Perspectives

Why we love rule-breaking | Original sin and the ‘cheater’s high’

Why do famous people often break the rules — even at the risk of getting caught? The same reason we all do.

Theologian Reinhold Niebuhr once wrote that “the doctrine of original sin is the only empirically-verifiable doctrine of the Christian faith.” Another great twentieth century theologian, Karl Barth, asked whether original sin is not “the doctrine which emerges from all honest study of history?”

The answer should be obvious: “yes!” Apparently it’s not obvious enough to many of our contemporaries.

A recent edition of the Canadian Broadcasting Company’s radio show “Day 6” discussed recent scandals concerning Canadian politicians, FIFA, and even CBC hosts.

These stories and others like them prompted the folks at “Day 6” to ask “Why would [prominent and powerful] people break the rules? Why [would they] take such huge risks when they have so much to lose?”

“Day 6” interviewed Celia Moore of the London Business School. Moore specializes in morality, decision-making, and ethics, and is the co-author of a paper entitled “The Cheater’s High: The Unexpected Affective Benefits of Unethical Behavior.”

Note that’s “affective” with an “a.” As the title of the paper suggests, Moore’s interest is in how cheating and other unethical behavior makes people feel.

A lot of the time, the answer is “great.” That’s the “cheater’s high.” As Moore told “Day 6,” most people predicted that they would feel badly when they crossed certain “moral boundaries,” but they didn’t. Instead, they felt a sense of elation at “getting away with it.” If you’ve ever read Augustine’s “Confessions,” this would remind you of his stealing a pear when he was a young man. Augustine didn’t really want the pear; but what he did want “was to enjoy  . . .  merely the excitement of thieving and the doing of what was wrong.”

Back to the “Day 6” interview: Moore was asked if people felt badly when they did something immoral, especially if it hurt someone else. Moore answered that what made the “high” possible was inattention to the impact of their actions on other people or being unable to see the consequences.

Thus, a person who might not personally swindle an investor out of his life savings a la Bernie Madoff might feel perfectly fine doing something that might indirectly lead to the same result.

Then of course, there’s the almost limitless capacity for people to exonerate themselves and rationalize their behavior that Moore points to. This self-exoneration persists even after the person has been “busted.”

Listening to Moore and the host at “Day 6,” the phrase that comes to mind is—what else?—“original sin.”

You have desire, which as James 1:15 tells us, “gives birth to sin.” You have the willingness to break the rules to get what you want even though you’ve been warned of the consequences. You have the predilection for rationalizing your actions, even when you’ve been caught. And finally, you have the elation that accompanies the sense that you’ve gotten away with something.

It’s hard to imagine a better illustration of what Christians mean by “original sin,” what C.S. Lewis described as the “bent” in our natures.

That’s why Moore’s prescription, conversations about ethics at work, probably won’t help, especially if, as Moore concedes, cheating is part of human nature.

That’s not to deny that sound moral education wouldn’t help. But ultimately, the answer to original sin, the bent in our natures, is a new nature. As Paul told the Corinthians, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.”

Eric Metaxas

 

— by Eric Metaxas

Metaxas is currently the voice of Breakpoint, a radio commentary (www.breakpoint.org). Copyright© 2015 Prison Fellowship Ministries. Reprinted with permission. BreakPoint is a ministry of Prison Fellowship Ministries.

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