Years ago, at an academic hospital on the West coast, a physician friend of mine named Terry (not his real name) discovered, quite by accident, that a mutual friend of ours named Sean (not his real name), also a physician, was moonlighting. While moonlighting wasn't illegal, it was in violation of the contract they'd signed with their employer. Terry asked Sean to stop, but Sean refused, arguing that it was no big deal and that it had nothing to do with Terry. When Terry asked Sean why he was violating his contract, Sean told him he wanted to make some extra money.  Terry told Sean that if he didn't stop, he'd report him to their employer. Sean told Terry that if he did that their relationship was certain to be damaged. "We work together every day," Sean argued. "We need to get along."

Several days later, after confirming with Sean that he'd not stopped moonlighting, Terry reported him. Their employer told Sean he had to stop moonlighting immediately.


As Edmund Burke reminds us, justice exists only because human beings make the effort to stand against injustice. The argument that small injustices which harm only faceless conglomerates aren't as immoral as large injustices like genocide or Ponzi schemes seems fundamentally flawed. A famous story illustrates this point well: the playwright George Bernard Shaw was overheard at a party to have said that anyone could be bought for a price. When a woman at the party disagreed, he asked her if she'd sleep with him for a million pounds. She replied that for a million pounds she very well might. But when he asked if she'd do it for ten shillings, she replied indignantly, "Certainly not! What do you think I am?" "We've already established what you are," Shaw is reputed to have said. "Now we're only haggling over price."

Whether large or small, an injustice is an injustice is an injustice. We might try to argue that our actions can be justified when the apparent harm is small or non-existent, or diffused across so many people that no one person would even recognize they've been harmed, but this has always struck me as a rationalization. Without a doubt, determining whether or not something really is unjust is always a complex calculation—and I'm sure many would argue that what Sean did wasn't, strictly speaking, unjust. But once we've decided something is unjust, if we do nothing about it:

  1. We harm others. Either directly or indirectly, someone or something is always harmed by injustice. We may find comfort in thinking we're only doing an insignificant harm if, for example, we commit insurance fraud by overestimating our claim to avoid paying our deductible. But if enough people attempted to perpetuate a similar harm, even the largest, most stable institution might suffer a death of a thousand cuts, as the current economic crisis makes clear. And, as the current economic crisis also makes clear, what happens to even one institution can affect us all. The world truly is interdependent to a degree it never has been before.
  2. We harm our relationships. Whether or not we believe in moral absolutes intellectually, most of us feel in our hearts that right and wrong are valid concepts. Without debating whether or not that feeling reflects the truth, the simple fact is that almost all of us believe that it does. We may travel the length of our entire lives and never suffer any kind of internal retribution for an injustice we commit or for failing to stand up to one committed by others, but we can never know when someone we greatly respect or whose esteem matters to us most, like one of our parents or our children, might one day learn about what we did—or failed to do—and from that day on view us just a little differently.
  3. We set a bad example. Someone is always watching us. They may not model our behavior consciously, but even the most independent thinkers among us aren't immune to being influenced by the actions of others. We are all role models for each other. The influence of a group's behavior has been demonstrated in innumerable instances throughout history to exert a powerful influence on the behavior of individuals, from Hitler's Nazi Germany to the murder of Kitty Genovese in New York. Just what kind of world do we want to make?
  4. We perpetuate other injustices linked to ours. Whether or not we agree drug use is morally wrong or harmful, there's little question that it perpetuates murder. Recreational drugs are mostly available from drug dealers, who kill people as part of their business model, both in this country and others (one need look no further than Mexico to appreciate the scope of this problem). If worldwide demand for recreational drugs vanished, so would the drug cartels and so would drug-related murders. Few drug users think about this as they light up, snort, or inject, but the path their drug of choice took to them was almost certainly littered with the bodies of innocents. If we perpetuate a large injustice with our small one, we must consider ourselves at least partially responsible for the large one.
  5. We begin to slide down a slippery slope. By choosing to commit even the most venal of sins, over time it may become progressively easier to commit more serious ones. We may find ourselves thinking: if what I did before was all right, surely what I'm doing now isn't much worse. One wonders if Bernie Madoff found himself at the top of a 50 billion dollar Ponzi scheme through a series of small steps over several years.


Did Sean's indiscretion have anything to do with Terry? Why would it? It caused no harm to Terry. Aren't events that cause no harm to us by definition outside of our purview? Possibly. But what if we have relationships with the people who are harmed? Most, I think, would agree that probably would make it our business.

On the other hand, what if we have no significant relationship with the people who are harmed but simply know them? Or we know people are being harmed somewhere but don't know them personally at all? One could argue that those situations don't have anything to do with us. But when we ask if Hitler's murder of 6 million Jews had anything to do with the German people who knew it was happening, or if the U.N. had anything to do with the Rwandan genocide of 1994, that line of reasoning, in my view, becomes problematic. As a result, I've come to the challenging conclusion that any injustice we have the power to prevent is our responsibility to prevent, whether or not it affects us, anyone we care about, anyone we merely know, or anyone we merely know of.


We do have to get along. And I've experienced my share of requests from friends to support what I considered unethical or immoral behavior. And I've gone along with them, rationalizing that the friendship was worth more than the principle. But what kind of friend asks us to compromise our principles? Since Terry's example, and the example of my wife, who has the least tolerance for injustice, large or small, of anyone I've ever known, I find myself now trying to live up to a higher standard, a standard consistent with the person I most want to be. I may find myself more often in uncomfortable or awkward situations as a result of refusing to endorse injustice, but whenever I feel that way I remind myself I'm not responsible for any of those awkward moments; the people who perpetrate the injustice are.


There are still many times when I fail to live up to my aspirations to fight injustice, when I fall prey to the arguments of the unjust. None of us is perfect. We've all done things that are wrong. But no one should be taken in by the specious argument—most often made by those who know they're behaving wrongly to those who would unmask them—that because we may not be a paragon of moral virtue in every situation we therefore have no right to fight injustice in any. We always have the moral standing, even the responsibility, to fight injustice even if we're committing another injustice in some other way ourselves. If only perfect people had the moral standing to fight injustice, justice would never exist. Fighting injustice when you yourself have been unjust doesn't make you a hypocrite. It makes you an imperfect person striving to improve.

Though I never told Terry, had I been in his position with Sean my first impulse would have been to look the other way. In fact, I was grateful he hadn't come to me before he'd reported Terry so that I could posture after the fact the same righteousness and courage he actually displayed.

In the end, for reasons known only to him, Sean refused to stop moonlighting and was fired. Terry had to endure some awkward moments and some harsh criticism from his peers. But never from me.


If you enjoyed this post, please feel free to explore Dr. Lickerman's home page, Happiness in this World.

About the Author

Alex Lickerman, M.D.

Alex Lickerman, M.D., is a general internist and former Director of Primary Care at the University of Chicago and has been a practicing Buddhist since 1989.

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