As of this writing, what must be the most significant, most horrific, most appalling case of child molestation and cover-up by the Catholic Church just hit the papers. Grand jurors in Pennsylvania found that over seven decades 300 priests molested over 1,000 children. This is just beyond the pale. This is not a blog about the ineptitude or depravity of the Church of Rome, though, this is about making moral decisions, dealing with moral dilemmas, and acting morally when one faces a choice of two or more alternatives in the moral realm. In a word, What is the right thing to do?
Just to clarify, the syntax of my keyword phrase acting morally is a tad confusing. Put more pedantically, it means “behaving in a moral fashion” or “choosing to do things that are morally right.” In common usage, the word acting has a somewhat negative connotation, but in ethics, it’s the main decision-point; what do you choose?
“The examined life is a life devoted to the search for wisdom. Uncontroversially, wisdom – whatever it turns out to be – must be a kind of knowledge governing what we believe and what is the right thing to do. It must guide us in determining what is true and in coming to right action.” ~ Andrew James Taggart
I think there are three kinds of issues when it comes to moral decision-making and determining right from wrong. The first is Obvious “No-Brainers”. For example, the case of a) abusing children and then b) covering it up. File this one under Totally, Absolutely, Incontestably Wrong. End of story. Bad people doing bad things. Your basic sociopathic stuff. Think Bernie Madoff.
The above category of dilemmas and decisions is a slam-dunk for anyone raised within a certain range of propriety and normalcy. Unless one has a traumatic or prenatal brain injury or defect, one is going to know that wanton selfishness and other-harming behavior such as molestation is wrong. I have worked with some families in which there was ongoing child sexual abuse, and though those are a shade grayer than stranger molestation and true predatory behavior, it is still known by the perpetrator that their actions qualify as wrong.
“The conscientious moral agent is someone who is concerned impartially with the interests of everyone affected by what he or she does; who carefully sifts facts and examines their implications; who accepts principles of conduct only after scrutinizing them to make sure they are sound; who is willing to ‘listen to reason’ even when it means that earlier convictions may have to be revised; and who, finally, is willing to act on the results of this deliberation.”
Acting morally is a bit more challenging in the second/middle category of right and wrong, what I might call Questionable Situations. These are solvable but require a bit of rationality, self-discipline, and reflection. One needs to access one’s intuition and feelings, but keep in mind that feelings can be selfish, vengeful, and jealous as easily as they can magnanimous, righteous, and prosocial.
How does one decide when it comes to moral questions? How do you know what the right thing to do is? Philosophy professor James Rachels offers a pretty succint piece of advice: “Philosophy, like morality itself, is first and last an exercise in reason – the ideas that should come out on top are the ones that have the best reasons on their sides.”
Do you know how you make moral decisions? Have you considered which moral theories you favor and which you don’t? Try this free and penetrating inventory I call THE ETHICAL DECISION-MAKING GUIDE and you may be surprised or relieved to find out where you stand!
The key in this second category of ethical reasoning is really impartiality. Distinguished philosopher John Rawls writes this about it: “…having a morality must at least imply the acknowledgement of principles as impartially applying to one’s own conduct as well as to another’s, and moreover, principles which may constitute a constraint or limitation upon the pursuit of one’s own interests.”
What Rawls is saying in his usual, fairly inelegant way, is that one must choose right from wrong by obviating one’s own self-interests. You can’t let your emotions decide for you; you have to use your prefrontal cortex (the most rational part of the brain, more or less) to say, “I’m not trying to decide what is best for me, I am trying to decide what the right thing to do is.”
Take a step back, keep an eye on your own selfish interests, and just think about what’s right. Maybe ask yourself what you would want to be done to you if someone else were acting morally in this case instead of you.
Moral philosopher Judith A. Boss wrote that “moral maturity entails making our own well-reasoned moral decisions rather than simply following the dictates of the crowd or going with our selfish desires.”
The problem with moral decision making is not when the big issues are on the line, but rather during the countless, little decisions we are continually faced with. The majority of people can make the “right” decision if someone turns on the spotlight and says, “What are you going to do?” The real question is, what has one been doing from day to day with no one watching?
Here is an interesting point to consider. Philosopher Judith Barad, author of a book I quite liked, The Ethics of Star Trek, brings this up:
“Moral principles, like the artist’s palette, may provide the form of our final decision, but never the specific content.”
When it comes to acting morally, no one can give you a list of “What to Do in Any Given Situation.” Happily, or frustratingly to some, moral decision-making is more complicated than following a rule book. Yes, I mean that. Read what a noted ethicist says about this aspect of how we decide right from wrong:
“Most people have convictions about what is right and wrong based on religious beliefs, cultural roots, family background, personal experiences, laws, organizational values, professional norms and political habits. These are not the best values to make ethical decisions by – not because they are unimportant, but because they are not universal“
Universalization is a Kantian idea referring to the process of taking one’s decision and making it ubiquitous. In other words, if you were to lie, because your particular religion said it was permissible, you would be consenting to the fact that everyone else in the community and the world could lie without shame. If everyone were lying to each other, society would get even weirder and worse than it currently is.
I took a bit of a tangent there, but I’m trying to describe Barad’s point that one cannot be assured of acting morally by simply doing what one’s parents, pastor, or friends say is right. Even if they wholeheartedly believe it. Ethics is not the domain of passionate feeling and bullet-proof self-confidence; it is more about deliberation and personal-responsibility-taking.
It’s up to you, and you have to have justifiable reasons for why you do what you do. That is why the idea of imagining your decision being broadcast on the evening news, or asking “What Would Jesus Do?” is an interesting tool; it publicizes and objectifies moral decision-making. Almost always, when a moral misfit such as a psychopath decides, they decide a) in private b) capriciously and c) selfishly. They subject their ideas and designs to no scrutiny and ask for no feedback and always, always do what benefits them. This is not moral, it is self-serving.
As always, I could only try to Do the Right Thing, the criterion I tried to apply to every knotty decision, and I have yet to find any problem that wouldn’t eventually yield to that process (although it might require a lot of thought).
Incidentally, in the above quote, one of my favorite individuals (the drummer/lyricist from the rock group Rush) is taking a page out of the virtue ethics playbook. It’s a good moral theory. You can hardly go wrong trying to be a person of character and integrity.
Another worthy approach is care ethics.
Wisdom is the real stuff when it comes to acting morally. Wisdom is complex but where the rubber meets the road it refers to efficiency in decision-making (at least in reference to acting morally). The wiser one is, the more skilled and capable one will be deciding right from wrong when its a very ambiguous, “gray” matter about which one is pretty ambivalent.
Wisdom will be an absolute necessity in the third and most demanding category of ethics, Serious Moral Dilemmas.
Here is an interesting pictorial example of what one faces out there in the real world, where acting morally isn’t a slam dunk, where there is no simple rulebook, and where the going gets rough:
So, in this way, deciding who gets what in a society or how exactly to punish a child who has broken a rule is serious business. The meme is showing that one can’t just use a “one size fits all”, “plug and play” decision-making process. In this highest, most complicated sphere of deciding right from wrong, acting morally calls for serious deliberation and consideration.
When it comes to some of those hallmark ethical issues such as abortion, euthanasia, artificial intelligence, taking another’s life, affirmative action, cheating, the stakes can be high and the issues can be murky.
In Jacques Thiroux’s way of deciding right from wrong (in Ethics: Theory & Practice, 6th Ed., p. 174) which he calls Humanitarian Ethics, there are some principles that make the process more objective and salient. He asks: Suppose a man and woman want to live together prior to marriage; is this a moral act? The principles he suggests are as follows (and I quote):
- Value of Life Principle: There doesn’t seem to be a violation of the Value of Life principle because no one’s life is threatened by [cohabitating and having sex outside of marriage].
- Principle of Goodness: It’s difficult to see any significant violation of the Principle of Goodness unless one applies some specific stand of a particular religion….
- Principle of Justice: The Principle of Justice is the only one that would affect the parents [of the couple, who are not in favor]. That is, Is the distribution of goodness fair if the parents are not made happy by this arrangement? In other words, the man and woman feel they are being fair to each other and to their parents, but … [w]hat their children are doing is offensive to them (to their taste and to their belief in the sanctity of marriage).
- Two questions arise: Is this sufficient reason for not allowing the couple to live together and to brand their actions as immoral? For how long must children conform to their parents’ lifestyle or values?
- Principle of Honesty and Truth-Telling: There seems to be no violation here because the young people are quite open about their intentions
- Principle of Individual Freedom: The question really centers upon [this]. If there is no serious violation of the other four principles, then according to this ethical system, individual freedom should be allowed.
Complicated moral issues such as, Should white individuals be asked to step aside in order for an equally-qualified or slightly-less-qualified applicant to schools and jobs? require tools that can help parse them and analyze them. At what point is it morally wrong to end a fetus’ existence in the mother’s womb? and other similar moral dilemmas have the power to keep one awake at night, break families apart, cause suicides, and make one cry. Few issues are more important than making moral decisions rightly and conscientiously, and it’s not easy. As the French say, c’est la vie…
I find a good moral philosophy textbook to be helpful. If you know a few things about acting morally, and have a written summary of the issue (the point of moral phil texts) then you can maybe gain some objectivity and clarity. Some of the subjects dealt with in these books include bioethics, business ethics, environmental ethics, interpersonal ethics, etc. For example, Appendix 4 of Thiroux’s book is entitled “Applying Humanitarian Ethics to the Moral Problems of Lying, Cheating, Breaking Promises, and Stealing” (p. 479). As well, columns such as the one Randy Cohen wrote at the New York Times (now written by Kwame Appiah), “The Ethicist”, can be of some help to those looking for guidance trying to make moral decisions at this highest level.
Of course, Values of the Wise, and I, are here to help. Read and research and reflect, and write me if you wish.