I was exhausted yesterday after five hours teaching lawyers and accountants about ethics when there was a knock at my door. I could see through the window that the visitors were two young men wearing nametags, holding clipboards, forms and brochures, and I was in no mood for a sales pitch or to being asked to help some Mormons travel to Tangiers. I opened the door prepared to give them the bum’s rush.
They were good, though. Their pitch involved a free estimate and a discount for replacing our home’s casement windows. It was a local business using recent college grads, they explained. I explained in return, curtly, that I wasn’t interested, but they persisted, being personable and low key all the while. I decided that I admired their persistence and interpersonal skills—it helped that my dog liked them–and ultimately I agreed to let them give me an estimate on roof repairs, as our roof had sprung some small leaks and we might even need a new one.
They called their office as I listened and scheduled a free assessment and estimate for today at 10 AM. I gave them my phone numbers. I took their cards. Though I was exhausted and had planned on giving them less than five minutes of my time, I ended up talking to the two for twenty minutes. I felt good about it too: they were just starting out in the workplace jungle, and had done an excellent job. They were personable, professional, and determined, spoke well and had a pleasant demeanor. One was black, the other Hispanic. I thought they had earned some positive reinforcement.
Well, it’s 11: 22 AM the next day, and they haven’t shown up, and haven’t called. When they do, I’m going to tell them that they blew it: I’m not trusting a company that can’t keep its first appointment. I don’t know why they missed their promised time, and I don’t care. The key factor is that they missed it.
I am resolving right now not to let these young men, who failed this crucial test of character and betrayed my trust in them, cause me to be less fair and reasonable with the next pair of young men, or women, who knock on my door. These bozos have no connection to those future youths (unless they are from the same company, in which case the next emissaries will be off my doorstep at “Hello!”), and the unethical conduct two young men displayed by breaking their promise to me and wasting my time shouldn’t be transferred to innocent parties.
It shouldn’t, but in the normal course of human nature, it usually will. Right now I can feel a bias taking root; I’m an ethicist, I’m fighting it, but most people wouldn’t and won’t.
Do the two young men who convinced me to give them a chance when I was inclined not to and then left me waiting realize that they not only harmed me, their employers, and their own reputations, but may have harmed others like them, who need a break, need a chance, and now will have the added burden of being considered poor risks because “I gave two guys just like these a chance once, and they let me down, so I won’t be making THAT mistake again”? Maybe the homeowner they failed was a recovering bigot. Maybe he said to his wife, “You’re always saying that I’m too hard on blacks and Hispanics, so I decided to give these tow kids a chance. See what happened? I told you so!”
There are two important ethics lessons here. The first is that when we behave unethically and betray someone’s trust, our conduct will often be used to justify bias against others who need that trust and are worthy of it, as we risk making our victims cynical and less open to trusting others like us, or in similar situations to the one we mishandled. In the end we are all role models for everyone else, and our conduct, good and bad, reflects on society and our species.
The second lesson is that the tendency to make universal judgments based on the bad conduct of individuals is unfair and irresponsible. Once burned, twice shy is a description of an irrational human tendency based on emotion, not a recommendation. No, I’m not going to allow this disappointment to cause me to be less generous, fair and trusting to the next two young men who knock on my door.