When self-deception becomes normal


Fr. Rolando V. dela Rosa, O.P.

Several years ago, a finance officer of a business corporation conducted a survey on their employees’ commitment to ethical principles. One question in the survey was: “If you find out that your supervisor is involved in financial anomalies, will you report this to higher officials of the agency?”

The finance officer was shocked to discover that the employees’ answer was almost a unanimous no. The reason they gave was even more shocking. They were convinced that reporting illegal activities or anomalies to higher officials was an act of betrayal, and therefore unethical. They would risk losing the respect of their fellow employees and being labelled as traitors if they did so.

The employees seemed to have twisted the golden rule into: “Do not report my misdeeds, and I will not report yours.” They legitimized this conspiracy of silence as their way of maintaining peace among themselves. But was it really peace?

St. Thomas Aquinas once wrote that authentic peace can only exist in a community where the members are willing to speak the truth. The facile compromise to hide the truth produces, not peace, but concord.
Concord exists among thieves. They forge an unwritten agreement to be silent, deaf, and blind as regards the crimes committed by their fellow thieves. Concord is motivated by fear and the need to protect one’s own interest.

Concord explains why few criminals get punished despite tons of evidence presented, and the endless court trials and senate hearings. They protect one another, invoking their code of silence, considered “honorable” among criminals. There is actually nothing honorable about it. It is just a case of “moral anesthesia.”

We should not underestimate our capacity to deceive ourselves or anesthetize our conscience. For instance, when an employee, who lives by his moral principles, sees for the first time that his fellow employee receives a bribe and gets away with it, he may be horrified. But if he sees other employees repeatedly doing the same thing, what is horrible in the beginning becomes gradually acceptable to him. He learns to tune out his moral indignation. Soon, when it no longer bothers him to see his deeply cherished moral principles violated by others, it will no longer bother him to violate these himself. He has learned the corrosive art of self-deception.

Self-deception is aggravated by our tendency to justify our moral failings by comparing these with the crimes and sins of others. We tell ourselves that we are not that bad because other people are worse sinners than we are. In today’s gospel reading, Jesus gives one such example: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people — robbers, evildoers, adulterers — or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get’” (Luke 18:11-12).

The Pharisee behaved like a person who weighs 250 pounds, convincing himself that he is thin because he sees someone who weighs 300 pounds. We cannot make ourselves thinner by simply looking at people who are fatter than we are.