by Yonason Goldson
About 20 years ago I was applying for life insurance. The first question on the application form asked, “Have you ever gone skydiving?”
Well, I had gone skydiving, but that was back when I was a reckless sophomore in college. I had no intention of ever jumping out of a plane again.
So what should I do? Should I tell the truth and risk damaging my eligibility or incurring higher premiums? Or should I lie to give a more accurate impression of who I am now?
In the end, I found another company. Their form asked, “Have you been skydiving in the last 10 years.” A much fairer question, to my mind.
But I still have my doubts about how I should have answered the original question.
To be sure, I understand the insurance company’s intent. Why should we risk our money on the kind of people who launch themselves out of airplanes at ten thousand feet for fun? Who knows what other kinds of reckless behavior these people indulge in, and why should our other customers have to pay higher premiums to compensate for payouts to thrill-seekers and daredevils?
But personally, why should I have to pay more for a youthful indiscretion when, decades later, I have far too much common sense to take needless chances with my life for a few moments of adrenaline rush?
Perhaps the ethical question here has more to do with the phrasing of their question than with the accuracy of my answer.
What happens when we put people in situations where they have to choose between honesty and self-interest? Sometimes it may be inevitable, but what if it’s not? Aren’t our lives already filled with enough conflicts that challenge our internal moral code?
In this case, hadn’t enough time gone by to allow me to let my past remain buried in the past? In fact, didn’t the last twenty years of responsible behavior testify that I was indeed a good risk, that I had learned from past mistakes and charted a new course into the future?
A number of recent scandals demonstrate the immediacy of these questions. Public figures who, twenty years ago or more, appeared in blackface or tweeted ethnic slurs are not allowed to apologize or disavow their behavior without repercussions, no matter how sincerely contrite they may appear.
We aren’t talking about serious incidents of sexual abuse, pedophilia, extortion, or murder which might, legitimately, have no statute of limitations. We’re talking about bad taste, immaturity, or personal biases that most of us have experienced to some degree and hopefully outgrown.
When a society refuses to acknowledge sincere repentance and recognize that the responsible citizens of today often traveled the road of irresponsibility to get where they are, we encourage and perpetuate bad behavior: why should anyone strive to be better if we will be held prisoners of our past for the rest of our lives? Indeed, Jewish law forbids embarrassing another person by reminding him of a past he has put behind him.
Even the innocuous wording on a life insurance form promotes this kind of wrongheaded attitude. If I have to lie about mistakes I’ve made and corrected to be respected for who I am now, am I not trapped in a paradox that hampers my efforts to be virtuous and thereby condemns me to remain corrupt?
We serve no one when we indulge such a system.
Excerpted from “Grappling with the Gray: An Ethical Handbook for Personal Success and Business Prosperity,” published by Business Expert Press. Yonason Goldson works with business leaders to build a culture of ethics, setting higher standards to limit liability while earning loyalty and trust. He is host of the “Grappling with the Gray” podcast and co-host of the “The Rabbi and the Shrink: Everyday Ethics Unscripted.”
Visit him at ethicalimperatives.com.