This column has traditionally been about business and we don’t normally think of sexual harassment as a business topic. However, nearly all of the sexual harassment cases from Roger Ailes to Harvey Weinstein to Al Franken to Matt Lauer occurred within the context of the workplace. We have reached a positive inflection point in American society where women now feel emboldened to speak about sexual abuse they have suffered. This change represents tremendous improvement for our society.
As I have read about various cases, I have noticed that many people are using inappropriate information, such as how they have known the alleged perpetrator in other settings, whether the accuser was known for being sexually promiscuous, or how the person has voted on legislation, to draw conclusions about guilt or innocence.
Let’s step back from any individual case and examine the principles that have been operative in American society for centuries so we can think clearly and appropriately about the ethical and moral behavior that all Americans should expect.
— The end does not justify the means. How people accomplish achievements matters. As a democratic society, we endorse means of honesty, fair play, and integrity. It requires us to disregard damaging evidence that was improperly obtained by law enforcement and to strip Lance Armstrong of his medals for drug-tainted success. Likewise, if a man has been sexually abusive at work, we cannot endorse his success in spite of this behavior. It is very tempting to think otherwise, which is captured in the honorable-sounding label, “noble cause corruption.”
— A corollary to this first principle is that people should not accept the behavior of an individual who is sexually abusive even if they endorse his accomplishments. So, if you like the way a politician votes, you must still condemn his sexually abusive behavior. A perfect analogy would be for a company to support its best salesperson even though he is sexually abusive. That behavior invalidates his sales success.
— In our society we also uphold equal protection under the law. In this case, that means that the accuser’s character or behavior are irrelevant if they have been sexually abused. It doesn’t matter if the woman has been sexually promiscuous, accepted an invitation to the alleged abuser’s hotel room, or wore tight-fitting clothing. None of the accuser’s character or behavior justifies even the slightest bit of sexual abuse.
— Our society endorses innocence until proven (or confessed) guilt. This absolutely critical principle is one of the most difficult for people to stomach in a situation such as sexual abuse. Many of the allegations will amount to “he said/she said.” In other words, the sole evidence against the sexual abuser will be the accuser. Unfortunately, that has never been enough evidence in our society to convict someone. This principle is reflected in statements such as “It is better that 10 guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer,” which the famed jurist William Blackstone penned in the 1760s. However, he did not originate the idea. This same notion appears in statements by Mohammed and in the Judeo-Christian Bible.
Many of the most critical principles in society exist so that humans cannot resort to their base instincts. We require free speech in spite of the fact that some speech can be very hurtful. We require the due process of law in spite of someone who appears obviously to be guilty. In these sexual abuse cases it is extremely easy for us to violate principles because of our loyalty to an individual, because of behavior we have seen in other settings, because we like the way he votes, because we are so angry at the sexual abuse, or because we feel that the victim in some way invited the abuse. It is in the situations that are most contentious, and possibly most painful, that we need to fight against our base instincts and use our inviolate principles to guide our decision making.
Eric Dent is endowed chair professor of Ethics at Florida Gulf Coast University.