Last month, Fareed Zakaria, CNN TV host and Time columnist was suspended briefly for plagiarizing a passage by New Yorker writer Jill Lepore. Zakaria apologized for “the terrible mistake” and was reinstated by both CNN and Time. Both he and Lepore had written articles in which they commented on the writings of law professor Adam Winkler. Both cited Winkler, but Zakaria failed to credit Lepore who had published an article about Winkler’s writings first. (For George Jonas’ column about plagiarism and Zakaria’s case, please see the link: http://fullcomtment.nationalpost.com/2012/09/05/george-jonas-fareed-zakaria-and-the-plague-of-plagiarism/ ). This clearly is not a case of plagiarism where an author copies someone else’s text and pretends it to be his own work. We don’t know why Zakaria apologized (or why he was suspended in the first place); perhaps it was the easiest and fastest way out of a potentially career- and reputation-damaging situation. However, the case provides an interesting ethical dilemma: Should you apologize for something you have not done?
Let’s first ask: why would you want to apologize for something you have not done? The most likely reason is the desire to overcome a difficult situation quickly. You have been accused of something and you do not want a public scene or a prolonged trial where you need to prove your innocence. The fastest, easiest way to resolve the situation is to apologize publicly and move on. This is the pragmatist’s solution. It is also unethical.
The pragmatist’s solution is unethical first of all because it is not in your self-interest. In the short term, you can avoid prolonging a challenging situation and silence your critics by apologizing for something you have not done. However, by doing so you are violating three crucially important moral principles on which your long-term success depends: rationality, honesty, and justice.
You are violating the principle of rationality by evading reality: the fact that you are innocent. Such an evasion is a hazardous mistake. Achieving goals requires that you focus on facts, not evade them. You cannot run a successful business by evading a new competitor or a new technology that makes your product obsolete. Once you evade one fact, it becomes easier to evade another, and eventually this becomes a pattern of thinking that moves you further and further away from recognizing reality—the basis of all your goals and values, whether success in business or in journalism or anything else.
Another hazardous mistake is to pretend that things are other than they are: you are being dishonest not just to others but to yourself by pretending that you have done something wrong when you have not. Achieving goals requires that you not pretend that things are other than they are; you need to be honest to yourself. No amount of pretending will make your cash flow sufficient or costs competitive when they are not. Pretending that you are guilty when you are not may offer a short-term solution to a challenging situation, but in the long term it harms your reputation, makes it easier for you to become a scapegoat again in the future, and allows others to evade facts as well—all of which hinders your ability to achieve your goals and values.
Appeasing your accusers and apologizing when you are innocent is unjust—to yourself. Injustice is another hindrance to achieving your values, whether you are unjust to yourself or to others. You can claim credit for or plead guilty to something you have not done, attempting to get something you do not deserve. In both cases, your credibility and reputation are at stake and therefore, the achievement of all the rest of your values.
No matter for what you are falsely accused, facts are facts. The only way to achieve values is to adhere to facts and never pretend they are other than they are. You should never succumb to false accusations and apologize—but stand up and defend yourself. The short-term challenges in doing so are worth the long-term gains: your success and happiness.