Everyday temptations bedevil us in personal and political life

We’re all subject to temptation; it takes strong values to resist

February 6, 2022 9:00 am

(Photo illustration by Noel Hendrickson/Getty Images)

Temptation happens in the gut, not in the brain, eliciting a jumble of magnetic emotions, luring and repelling us simultaneously. It can be as innocent as reaching for a piece of chocolate cake, hesitating, and then pushing away from the table. Or as guilty as embezzlement, reaching into a cash drawer, hesitating, and then stashing the bills.

Temptation triggers corruption in political life when government officials abuse their power and the public trust.

Temptation triggers guilt in our personal lives when we cave in to desires.

Common temptations include eating too much, spending too much, laziness, venting on social media, gossiping, feeling jealous, viewing pornography, lying or cheating and abusing alcohol.

Each of those enticements has a virtuous flipside: wellness, frugality, diligence, composure, discretion, trusting, wholesomeness, truthfulness, honesty and moderation.

We may desire the virtues but succumb to the vices, as if good and bad angels hover on our shoulders, whispering contrary counsel in our ears.

That iconic vision comes to us from “The Shepherd of Hermas,” a second-century Christian text: “There are two angels within a man — one of righteousness, and the other of iniquity.” The good angel is said to be gentle, modest, meek and peaceful; the bad angel, wrathful, bitter, foolish and evil.

When we heed the good angel’s advice, we are grateful for the betterment of our character. When we heed the bad angel’s advice, we are gratified momentarily at the expense of our character.

Temptation involves desire. A 2012 study explored “how often and strongly do people experience desires, to what extent do their desires conflict with other goals, and how often and successfully do people exercise self-control to resist their desires?”

Findings were illuminating. Of the various character traits, perfectionists often experience powerful impulses that clash with their motivation and goals. Their intense focus has a side-effect: anxiety. Ergo, they seek relief.

Narcissists were most prone to yield to temptation as a form of entitlement.

Alcohol, predictably, weakened resistance to temptation, prompting people to enact their desires without considering ramifications.

The presence of other people — especially at work — helped in resisting temptation. At home, we are prone to indulge in our desires. Due to the pandemic, that may carry into the workplace when the pandemic ends.

Politicians are prone to the same temptations as the people they represent. The difference typically involves the power associated with their public positions.

As Lord John Acton (1834-1902), the English Catholic historian once mused, “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

Political corruption is the abuse of power by government officials seeking to gain personally via their positions. According to Science Daily, forms of corruption vary, but include bribery, extortion, cronyism, nepotism, graft and embezzlement.

Corruption facilitates such crimes as drug trafficking and money laundering.

In 2021, 35 current and former government leaders and more than 300 public officials were exposed in files from offshore companies. The so-called “Pandora Papers” included the King of Jordan, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Russian President Vladimir Putin, among others.

Here are key findings:

  • The offshore system thrives despite decades of legislation combating money laundering and tax dodging.
  • More than a dozen U.S. states, including South Dakota, have become leaders in the business of selling financial secrecy.
  • Owners of secret bank accounts are exposed with possessions that include private jets, yachts, mansions and artworks by Picasso, Banksy and other masters.

Apart from money, there is little ethical difference between personal and political temptation. They have the same attributes:

Temptation is relative. What might tempt one person — personal use of a company car, say — might not tempt another. As such, temptation is a matter of choice associated with our individual likes, dislikes and desires.

Temptation pits one value against another. A person may value honesty and career success but opts to cheat because they fear losing their job.

Temptation strikes without warning. We normally would not cheat or violate our values were it not for a sudden opportunity that just happens to appeal to our desires.

It is important to remember these characteristics if we hope to resist temptation. Our desires may be strong, but our value systems must be stronger. Short-term gratification is not worth the long-term risk to our reputation. When temptation strikes, remove yourself from the location or situation and give yourself time to make a proper decision.

Finally, do not blame yourself when tempted. Temptation is part of the human condition. Great spiritual leaders, including Jesus Christ, were tempted (see Luke 4:1-13).

John Quincy Adams, one of our most ethical presidents, believed “every temptation is an opportunity of our getting nearer to God.”

In secular terms, every temptation is an opportunity to enhance your character to address the myriad problems of personal and public life.

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Michael Bugeja
Michael Bugeja

Michael Bugeja is the author of "Living Media Ethics" (Routledge/Taylor & Francis) and "Interpersonal Divide in the Age of the Machine" (Oxford Univ. Press). He is a regular contributor to Iowa Capital Dispatch and is writing a series of columns on the topic of "Living Ethics." Views expressed here are his own.