The Ethics of "Honest Mistakes"

The Gallup poll that recently showed that most Americans regard the CBS memo meltdown as “an honest mistake” that shouldn’t cost anyone their job shows just how appallingly numb the public’s ethical sensibilities are. An act simply does not have to be malevolent or intentional to be unethical, especially when the “mistake” has consequences that are great and public trust is involved. It is an “honest mistake” to drive while drunk as a skunk; it is also irresponsible, dangerous to others, and against the law. It is an “honest mistake’ for a pilot to forget to do a thorough instrument check before he takes off with people’s lives in his hands; that doesn’t make it acceptable when he crashes.

CBS is entrusted with the essential job of informing the public during a presidential campaign, and its performance of that job can affect the future of the nation. CBS wasn’t forced to take on this responsibility; it sought out its role as public herald. It may be an “honest mistake” to fail to do proper due diligence on a story, check out dubious documents, and ignore the concerns of experts (incidentally, this incident involved a lot more than one “honest mistake.” Do the forgiving Gallup subjects regard any number of “honest mistakes” acceptable?); it is also a breach of trust. So Dan Rather and CBS weren’t conspiring to use false documents against George W. Bush; bully for them. The mistakes they made may have been honest, but they were the product of outrageous carelessness and arrogance. Those qualities, displayed by those in positions of responsibility and trust, cannot be tolerated.

Why do so many people think making an “honest mistake” insulates its author from negative consequences? It is because “Everybody makes mistakes” is a cliché that has been elevated to the level of an ethical rationalization. Some honest mistakes are intolerable, because they are a breach of trust:

  • Former Vatican Ambassador Ray Flynn attempted to make the argument that Cardinal Law’s “honest mistake” (the mistake of re-assigning child-molesting priests rather than removing them…”one mistake” that he repeated dozens of times) shouldn’t outweigh his long career of doing good works.

  • The CIA’s failure to properly assess whether Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction was an “honest mistake” that helped push the US into war. Complete incompetence in a position of trust is an ethical violation.

  • Baggage checkers and security personnel in New York and Boston made “honest mistakes” in allowing box cutters to be carried on board airplanes by murderous terrorists on September 11, 2001. Entrusted with people’s lives, they got careless, and people died.

  • Intent upon getting crucial information from suspected terrorists, the U.S. Defense Department encouraged questionable and possibly illegal interrogation techniques. An honest mistake…that led to the disgrace of Abu Ghraib.

Accepting trust means delivering on it, and “honest mistakes” that change minds, lives and history are no more excusable by virtue of being “honest.” Americans are too concerned with being tolerant of mistakes, when what they should be is forgiving. We should be willing to forgive Dan Rather and CBS news, but because they make “honest mistakes” that show them to be untrustworthy, they can no longer hold positions of trust.

Honesty is a wonderful thing, but competence is essential too.

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