Three Bags of Gold

Three Bags of Gold

Some of us played a game on long bus rides.  We called it “Three Bags of Gold”.  It wasn’t much of a game.  It was primarily an opportunity to concoct horrific, stomach-churning, soulless scenarios and to half-heartedly consider them in the context of our greed and morality.  It was like a hypothetical version of Fear Factor with ethical elements.

Someone would yell out a test.  “Would you cut off your little finger, grill it and eat it for three bags of gold?”  We’d iron out the details.  How would the amputation occur?  Would there be immediate medical treatment for the lost finger prior to the barbecue?  Could we season our severed digit when it was time to dine?  Right hand or left?  We discussed the current market price of gold and the size of the bags at great length again and again.

The scenarios weren’t always gross-out exercises.  “Would you frame a friend for a crime that would result in his imprisonment for three bags of gold?”  “Would you ‘pull the plug’ on a stranger who had requested to stay on life support for three bags of gold?”  Under what situations would our morality bend in the face of three bags of gold?  When would we finally lie, cheat or steal?  Why?

We’d respond to the scenarios with a collective, reactive “no”.  As the conversation progressed, someone might admit a willingness to engage in whatever twisted behavior under consideration.

It was all a silly diversion designed to kill time on empty stretches of interstate with open conversation and jokes.  We didn’t take it very seriously, though we sometimes learned a bit about one another.  Sometimes those lessons made folks a little less attractive.

Going Pro

I hadn’t thought about Three Bags of Gold for nearly twenty years.  Yesterday, I realized that I was playing the game professionally now.

The email included a job offer.  The client needed a variety of materials to assist in the marketing of Product X.  He was willing to pay a fair rate.

The problem?  I don’t like Product X.  I don’t particularly like it in principle and I certainly don’t like it in practice.  Product X isn’t dangerous and it isn’t obviously immoral.  I just happen to believe that the world would be marginally better off if it and its competitors didn’t exist.

“Would you write copy for Product X for three bags of gold?”

I said it aloud as I considered the offer.

Then, I found myself thinking about the size of the bags and just how much that gold was worth to me right now.

Would I compromise my personal integrity for a check?  Would the number of zeroes on the check influence my thinking?  How should I weigh the value of that gold to my cash-strapped family against contributing to the potential success of something I dislike and wish would disappear?  Would I be able to create compelling words in favor of Product X, considering my disposition toward it?

When you’re in your early twenties cruising down an empty highway late at night, Three Bags of Gold is all theoretical.  No one has a knife and a portable barbecue grill waiting for your left pinky.  No one has three bags of gold.

Now, the gold is real.  It pays for electricity, cars, daycare, shoes for the kids, food for the fridge and laundry soap.  The gold even makes payments on the student loans that financed Three Bags of Gold in the old days.

And the decisions are real.  We all face them.  We all make them.


“Would you write an anti-Semitic screed for three bags of gold?”
“Would you write copy for a crappy product for three bags of gold?”
“Would you write a political essay contrary to your personal beliefs for three bags of gold?”

Would your current bank account balance guide your decision?  Would necessity force compromise?  Would greed flex your morality?

These questions matter.

I believe that we are responsible for our words.  Even if the contractual terms of a ghostwriting project relieve us of legal liability for our efforts, we are creating something that has the potential for impact and we carry with us some level of responsibility for any outcomes it generates.  We’re also responsible to our clients.  And to our readers.  And to ourselves.  And to the profession.  I tend to believe that writers have a somewhat elevated responsibilities to use their gifts for the betterment of the world.  Maybe that sounds hokey to you, but I believe it.

That’s a heap of responsibilities and they don’t always match up nicely.  When they compete and cause dissonance, either we walk away or we compromise in some way.  Compromise is all but inevitable in so many cases.

Sometimes, we just say, “screw it”.  We take the three bags of gold.

Are Your Hands Clean?

My hands aren’t clean.  I’ve written half-assed pieces of web content in order score a quick buck even though I don’t embrace the idea of filling the world with half-assed web content.  I’ve written sales copy for things that probably didn’t impress too many buyers, if you know what I mean.  I’ve made furniture sales seem like the second coming of Christ.

I can rationalize those transgressions.  We needed the money.  I’m not responsible for what people do, I’m just imparting information.  If I didn’t do it, someone else would.  Who am I to decide what’s valuable and what’s useless or to draw lines separating good from bad?  This is how the world works.  No one can advance through life in a market-based economy without compromise.  Etc.

In the end, those rationalizations don’t really mitigate my irresponsibility.

I’ve chopped off my finger.  I’ve betrayed my friend.  I’ve pulled the plug.  I took the gold and ran.

I bet you’ve done it, too.  Maybe you’ve stayed pure in ways that I haven’t, but you’ve compromised your responsibilities.  You’ve done something short of your best work.  You’ve pandered to an audience, to a client, or to your own writing vanity.  You’ve made your deals with devils, even if your devils are incredibly cute and small.

If you haven’t, I bet you will.  Someday.

You’ll get that call about a project you don’t really love.  It will come shortly after the water heater goes bad or on the heels of a medical bill.  It will come a week before your daughter’s sixteenth birthday or right when your son’s tuition payment is due.  The three bags of gold will be large enough to break a mule’s back and you’ll find yourself accepting the offer.

You’ll hold your breath while you peddle the snake oil or while you make the not-so-bright subject of a press release into an eminent expert in her field.  You’ll crank through an article at Mach III, knowing that you’re not providing readers with enough meat for their information sandwich or you’ll realize that the client for whom you’re working doesn’t have the world’s best interests at heart.

Rationalization, Blissful Ignorance or Discomfort?  Choose.

Three Bags of Gold isn’t funny when it’s real.  The easiest way to handle the game is to pretend as if you’re not playing.  Don’t think too hard.  Keep yourself on the right side of the “morally reprehensible” line and don’t sweat the stuff that isn’t really obnoxious.  Just keep on truckin’ and try to make up for the sell-outs with acts of kindness, confession and penance.  Whatever gets you through the night, right?

The alternative is scary.

And that’s where I am right now.  I’m tired of playing and I’m looking for a way out that can serve all of my responsibilities and that can be consistent with my worldview without all of that uncomfortable compromise.  When I take the three bags of gold, I want to do it with plenty of pride and without even the slightest shred of regret.

This is all proof that ignorance is bliss, of course.  Life is easier when you don’t realize the back stories of those with whom you’re working or the repercussions of your actions.  Three Bags of Gold is an easy game when you don’t have a conscience, but it’s almost as easy if you’ve found a way to keep your head in the sand.

Writers, however, tend to be aware.  We see through things.  We dig, research and think.  That’s what allows us to do remarkable things.  Ignorance isn’t an option.

We play Three Bags of Gold and eventually we realize it.

Wanna Play?

Let’s play a round right here, right now.

What would you do for three bags of gold?
What would you refuse to do for three bags of gold?

And let’s create a little opportunity to come clean, while we’re at it.

What compromises have you made?  What responsibilities have you ducked?  How did you justify it at the time and how do you feel about it now?

I’d love to see some answers.



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9 responses
  1. Heidi LaFleche Avatar

    Thought-provoking piece, Carson! I’ve drawn the line at writing about tobacco products, hunting and meat (I’m vegetarian and an animal rights supporter) — and my editors haven’t minded. Not every assignment is perfectly in line with our “life goals” and loftiest of values (need that gold to keep the lights and computers turned on 🙂 but agree, we need to draw a line someplace. And every job needs to be handled with respect and care. Otherwise, don’t take it. That’s why writers have heart (and soul). Thanks for writing this! Hope to see more comments of where other writers have “drawn the line” (and not gone hungry for it :-}.

  2. Kris Decker Avatar

    I smashed head on into this very dilemma just this morning. Times are hard and conversions are frustratingly slow these days. Yet when I was faced with not one, but two lucrative opportunities to write for political groups who, in my humble opinion, are agents of the Lucifer himself, I just couldn’t do it. This is not to say I haven’t compromised my lofty standards in the past. I have. But there are some industries, groups and products for whom I could not live with myself if I added one penny to their coffers.

    Thank you for writing this. It affirms my belief that we all face this dilemma at one time or another. Fortunately, I don’t believe we are doomed to be labeled philistines simply because necessity sometimes drives us to fail our own self-imposed standards.

  3. LIsa Avatar

    Maybe I’ve stumbled on the solution to this problem by sheer luck… because all my professional life I’ve written either for non-profits (hospitals, museums, universities), for educational institutions or publishers (Scholastic, National Geographic), or for government agencies with an educational mission (National Science Foundation, etc.). Overall, these folks are focused on positive outcomes – and they generally pay pretty darned well. So over the past few years I’ve done some pretty great things for the world while making my nickel:

    Middle school curricula for Engineers Without Borders, who provide solutions in the third world for problems like boring a well for drinking water, etc.

    Magazines for kids about cold water conservation and habitat management for a group called “Trout Unlimited”

    Exhibit labels for a nature center that explain the importance of habitat preservation and biological diversity

    Multimedia presentations for Goddard Space Flight Center about the significance of earth-observation satellites that allow researchers to understand the impact of El Nino, wildfires, etc.

    I sometimes feel like the motto on the SunMaid Raisin box: “Good and Good for You!”


  4. Anita Avatar

    Loved this piece, Carson.

    I’ve been fortunate enough to escape any real conflict of personal ethics, however I’ve been at this “writing game” for less than two years, so odds are in my favor this will become an issue at some point.

    Your post brought to mind the story of Peter, when he betrayed Christ and felt the sting of his own betrayal. His conscience tore at him and he wept. I hope that when the time comes and I’m faced with my own “bags of gold” that I will make the right choice; no matter what. But even if I fail, it’s just part of being human.

  5. Jeremy Powers Avatar

    I kept waiting to see if the gang would confess to crossing lines they regretted, but it appears I am the only one. I have written copy for products I knew were made in miserable conditions in foreign lands. I have written copy I knew would be emotionally wrenching for the audience to hear, just so I could generate guilty donations to non-profits. I have learned too much about human emotion and how to manipulate it to believe I am innocent of not unfairly leading the masses from time to time.

    Market positioning and messaging are profitable and I am good at them. I have some regrets, but I am proud of running an honorable business in a sea of consultants and agencies that are unscrupulous bastards. My copy is honest, my clients are happy, and their consumers get what they pay for.

  6. Debra Stang Avatar

    Wow, I found myself struggling with this very issue a couple of weeks ago. I blogged about it, too, but not nearly as well as you did. In the end, my editor and I compromised. I wrote an article I could live with and got 1 1/2 bags of gold, or something like that, anyway.

  7. Wendy Strain Avatar

    Thank you so much for posting this. So many times I feel all alone in this. My biggest transgressions of my writing ethics were made when I had children to feed and real needs. I even wrote something promoting tobacco once and felt so guilty about it afterward that I haven’t accepted any orders about that since. More than anything, I want to earn a living wage without needing to make ethical compromises. Thinking I should follow Lisa’s approach and only seek work with groups I can support.

  8. Stella Avatar

    Thank you for writing this. It affirms my belief that we all face this dilemma at one time or another. Fortunately, I don’t believe we are doomed to be labeled philistines simply because necessity sometimes drives us to fail our own self-imposed standards.

  9. Philippa Willitts Avatar

    Before I started freelancing full time, I made a list of things I would definitely not write about, companies and publications I definitely wouldn’t write for, and so on, but in fact the few pieces I have turned down on ethical grounds were totally unexpected topics that I had never even considered.

    I have done some work that felt icky and that I regretted though – I guess we learn all the time.

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