Thursday, October 22, 2009

Reflections: How Good People Make Tough Choices

The title seems so perfectly alluring to a hapless person stuck in a turbulent dilemma. Does the book hold its promise in being a comforting guide, shedding those much needed insights and lead to a point of miraculous revelation? Yes and No. That's just the nature of ethical complexities. What the book does is structuralize the process of moral analysis and reasoning based on formal paradigms, and through examples of numerous moral dilemmas, explicates the types of resolution principles that can be applied. Kidder brings a balanced and comprehensive approach to defining, analyzing and resolving dilemmas. In the end, the book is an exercise in bolstering one's ethical fitness.

Before detailing the obvious, here are some things I found interesting:
1. Children apparently go through a six-staged process in the evolution of moral judgments. Stage 1 is fear of punishments and respect for authority. Stage 2 is formed out of the sense of equal exchange and fairness ("How come my sister has two candies, while I have one?"). In Stage 3, they are dominated by stereotypical roles of "good" behavior in accordance with others' expectations (Mommy says I should get good grades). By Stage 4 they have a more generic structure formed out of rules and duties. In Stage 5, they start realizing the smudged boundary between good and bad, yet strive to act on "legal" terms. Finally in Stage 6 they move beyond rules and duties and start contemplating about bigger pictures on universal moral principles, human rights, dignity etc. I like this definition of moral progression, although I'm not sure all children graduate to stage 6... otherwise we wouldn't have adults who are stunted at Stage 2.
2. Apparently men and women have a different sense of morality; men are driven towards a more justice driven approach calling for equality, whereas women gear towards a care based approach emphasizing on empathy, compassion and mercy (and the need to minimize "hurt"). Stereotypical you think? Well, research studies don't lie ;)
3. While we all argue about the relativism of Moral philosophy and how it's almost impossible to define a code of absolute ethics, Kidder argues that there are some universal tenets by which we all abide, no matter the circumstance, or era. As a thought experiment, if you were put in a parachute (not a helium balloon), floated down to some random place/village/city in the world, grabbed an item belonging to the first person you met and tried to run with it, it will be clearly unacceptable, no matter what religion, time period or race. Every moral principle shares a common core. Often times, moral dilemmas don't arise merely out of differences in values/principles, but they are based on differences in definitions, specific to a context. We all know killing is bad... but what defines killing? When does life start and when does it end? These are ethereal questions with no definitive answers, but are based only on faith and opinions.

The term "Good" in the title might bother a few people - how can a book dealing with the tangled web of moral philosophy use such an ambiguous word in such an obviously simple manner? Who are good people? What makes them good? For one, I'm not suggesting that I'm one of those good paragons of virtues due to my reading this book. From my understanding, a "good" person in this context, refers to anybody who has a strong enough moral conscience to recognize a situation involving a clash of values, wherein the choices available to them are not easily discernible as "right" versus "wrong", as defined by their personal principles and moral conscientiousness. If a person insists on making a decision that is probably "more right", and more ethically reasoned than the other, then Kidder first asks them to ascertain the nature of values that are in conflict, by using these moral paradigms as tools for analysis:
1. Justice versus Mercy
Is your moral dilemma a tug between justice and mercy? While it is wrong to kill, euthanasia is seen as a merciful act to relieve suffering. While it is right to uphold justice by punishing the guilty, sometimes it is equally right to forgive and be merciful.
2. Short-term versus Long-term
Does the impending moral decision fit the short-term or long-term? While it is logical that long-term makes up the short-term, one needs to live through the short-term moment to be able to be a part of the long-term.
3. Individual versus Community
Does the "right versus right" dilemma involve serving an individual at the cost of a community, or vice versa? As important as it is to keep in mind the welfare of the community, it is us individuals who make up the community.
4. Truth versus Loyalty
Probably one of the most common dilemmas we face in day-to-day life. Human relationships are precious. No matter how hard the brutal light of truth glares at us, we humans incur a terrible emotional cost by jeopardizing relationships.

Having identified where our moral dilemma sits, we have isolated the issues at hand. We now know what values are at stake and in battle with each other. The next step is in resolving which value is to be chosen over the other. Kidder brings to use the commonly used ethical principles of resolution:
1. Utilitarianism, or ends-based thinking
It echoes "greatest good for greatest number". Predict your consequences, add up the losses and gains and pick the decision that yields optimal results. The only problems are - how does one add up emotions, and how does one predict all possible consequences? Not knowing whether tomorrow will even dawn, our knowledge of predicting long-term consequences is limited.
2. Kant's Categorical Imperative, or rules-based thinking
Act on universalized rules. Act such that you will be comfortable with the world adopting your decision as a universalized rule. If it's wrong to lie, say the truth at all costs, even if it means that such a truth will cause immense suffering. We all realize the rigidity of this Imperative and it's non-applicability to the myriads of unique problems that arise out of specialized circumstances.
3. Care Based Rule, or Aristotle's Golden Rule
Put yourself in the others' shoes and act as you would like them to treat you, if you were in their shoes. Empathy and compassion rule higher than mere intractable rules.

Each resolution guide is of course insufficient to be used as a blind template. Each has its limitations. But one needs to make a decision at the end of the day. The decision doesn't stem out of mere analysis - it arises out of stringent, meticulous and consistent exercising of these principles until a middle ground dawns on us, or we just reach an epiphany when it all boils down to choosing an option that helps us make peace with our conscience. Kidder likens ethical fitness to physical fitness. It takes months/years of exercise to get physically fit. When we see a child struggling in the water, it's not the time to build our muscles - we need to be fit enough to just plunge and do the right thing. Ethical fitness is something that inherently builds within you, and no matter how much you analyze, you realize that you already know what to do. It's just a matter of moral courage to bring yourself to do it. It's a process, a journey - not a goal.

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