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Editor's letter: The nice guy defense

If Rajat Gupta and Lance Armstrong thought their good works would exempt their sins from scrutiny, they were mistaken.

I don’t know whether good works will get you into heaven. But there’s plenty of evidence this week that they won’t get you out of trouble on earth. Wall Street giant Rajat Gupta, on trial for insider trading (see Business: Talking points), tried the nice guy defense. His lawyer argued that Gupta’s “lifetime of honesty and integrity” proved his innocence. In the end, though, all the hours and money he had spent fighting AIDS and malaria did him no good in court. The jury foreman called Gupta “a wonderful example of the American dream,” but his panel took just 10 hours to declare him guilty. While no such definitive judgment has been reached on Lance Armstrong, it may be gathering on the horizon (see News: Talking points). Some of the cyclist’s defenders suggest we remember that his heroic victory over cancer breathed hope into thousands of cancer victims. That’s unlikely to sway the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency in determining whether he doped his way to seven yellow jerseys in the Tour de France.  

Nor should it. Saint Augustine took a hard line on such matters. “Good works in sinners,” he wrote, “are nothing but splendid sins.” That’s overly harsh, I think. The world can’t afford to be so picky about the source of good works, which are always welcome. The mosquito netting Gupta helped provide prevented thousands of people in Africa from getting malaria—they don’t care about his motives. Armstrong’s amazing comeback from cancer generated inspiration and $400 million in research funds. But if these men thought their good works would exempt their sins from scrutiny, they were obviously mistaken. It’s never worked that way, and never will. 

James Graff

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