Situational morality: Is it OK to lie to yourself?

One question to be ask yourself is, "Am I doing everything possible to not deceive myself?"

By Barry Evert, C1 Columnist

To start this off, I will quote the great German poet Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe:

"We are never deceived, we deceive ourselves."

To be deceived in our line of work, we have to set ourselves up for failure.  This sounds harsh, but it’s reality.  In my earlier article, "Dirty deeds: How to catch corrupted staff members," we concentrated on how to spot a person who has opened themselves up to being manipulated.  Now it’s time for some self-evaluation.

One question to be ask yourself is, "Am I doing everything possible to not deceive myself?"  Self-deceit is common in the outside world.  An alcoholic or smoker often deceives themselves to believe they will quit their addiction soon.  It’s a coping mechanism to make the person feel better about their transgressions.  Often they will tell themselves that they'll quit their behavior on a certain date, New Year’s resolutions being a perfect example of this.  We want to feel good going into the New Year.  The promise of new beginnings and a clean slate triggers our mind to be happy.  We set lofty, great goals that are often unobtainable.  We deceive ourselves to make ourselves feel better.

This behavior carries into our work at times.  You know that officer that never does any of his work until the last minute?  I have had people ask me how a person like that can be happy in their work.  The reality is that this person is deceiving himself by believing he is a good worker because the work eventually gets done.  Any minor hiccup though, and that person is miserably behind in their work. 

This is just a small example.  What we have to concern ourselves more with is the person who uses situational morality to deceive themselves.  A common question at panel interviews in the past has been this scenario:

You have no money and are in dire straits.  Your children are hungry, and you feel the only way you can get them the food they need is to steal it.  Would you steal?  Would you feel justified in doing so?

This is a two part question.  The first question asked is if you would steal.  Many people will be honest and answer that they would.  The second question is much more telling of someone’s character: Would you feel justified in doing so?  The uncompromised person would tell you they would feel guilty. 

Some people may even claim they would find a way to pay back the victim of their theft at a later time.  This answer is a warning flag.  You are justifying your actions by deceiving yourself into thinking the crime is not as bad as you will pay the store back some day.  This is like stealing a car, and then returning it to its owner, expecting no repercussions.  How does this apply in our jobs?

Simply put, we need to be honest with ourselves.  One of the most common forms of manipulation involves situational morality, leading to self-deceit.  A staff member may start by overlooking minor violations, figuring there is no harm.  This can easily progress into the forgiveness of bigger violations, which in turn can be used to blackmail the staff member into committing a criminal act.  Consider the following scenario from the Midwest (names have been changed to protect the people involved):

Working a low level security prison, Linda enjoyed her job as an officer.  There was rarely violence, and the inmates were cordial enough.  Filled with mostly drunk drivers and petty larcenists, Linda felt relatively safe compared to her coworkers at high security institutions.  She was assigned to a large dorm facility.  She saw the same inmates every day, and built a rapport with the inmates.  Linda divorced from her husband in May, and quit wearing her wedding ring.  This came to the attention of several inmates, but especially Shawn, who had been infatuated with the slightly older, but good looking officer.  Shawn had worked as her porter for about a year, and had always been respectful towards Linda.  One day Shawn brought up the lack of a ring to Linda.  He told her he knew it was none of his business, but that he was sorry about her marriage, and encouraged her by telling her she was a beautiful woman who will surely find love again.  Linda sheepishly thanked him, and thought nothing more of it.  The entire conversation had seemed odd, but she wrote it off to Shawn being polite.

Several weeks later Shawn began to cry while he was alone with Linda, taking out the trash of the unit around the back of the building.  Shocked, Linda asked what was wrong.  Shawn told her that his wife had left him for good, and had taken the kids out of state.  Shawn was crushed.  Shawn asked Linda if he could just have a minute to cry it out back here, as he could not have his “people” see him cry.  Linda obliged, and verbally comforted Shawn. 

As they left the back area about 10 minutes later, Shawn gently placed his hand on Linda’s arm and thanked her for being so considerate.  Linda did not pull back her arm, instead she told Shawn she was glad she could help. 

Over the next two weeks, daily conversations that were once about prison had turned personal.  After every shift, Shawn made it a point to thank Linda, and place his hand on her upper arm and squeeze it as if to secretly thank her.  One day while taking out the trash, Shawn confided in Linda that his ex-wife was now sleeping with his brother.  Shawn broke down and fell to his knees and cried.  Linda felt bad for poor Shawn.  After all, her husband had been sleeping with her best friend, so she knew how it felt.  She squatted down and gave him a short hug, reassuring Shawn it would be okay. 

Over the next month, Shawn and Linda grew closer.  Eventually their relationship ended with sexual encounters behind the dorm.  After several of these encounters, Shawn professed his love for Linda. 

Shawn came to Linda one day with a serious problem.  The other inmates knew about their affair, and were threatening to expose them.  Shawn said the only way to solve this was to pay them off.  Shawn told Linda that if she didn’t bring in a sizeable amount of marijuana soon, the other inmates would tell, and they would not be able to be together again.

Guess what Linda did? 

At the end of the day, Linda came clean and turned herself into Internal Affairs.  She had successfully stopped deceiving herself.  But how did it come this far?  Linda was a veteran officer, and had not fallen prey to this type of manipulation in the past.  What was different?

Situational morality.  Linda convinced herself early on in this scenario that, considering the circumstances, it would be okay to let a small violation (touching) go without documentation.  Had Linda been honest with herself, she would have written the inmate up for the incident, and nothing further likely would have happened.  It became easier for Linda to lie to herself as the scenario progressed.  She convinced herself that considering the circumstances, it would be okay to discuss her personal life with Shawn.  This slowly progressed into self-deceit, and an inappropriate relationship, which almost led her to commit a felony.  Had Linda been honest with herself, all of this could have been avoided.

As I discussed in my previous article dealing with how to spot corrupt staff members, it would have been obvious to her coworkers that something was wrong had they looked for the signs.  I have spoken with Linda, and she explained that she resigned herself from her usual activities and friends at work, and spent more time with Shawn than her coworkers or people outside of the prison.  Linda fell prey to manipulation by Shawn not because she was weak minded or simple, but because she refused to be honest with herself.  The worst part?  Shawn received a reduction in good time credits of a few months, which he later got overturned as he claimed that Linda manipulated him.  Linda lost her job, her retirement and was prosecuted on several misdemeanor offenses, making it hard for her to find other employment. 

I you read the story carefully you will find situational morality in there.  Linda allowed this inmate to touch her on the arm.  Linda felt, given the circumstances, it was okay.   The phrase "given the circumstances" is dangerous.  It allows the person to make a decision not between what is right and wrong; but allows the person to convince themselves that an act otherwise not acceptable is okay this one time.

A good example of this was hurricane Katrina.  Does anyone remember watching the two police officers participating in the looting at a Wal-Mart?

The officer in the video never admits to looting, but tries to convince the journalist that she is there looking for looters.  I am sure she felt completely justified in stealing in this case.  The reasonable person standard comes in real handy here. 

Would an equally trained corrections officer, given the same circumstances, have acted the same way?  I would submit the vast majority of us would answer “no.”  In this case, the officer was stealing some clothes and electronics.  What if her cart was full of food?  Would that make us feel different? 

The real question here becomes, can we, as Law Enforcement Officers be subject to self-deceit or situation morality?  Let's go over them one last time, and I will let you decide for yourself.

Self-deceit is a defense mechanism for bad behavior.  Self-deceit allows us to behave as we like, anytime, anywhere and avoids the guilt that usually comes with bad behavior.  Self-deceit is a learned behavior that can easily become an everyday habit and lead to destructive ends.

Situational morality can serve two purposes.  First, it can also act as a defense mechanism against guilt, but is often used for a one time transgression, as we saw in the video.  Second, it can also be a survival skill that can help us cope during a dangerous situation where we have to act outside of our comfort zone.  An example of this would be looting to steal food (not electronics and satin underwear as we saw in the video.)

Having put it this way, situational morality doesn't sound that horrible.  Let me ask my readers this: Could a case of situational morality morph into a case of repetitive self-deceit?  As Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe implied, we can only be deceived if we refuse to be honest with ourselves.  To my readers, please take the time to analyze the scenario above, and let me know what you come up with in the comments below.  

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