There are quite a few at ease with moral ambiguities

4 Apr

I wrote this post several months ago and forgot to publish it. It’s been a while since we talked about something more serious than lip color and food, so I say, what the heck. Enjoy!

Yesterday at the last minute, I was offered a chance to do a market research study. It was a taste test, and since it would only take 15 minutes and paid $25, I jumped at the chance.

Have you ever done a research study? They ask you all these questions to see if you qualify. The qualifications are set by whatever company makes the product, and the research firm simply finds people that fit. For this particular test, they were looking for folks under 30 who drank MagicX*. When I got to the office, we had to complete a chart asking how much of each kind of MagicX we drank per month. I brought it up to the moderator and she looked it over.

“You have to drink Magnum MagicX at least three times a week to qualify for this study.”

“..What?” Me.

“This column. You put that you only drink it once every three months.” She clicked her pen tip towards my carefully circled answer. It was already sort of a stretch—I’d definitely had MagicX before—but that was about it.

“Oh…” I trailed off, waiting for her to tell me I couldn’t participate.

“Yeah.” She said. “So just scribble through it and circle one of these three at the top.”

I did so and proceeded with the taste test, not really thinking much about anything except whether it’d be $25 cash or check, and whether I’d still have enough time in my break period to eat a real, non-liquid lunch. Then I looked around at my fellow taste testers (none of whom looked a day younger than 40) and thought about white lies.

It did seem ridiculous that you’d need to drink MagicX every day (or be under 30, for that matter) to do what we did—which was decipher which of three samples was different from the rest. But that didn’t change the fact that those are the parameters set by the company. This research firm was hired by that company to carry out those parameters. I looked at a framed certificate recognizing this as one of the top 10 most trusted marketing research firms in the country as the moderator handed over my check.

In the BT (before Tennyson) era, I wouldn’t have thought much of these little smudges of truth, this squeezing of square pegs people into round holes. After all it worked out for everybody: the firm makes its quota of people per study (without which they don’t get paid), the company gets its research results, and I get some new lipsticks.  But I’m raising a little human now. And although at 18 months he’s a bit young for honesty lessons, I have to think about what kind of human I want him to be, and how to make that happen. If I were telling him this little story, how would I explain it?

How would I tell him that when I had trouble telling the difference between the last three cups, I considered just circling one at random so I could get out of there in time to eat lunch? Could I honestly tell him that it didn’t really matter, when I know that MagicX is counting on the results of studies like these to make a better product? Could I tell him that advertising is based on lies anyway, so it was OK to fudge in that department? Because if I did, would he then conclude that his personal integrity was dependent on the integrity of others (if they are not honest, then why should I be)? Why is it OK for me to say I drink MagicX when I don’t, but it would not be OK for T to say he did his homework when he didn’t?  I don’t know. That’s why so many parents (am I going out on a limb if I say most?) wouldn’t tell this story to their children at all.

Maybe it’s better to be open. There are many shades of truth, and if we’re being totally frank, it’s easy to stretch and trim them to fit your own personal needs. Learning to do it is a skill—one that no parent teaches, yet we all somehow learn.

But when does a white lie become a black one? At what point are our little self-justifications beyond the pale (Bernie Madoff, Jerry Sandusky…they must have taken Borax to their consciences nightly to keep them clear.)? At what point do you start questioning the authority figures who encourage you to do something wrong? When the moderator made it seem like it was nothing to change my answer to satisfy our purposes, it didn’t seem like a big deal. But what if T one day tells me he’s going to the library when really he’s going somewhere dangerous, because a cool kid said it would be fun? You may think that’s a big leap, but the essence is the same—we are rewarded by an authority figure for ethical dubiousness. The only difference is the stakes: in the former, nothing serious; in the later, safety and maybe even life. One might argue that adults can make the distinction while children can’t. But is that really true? The Holocaust happened.

It’s a slippery slope; someone else’s encouragement and conviction makes it easier to assure ourselves it’s OK. And Cherry Tree Fables aside, the  fact is that certain kinds of untruths are sometimes acceptable or even essential. I may not be able to instruct baby T in so many words how to tell the difference, but maybe, if I’m honest with him–If I tell him I don’t know the answers to these questions, but that they’re worth asking anyway–I can give him cleats for the slope.

*Names have been changed to protect the innocent.

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