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.
WHAT'S THE BIG DEAL?
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:
IT HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH YOU
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 HAVE TO WORK WITH EACH OTHER
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.
LET HE WHO IS WITHOUT SIN...
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.
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