J.P. Freire zooms in on a point that was presumably supposed to be central to the New York Times‘ big McCain story, but has been largely neglected:
The NRA and the ACLU both can’t buy ad time in the days before an election because doing so, by virtue of the ethical senator’s own philosophy, is manipulating the people and hurting democracy. But when McCain hops a flight with a campaign contributor, it ought to be obvious that he’s maintaining his integrity. Why is it that associations comprised of every day citizens are suspect, but a powerful politician is not?
What I found really intriguing in the piece—and I’ll agree that the decision to publish it displayed incredibly poor editorial judgment—was the notion that precisely because McCain has fashioned himself as a champion of integrity against corruption in politics, he has found it difficult to recognize when his own actions might seem ethically questionable.
This is actually a pretty well-established point in social psychology. Recall those famous Milgram experiments in which basically decent people are induced to gradually turn up the voltage (or so they believe) on phony “subjects” when ordered to do so by a scientist in a white coat, even after they are given reason to think the “subject” may have suffered a heart attack. The lesson here, in part, is that precisely when people are convinced that they are good and virtuous, it is not all that hard to induce them to commit immoral acts by small steps. Step one seems innocuous. Step two is just a slight increase, and the virtuous person, knowing himself to be virtuous, infers that he cannot have acted improperly at step one, so step two must be admissible as well. And so on through all the steps. When the progression is gradual, the man who knows he is good will not stop to wonder whether he has crossed some imperceptible line.
And so it is with influence. If—as a politician or, for that matter, a journalist—I know I’m immune to being swayed by free dinners and lavish junkets, I’ll never pause to consider how, over time, such things might be subconsciously affecting my judgment. If I’m more acutely aware of my own fallibility, I may need to stop for a periodic mental inventory.