Seems like every day a stand-up guy is shown to be corrupt. Joe Paterno, the much-loved f00tball coach at Penn State, was revealed to have made little effort to ensure that the paedophilic assaults of his colleague was exposed. Lance Armstrong, that most inspirational of sportsmen, has been found to have been at the centre of a massive doping ring. Jimmy Savile, national treasure, has been exposed as a serial child abuser.
The deeds of such men are not, of course, comparable. What unites them is the refusal of their admirers to believe that they’d been immoral. They had been observing their laudable behaviour for years and found this hard to square with the idea that they’d done wrong. Such reactions can be understood but can’t be justified. Good men can do bad things for the simple reason that they fail to apply their standards consistently. Joe Paterno never meant to do harm, for example, but was thoughtless enough not to engage his mind and heart as he seems to have done elsewhere.
People who behave with extreme immorality are also capable of doing a lot of good for others. Some might have self-interested reasons for this. Thieves and abusers, for example, often seek to establish themselves as pillars of their community as it ensures that they’re well-placed to seize objects of their desires and liable to be trusted even if word of their crimes leaks out. They needn’t be selfish in their efforts to do good, however. Vyacheslav Molotov was a devoted husband and Nikolai Yezhov was good to his adopted daughter. Such men are capable of approaching different situations with different faces and different hearts. They might have a formidable talent for compartmentalising different facets of their personality or there might be a more twisted explanation. Extraordinary benevolence, for example, might help them to rationalise their extraordinary callousness.
I suppose this raises the question of whether acts of virtue should actually make us feel suspicious. Even I’m not such a cynic. Corrupt men leave more of an impression on our consciousness than those who struggle through their lives attempting to virtuous but the latter, I fondly think, have numbers on their side. One needn’t – and, indeed, shouldn’t – assume that people are doing evil on the sly but one should be prepared to believe it if evidence cimes to light. Their potential for harm should not be at the forefront of one’s consciousness but the knowledge of it should be held in reserve. It’s not a pleasant thought but, then, such cases have shown us that the desire to see the world as being more pleasant than it is can blind one to foulness that might otherwise have been arrested.
It would be remiss of me not to clamber aboard a hobby horse and point out that the cases of Armstrong and Savile are further evidence of the potential for conspiracies to take place and be hidden. The former, especially. It’s kind of amusing to read an official US body speak of a “conspiracy…professionally designed to groom and pressure [people] to [commit wrongdoing]…evade detection [and] ensure its secrecy”. And a bit disturbing.