Before becoming president of the United States, Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865) was a respected lawyer in Illinois. One day a criminal came to him. ‘I would like to ask you to defend me’, said the man. Lincoln, who had a sneaking suspicion of the kind of person he was dealing with, replied with the question: ‘Are you guilty?’ ‘Of course I’m guilty. That’s why I want to hire you; to get me free.’ ‘If you admit guilt to me’, Lincoln explained, ‘then I can’t defend you’. The man reacted with amazement: ‘But you don’t understand. I’m offering you a thousand dollars for your services!’ Although a thousand dollars was a large sum of money at the time, Lincoln resolutely refused. The criminal replied, ‘Mr Lincoln, I’ll offer you two thousand dollars if you defend me!’ Again Lincoln refused. In desperation, the criminal played his trump card: ‘Mr Lincoln, you’re the best lawyer in the area. I can’t have travelled all this way for nothing. I’ll give you four thousand dollars.’ At that moment Lincoln flew from his seat, grabbed the man by his collar, dragged him out of the office and threw him into the street. When the man had stood up and pulled his clothes straight, he asked Lincoln: ‘Why did you throw me out when I offered four thousand dollars? Why not for one or two thousand, or when I admitted guilt in the first place?’ Lincoln replied: ‘You were nearing my price!’
As William Shakespeare put it, ‘For who so firm that cannot be seduced?’ Everybody has a price; the question is what that price is. Lincoln knew his price. Do you know yours? How much can you be bought for? And what is the price of people you depend on, or for whom you are responsible? How ‘price-elastic’ are they?
Called from- Why good people sometimes do bad things: 52 reflections on ethics at work by Muel Kaptein