Making Ethical Decisions

By Marjorie Foerster Eddington

Making Ethical Decisions … from a man who acknowledged his lapse in integrity and sought to make amends

Bud Krogh served time in prison in 1974 for his role in conspiring to deprive a citizen of his Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable, unwarranted search.

It was 1971. A man named Daniel Ellsberg had leaked the "Pentagon Papers," a set of Top Secret documents to the press that President Nixon believed would compromise his ability to end the Vietnam War. With assumed Presidential authority from the President's role as Commander-in-chief, a group of operatives working for Bud Krogh, known as the 'Plumbers," broke into the office of Ellsberg's psychiatrist, Dr. Lewis Fielding. They were trying to find anything they could to discredit Ellsberg in order to stop further leaks. Krogh and his men thought they were acting in the interests of the country, trying to protect our national security. Later, Krogh thought differently.

In 2007, he and his son, Matthew, published their book, Integrity: Good People, Bad Choices and Life Lessons from the White House. This book is one of the many ways that Bud Krogh is making a difference in people's lives. But he started making a difference in 1973 when he pleaded guilty -- accepting responsibility for what he had done, serving his time, and then taking actions to make amends. Bud explains all this in our Guest interview.

Here, Bud shares more insights with us, helping us make those tough decisions, which, if approached correctly, can lead us to a life free from guilt and dishonesty and full of happiness and harmony.

Bud, your life now seems to be focused on making a difference in others' lives.
I try. That's the motive behind giving speeches on integrity and ethics, writing down my ideas in books, teaching legal education courses. I'm trying to share the lessons I learned about universal truths that came out of this experience -- ones that can be useful to people today in business, academia, government, and any other position or profession. Getting a clear understanding that integrity has a deep meaning can be a great guide to ethical decision-making.

So how do you make good decisions -- ones that won't land you in prison or bring about undesirable consequences?
There are three basic questions that I use when I'm talking to people of all ages. I talk to groups ranging from those in eighth grade to those who live in senior centers. I want these three questions to have meaning for the entire spectrum, and I think they do.

I tell them, "If you can answer 'Yes' to these questions, you'll be safe and your actions will be effective." Here are the questions:

  1. Is the decision I'm about to make whole and complete?
    This first question is an intellectual question. Have I thought through all the second, third, and fourth order consequences of this decision? A subsidiary question is, "Is it legal?" Lawyers, especially, must ask this question. And you'd think they would. But three out of the four White House "Plumbers" just assumed we were proceeding legally under the President's authority; we didn't really ask and research the question, "Is it legal?" when recommending a covert operation. And I didn't ask it until after the fact because there's an unreal sense that the President can do pretty much whatever he wants. But for any discipline anywhere -- be it as a lawyer, a businessman, a teacher, etc. -- there are a whole series of things you have to consider, and you need to hold them up to the scrutiny this question prompts.
  2. Is it right?
    This is the ethical, or the moral, question. This is where you can get into all the ethical values -- respect, responsibility, fairness, honesty, and compassion (explained by the Institute for Global Ethics). You have to ask the ethical question: "What is the effect of this decision on the individuals who are going to be impacted?" Morality really deals with interpersonal conduct between people.
  3. Is it good? That's shorthand for, "Is it Godlike?"
    This is the spiritual question. Is this decision consistent with what God made me to do and would want me to do? Goodness is a human manifestation of God. What does that mean? Well, ask yourself, "Will people be blessed? Will their lives be improved; will they be more peaceful and harmonious?" Goodness is the way that human conditions such as strife, political instability, social upheaval, war, etc. are healed.

Each one of these questions has a rich subset of questions. Asking these questions works; it's easy; and it's quick. You can test everything by these three questions, and I do. Sometimes they pull me up short. These questions cover all important levels -- the intellectual, the moral, and the spiritual.

These questions are excellent tools to help us all make ethical decisions.

Your experience certainly gave you the opportunity to think about how to ensure that the next decisions you made in your life would bless rather than harm. And you obviously had a sincere change in heart and life. So why, when Nixon wanted to pardon you, did you not want his pardon? Some might wonder if you've changed why you have to endure the punishment.
That’s a valid point: Once you’ve faced it, do you have to pay a price? For me, for my own personal rehabilitation, I probably did not need to go to jail. My sentencing judge in fact said, “You need no rehabilitation.” But there was something larger at stake here. How would the American people think about someone who after pleading guilty was pardoned, didn’t have to pay any price, and was given a pass? This would have negated the meaning of the guilty plea. I wanted to be true to the American public, to integrity. In a very real sense, I didn’t want to be deprived of the opportunity to demonstrate by going to prison that no man is above the law. And you know what? The American people have been universally supportive and grateful because in those days no one was taking responsibility for what happened. It also relieved me of the burden of carrying guilt all my life.

So pleading guilty and being willing to do time actually helped heal a wounded nation. That's a very helpful insight.
I do think it was necessary. There are several steps involved here.

  1. I needed to recognize what had gone wrong. I did this in my guilty plea and statement to the court.
  2. I had to take responsibility for it. This entailed be willing to serve a prison sentence for the crime as honorably as I could.
  3. I needed to show that I truly regretted what had happened. Part of this step was to apologize to Dr. Louis Fielding personally for the break-in to his office.
  4. I needed to demonstrate that I had been reformed. In other words, I needed to show the kind of thinking that had led to the crime in the first place and that I was no longer holding on to these wrong ideas.
  5. Finally, I needed to feel some release from the sense of guilt.

So these five steps -- recognition, responsibility, regret, reformation, and release -- were all important. I would say, too, that an important part of the release for me was writing our book, though it was decades after the event. I really did have to write it. I had only just shared the experience and the lessons I learned with my family. I wanted a broader audience, especially young people, to understand what had happened and to equip them to do their jobs honorably with integrity.

Now President Nixon never agreed with my evaluation. He never thought I did anything wrong. What I learned and what I did came to me through prayer as the right conclusion for me. I'm not trying to tell you that my way is the only right way. There are others who will take a completely different view in regards to what people in government can do to protect national security and will say that people shouldn't be punished even though they break the law. These same people might argue that they should be pardoned and given a medal. But I don't believe that, and I'm totally comfortable with how I worked through this experience.

So let's address the argument that says there's a time when putting national security first is more important than following all the laws to the letter. What's your view? Is there ever a time when it's okay?
For me, the only time where it would be okay is if the threat to our country is overwhelming, imminent, lethal, and likely to harm a number of innocent people. But then it's hard to define that line. I don't want people to feel that it's okay to break the law because then it becomes a slippery slope.

What I would prefer is that our laws make clear what can and cannot be done, and then, if an agent of government feels that circumstances are so acute and so severe or extreme that he or she must set aside a law to achieve a result or end that is responsive to the threat, and it turns out later that s/he was wrong, that person or group of people is prepared to pay the price for it. The line has to be clear. If I make a mistake, then I pay the piper. I like to have the legal system on track with the rule of law and the highest ideals of our Constitution.

I can't think of many times where you'd set aside the law, but if you do, you need to be willing to pay a price. I guess it would be similar to civil disobedience when you purposely violate a law that is wrong. This is what Rosa Parks did, and she was willing to pay a price to demonstrate against a wrong law.

Thanks so much for sharing your insights and practical questions that will help us face tough decisions courageously and ethically. The steps you took to redeem your life show us what we can do if we've made mistakes. You've made it clear that making wise and moral decisions positively affects our own lives and helps promote harmony, peace, and happiness in the world.

And on a completely different note, and simply out of curiosity, how did you all come to be known as the "Plumbers"?
David Young, one of the members of the group, was talking with his mother-in-law during the time when we were trying to stop leaks to the press. She asked him what he was doing, and he told her that we were trying to stop leaks. She said that now we have both a carpenter and a plumber in the family. He wrote "Plumbers" on a sign and taped it on the inside of the space in our office. Later, a reporter asked what our group was called, and the secretary said the "Plumbers," and that's how that term got into the political lexicon.

Great story! As I think about it, the leaks that we really want to plug are the leaks that we allow into our own consciousness -- the thoughts that make us think that the little lapses in ethical behavior really don't matter, or that telling a lie or breaking the law is okay just so long as we don't get caught. Those are the temptations that need to be plugged and stopped. And in that sense, we all want to be plumbers -- but of the right sort.