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Choosing the Right Thing to DoIn Life, at Work, in Relationships, and for the Planet
By David A. Shapiro
Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.Copyright © 1999 David A. Shapiro
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe Color of Moral
What Makes Right Acts Right?
What Makes Good Things Good and Bad Things Bad?
Do you cheat on your taxes? On your spouse? Do you steal money from your friends? Do you regularly make solemn promises to your kids that you have no intention of keeping?
Probably not. But why not? Is it simply that you're afraid of getting caught? Or is there something more? Don't you also have a feeling that cheating, stealing, and lying are wrong?
Probably so. But why? What is it about cheating, stealing, and lying that makes them wrong? For that matter, what is it about fairness, generosity, and honesty that makes them right? How come there's such a difference between the things we feel we should do and the things we feel we shouldn't?
It's a question I've wondered about for a long, long time:
What, in other words, makes the good things good and the bad things bad?
It's 1970, and I'm in seventh grade at Fulton Elementary School in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Monday afternoons, our class rides the bus across town to manual-arts magnet classes. It is a noble experiment on the part of our local educational administrators for a couple of reasons. First, because it brings together kids from our relatively well-to-do neighborhood with students from neighborhoods that aren't so economically advantaged. And second, because it is the first time that all students, boys and girls alike, take the full range of manual-arts offerings. This means that on any given Monday, I'm just as likely to be burning bran muffins in home economics class as my friend, Debbie Fiedler, is to be bending nails in wood shop.
For our part, though, it's a drag on any number of counts. First, because it means that the bigger and tougher kids from the other schools get to spend their Monday afternoons torturing us from the moment we pick them up after lunch to the second our shared bus drops them off after school. And second, because the bus ride adds at least an hour to our school day, which means that not only is the usual agony worse than normal, it's longer, too.
So, often we conspire to alleviate the pain by treating ourselves to something special when we get back home: maybe a movie, or a Pirates game if it's baseball season, or just a session of pinball at the local deli—anything to adjust our prepubescent attitudes in light of the traumatic experience we've just been through. (The following year, we realize we can achieve the same effect by skipping manualarts class altogether, but at this point, in seventh grade, we aren't so creative.)
On this particular Monday, my three best friends—Paul, Michael, Willie—and I have arranged to go to see a Charlie Chaplin revival that is playing a couple miles from where we all live. Michael's mom has agreed to leave work early and drive us, but only on the condition that we promise to show up promptly. The movie is at 4:15, so, since the bus usually drops us off at 4:00, we are cutting it pretty close. But with the optimism about schedules that tends to afflict preteenagers, we're confident we can make it.
The day is memorable in part because I have been making a shirt in sewing class and, since I don't believe that the pattern we are working from could possibly be right, have ended up cutting off the material for both sleeves and the collar yoke, effectively turning the shirt into a fringed vest, complete with fraying armholes and raveling bottom seams. Still, I'm excited to show off my creation and proudly sport it over my polo shirt on the bus ride home. This causes William Goosby, one of my usual Monday afternoon tormentors, to amp up his customary level of tormenting, augmenting the standard body-pokes with loud aspersions about my sexual orientation and, even worse, comparisons between my outfit and one he's seen David Cassidy wearing on "The Partridge Family Show." Understandably, I am even more eager than usual to get home and off the bus as quickly as possible.
So, when we're pulling up to school and the bus driver eases slowly over to the curb, I can hardly stand it. When he takes his time turning off the bus, I'm about to burst. And when he fails to immediately open the door to let us exit, I can't take it any more.
I suggest to my friends that we leave by the windows. Willie is hesitant, but I argue that if we move quickly, the bus driver won't even know we've left, so what difference does it make? We'll be happier and no one else will suffer at all. Michael is skeptical, so I tell him to think about his mom; we've promised her we'll be on time and we're already late. Don't we owe her doing whatever it takes to get there as fast as possible? Paul is unsure but I claim that since we aren't the kind of kids who do bad things and get in trouble, what is the problem? As long as it's us, and not say, William Goosby climbing out, how can it be wrong?
As we're lowering the windows, Amy Schubert tells us to stop; we're supposed to leave by the front door; that's what the rules say. I say she ought to trust her feelings more; it doesn't feel wrong, so how could there possibly be anything wrong with what we're doing?
By this time, my three friends are already sliding down the outside of the bus and sprinting away. I give up trying to persuade Amy to see things my way and squeeze my head through the metal-framed panes.
As I begin lowering myself to the ground outside, I feel a strong pair of hands grasp me about the waist and pull me violently to the ground.
"What the hell do you think you're doing!"
The bus driver digs his fingers into my shoulders and immobilizes me against the bus. "Are you trying to get me fired? Or just break your neck? We're going to see the principal about this!"
As he marches me forcibly to the office of our principal, Dr. Marshall, I sputter something about the unfairness of being singled out for punishment. "If a hundred people murdered somebody, would it be fair to punish just one of them?"
The bus driver tells me to shut up and not to worry about anyone else but myself. He knows there are plenty of others and they'll get what's coming to them, too.
In Dr. Marshall's office, she gives me the ultimatum: either I tell them who the other kids who jumped off the bus are, or our entire class will be punished.
"How is that fair?" I want to know. "And besides, what did we do that was so wrong, anyhow? Nobody got hurt and if the bus driver hadn't made such a big deal out of it, the whole thing would be done with by now."
Dr. Marshall says that she isn't here to debate with me. We have broken the rules and are to be punished, end of story.
But what rules? Where did it say you aren't allowed to leave a school bus through the windows? Nobody ever told us. The rules aren't written down.
Dr. Marshall's patience with me is already pushed beyond its breaking point. "It doesn't matter that no one ever told you. Nor that the rules are not in writing. Nor what you think about any of this. The simple fact is—and all that matters is—what you and your friends did was wrong. And that's why you're going to be punished. Because it was wrong."
"But," I cry, tears springing to my eyes as the reality of how much trouble I am in finally begins sinking in, "How do you know it's wrong? How do you know?"
Ultimately, Dr. Marshall was right: it didn't matter what I thought, or even what I did. Despite the fact that I didn't confess their involvement, Paul, Michael, and Willie got in trouble anyway. As close as we were, it was obvious to our teachers who else had to be involved if I was. But of course, this wasn't obvious to my friends, who were certain that I had squealed and shunned me for weeks—until I was the first one among us to manage to buy some beer, but that's another story. Plus, our whole class got in trouble merely by association with us and were all mad at me for weeks, too. But in spite of all that, I was still never convinced we did anything wrong.
More important, I still never got an answer to the question I asked Dr. Marshall: "How do you know it's wrong? How do you know?"
How do you know what's wrong?
The history of philosophy is littered with attempts to answer that question. In a dialogue called the Euthyphro, the ancient Greek philosopher Plato explored the idea that something is right or wrong depending on whether it is loved by the gods or not. This gave rise to the famous question, "Is it right because it's loved by the gods, or is it loved by the gods because it's right?" Plato leaves the answer open to interpretation, and in the absence of a definitive explanation, we are left still wondering.
Aristotle, Plato's pupil, argued that right actions are those done by the right people in the right way at the right time for the right reasons. While this does a pretty good job of indicating which actions are right and which aren't, it still doesn't tell us why they are.
In the 18th century, Immanuel Kant, one of Western philosophy's most important ethical theorists, claimed that rightness and wrongness are inextricably bound up in duty. By a process of reasoning alone, said Kant, we can determine what our moral duties are. Objections to this view typically revolve around questions of how something that's connected only to our thoughts and not to our emotions can possibly give us any motivation to act. The conclusions of reason are not desires, so even if we conclude that something is the right thing to do, how will this impel us to do it?
The 19th century saw the development of a theory that most of us probably take for granted as a way of choosing the right thing to do: utilitarianism. John Stuart Mill, expounding upon the views of Jeremy Bentham, proposed that actions are right insofar as they tend to promote overall happiness. As common-sensical as this sounds, it nevertheless leads to difficulties in calculating happiness, as well as to problematic situations that seem to permit individual suffering in the name of societal well-being.
Nowadays, philosophers, theologians, educators, businesspeople, and politicians continue this long-running project to provide a criterion for moral rightness. Any number of proposals are floated. What's right are the principles that rational beings would choose to govern themselves by, assuming they had no knowledge of who they were in the society in which they live. What's right is what God commands us to do. What's right is what feels right. What's right is what maximizes quality and profit without compromising our goal of being a responsible corporate citizen. What's right is anything that's not specifically prohibited by law.
The point of all this is not to give an abbreviated (and overly simplified) history of philosophy; rather, it is to illustrate how varied are the perspectives we bring to moral reasoning. And it's to suggest that often our moral dilemmas are not so much a disagreement about what is right or wrong but about what makes something right or wrong.
Consider the story that opened this chapter. Note the variety of perspectives on the rightness of what we were planning to do. Willie was moved by a broadly utilitarian appeal. Michael responded to what might be construed as a somewhat Kantian justification. Paul is sympathetic to a perspective that was vaguely Aristotelian. Looking back, I can take my retort to Amy as reflective of a position like that of the philosopher David Hume, which takes moral properties to be expressions of our sentiments. The bus driver was coming from a theory that based right and wrong in a sort of social contract, while Dr. Marshall seemed to be arguing from a moral theory based on authoritarian grounds.
None of this is to suggest that there isn't a way to settle the issue of whether what we did was right or wrong—in fact, I think you'd be hard-pressed to make a case that allowing 13-year-old boys to leap from the windows of school buses is in any way acceptable—rather, it is meant to illustrate that, often, what we take to be a disagreement over the rightness or wrongness of a given action isn't that at all. Instead, it's a difference in the criteria on which we're basing our judgment.
It's similar to one person saying a restaurant is lousy because the portions are small while another says it's excellent because the service is fast. They might argue about the quality of the place for hours, never realizing that at the core of their argument is a misunderstanding about what they're even arguing about. And never realizing that, as a matter of fact, they're both in serious agreement about the lousy small portions and the excellent fast service.
Of course, there are big differences between assessments of restaurant quality and judgments of morality. Not the least is that the former are merely matters of taste, while the latter are matters that go beyond mere preference. While there's no "best" favorite dining establishment, few of us want to maintain that there are no better and worse moral values to hold. And even the die-hard relativist is apt to argue for the values (tolerance, for one) that he or she holds most dear—which only goes to show that as far as our experience is concerned, we do treat moral values as something about which people can be mistaken and of which their judgments—through education and persuasion—can be improved.
Relatively Speaking, It's Not All Relative
All of us, at one time or another—and many of us, at many times or another—have made what we obviously recognize as the wrong move. You know, the wrong move: deciding to start tearing up the old linoleum on your kitchen floor at 5:30 in the afternoon on a Sunday. Or figuring you can save a few dollars by cutting your own hair the night before that big presentation for your boss. Or drinking a few beers and coming up with the idea of playing catch with bricks. The wrong move. A recipe for disaster. A supposedly fun thing you'll never do again.
In matters practical, financial, or work-related, we tend to easily identify one choice as better than another. The decision to take that "short-cut" on the way to the airport was a bad one. The choice not to invest in your brother-in-law's multilevel marketing scheme was good.
And yet, oddly, we tend not to be so forthright when it comes to matters of greater import: matters of moral concern. While we have no problem admitting we made even a relatively major bad financial decision—"I did a bad thing by investing heavily in last month's hot new Internet-based communications protocol," for instance—we're reticent to cop to even somewhat minor moral mistakes: "No, it wasn't wrong to insult the hotel clerk for losing my reservation; handling irate customers is part of her job and she just has to deal with it."
This isn't to say that we don't pass moral judgments on ourselves and others; five minutes listening to talk radio demonstrates beyond a shadow of a doubt that we do. Rather, the point is we're far less convinced about the reality of our moral judgments than we are of our other judgments—and given the important role that the former play in our lives, this seems strange.
Many of us, at one time or another, have been sympathetic to a moral position commonly known as "ethical relativism." Essentially, this amounts to the belief that moral judgments reflect nothing more than the opinion of the person making them. To say, for example, "slavery is wrong" means only that "I think slavery is wrong." And just because I think it is doesn't really mean it is. You might say, "slavery is just fine," and that's an equally valid position. Even though our views differ, they're both true; yours is just true for you, mine is true for me.
When we're asked to justify this position, we typically respond by saying something like, "Well, who are we to judge someone else? What gives us the right to say that they are doing something wrong when we're not in their shoes?"
But why do we think we don't have this right? After all, we'd have few qualms about telling someone he was wrong if he added up 2 plus 2 and got 5. Why should matters of morality be so different? Typically, we respond by saying, "Well, I just don't think I ought to impose my beliefs on someone else. I wouldn't want them imposing theirs on me." This, I think, reveals the heart of the matter:
It's not passing judgment we're concerned about, it's tolerance.
In our reticence to say that someone else is mistaken in their moral beliefs, we are quite rightly advocating tolerance of others' views. When we say "Just because I think slavery is wrong doesn't mean it is," we're implying that, in spite of the wrongness of slavery, it would be equally wrong—or worse, even—to forcibly require another culture to end its slave-holding practices. And while there might be room for debate about this (depending on how abhorrent those practices were), it's easy enough to see that this is a different judgment than the one about slavery.
When we recognize this distinction, many of us come to see that we are not nearly as relativistic in our moral beliefs as we thought we were. We recognize that having respect for other people's autonomy does not require us to admit that "anything goes." We conclude that being tolerant doesn't mean we have to be moral relativists. We can, in other words, judge someone's moral position to be wrong while simultaneously judging that it would be wrong to punch that person in nose for his beliefs.
With this realization, we recognize an inherent problem of relativism: it contradicts itself. Suppose, as relativists, we hold that any moral view is as good as any other. Now suppose that someone else holds a view that says only his moral view is right; everyone else's is wrong. As relativists, we can't simultaneously accept this view along with our own. We are committed to the claim that everyone's view is as good any everyone else's. Even relativists, in other words, are not relativistic about one thing—the value of relativism.
Excerpted from Choosing the Right Thing to Do by David A. Shapiro Copyright © 1999 by David A. Shapiro. Excerpted by permission of Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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