The topic was ethics...and how good people persuade themselves (and others) that certain actions aren't really wrong. A compelling speaker who looks like one of us and has spent time in prison for her own fraudulent activities. A well-written article about the very specific ways people in a variety of business settings rationalize their own behavior. A class discussion (one of the rare moments when students actively participate) about the speaker, the article, our own stories. And it still happened. Students benefited from a grading mistake (mine), remained silent, and were hurt or dismayed when another student told me about my mistake.
I read recently (and I can't remember where...one of the down sides of constant consumption) that we all tend to overestimate our abilities, our skill level, even our attractiveness. The one reported exception was people who are depressed--they tend to be the realists. So I wonder how much those little lies we tell ourselves pave the way for the rationalizations that lead to dishonesty.
From Bhopal to Enron to my classroom, the difference is in magnitude. People are hurt when we fail to hold our actions--and those of others--up for rigorous scrutiny. My last manager--who is now the CEO of the company--is a very wise man who was (probably still is) fond of saying "Bad news does not get better with age." Truth, no matter how painful, is far less damaging than the little lies we tell ourselves and others.
I don't have any answers today, but I sure do have a lot to think about.