Tag Archives: ethical

#9: The Perils of the “Just This Once” Mentality

As the great Henry David Thoreau said before: “Let us consider the way in which we spend our lives.” Let us take a pause from grueling discussions of the cybercrime law and look into our own lives.

Clayton Christensen, a professor at Harvard Business School and an expert of “disruptive innovation”, wrote an essay named “How Will You Measure Your Life?” (an expanded version can be bought as a book). In that essay, he mentions one of the episodes that changed his life, for better or for worse.

When he was studying at Oxford, he was a player for his varsity basketball team. His team breezed through the season without any losses, and then a few games later, the championship game arrived. The problem is Christensen vowed that he “had made a personal commitment to God at age 16 that I would never play ball on Sunday”. He continues his account of that episode:

So I went to the coach and explained my problem. He was incredulous. My teammates were, too, because I was the starting center. Every one of the guys on the team came to me and said, “You’ve got to play. Can’t you break the rule just this one time?”

I’m a deeply religious man, so I went away and prayed about what I should do. I got a very clear feeling that I shouldn’t break my commitment—so I didn’t play in the championship game.

In what ways could you have done something contrary to your principles but didn’t? Or – more commonly, what did you do that was contrary to your principles because this “just this one time” itch is tickling you – er, nagging you – on your mind? And why?

Marginal Benefits

Many of the actions that we do against our self-determined principles have marginal benefits.

Suppose you get a higher score when you cheat in an exam – you gain.

Suppose you committed a crucial mistake in a game, for example in a basketball game where you saw yourself step out of bounds but no one else saw it – you and your team gains.

Suppose a colleague invited you to falsify an expense sheet so that you can nick off a little more cash – you and your colleague gains.

Suppose you put off doing any work you have – your mind gains some short-term relief from the harsh reality of the work.

All of them are pesky “one-time” deals. On some moments we decide to to do something against our well-entrenched principles – just once. We figured out that setting our principles aside may be worth it, this one time, because we gain.

However, as Christensen shows us, all such gains are devilish bargains.

Every action against one’s own principles, whether because of your quest for some gain or because of peer pressure, ultimately makes it more likely that our mind is going to justify similar actions in the future, even if the initial action comes with a bond of “just once”.

Suppose you cheated in a test once and you found the experience of getting a higher grade a euphoric buzz. But that may also give you the impression “hey, cheating in a test isn’t so bad after all”, and from then on this voice will always seep into your ears for every test you take. This turns worse once social proof blends into the mix; if you become compelled to break your own principles because there is social pressure around you, you may begin feeling that it’s OK. After all, everyone’s doing that, too, so you can enjoy their company.

It’s always best to delineate your principles during a time where you are beginning to solidify your own values – preferably during adolescence, where you get greater social exposure and you increase your knowledge about the world. That is also a time when you can still think about your values mostly on your own before you do paid work, grind, and absorb the work culture. You may also assimilate some peer culture elements from your schoolmates, but reflect on them crucially; you wouldn’t want to adopt something under the pretext of something as unreliable as peer pressure.

Not Ever, Not at All, Never

Then be sure not to break the most crucial principles you have laid out for yourself. Along the way, you can refine them or even change them, but don’t cling to them only with the intention of letting them go because of an additional few units of comfort.

Holding on to “not playing ball on a Sunday” is particularly fickle, but it’s wise that Christensen held on to it; it showed that he is capable of staying sturdy. That can come handy in the midst of more tempting, higher-stakes ethically ambiguous situations.

He knew his own values, and you should, too.

If you cheated in today’s forgettable test, no matter how trivial it is, think of the graver acts you may commit in the future once you set your brain to “OK-ing” successive acts of dishonesty.

If you deliberately kept mum about your out-of-bounds step in a basketball game that you won, then think of the regret that may pile up once your brain starts “OK-ing” the notion that your career can be composed of such progressively serious chicaneries. You may see yourself as a competent player, but an opportunistic one who was an athlete first and a person second.

If you agreed with your colleague that you’ll both falsify an expense sheet, then pretty soon, as both of you get higher up in the corporate rank, your brain may be “OK-ing” baser ideas such as misrepresenting ideas to the public, deceiving your business partners, and ultimately ruining a company. Think Enron. Think Worldcom.

And are you going to procrastinate “just this once”? Then you’ll probably find yourself “OK-ing” future procrastinating; that sets off a lifetime of delays, until that one decisive delay that you’ll regret to your heels.

You can think of many similar cases from your experience

Christensen tells us: “The lesson I learned from this is that it’s easier to hold to your principles 100% of the time than it is to hold to them 98% of the time. If you give in to “just this once,” based on a marginal cost analysis, as some of my former classmates have done, you’ll regret where you end up.”

Think of every small act as a gateway act. Small acts of goodness lead to big acts of goodness. Small acts of wickedness work similarly. Every single act can be a small step on the stairway to heaven or an implicit pact with the devil.

Forgo the hunt for little pleasures obtained from the bending your own principles, even only for a bit. (But here is a question I want to leave open: How would you treat people who force you to forsake your own principles in exchange for convenience of whatever sort?)


P.S. Reviews of excerpts, such as above, will be a staple of this blog. Developing a point of view about an excerpt can turn into a blog post in a few hours. Moreover, they can lead to the reading of whole works where the excerpts came from.


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