Ethical Dilemmas or Why It’s Hard to Be Good

Morning Musings is a daily series comprised of brief but meaningful words to consider and reflect on.

These short but substantial tidbits of inspiration provide actionable ideas for improving yourself. Learn more here and explore more posts here.

This particular musing is longer than intended because I’ve been mulling on this subject for months and only this morning was able to shape my thoughts more clearly. Still, given the nature of the topic (and my ever-evolving opinion on the matter)  I thought it was best to classify it as a musing vs. one of my normal editorials.

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We value the good and shun the bad. We appreciate the ups but despise the downs. Everyone wants to be high, no one wants to be low. Black is soiled and white is pure. They are evil but we our righteous. We hate losers but adore winners. 

What we fail to realize is that life is made up of these contrary forces. We see them as conflicting when they are actually complementary. 

We're so quick to sort things into "right” or “wrong" that we miss a profound point that's evident in nature: the interdependency (and necessity) of the forces that cause tension in our lives.

Our moral codes can blind us to this reality if we aren't careful. We create stories to make sense of what eludes us but it's important to be cognizant of the fact that we categorize life simply because we don't understand how or why:

Being and non-being create each other,
Difficult and easy complete each other,
Long and short contrast each other,
High and low lean on each other,
Tone and voice harmonize each other,
Before and after follow each other.
— Tao Te Ching

I found this excerpt from Tao Te Ching (which can be translated as "The Book of the Way of Virtue" via Project Gutenberg.

It gets at the essence of the Chinese philosophy of yin and yang — the notion that there are dual positive-negative forces that exist in nature. For example, without light there would be no shadow, and so on.

This is the reason we experience ethical dilemmas. We see the world as black or white when it’s really gray. I created a quick guide to dig into this tension a bit more, and offer some preliminary thoughts on how we could better resolve them. 

Contents 

Why Being Good is Hard 

  • Wrong and Right is Subjective
  • People Play by Their Own Rules
  • Morality is Only a Human Construct

A Framework For Ethical Tradeoffs 

  • Do What You Want But Do No Harm
  • Assess the Consequences of Your Actions
  • Seek to Alleviate Negative Outcomes

Why Being Good is Hard 

There are no saints. We are all sinners. Here's why we should embrace this uncomfortable truth.

Wrong and Right is Subjective

Buddhism, Humanism, Capitalism. These are just three examples of ideologies that form the basis of “good or bad” for billions of people around the world. 

The conundrum is that these ideals — and other spiritual and philosophical  beliefs — are inherently subjective and quite often conflict with each other. 

Aside from attempting to fill the void of not knowing why we’re here, these big belief systems have served an important purpose in our evolution: coordination.

As our numbers increase and we become even more intelligent as a species, we’ve had to rally around ideologies (either voluntarily or by force) to eliminate chaos. 

Without them humans wouldn’t be as collaborative and there would be a lot of fear and uncertainty. I imagine this was what our ancestors experienced living in the wild where rules of conduct are more subtle and it seems like anything goes. 

On the other hand, even in the midst of that chaos our ancestors didn’t have the pressures of modern living. They had the stress of hunting and gathering for a living and periodically getting into tribal conflicts or skirmishes with other animals. But they could never fathom millions of people being gassed with chemical weaponry because of cultural differences, for instance. 

Understanding this doesn’t solve the dilemma but makes us more empathetic, open-minded, and prudent in decision-making and problem-solving. 

People Play by Their Own Rules  

Even with commonly accepted societal standards of ethics, not everyone can or will play by those rules. 

On a micro level, an individual’s personal needs and desires may conflict with another's or even the prevailing code of conduct of her time. A particularly bold (or desperate) person will harm someone else or violate social norms if they believe it necessary for them to survive and thrive. 

We see the more scandalous examples of this play out in the media (such as U.S. politicians secretly colluding with the Russian government and respected public figures being exposed as sexual predators). 

In fact, Niccolo Machiavelli's most popular idea (which can be summarized as good guys don’t win) is typically regarded as ruthless and amoral, yet it seems to be the playbook for many a leader. 

On a macro level, as we become more intelligent we invent new theories to make sense of our discoveries about the nature of our existence. Over time, some theories evolve into social standards. 

But history has taught us that changing from one ideal to another is far from easy. From the dominance of Christianity to the French Revolution that crushed the idea that royal monarchs were untouchable agents of God, transitioning is quite the messy process. 

Nevertheless, rules are made and then broken. The version of the truth that we live by today is just that ... a version. Tomorrow it will be rewritten. 

Morality is a Only a Human Construct

Nature has a powerful law that outright conflicts with the human-made concept of ethics: survival of the fittest. It rewards choices that ultimately advance the species not necessarily the individual (no matter how harsh we perceive this truth). 

A wild animal may instinctively neglect its offspring because the odds of survival is low and tending to the one child burdens or endangers the entire family. No judgment befalls that animal for its decision. 

However, if a human mother does that she is given all sorts of labels (clinical insanity, post-partum depression, etc.)  and, depending on how she chooses to neglect the child, could be imprisoned. 

This is why we argue whether abortion is acceptable or not. Someone who can’t see past their faith in a particular ideology can’t expand their mindset to consider why keeping or disposing of a fetus (no matter its state of development) is a viable choice. 

But we also shouldn’t rush to judge the staunch believer because their blind faith has an unintended benefit. If everyone mated mindlessly, using abortion as an excuse, it could unlock a host of societal issues we may not be equipped to remedy.  

To sum it all up, being good is hard because we have no clue what good is.

A Framework for Ethical Tradeoffs

Being good may be an impossible pursuit, but it doesn’t give us free rein to live unscrupulously.

Do What You Want To Do But Do No Harm

An enlightened soul still must conform to the spirit of her time (unless she’s willing to risk life and limb to push her agenda). 

I’m not, so I've been using a simple model to operate under some sense of moral guidance without completely stifling my personal freedom: 

Do what you want to do so long as you do no harm. 

Though this statement of altruism is not a law of reciprocity, it is similar in essence to the Golden Rule. 

It helps take some of the complexity out of issues of ethics by granting freedom to live by our own rules, so long as they don’t impede on anyone else. And in most cases (at least for me), it acts as a quick and sufficient mental check against amoral behavior.

Assess the Consequences of Your Actions

Of course, it’s inevitable that life will present us with conflicts that aren't as easy to interpret and resolve. We often have to sacrifice our moral code to make practical decisions (for instance, if our livelihood is threatened).

In those cases it’s imperative that we thoroughly assess the consequences of our actions by considering a wide spectrum of potential outcomes then estimating their probability of occurrence. 

Let’s borrow the economic theory of opportunity cost and tweak it to apply to ethical situations: there’s a cost for every choice we make.

Decision-making shouldn’t be paralyzed by this, but having too limited a purview could lead to misguided evaluations about the tradeoffs required in certain situations. 

Seek to Alleviate Negative Outcomes 

With an understanding of possible outcomes, we can focus on avoiding or lessening any potential negative impact (particularly anything with a high probability of occurrence). 

Good and bad may be subjective and circumstantial constructs, but consequences are sure things. The best way to navigate moral dilemmas is by recognizing that our actions have effects. 

When we’re mindful of the possible outcomes of our decisions we’re in a much better position to circumvent or mitigate damage to ourselves and others. 

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