Both Dr. Hall and Armstrong deserve their due. Just as they were cast as leaders in front of the cameras, they were, if the case holds up in court, leaders behind the cameras, too – cultivating “ethical slips” from others by example and, sometimes, even coercion. Both are powerful reminders that when we make gods out of people, we can expect to be disappointed.
But before we grow too comfortable on our thrones of judgment, we must consider our own capacity for adjusting our internal compasses when it’s convenient and/or culturally normalized. People fudge on their taxes, 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 awhile 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.
Many city-dwellers walk past homeless people on the street without a second glance. They may contribute time and money to help those struggling with poverty, mental illness, and addiction, but most are desensitized to their presence there on the sidewalk. They are able to depersonalize the situation in a way that they never likely would have been capable of doing as children, still deeply sensitive to the suffering of the world. But children learn. All the other adults are walking by. If they don’t do anything for this person, why should I?
Little slips, as any addict will tell you, can grow into a whole shift in identity. Armstrong himself said: “[b]ehind that story is momentum…it just gets going and I lost myself in all that.”
So what stands between each of us and the momentum that might get us truly lost? What could have stood between the cyclists and the dope or the Atlanta educators and the cheating?
Some of the simplest gifts in the world, actually: self-reflection and friendship. Just as fire needs oxygen, the ethical life needs reflection. And that reflection often requires time – moments of mentally unplugging and turning inward. Our compulsively overscheduled, hyperconnected lives are actually the perfect conditions for unethical behavior to compound itself, unnoticed underneath the frantic 21st-century buzz.