This is a conversation I had with a police officer that dramatically changed my life and perception of society. I haven’t told this story to too many people and like all of my stories, I’m pulling it from memory as best I can so the dialogue certainly is not verbatim.
In 1998 I was arrested for selling a few ounces of pot to an undercover cop. At the time I still believed that the police were the good guys. I already believed that marijuana and mushrooms were a huge benefit to society and believed that police and lawmakers simply didn’t understand this and didn’t realize people felt this way. I thought they were trying to make the world a better place and were just confused about certain details. In other words I somehow, despite being a drug dealer, still trusted the police to do the right thing. I wound up giving in to their pressure to join them and work with them, like a fool, buying their promises of immunity and safety.
But I still tried to talk to them… or at least the one officer I was working with. I had been pestering him for a while about his morals and rarely got a straight answer beyond his favorite phrase, “You’ve got to look out for number one.” But I kept trying, kept pushing.
As we were on our way to a dealer’s house for me to make my first purchase, I asked the officer about the ethics of arresting someone who is merely along for the ride on a drug deal, like a random passenger in the vehicle, not having anything to do with the actual deal.
“It doesn’t matter. They know what they’re doing. They know it’s illegal.”
“But they have no reason to believe there’s anything wrong with it. You expect them to call the cops for something they know isn’t wrong?”
“Well of course,” he said. “It’s illegal. It doesn’t matter what their opinions are.”
“But don’t you think it’s wrong?” I said. “Don’t you think it’s wrong to destroy people’s lives over–”
And finally he seemed to be done with my moral pressure, and shouted the words that have echoed through my brain almost every day for over a decade. “Let me explain something to you, Kalin: cops don’t care about right and wrong. How could we? We wouldn’t be able to do our jobs if we did.”
“No,” I replied. “Everyone has some sense of what’s right–”
“No!” he said. “You’re wrong. What’s important is legal and illegal. That’s what holds our society together. I mean, when I’m at home with my family, yes, I try to do the right thing and I care about ethics, but when I have this badge on I shut all of that out, just like all police. I mean stop and think about it for a second, Kalin. What kind of fantasy world are you living in where you think everyone is working for the common good? How do you think we’d be able to do our jobs if we cared about right and wrong? Stop and imagine us going into someone’s house to arrest them–a bank robbery suspect even–and I go in there with my guns and there’s a four year old little girl screaming ‘why are you taking my daddy?’ and an old lady crying ‘Boo hoo, whose gonna take care of me? I’m gonna die without my son.’ The only way you can deal with that is to shut off all human compassion, forget about right and wrong and trust that the public made the right decision in building this system. You just gotta do your job.”
“So you’re a monster?” I asked.
“Label me whatever you want, but at the end of the day, society wants me like this and at the end of the day, they see me as the good guy and you as the bad guy, regardless of what’s actually true. I’ll admit to you that many of the people I’ve put in prison were more ethical and noble than myself, but you know what? They’re sitting in prison right now and I’m out here enjoying life. And yes, I sleep perfectly well at night. So if you think you can make me feel guilty by using a few moral or ethical arguments, you are sadly mistaken.”
“Well, I refuse to let go of my sense of right and wrong,” I said. (Even though by working with the police I kind of already had.)
“Then you’re a fool,” he replied. “I’m sorry if that’s offensive, but you need to grow up. The world doesn’t work the way your school teachers said it did. Everyone is in it for themselves. Do you really think the CEOs of all those companies really care about right and wrong? Do you think an insurance salesman cares, or anyone marketing their crap to the masses? What about politicians? Do you seriously think there’s any politicians who would sacrifice their careers for the common good? If there are, I’ll tell you they aren’t going to make it very far. Do you really think anyone got to be a millionaire by being humble and doing the right thing? That’s the secret, Kalin. That’s the secret successful people don’t want you to know. The secret to success in America is to stop caring about right and wrong. You’ve got to look out for number one. Yeah it’s hard, but you can train your mind to shut out all those moral values that prevent you from getting anywhere in life. Nobody’s ever gonna give you a prize for being a good person. You need to learn how to focus on number one, to manipulate and climb your way up instead of focusing on trying to make the world a better place. That’s what all the successful people in our corporate America are doing. None of them are working toward the common good, Kalin. None of them.”
I don’t recall exactly what I said in response, though I know I was shocked. It was probably something cliche about the human soul or ‘love will conquer all’ kind of thing. Or maybe I was simply silent.
“I’m telling you,” he said. “If you continue making decisions based on right and wrong, you will never get anywhere in life. Certainly not in America.”
That was one of the most life-changing conversations I’ve ever had. I discuss this in this blog post.