July 18, 2019 by

How good would others consider us to be if our private thoughts and conversations were made public?

Take the article about then-presidential-candidate Jimmy Carter in Playboy that rocked the world in 1976. In the article, he confessed, “I’ve looked on a lot of women with lust. I’ve committed adultery in my heart many times.”

This confession raised the question of Carter’s goodness because if he really was faithful to his wife, wouldn’t he have an eye only for Rosalynn, even in his mind?

Fast forward to the invention of the internet. We now have the ability to look up answers to questions that are so personal that we wouldn’t even ask our friends. In addition, we use email to forward jokes to others that we otherwise would have told face-to-face with no trail left behind. Of course, we have tried to be careful. Regarding our emails, like mom said, “Anything we write down can become public.” But late at night, when tapping out a note, there have been times many of us have gone over the line in a way that would be offensive to someone. When we spend time online, it is often like thinking to ourselves or having a quiet, private conversation behind closed doors.

But the internet is not private. Website searches and email jokes do have trails. Those searches we did and jokes we told 10-20 years ago can become available to the public if the internet companies want to share them or people hack them. We are finding that we gave up our privacy long ago without really knowing the extent of what that meant.

And when others learn about our private website searches and email jokes, even if we have built good organizations or given back to the community through volunteerism and philanthropy, will our goodness and legacies be called into question like former President Carter’s?

We all know the answer is “yes.” And because of this, every 55-year-old or older I know has done a mental rundown of their internet searches and saved emails to consider the possibility that, like an unexpected flood, their online privacy may be breached.

Perhaps it will not flood, so to speak. Just as floods affect some people, others are not impacted. We might be lucky, and our legacies will remain intact. Or maybe our transgressions are so insignificant that, if made public, people will move on thinking they are just not juicy enough. And if this last point is the case, then the real idea that Carter was trying to make in his 1976 interview (if you read the whole thing) could ring true.

Let’s not think we are better than the other person because our online indiscretions are small, and our legacies remain intact. The relative degree of offenses doesn’t make us better than the next person. We are all fundamentally the same. We are all fallible. Our best legacies are found in how we treat each other as fellow human beings, and in the fact that we judge less and forgive more.


Beverly Kracher

Beverly Kracher, Ph.D., is the executive director of the Business Ethics Alliance and the Daugherty Chair in Business Ethics and Society at Creighton University.