Marisa Guerin, PhD – May 25, 2021
The question, “Does everyone have a price?” arose in my mind the other day as I found myself wondering what it would take for a certain national politician to change his mind on an important, controversial issue. I was feeling exasperated; in my mind, the “right” answer was obvious, so he either couldn’t see it, or he was playing a card in the opaque game of government. Surely, I thought, some savvy political player could figure out what trade-off might be suggested to this person to justify a modification of his position. And I don’t even necessarily mean that in a baldly transactional way, devoid of honor. If politics is the art of the possible, then that means compromise on behalf of the greater good is to be negotiated.
I don’t know how the Washington drama will play out, but my feelings about it led me to think about the question of having a “price.” The discouraging implication in the question “Does everyone have a price?” goes beyond normal horse-trading; it takes us into the domain of corruption. It refers to the times when people might be willing to badly compromise their own integrity or duty if there is some personal gain that they very much desire, or if they are in desperate-enough straits. We all see enough news in the US and abroad to be assured that there are many powerful individuals who do have a price, and who have paid it.
Even on the smaller scale of most of our individual lives, though, it might be a good idea to reflect on what might be our “price” – the weakness or need that could seduce us to cross a line we actually don’t want to cross when we are in our best selves. It isn’t only politicians who are tempted to betray their commitments for an attractive offer.
The temptation isn’t always money. I have first-hand knowledge of this, because of a phone conversation I had some time ago. I had left my role as a VP of Human Resources (HR) in a multinational company a few years prior, and was engaged in my new business as a consultant to nonprofit organizations. Yes, my compensation was much lower, but this was my preference, a conscious choice to leave one kind of work for something else that was more congruent for me. In retrospect, I realized that this intention of mine would not be obvious from the outside. I am acquainted with more than a few professional colleagues who have hung out their shingle as a consultant in order to fill the time between terminating one job and finding another one.
That particular day, I received a call from a corporate CEO – directly from him, not his assistant, not his search firm – who told me that I was recommended by an executive colleague who knew me from my corporate days. Mr. CEO explained that he was looking for a new head of HR for his company, and would like to talk to me about that position. He said a few things about the company and how attractive this position would be, etc., etc. Without needing to think it over at all, I responded to him that I was very honored by the confidence reflected in the referral and by his invitation to me to consider this possibility, but that I was very happy with my current work and was not interested in going back into a corporate executive role. As I said this, there was no trace of doubt in me about it.
To my surprise, my answer to him didn’t elicit the response I expected – I thought he would say something along the lines of “I’m sorry about that, but good luck with your work and good-bye.” Instead, he sort-of laughed/sort-of sighed, and said, “Well, OK, tell me what you’d need in the way of an offer to change your mind.” Again surprised, I said gently, “Maybe you don’t believe me, but I really don’t want to pursue the job, and it has nothing to do with money. There isn’t a salary offer that would change that.” Now it was his turn to be surprised. I think he made one or two more runs at it, in case he was dealing with a really bad-ass negotiator, but he soon realized that I was simply telling him the truth. At THAT point, he was able to say, “Well, I’m sorry, and good luck, and good-bye.” I got the impression that sort of thing didn’t happened to him very much. The conversation left nothing unpeaceful within me, just a sense of mild amusement about the interchange.
For me, at that point in my life, his pitch was bound to fail. I was well-inoculated against the fantasy that the wealth and high status of a corporate executive job could be had without punishing costs, and I also felt I was reasonably financially secure. I had given lengthy, serious consideration to my role change, and I was sure it was the right thing for me. Yet for others, or for me at a different stage of my life, this kind of a phone call might have been a dream come true, representing no compromise at all in personal priorities. There was no way for him to know which it might be from the outside, so good for Mr. CEO to make the pitch, just in case.
That I was able to resist that dangled shiny thing doesn’t mean I am immune to all temptations that test my commitments. While I have become fairly good at saying a gracious “no,” I have spent a lifetime coming to understand and better manage my tendencies to violate my own legitimate preferences. This can happen when I am presented with an ask that seems to involve a “call to duty” in using my particular talents in a way that helps someone else or their organization, or an ask that comes from someone I would like to please, or an ask that plays on my sense of obligation to be part of a solution, and so on. Being approved of and being seen as responsible are some of the guises of my personal Kryptonite. Without a lot of vigilance, these weaknesses can lead me to sell down the river the voice inside that is saying, “But that isn’t what you intend, what you need, or what you think is right.”
The stakes aren’t usually too high, but I regularly face temptations to be “bought,” and I regularly manage them, for better or for worse. I assume this is true for all of us. Most of the time, our decisions don’t involve the risk of selling our souls, but they usually involve trade-offs – that is, acceptable prices to pay for acceptable outcomes. And when it’s our own life choices we are dealing with, we can navigate by our own lights – namely, our preferences, needs, values, and truth.
It becomes much more difficult to make tough decisions when we are considering trade-offs that are located in the world around us, when our decisions will impact many people. Like the politicians in our national government, almost everyone in a position of responsibility or leadership is presented from time to time with what ethics professor Joseph Badaracco of Harvard called “defining moments.” These are the knotty problems that require a leader to choose, not between good and evil – that would be much easier – but between one good outcome and a different, also good, outcome. If only all the good decisions appeared in green lights and all the bad ones in red lights! But they don’t. They fall into muted greys, ombres, and patchworks. Discerning a path forward is mental and emotional and moral work.
Most of the problems that appear most intractable are precisely the ones in which, when you favor one interest group in the outcome, you have disfavored another one. They aren’t exactly zero-sum, because there are usually many stakeholders, and the calculus is very complex. But at the end of the day, there is no algorithm that produces an unalloyed good, with no downsides. This is true for business, for community organizations, for religious entities, and for government leaders. The price to be paid, the compromise required, must be deliberated to assess whether it is proportionate, ethical, and acceptable, or not.
This kind of complexity in our modern world is the reason that I am patient with the process of normal politics (as opposed to the politics of posturing without evident intent to get anything helpful done at all). I don’t think it is possible to use simple formulas for solving complicated problems. I know that in the perspective of some of my sincere, passionate, progressive friends and relatives, my position can come across like incrementalism, defeatism, collusion, or unwillingness to take a big-enough broom to the mess and start afresh. I hope not. My actual desired future is probably as radical as theirs, but I haven’t yet seen a person or heard a plan that convinces me that profound change can be easy or quick. It will cost me, and it will cost others, to get closer to our dreams.
My African-American friends, neighbors, and fellow citizens have taught me, through actions more than words, what it means to stay faithful to a righteous cause for years, generations, without giving up the fight for justice. In that long, long, journey, there have been and there will be many trade-offs on behalf of some measure of success, however partial. For future progress to happen on the concerns I personally care about the most – the struggles for racial justice, economic justice, peace, human rights, and protection of the environment – prices will be paid, and all we can hope for is that they are considered ones, worthwhile ones, imperfect but moving-forward ones. I’m resigned to the fact that it will take time; it might look like “two steps forward, one step back,” but hopefully not the reverse.
Here is where I land, after these ruminations, on the question of whether everyone has a price: I think that all of us, as individuals and as political actors, are vulnerable to the temptation to pay a price we should not pay, for a compromise we should not make. To my regret, I know there are times when my, and our, good intentions fail us and we give in to temptation. I hope such times are few, and that in the main, we can stay vigilant, making the tradeoffs that can be authentically agreed without sacrificing the bedrock of our integrity or truth.
No one can make that call for us. I will have to keep praying that the politicians who have the responsibility for decisions that impact my world, when push comes to shove, will have the courage to make imperfect, defining decisions, resisting personal corruption and seeking the greater good as they see it.