This is a concept that was taught to me by my first business partner, and it’s an incredible way to always make sure that you’re doing the right thing.
It’s called the Washington Post Test.
In a nutshell, if you’re doing something, think about what repercussions there would be, and how you feel about them, if whatever you were doing was splashed over the front page of the Washington Post.
The test is this:
Would you still do it?
If the answer is yes, go ahead and do it.
If the answer is no, then you need to think very carefully about why this is the case, and you should most also consider whether changing your course of action is the wiser move.
It’s an extremely simple concept, but one that I carry around with me everyday, especially where there are those “edge cases” where I might not be sure if something is right or not.
The interesting thing about transparency, integrity, honestly, is that everyone will claim to have them, but when the time to test them comes, they’ll give all types of reasons why they can’t pass it.
It’s exactly when your values are tested and are difficult to keep in place, that they should remain in place. It is far too easy to uphold values when they don’t matter, it’s doing so when it counts that does matter.
This actually touches on a subject that I wanted to write in another essay, but we might as well explore it now. This is the concept of living what I would call a public life. This doesn’t mean what you think it might: that you have no privacy and that you need to broadcast everything you do to the outside world.
It’s about living as if this was the case.
Living as if everything you do could, at any moment, be completely public. As soon as I started writing this current essay, I realised that the concept of living a public life and the Washington Post Test are essentially the same thing.
This concept is extremely strong, because it helps us fight the influence of the idea behind the Ring of Gyges. If you’ve never heard of it, let me sum it up for you now.
The Ring of Gyges is a mythical ring that is mentioned by the philosopher Plato in the second book of his Republic. It discusses the story of a shepherd that finds a ring that has the ability to make him completely invisible. He uses this new-found power to seduce the queen, and to kill the king and take power for himself.
The point that Plato makes in the republic, is to wonder whether any person could resist the temptation to perform an act that they knew they could get away with. Let me quote this directly from the Republic:
Suppose now that there were two such magic rings, and the just put on one of them and the unjust the other; no man can be imagined to be of such an iron nature that he would stand fast in justice. No man would keep his hands off what was not his own when he could safely take what he liked out of the market, or go into houses and lie with any one at his pleasure, or kill or release from prison whom he would, and in all respects be like a god among men. Then the actions of the just would be as the actions of the unjust; they would both come at last to the same point. And this we may truly affirm to be a great proof that a man is just, not willingly or because he thinks that justice is any good to him individually, but of necessity, for wherever any one thinks that he can safely be unjust, there he is unjust. For all men believe in their hearts that injustice is far more profitable to the individual than justice, and he who argues as I have been supposing, will say that they are right. If you could imagine anyone obtaining this power of becoming invisible, and never doing any wrong or touching what was another’s, he would be thought by the lookers-on to be a most wretched idiot, although they would praise him to one another’s faces, and keep up appearances with one another from a fear that they too might suffer injustice.
I’m not sure if this argument is true, or if it possible for someone to truly resist doing anything they desire, if they knew they could get away with it.
However, if we move away from theory and come back to real life, which is devoid of magical rings, you will find that there is always a chance, however small, of being caught in a nefarious act. Most criminals don’t imagine they will get caught, but many do, which shows that there is a discrepancy between what many criminals think will happen in a given situation, and what actually does happen.
So given the fact that there is always a chance, albeit it might be extremely small, that we would be discovered if were to do an action that we know is wrong, then this should be enough to keep us on the straight and narrow if we consider the Washington Post Test.
Because there is a chance that anything we do becomes public knowledge, even if it’s not by having an article written about us on the front page of the Washington Post.
Ideally, we would eventually want to remove this crutch that is the Washington Post Test, as we shouldn’t really care about what others think, and we should just do the right thing because it’s the right thing to do, and that’s what should naturally appeal to us.
I know that I am very far away from this type of living, and I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone actually lives like this, but if it can be imagined, perhaps it can also be turned into a reality.
The above passage from Republic is spoken by a character named Glaucon. Socrates’ answer to him would be that acting in a just manner should not be constrained by other people’s opinion of you, or the potential negative circumstances that you might find yourself in. It should be an outcome of a person who is rationally in control of his desires, as is therefore living a happy life, without the need to steal an apple while nobody is looking.
Of course, the issue runs deeper than just what you think is the right thing to do at all times, but can also be applied to how other people may perceive your actions, regardless of their intentions.
Let's imagine that you're a contracting office at a purchasing department for a large company, or perhaps even the government, and you have the right to sign contracts that are worth well into the tens of millions of dollars. Imagine that you have multiple contracts who are bidding on the project, and one of them invites you to lunch to further discuss the bid and gather more details, and then they pay for the lunch.
While you may just have been doing your job correctly, and want to learn more about the contractor and give them all the required information to ensure that they can respond accurately to your request for a proposal, it may still appear to other people that the free lunch that you received could influence your decision making.
Whether this is true or not is not the point, the fact of the matter is that it may be perceived in this way, or even purposefully spun to make it look nefarious even when the entire incident is completely innocent.
This is a much more difficult way to live life, as you have to be careful not just of doing the wrong thing in moral or legal terms, but just being perceived to be doing the wrong thing, and because you cannot always read other people's minds, there will always be a margin of error.
Imagine the defence that the previously-mentioned contracting officer could make if he was accused of receiving gifts from contractors that swayed his decision. He could argue that a one-off lunch meeting that was paid for the contract would not sway him, because the gift is so minor compared to his own salary, and he could point back to his spotless record that goes back decades, and so on.
The contract officer could quite well believe that he has done nothing wrong, and even by right in this belief, and yet still have his career destroyed by an accident where the perception of his actions by others is different.
Holding ourselves up to high standards is not easy.