right is right and wrong is wrong

who wouldn't let that car pass an emissions test?

That people lie, cheat and steal isn’t newsworthy. It’s human nature, right? If raised properly, then one assesses an ethical dilemma and simply does the right thing. It’s easy. No grey area at all. People with much more time than we have can be bothered with grey areas. We have things to do.

Yet as is so often the case, it’s not that simple. I heard a thing about fraud earlier  on npr (National Public Radio), and it got me thinking. That’s normally when the trouble starts. Here’s the offending piece that got all this started:

Psychology of Fraud: Why Good People Do Bad Things

First of all, I’m sure you like the title partially because you think of yourself as a good person. Most of us do. We’re the protagonists of our lives and we sail through vanquishing different forms of questionable behaviour. Well, some of us do.

Don’t believe the scolding press that tells you everyone’s only out for himself. In my experience, most people are trying to do the best they can. I truly believe that. Despite the fact that this position isn’t jaded or weary, I hold to it. People are good. Mostly.

So why do people bend the rules? 

Here the radio programme set it out quite succinctly:

‘Typically when we hear about large frauds, we assume the perpetrators were driven by financial incentives. But psychologists and economists say financial incentives don’t fully explain it. They’re interested in another possible explanation: Human beings commit fraud because human beings like each other.

We like to help each other, especially people we identify with. And when we are helping people, we really don’t see what we are doing as unethical.’

That doesn’t seem like such a stretch, does it? Sounds logical to me.

They use the example of emissions testers. A sleek, expensive BMW pulls up coughing out black smoke, and that baby’s going to fail that emissions test. As well it should. However, if a more modest vehicle drives up to be tested, the emissions tester is more likely to identify with that driver and let the car slide.

When the emissions tester commits the fraud, he’s not doing it out of greed. It actually comes down to being nice. In that moment, the bigger picture of that decision doesn’t exist. The researcher goes on:

‘…cognitively, emissions testers can’t appreciate the consequences of their fraud, the costs of the decision that they are making in the moment. The cost is abstract: the global environment. They are literally being asked to weigh the costs to the global environment against the benefits of passing someone who is right there who needs help. We are not cognitively designed to do that.’

Am I the only one who finds this fascinating? I can’t be. The implications are too huge.

We can’t just lump all the people who make unethical decisions into a group and call them ‘bad’. I mean, you can. And many people certainly do without any crisis of conscience. I like how the npr story ends, so I’ll let it speak for itself. It’s a dilemma I don’t brush away lightly:

‘…we could just keep saying what we’ve always said — that right is right, and wrong is wrong, and people should know the difference.’


  1. When I had my eye test at 16 for my Driver’s licence, the tester had a concern that maybe my peripheral vision on one side might be 1% less than what was required. He added a 1% margin for error and warned me never to get tested again.
    No motive there other than a better life for me

  2. There’s too many gray areas to be so black-and-white about good and evil, or motivations, or what’s right and what’s wrong. And yeah, sure, people do things that are ethically gray. But everything we do has consequences and repercussions, both positive and negative, probably, large or small. So the emissions tester passes a car that shouldn’t be passed, therefore contributing to the hole in the ozone layer or whatever it does. But what if the person who has that car needs it to drive sick children to the hospital? Or even to get him or her to work so he or she can support their family? Which is the greater good? Or the greater evil?

    We’re all just stumbling around and hoping we do more good than bad, overall. At least I am. You’re right about that.

  3. Reading this made me think of a story here recently about a man who worked at our commuter train station. Oftentimes, riders will buy tickets that end up having .05 or .10 cents left on them, and they’ll just leave the tickets near machine. The station worker would collect them for his foster son to use to commute to school. But, this was considered by the commuter train agency to be theft from the commuter train agency, and they fired him for it. The station worker knew it was against policy, but because his son really needed to get to school, he took the risk. I think many people – even if not equipped to engage in the cost-benefit analysis of personal gain versus global loss still engage some level of risk/benefit analysis. The underlying issue perhaps is that fraud is a matter of perspective – a far more fluid concept than say burglary, murder or other crimes that have an immediate consequence/ result.

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