Temptation happens in the gut, not in the brain, stirring up a magnetic jumble of emotions, simultaneously attracting and repelling us. It can be as innocent as reaching for a piece of chocolate cake, hesitating and then walking away from the table. Or as guilty as embezzlement, rummaging through a cash drawer, hesitating and then hiding the bills.
Temptation triggers corruption in political life when government officials abuse their power and public trust.
Temptation triggers guilt in our personal lives when we give in to desires.
Common temptations include overeating, overspending, laziness, venting on social media, gossiping, feeling jealous, watching pornography, lying or cheating, and abusing alcohol.
Each of these seductions has a virtuous reverse: well-being, frugality, diligence, coolness, discretion, confidence, salubrity, sincerity, honesty and moderation.
We may desire virtues but succumb to vices, as if good and bad angels hover over our shoulders, whispering contrary advice into our ears.
This iconic vision comes to us from “The Shepherd of Hermas”, a 2nd century Christian text: “There are two angels in a man – one of justice and one of iniquity”. The good angel is said to be gentle, modest, gentle and peaceful; the evil angel, wrathful, bitter, foolish and wicked.
When we heed the guidance of the good angel, we are grateful for the improvement in our character. When we heed the advice of the evil angel, we are momentarily satisfied at the expense of our character.
Temptation involves desire. A 2012 study explored “how often and with what intensity 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?
The findings were enlightening.
Among the various character traits, perfectionists often experience powerful impulses that conflict with their motivation and goals. Their intense focus has a side effect: anxiety. Ergo, they are looking for relief.
Narcissists were the most prone to give in to temptation as a form of entitlement.
Alcohol, predictably, weakened resistance to temptation, causing people to pursue their desires regardless of the ramifications.
The presence of other people – especially at work – helped resist the temptation. With us, we are prone to indulge our desires. Due to the pandemic, this could spread to the workplace when the pandemic ends.
Politicians are subject to the same temptations as the people they represent. The difference usually involves the power associated with their public positions.
As Lord John Acton (1834-1902), the English Catholic historian, said, “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely”.
Political corruption is the abuse of power by government officials who seek personal gain through their positions. According to Science Daily, forms of corruption vary, but include bribery, extortion, cronyism, nepotism, bribery and embezzlement.
Corruption facilitates crimes such as drug trafficking and money laundering.
In 2021, 35 current and former heads of government and over 300 public officials were exposed in offshore company filings. 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 the main results:
- The offshore system thrives despite decades of anti-money laundering and tax evasion legislation.
- More than a dozen US states, including South Dakota, have become leaders in selling financial secrecy.
- Owners of secret bank accounts are exposed with assets that include private jets, yachts, mansions and works of art by Picasso, Banksy and other masters.
Apart from money, there is little ethical difference between personal temptation and political temptation. They have the same attributes:
- Temptation is relative. What might appeal to one person – the personal use of a company car, for example – might not appeal to another. As such, temptation is a matter of choice associated with our individual likes, dislikes, and desires.
- Temptation opposes one value to another. A person may value honesty and career success, but choose to cheat because they are afraid of losing their job.
- Temptation strikes without warning. Normally, we wouldn’t cheat or violate our values without a sudden opportunity that appeals 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. The short term gratification is not worth the long term risk to our reputation. When temptation strikes, walk away from the place or situation and give yourself time to make an appropriate decision.
Finally, don’t beat yourself up when you’re 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 that “every temptation is an opportunity to draw closer to God.”
In secular terms, every temptation is an opportunity to improve your character to tackle the myriad problems of personal and public life.
Michael Bugeja is the former director of the Greenlee School of Journalism and Communication at Iowa State University in Ames and the author of “Living Media Ethics” and “Interpersonal Divide in the Age of the Machine”. This column was first published by Iowa Capital Dispatch at iowacapitaldispatch.com.