When I was a law professor, I administered multiple choice tests that I corrected by hand. One day, Ron came to my office informing me I made a scoring error – in his favor.
I was impressed with his honesty and told him so as I was changing my records. Ron was horrified. “You’re going to lower my grade?” he sputtered. “Of course” I said, “I’m entering the correct score.”
Ron said: “I would have never come to you if . . . .” H stopped mid-sentence. He didn’t have to finish – it was obvious. He expected to be praised for his integrity but he thought I would also reward him by allowing him to keep the higher grade. He left my office angry muttering that I punished him for his honesty.
I shared this story with a fellow teacher. He agreed with Ron.
“I have a very high regard for honesty, that’s why I had to correct the record. Isn’t it dishonest to let him keep a grade he didn’t earn? Would that be fair to other students? Integrity is not about seeking advantage; it’s about doing the right thing — even if it costs more than we want to pay. If Ron remained silent about the error it would have been as dishonest as keeping too much change.”
My colleague said I was missing the big picture. The grade was less important than encouraging honesty.
I protested. “His reward for his honesty was my respect and his self-respect. I didn’t punish him or lower his grade – I just corrected my error . A score on an exam is about competency, not virtue. Besides, he wasn’t really virtuous. His display of honesty was counterfeit. If he expected praise at no cost it was a calculated tactic not a trait of character. Why would I want to encourage that?”
My friend laughed. “You are really making a big deal out of this. I’ve got to go to class.”
What do you think? What would you have done?
About the author: Michael Josephson is one of the nation’s most sought-after and quoted ethicists. Founder and president of Josephson Institute and its CHARACTER COUNTS! project, he has conducted programs for more than 100,000 leaders in government, business, education, sports, law enforcement, journalism, law, and the military. Mr. Josephson is also an award-winning radio commentator.