Fraud and Conscience – ‘It’s OK if Everyone Else is Doing It’

I’ve just read an account by Tyler Hamilton of his career as a drug-boosted (and eventually drug-busted) world-class professional cyclist  – The Secret Race – Inside the Hidden World of the Tour de France. His confessions, and others’, provided the evidence that nailed the world’s most famous doper – Lance Armstrong, seven times winner of the Tour de France and seven times loser (all seven titles were eventually stripped form him).

So prevalent was drug use, so essential if you were to stay amongst the world’s most successful riders, and so much part of what it meant to ‘belong’ to the heroic, winning fraternity, that to those in the game it seemed entirely justified. And so strongly was this felt that riders could lie for nearly a decade, with complete equanimity or outraged aggression, to the media, to the sport’s governing bodies, to their friends and family, and even when undergoing lie-detector tests.

‘Everyone is doing it,’ they said to themselves, ‘so it’s ok. It’s a level playing field.’

Indeed, large swathes of the public thought so too. When I was in the USA three years ago and Lance Armstrong had just admitted doping on prime-time TV, there were many Americans I met who thought he was being unfairly treated ‘because, after all, they were all doing it.’

But it was no level playing field. The best drugs were available only to those with money, guile and influence. It was a risk to the riders’ health, and clearly against the rules. It was cheating, pure and simple.

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When I get phishing emails telling me I’ve won an obscure lottery in Lesotho, when I hear about the cruel deceptions practised on vulnerable people (the elderly, in particular, are viciously singled out by telephone scammers) I try to understand the mentality of scammers, fraudsters and cheats. How does it feel like to them, how does it look like to them, as they rip people off, humiliating and impoverishing vulnerable people? How do burglars feel when they empty or trash an apartment?

Surely, all of these unusual creatures must have a special way, as dozens of top cyclists and other sportsmen and women have, of justifying it all to themselves. Or am I too generous in supposing they think and feel at all?

‘These people have plenty, and I have nothing. They won’t miss what we steal from them.’

‘I have to feed my family.’

‘If I didn’t do it, someone else would.’

‘If I don’t do it they’ll hurt me or my family.’

We’ve all come across similar justifications in more mundane areas of life and business.

‘Everyone cheats when they claim their expenses.’ (Even the UK’s MPs fell foul of this self-serving justification.)

‘You’ve got to bribe if you want to win a public tender. Everyone knows that.’

‘No one pays all the tax they should. I’d be a fool if I were the only one.’

‘If I didn’t take cash and were to issue an invoice instead, I’d be paying much more tax, I wouldn’t be able to compete and I’d soon be out of business. I have a responsibility to my employees.’

How do people get started with fraud or other kinds of crime? How do they manage their consciences? How do they come to believe they’re justified in what they do? How do they acquire the necessary moral agility?

Well, none of us is an angel. It probably starts with just a penny here or there that no one notices or cares about, and then it grows. Finally, for a few, it’s out of control.

But, as Tyler Hamilton explains, the worst situation is one where there’s peer pressure to join in. It became a rite of passage in the world of top-class cycle racing to accept the testosterone, the EPO and all the other stuff. You were ‘in’. You were good enough to win. It’s probably peer pressure rather than greed that gets most people started on a life of deception and crime.

To this day I remember stealing sweets from a shop in a small town in Germany. I was about ten, and I was ‘made’ to do it by a rather delinquent friend. I regretted it even then, which is probably why I remember it now. I wish I had been more priggish and goody-goody (well, that period, together with excessive church-going came later!).

Serious wrong-doing often starts with small misdemeanours and the encouragement of others. The academic, novelist and religious writer C S Lewis puts it well in his Screwtape Letters – Letters from a Senior to a Junior Devil:

“Indeed the safest road to Hell is the gradual one–the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts,…”

There’s a stark difference between those who are mildly sinful and those who are steeped in crime, but to those who travel the path from one to other it must seem like a gentle, if slippery, slope. I can only suppose that if they are human and possess the same mental landscape as the rest of us, they feel the same to themselves at the end of it as at the start, hardly having noticed the subtle and gradual erosion of their conscience.

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