATTY: (unintelligible) I was feeling pretty good about it when I heard your show on revenge yesterday. But now I'm wondering about it now. My family member - (unintelligible) a lot of money from my father's estate. And (unintelligible) he spent a lot of time in prison for a violent crime. And now I have to give an inventory, and I'm padding that inventory to make up for what he took that I can't get back.

CONAN: Ow. And why are you covering for this person?

PATTY: I'm not covering for him. I want my share of what he took, get it back.


PATTY: And so I'm then (unintelligible). I said, Patty, but that's not - I'm lying to get it.

CONAN: Yeah. But it sounds like you feel a little queasy.

PATTY: Well, I didn't after your show yesterday, an eye for an eye, because (unintelligible).


CONAN: Well, we're sorry to give conflicting information here. But...

MARTIN: Yeah. It sounds - it does sound like a classic example, though, of what I think happens in a lot of these cases, where if you're dealing with an unjust system or unjust circumstances, it's hard not to feel justified in responding in a way that does make you feel queasy. I mean, I'm sure what passed through some of those educators' heads was this testing system isn't an accurate judge of my students, anyway. So why am I going to, you know, be accurate and ethical in a system that's already unethical inherently? I think it's a really slippery slope.

CONAN: Well, Patty, we wish you a - continue listening, and maybe we'll figure out an answer tomorrow.


PATTY: Thanks.

CONAN: Thanks very much. Here's an email we have from Carol: I'm reminded of the only major credit card fraud I experienced, which was someone using my visa for the registration and hotel costs for a two-day bike ride to raise money for multiple sclerosis.

MARTIN: Oh, wow.


MARTIN: What do you do with that one? That's like triple-consciousness. I don't know.

CONAN: Let's see if we get another caller in. This is Nate, and Nate's with us from Lansing.

NATE: Hey, Neal. How are you doing today?

CONAN: I'm well. Thank you.

NATE: My story is, a while ago, I had ordered an item from a catalogue. It was for my wife, actually. It was a simple, $20 piece of costume jewelry, looked kind of like an ancient astrolabe. It was just kind of nifty-looking. And instead of selling me one, the company accidentally sent a, like, a distributor pack that had six of them in it, like, how they would receive it the warehouse. And my first thought - and I have to admit, I was slightly ashamed to think about it - was, ooh, free stuff.

And after a moment of getting over the joy of receiving six for the price of one, I kind of thought back to all the things that my parents had taught me over the years, including earning something and not taking stuff that belonged to you. And I looked at my wife and said: What should I do? And she kind of shrugged and said, you know, what you think is right. So I ended up spending almost a half hour on the phone getting through to a live customer service person and explaining over and over again the situation. And I got a return label so I could send the rest of them back to them.

And they were actually completely shocked that someone had called them to say, hey, you sent me too much for what I paid for. And then the other interesting part about it was afterwards, I posted it on Facebook, kind of wondering what other people would say. And I was happy to find that the majority of my friends that responded kind of said that I had done the right thing and they would've done the same. And there was only a small minority of friends who had mentioned, you know, oh, I would've kept it. So...

CONAN: Yeah. Where's my astrolabe jewelry, you know?


NATE: Yeah, exactly. It kind of made me - you know, gave me just a little bit more faith in humanity that the majority of the people I know, at least, are the type that would, if they got something they didn't pay for, would return it. So, anyway, that was my little story.

CONAN: At least they say so in public. I don't know.

NATE: Yeah.

MARTIN: Right.

NATE: Who knows, right?

CONAN: Well, thanks, Nate. Appreciate the phone call.

NATE: Thank you.

MARTIN: I think what's so nice about that example is that Nate was rewarded for an ethical act just by the positivity of his friends and the positivity of the company itself. And what's really hard about some of these cases is that, you know, you are rarely rewarded for avoiding an unethical act, right? Most of the time, it just goes on unseen. But the ultimate reward is that you yourself feel like you have integrity. You yourself know what you did, and that can be just deeply fulfilling.

CONAN: And that he had somebody nearby to act as an ethical check. What do you think I should do? Do the right thing.

MARTIN: Right.

CONAN: Well, thanks a bunch for that.


MARTIN: Right.

CONAN: As opposed to, hey, let's go to eBay.

MARTIN: Yes, exactly.

CONAN: And so as you look back on these, have you ever found yourself - ethically checking yourself?

MARTIN: Well, you know, the - I've been thinking about this a lot. I think one of the biggest places where these questions come up for me are as a journalist. You know, when you are working on a story and you have those moments where someone said something in one way, but if they'd said slightly different, it would make your story perfect.

CONAN: So much better.

MARTIN: It takes a tremendous amount of self-discipline to remind yourself that you're part of a field that essentially pledges to accurately report. And so I think for me, the place where this comes up the most is really around journalism and the handling of my subjects. And I've just thought so much about what's ethical in those regards.

CONAN: We'll have you back on our show: stories too good to check.

MARTIN: Thanks so much.

CONAN: Courtney Martin, thank you very much for your time today. Courtney Martin is an author, editor, blogger and speaker. She wrote an op-ed in the Christian Science Monitor called "Atlanta cheating scandal and Lance Armstrong: How to avoid an 'ethical slip'." Tomorrow, Political Junkie Ken Rudin returns from the beach, and he's back here with us. Join us for that. It's the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

You make NHPR possible.

NHPR is nonprofit and independent. We rely on readers like you to support the local, national, and international coverage on this website. Your support makes this news available to everyone.

Give today. A monthly donation of $5 makes a real difference.