Corruptio Optimi Est Pessima

Santa Clarita Signal • Ethically Speaking Column • For January 30 weekender, 2016

 Corruptio Optimi Est Pessima

David W. Hegg

Lest any think I know Latin, let me first admit to hearing this phrase – Corruptio optimi est pessima – while watching old episodes of West Wing on Netflix. In a dramatic scene where a good man had admitted to wrong doing, President Bartlett let loose with this declaration, the meaning of which is “corruption of the best is the worst of all.”

We need to heed these words. When the best of us succumb to ethical corruption, and the self-serving behavior springing from it, society has hit its low water mark. Sadly, we have too many examples today.

In my world, few things are worse than clergy who become predators on the very flock they have been charged to feed, lead, and protect. Across denominational lines we are seeing it. We have pastors fleecing their flocks with unscrupulous fund raising methods while others engage in all manner of sexual immorality. And these are only two of the many ways we are seeing our “religious” best corrupted.

If we turn our focus to the governmental and political world we don’t have to look far to find example after example of good men and women engaged in corruption. Sadly, it has become so commonplace as hardly to merit more than a 24-hour news story.

What is behind this growing phenomenon? The answer is simple. When a person’s ethical foundation is eroded by selfish ambition the behavioral guardrails fall away leaving the conscience free to approve and applaud corrupt behavior. If you really want to, you can train your conscience to rationalize bad as good, but you’ll have to jettison those pesky moral convictions that once made you a good person.

To stay on the moral high ground, preserving your integrity despite myriad temptations to trade it for personal gain, here are three areas where vigilance will pay huge dividends:

Peer Pressure: There is truth in the statement “bad company corrupts good morals.” Every parent understands this. Influence most often flows from the stronger to the weaker. If you surround yourself with strong personalities devoid of robust ethical standards worked out in moral behavior, don’t be surprised if their worldview begins to re-shape yours. Only when your convictions are both well-framed and ably defended will you become the more powerful influence.

Pragmatism: When you find yourself rationalizing wrong doing in order to have a right result, watch out! It is never right to do wrong to gain a good result. Seldom do the ends justify the means. They may make it easier to rationalize the means, but there is always a cost to acting contrary to ethical bedrocks such as honesty, integrity, confidentiality, and loyalty. Pragmatism is ruined many good men and women, and it always works incrementally. It preys on the indwelling selfishness of the human heart and only a strong, fortified ethical wall can fend off its attacks.

Pride: Pride may be the fountain from which every eroding influence flows when it comes to ethical belief and behavior. Pride may be the strongest human emotion, and it certainly is the cause in many of those whose outstanding character gives way to corruption. Pride keeps us from admitting mistakes, from recognizing wrong thinking, and from being a critical guardian of our own passion and ambition. Pride encourages isolation rather than collaboration, fuels defensiveness, and fosters anger and jealousy. Pride allows us to think more highly of ourselves, and our ideas that we should while blinding us to our own weaknesses and vulnerabilities. In the end, pride can be the acid that eats away at those ethical bedrocks upon which we have built our lives. As has been said, when pride comes, and is left to grow unchecked, a fall cannot be far behind.

Of course, resisting the strong pull of pride and selfish ambition is never easy. And, in some cases, it will be costly. Yet, the long-term consequences of ethical behavior are always preferable to those of ethical compromise. The long-lasting effects of corruption cascade out in ever-expanding circles, hurting people and society in ways never understood at first. Churches, neighborhoods, businesses, governments, and societies have been devastated by the corruption of a few, some of whom were once counted among the good guys.

So what do we do? It’s simple. Build and maintain a strong, personal ethical foundation for your life. I suggest the biblical worldview that has given us the Judeo-Christian ethic. Then, use it to influence those around you to order their lives according to basic ethical principles. Lastly, require those who are leaders in your world to maintain an open and laudable way of thinking and acting. After all, in the end it will be our integrity – as people and a society – that forms our only lasting legacy.