The History Book Test

“History books contain teachings by those deceased; Don’t leave your descendants with only embarrassment!” – Justice Bao, Legendary 11th Century Chinese Judge

My ethics professor in business school at the University of Texas at Austin was a short feisty lawyer named Fran Pederson. She was famous for pacing back in forth in front of the classroom during lecture, and jabbing her finger at students as she talked about the framework for ethical decision-making in a business environment.

She proposed a few tests to think about the ethics of a given situation.  There was the Trilogy Test: when making challenging decisions, we must determine whether the proposed action is (1) the Right Thing, done in (2) the Right Way for (3) the Right Reasons. Then there was the Balancing Test. After weighing the merits of the positions of different stakeholders, how do we balance those opposing interests? So for example, in the context of outsourcing, we would try to balance the interests of employees against the shareholders.

And finally there was the Newspaper Test. “Consider the consequences when your decision is put on the front page of the Journal. How will you defend yourself when that bright spotlight is turned on you?”

We talked a great deal in Business Ethics about the Volkswagen emissions scandal. The execs at VW instructed their people to create a product that only activated emissions controls when they were being tested. The goal was to intentionally deceive regulators and the general public into thinking that VW’s cars released less pollution. Would those execs have thought differently if they’d considered the Newspaper Test and the reputational damage when the conspiracy was ultimately brought to light? Professor Pederson certainly thought so. “What would your mother think of all those shameful headlines?” she asked with another finger jab.

I kept the Newspaper Test in my back pocket for a while. Even if “newspaper” was a little outdated, it still seemed like a good standard. But since then, I’ve been thinking that it might not be as useful a tool as we’d like it to be.

President Trump probably has something to do with this reconsideration. I’ve watched how Trump seems not to care about his illegal and malicious activity being brought forward by the press, whether it’s collaboration with Russia or obstruction of justice in firing Comey.  President Trump has attempted to discredit the press entirely with non-stop cries of “Fake News!” But like others, I had the sense that Trump still believed the old adage that “all publicity was good publicity,” and didn’t care much that the headlines were negative.

Which raised the question: Is the Newspaper Test a very effective at curbing unethical behavior if leaders are less concerned with critical press than with making news to begin with?

These sorts of doubts inspired me to meander toward a different test, which I call the History Book Test. Admittedly it’s not very original. Per the quote, Justice Bao was talking about this idea nearly a millennia ago.

The test is what you would expect: What decision should I make if my actions were to be described in future history books? (Note: Like the Newspaper Test, the “History Book” should be expanded to the internet or whatever chronicling of history there is in the distant future.)

I thought of the History Book Test recently with this video of Tomi Lahren on FOX News. Hurricane Harvey struck the city of Houston particularly hard in 2017. Celebrities like Jay Z and Beyonce, staged a benefit concert to raise funds for the victims. At the concert, the celebrities talked about how the hurricane was likely caused by climate change, and how we as humans should be doing more to protect the climate. So Tomi Lahren decided to “take the celebrities to task.” She “called them out” for turning a tragedy into a “political crusade.”

Lahren’s video began making the rounds on Facebook. And it occurred to me that, at least in her mind, she was probably passing The Newspaper Test. That is, she was receiving lots and lots of publicity for her takedown. Moreover, Lahren didn’t seem to mind the publicity. She was building up her platform.

But could Lahren, in good conscience, believe her tirade would pass the History Book Test? I think not. A future citizen, looking back at how humans thought about climate change in the early 21st century, would no doubt be shaking her head. Why didn’t Lahren use her platform to combat climate change instead of taking cheap shots like dissing Beyonce?  The future would critique Lahren for failing to do the right thing for the long term.

There are obvious challenges to using the History Book Test as an ethical standard. For one, not everyone likes to think about the long term effects of their actions. It’s much more personally satisfying in the short term to think about expedient conduct. Additionally, there are some issues where there is reasonable doubt about what the future will think.

And I sense that many among us wonder whether there will even be a long-term future for humans. Some Evangelicals believe the world will end within this generation or the next. And in this respect they are strange bedfellows with the nihilistic atheists, who are convinced that climate change or nuclear demagoguery will soon wipe us all out.

It seems to me that these are overly negative perspectives. A better assumption would be that assume that humans will go on, and that there will be a “History Book” of sorts to chronicle progress. Given this, we must think about the History Book and not just the Newspaper. Considering both tests will allow us to act with more courage and integrity.

The History Book Test marks the difference between a YouTube flash in the pan and a Justice Bao, a hero for children after all these years because he was so fair and forward-thinking. Be a Bao and play the long game. Because respect and admiration is a much better remembrance.

Dr. September 25, 2017 – Pub. October 13, 2017