At some point along the path to maturity, most of us internalize a set of standards and beliefs as to what is ethical and what is unethical behavior. Tacitly or explicitly, we profess that certain behaviors are simply wrong. Sometimes this is the result of careful consideration, but as often it is a belief that emerges from the chrysalis of time tempered by experience.
These are the goals of behavior we aspire to, the exhibitions of which in others win our praise, and the failures of which in others we condemn.
In times of stress, uncertainty or internal conflict, we waver. We see the light of our own definition of honorable behavior, and we flinch from it. Some overcome our temptations to grasp that light. In so doing we do not banish our own temptations, but we take responsibility for our behavior and in so doing anneal ourselves into something better than we were.
Some fail, some fall. Failure to adhere to our own definitions of ethical behavior is probably inevitable for all of us at some point, so what matters is what we choose to do with those failures. Rarely, we see those failures for what they are, we learn from them, we adapt and steel ourselves so that we do not repeat our own mistakes.
More often we justify, we rationalize, we make excuses for how what happened was not our fault, how anybody would have done the same in our place, how it “just happened”, how we were somehow not responsible for those parts that we might fairly claim responsibility.
Sometimes, too, we push aside our self-defined standards of ethical behavior when it is hard, when circumstances would lead to events turning against us were we to hold to our ideals. We lie, we compromise our ideals, we reinvent the event to shine a kinder light on our actions.
The codes of behavior we aspire to are not there for the easy times. They do not exist for the times when the adherence to them will bring us advantage. Our self-imposed standards are there for the hard times, when the adherence to them might bring us ruin in one form or another.
All of us at some point are faced with the choice of whether to stand by our ideals and maintain our self-respect, or else to give in to expedience and convenience. We may excuse away our injury of others to ourselves; others may even accept these excuses, but in the middle of the night, when the world is still and sleep itself is still a dream, we cannot escape the truths of ourselves.