You might, as I did, find a recent study by Symantec alarming. Symantec researchers intentionally “lost” 50 smartphones in cities around the U.S. and in Canada.
They were left on newspaper boxes, park benches, elevators and other places that passers-by would quickly spot them. But these weren’t just any phones—they were loaded with tracking and logging software so Symantec employees could physically track them and keep track of everything the finders did with the gadgets.
And what were the shocking results?
Some 43 percent of finders clicked on an app labeled “online banking.” And 53 percent clicked on a filed named “HR salaries.” A file named “saved passwords” was opened by 57 percent of finders. Social networking tools and personal e-mail were checked by 60 percent. And a folder labeled “private photos” tempted 72 percent.
Collectively, 89 percent of finders clicked on something they probably shouldn’t have.
Meanwhile, only 50 percent of finders offered to return the gadgets, even though the owner’s name was listed clearly within the contacts file.
Now, does that mean that 50% of Americans are thieves? No doubt they don’t see themselves as thieves. Some probably kept the phone without conflict. Others may have justified their decision: “I have no time to reach the owner.” “I just found the phone, I have no obligation to return the phone.” “They wouldn’t return it to me.”
Often in response to such studies, academics recommend that schools teach more ethics. In teaching ethics at the college level, it is common to teach theories, then have students analyze a case in light of the theories they learned. The value of analyzing ethical cases is greatly overrated as it does little to imbue values. Many of those who did not return the phone, would probably tell you that honesty is one of their values. That may be true, but they were unable to act on their values.
Consider this example. In 1925 Bobby Jones hit a wayward shot in the U.S. Open. As he prepared to hit his next shot, he accidentally touched the ball and it moved imperceptibly. No one else noticed, but Jones called a two-shot penalty against himself. He then lost the tournament by one stroke.
When praised for his honesty, Jones replied, “You might as well praise me for not breaking into banks.”
Jones did not have to think about the appropriate response to his accidental touch. There was no time. Had he hesitated, the next player would’ve played his shot as Jones might have been lost in thoughts such as, “I should call a penalty.” “Maybe the ball really didn’t move.” “No one else would call a penalty on themselves, why should I?” Instead, the values of sportsmanship and honesty were so imbued in Jones that right action was automatic and instantaneous.
There are few of us who rise to the level of integrity that Bobby Jones demonstrated in the U.S. Open. Yet, I would bet a fair sum of money that nobody reading this post gets up in the morning struggling with the impulse to rob a bank. In fact, I would bet that the thought to steal never arises. As with Bobby Jones, thinking plays no part in the decision to not steal. Why? Long ago in our spiritual development we decided that stealing was not a part of our values.
So how do we rise to the level of consistent integrity that Bobby Jones and others demonstrate? By integrity I mean the ability to act on our highest professed values. When we do not live by our values, integrity can be restored as we simply become aware of our self-justifying stories for our lack of integrity and the tremendous cost that our lack of integrity has on ourselves and others.
Right now, I often find myself irritated by the behavior of my teenage children. Clearly, I still think there is some value in this irritation. How do I know I still value getting irritated? Because, I still do it.
I can try to stop myself from reacting to my thoughts of irritation. Nothing’s wrong with that; but better yet is to work on prevention and not be irritated in the first place. For me prayer, meditation, exercise, and reading inspired works help imbue higher spiritual values. Observing my thinking without judging myself or others is especially helpful.
So, when will I stop being irritated by my teenagers? Not by analyzing the situation more, but by becoming more aware of the tremendous costs of my decision to not act on my values. As I become more aware, more and more I forgive myself for past choices and my stories of justification. As I do, higher spiritual values of love and compassion become more imbued in my decision-making process.
What do we want our lives to stand for? It is clear what Bobby Jones stood for. The smart phone study is alarming, not just because of the choice made by 50% of the individuals who found the “lost” phones. It is alarming because our individual choices determine the society we live in. If 50% of Americans failed to act on a value of returning property that does not belong to them, where does that leave us? Why should we be surprised then when the politicians we elect confiscate our property and subsidize their political cronies?
Clearly, for America to recover from its morass, more is required of us than electing the right politicians. Psychologist David K. Reynolds has written: “For all my dreams, I am what I do.” We must, as individuals, recover our own integrity and live the values we cherish. Whether we do so will determine how the generations alive today will be remembered.