I realized, in reading the rationalizations being given by defenders of the decision of the New Jersey aunt of recent controversy to sue her young nephew for accidentally injuring her wrist when the boy was eight all boil down to a familiar rationalization repeated often in a classic film and its sequel. Somehow that rationalization missed inclusion on the Ethics Alarms Rationalizations list. (There are 60 rationalizations now, with some labeled as sub-categories.) After today, that will no longer be the case. Presenting…
#52 Tessio’s Excuse, or “It’s Just Business”
Near the end of “The Godfather,” longtime Don Corleone loyalist Sal Tessio (played by the immortal Abe Vigoda) is caught attempting to ally with a rival family in an attempt to kill the new Don, Michael Corleone. As he is taken to the car for his final ride, Tessio turns to consiglieri Tom Hagen and says…
“Tell Mike it was only business. I always liked him.”
Ah. It wasn’t personal, you see, this attempted assassination. That makes it all right.
It is true that in leadership positions, duties to stakeholders may require ugly trade-offs and collateral harm to innocent people, but rationalization #52 makes such decisions too easy—they should be hard—by pretending that caring isn’t a core ethical value. If Winston Churchill, allowing Coventry to be firebombed in WWII in order to protect that secret that the Allies had broken the Enigma Code, had later explained that “it wasn’t personal,” the comment would have been viewed as callous, and rightly so. When the lives, fates and welfare of human beings are judged not sufficiently important to choose not to harm them, not a high enough priority to choose them over “business,” then that is a “personal’ decision, in part. The decision-maker didn’t care enough about the people to choose another course.
In Tessio’s case, he chose to betray an ally, friend and leader for his own benefit. Such conduct has to be personal. The assertion that only the abstract, not the personal, is a consideration is sociopathic. He knows that a person will be killed, that his loved ones will be hurt. waving aside these relevant factors in the ethical balancing process will lead inevitably to a pure “ends justify the means” philosophy: money means more than human beings, success means more than human beings, advancement means more than human beings. For the human beings sacrificed, the message is that the impersonal actor doesn’t give a damn.
The excuse is usually a valid one when professionals behave professionally. A lawyer is bound to seek her clients’ legal objectives, and is required not to have any regard for the opposing party’s needs and interests at all. It really isn’t personal. Nor is a general who must kill civilians to defend a city acting out of personal animus. If a CEO or manager is ethical, he or she will fire a best friend from the staff in a budget squeeze if the friend is the least profitable staffer. When the harm done is voluntary and unethical, however, and not dictated by a prior duty or legitimate orders, it may breach both the ethical principles of reciprocity and the categorical imperative. When people are harmed, they really don’t care whether the motive was personal dislike or lack of caring, so why assume that the “it was just business” makes the damaging conduct feel better? Meanwhile, saying that you harmed another person to accomplish a personal or professional objective is an admission that one has used a human being to accomplish an end without the individual’s consent.
There is an ethical obligation for all of us to balance the harm our conduct does to other human beings with that conduct’s other benefits. Tessio’s Excuse isn’t a justification. It’s a confession.