Covid-19: Dealing with Moral Dilemmas in Everyday Life

Many of us are more secluded than usual right now. Some are living more closely with family members. Some are facing great difficulty in some personal or professional realm. For some, essential workers, care-givers, and others, life has sped up. We all, though, must look at ourselves clearly when we retire at night, able to answer the question: Have I acted rightly?

For some, it feels ever more difficult to answer this question right now.

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Rushworth M. Kidder

A mentor early in my career, Rushworth M. Kidder (whose passage I still mourn), was a renowned expert on practical ethical decision making. In his book, How Good People Make Tough Choices, Rush developed a framework for thinking about moral dilemmas: difficult questions that pit one right action against another.

It seems that all we need now to do is simple: follow the advice of the experts who know. We must isolate, practice contagion hygiene, and distance ourselves.  But even within the bounds of these current restrictions, we face questions about what we as individuals — and groups — should do.

We are all facing such dilemmas in more and more intense ways:

    • I need food: Do I shop? When? Where?
    • An encampment of homeless need supplies: Do we go to them? How?
    • A vulnerable person needs shelter: Do I take them in? Under what conditions?
    • My aging family member visits unannounced: Do I allow them in?
    • A person owes taxes to the government: Should they receive a stimulus payment?

Moral dilemmas like these are different than temptations, which is what many people commonly mean when they refer to a “dilemma.” A temptation has a clear right action on one side, and an attractive yet wrong action on the other. For instance, under current isolation conditions, in my area it would be wrong of me to hold a dinner party, much as I might like to.

But dilemmas are different: Two right actions, and I can’t do both. It might seem like there would be infinite kinds of dilemmas, but Rush noted that there are just four:

    • Truth vs. Loyalty: Do I tell the truth, or do I remain loyal?
    • Justice vs. Mercy: Do I punish, or am I merciful?
    • Individual vs. Community: Should I act for myself or family, or for the larger community?
    • Short term vs. Long term: Should I act for the immediate good, or focus on the long term?

Under our current conditions, all of these dilemmas are front-and-center. Every move I make calls for me to consider the boundaries between my own well-being and that of the broader community. As we consider what to do in order to slow the spread of the coronavirus, we face stark short-term vs. long-term questions. And as time goes on, we will need to begin to make decisions about punishment, and about truth telling.

Just knowing that there are different kinds of dilemmas is not enough, as Rush knew. He notes that there are three ways of thinking about how to answer such dilemmas. Each has a long philosophical tradition(*) and has advantages as well as drawbacks:

    • Outcome-based: Do what is the best for the greatest number. Also known as “utilitarian.” Drawbacks of this approach: Can be cruel to the minority; assumes you can know all the outcomes of your actions.
    • Rule-based: Determine the proper rule, and act as if you are setting a precedent for all who might face an identical problem in future. Also known as the “categorical imperative.” Drawbacks: Can be overly rigid; under some circumstances can result in ridiculous outcomes (eg answering truthfully when a murderer rings your bell and asks if your family is home)
    • Care-based: Do what you would want done if the situation were reversed. Also known as the “golden rule.” Drawbacks: Cannot always know who the “other” would be; may be overly biased towards leniency

These decision-making principles are not like a computer, where you enter the question and they give an answer. Sometimes different principles will suggest different courses of action. What they do is give me a lens through which to look at my dilemma, and develop a response with which I might be morally comfortable.

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* (I am simplifying the philosophy somewhat in the above, so for my theorist friends please be lenient.)

Three Problems of Modern Life

Public life is beset by three problems. Each is an extreme expression of a fundamentally human trait, exacerbated and amplified by some aspect of modernity.

  1. Anonymous Atomization. It is a normal aspect of the human condition that we struggle to really take others into account as anything more than actors in our own dramas. Our modern society has amplified this to the extent that we have, each on an individual level, lost most of our sense of connection with others. We live in separate bubbles and the more our lives become driven by free choice, the less we see other people as “real.”
  2. The Promethean Impulse. We want definitive answers and certain results, and we have built system upon system to make us more efficient. We live in a world of interlocking institutional mechanisms. The desire for assurance is natural. The myth of Prometheus is about humans’ yearning for technical power. Today’s scale has made this the only sort of knowledge. This has squeezed out our fundamental human abilities to manipulate our environment through small-group, collective behavior. When faced with a problem, our first thought is to search for an institutional or organizational response. This creates a bias toward ever more mechanistic responses.
  3. Hyper-tribal-polarization. Humans naturally form groups and identify with them. Our most fundamental evolutionary piece of learning is that survival is collective and therefore our membership in a group is our one of our chief imperatives. This group identification is a double edged sword, and can create conflict between groups where they compete for some perceived or actual power or resource. Yet if survival is collective, then problems are best solved with others. In today’s environment, first two problems above have intertwined to create a hyperpolarized world of conflict in which our group identification is so strong, and our denial of out-group people’s humanity is also so strong — that we hate, and we even proclaim it as a mark of our allegiance. We hate to the extent that we cannot solve collective problems, we cannot interact individually with members of other groups, and indeed we ostracize those in our group who dare to behave moderately.

Are these the only three problems? No. But they are ones I have been thinking about the most over my career.

The good news is that the remedy in each case is within each individual person’s control. All by myself, without needing outside help, I can try to see other people as human beings, look to my immediate companions for problem-solving, and behave in more loving ways to my so-perceived enemies in other groups.

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José Clemente Orozco, Prometheus, 1930, Fresco, Pomona College, Claremont, CA.

#Love and Institutions

2015-06-26 13.35.20-1Today is an historic day in the life of our nation. Today the Supreme Court ruled that it is unconstitutional for states to prohibit or fail to recognize marriages between partners of the same sex. I am lucky enough to have an office near the Supreme Court building, and I could not help but walk over and watch the celebrations.

Walking back to my office, I reflected on the nature of this decision. It ratifies a social move toward equality that began long ago as mores started shifting in the social upheavals of the 1960’s. (Indeed the roots stretch back much farther.)

Institutions have been catching up ever since, too slowly for almost everyone and in fits and starts. Different parts of society have benefited at unequal rates and in unequal amounts. But the general progression has been for the major institutions in our lives take note of and respond to the changes in our society.

Institutions are a special kind concept — not just some kind of organization. We establish institutions so as to provide permanence. We ask them to be slow to change, because they are meant to undergird society for the long haul.

The institution of the judiciary, the entity charged with being the memory of our collective conscience, embodies this “slow to change” concept. It operates according to a concept called stare decisis. This is Latin for “stand by things decided.” This is the meaning of precedent. Judges decide conflicts. They look for the universal rules underlying the conflicts and ask what the rule ought to be. The intent is that for future, similar conflicts, this decision is the binding rule by which they should be decided. This “common law” is equally binding as other forms of laws or regulations.

But today’s decision is more sweeping than a law, or a regulation, or a vote, all of which can be undone. The operating system of the judiciary is built such that decisions only rarely get unmade and then only under exceedingly special circumstances. The decisions of the Supreme Court are permanent.

Today’s ruling is an unequivocal statement for equality. As such it will be the law of the land from here on. Only a cataclysm will unmake it. It took a long time to get here, but here we are.

So much more progress to be made, in so many more arenas — but today is a good day.

Outlines of True Faith

This morning, I wrote this in my journal, my letter to whatever the force is that drives the universe:

What would it mean to lead a life of true faith? I would trust absolutely – trust that all I need would be provided, that no trial would be greater than I could bear. I would also have trust that I would know the right course of action – that guidance would come.

To live a life of true faith means that I would seek not to listen to my own will, and to not concern myself with outcomes. A life of true faith means my only productive expenditure of effort is in discerning your will, and trying to carry it out. Everything else is wasted.

 

Building a Different Kind of Political Candidate

I’m in the middle of doing one of my favorite activities, something I’ve been involved in since the late 1990’s. It’s the Candidate Training Program, run by the Sorensen Institute for Political Leadership at the University of Virginia.

I was a part of the design team for this program and have been involved in different ways every since. It’s a multipartisan group (D, R, I) of people who are running for their first political office. Over the course of four days, some of the top political consultants in Virginia share the nuts and bolts of running campaigns from the standpoint of planning, direct mail, fundraising, media relations, crisis management, and more. It’s top-drawer advice and is very effective: roughly a third of alumni have gone on to win races, an astronomical statistic considering that most first time candidates lose.

Here’s what makes the program different from other candidate training programs, though: It is built around ethical decision making. The design of the program is meant to elicit thoughtful reflection by the candidates on what they feel their relationship with the public ought to be. We open with an in-depth discussion of ethical decision-making principles, and then check in repeatedly throughout the weekend to unpack what the experts are saying, relating it to the kinds of relationships the candidates are trying to foster.

Over the years, I’ve written a number of blog posts from and about these sessions. Some of the notable ones are:

  1. Resistance” — things I’ve noticed candidates just don’t want to do . . . but must.
  2. Oh, D.E.A.R.” — Tips on campaign crisis management from a real pro.
  3. Free Advice For Candidates” — Just a compendium of tips I’ve heard the experts tell first-time candidates over the years.
  4. On The Lam” — A scenario for discussion that I developed and distribute, based loosely on true events. 
  5. All The News That Fits” — Another ethics scenario, again based on true events.

 

In Praise Of Effort Over Time

A dozen years ago, I was completing my stint leading a national election-ethics project, encouraging candidates to negotiate, sign, and abide by “clean campaign” pledges. It was, as you might imagine, an uphill battle. I was excited when a group in Toledo, Ohio, picked up the idea on their own and pressed for the 2001 mayoral race — which was getting quite brutal in the context of the times — to adopt such a pledge.

For the weekly newsletter of my organization, the Institute for Global Ethics, I penned a piece titled Toledo, Cradle of Civility, which began:

Great civic movements start in the unlikeliest of places — the front section of the Montgomery bus from which Rosa Parks refused to move, the Sacramento steak house where Mothers Against Drunk Driving first met, Sproul Plaza at UC Berkeley where Mario Savio’s filibuster began the Free Speech Movement. To these history may one day allow us to add another: the restaurant in Toledo, Ohio, where a group of citizens met one night last August to discuss what they could do to demand a better quality of political campaign.

After a particularly tense debate between the mayoral candidates, the local daily newspaper, the Toledo Blade, had called on the front-runners (Lucas County treasurer Ray Kest and state representative Jack Ford) to sign a code of conduct to help keep the campaign out of the mud. To the surprise of many observers, they agreed. Brought together by the Toledo League of Women Voters, a group of citizens came together at Mountain Jack’s restaurant on the outskirts of town for the first of many meetings devoted to monitoring the code. Thus was born the Lucas County Citizens Clean Campaign Committee.

It was an effort that succeeded where many thought it would fail. By the end of the campaign, the talk radio hosts who had derided the committee were quoting it, and the Blade would only cover accusations of negative campaigning if the committee had already weighed in.

Since that time, the nascent, local effort has had its ups and downs. The Lucas County Citizens Clean Campaign Committee disbanded in 2004 under the weight of little public notice and other political interests its members wanted to pursue. Campaigns continued to increase in intensity and nastiness. But the Toledo Blade continued the effort after a fashion, calling on every mayoral candidate since then to adopt the pledge, and then holding them to its standards.

So I was delighted when I saw this week’s Blade editorial, calling on the current candidates for mayor to agree to and abide by a pledge:

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Click to go to article

As we have done during every Toledo mayoral campaign since 2001, The Blade is publicly challenging the general-election candidates to sign the Clean Campaign Pledge developed by the Institute of Global Ethics, a Maine-based nonpartisan group that promotes ethical behavior and integrity in public and private life.

The voluntary pledge appears on this page. Its language hasn’t changed since the institute composed it 15 years ago, but political campaigns at all levels surely have. They’ve gotten nastier, dirtier, less transparent, more polarized, and much more awash in money for go-for-the jugular TV ads.

Negative campaigning often does more to alienate voters than to educate them. And as the shameful 15-percent turnout for last week’s Toledo primary makes clear, we can’t afford to turn off any more voters.

That’s why this year’s campaign between Mayor Mike Bell and his challenger, City Councilman D. Michael Collins, needs to be civil and respectful — of the candidates as well as of voters’ intelligence. The contenders must focus on issues and ideas, rather than personal insults and toxic attacks.

. . .

In its coverage of this year’s campaign, The Blade will continue to fact-check what the candidates say, whether or not they sign the pledge. If we see bad behavior, we’ll call the candidates on it.

In past campaigns, independent citizens’ groups reviewed candidates’ compliance with the pledge they had signed, and investigated and publicized charges of violations. It would be great if similar watchdogs emerged in the remaining weeks of this campaign, but it’s getting late.

Kudos to The Blade for keeping this effort going. Culture change can be a thankless business and it takes time.

Thank you for my friend and colleague Paula Mirk for passing on the news.

 

 

Means And Ends

Today, and for the past few months, I have been thinking a great deal about moral philosophy. I’ve observed my own convictions becoming unsteady, so I wanted to spend time considering — and articulating — what I fundamentally believe. What is the basis of right action? How do I define right action in my own case? How ought I comport myself?

Immanuel Kant (1724-1804)
Immanuel Kant (1724-1804)

These thoughts bring me back to my old friend, the philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804). His thinking revolutionized our approach to reason and morality. Kant’s thinking outlined a deontological ethics — meaning an ethics based on duty. An act is right not due to their particular consequences, but due to the motives of the actor.

The Categorical Imperative

Kant articulated what he termed a categorical imperative — that is, an overarching duty from which all other moral duties flow. In his 1785 Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, he formulates it in various ways. The first two are of most interest to me:

  1. Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law without contradiction.
  2. Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end.

If there is a standard of behavior that I try to aspire to, it is encompassed in the second formulation above: Act as if people are ends in themselves, not simply means.

In the modern world, this often shows up as treating others — especially strangers — with dignity. Look the homeless person in the eye and greet them. Thank the server at the food truck. Make eye contact with other drivers and apologize when you cut them off.

When you consider what it really means to treat others as ends in themselves, it can become daunting. It means giving those around us the freedom to make decisions. It involves trusting others even when risky.

I see the categorical imperative as something to strive for, something ideal to try to order my life around. I know I frequently fall short. But I try.

Nine Rules For Discussing Tough Issues Online

Apropos of yesterday’s lament about uncivil behavior online, here are some rules I try to follow when discussing contentious issues on social media and in blog comment threads:

  1. Say nothing online I would not say in person
  2. Be very mild with language because it can be misconstrued and taken the wrong way
  3. Remember my conversation is public
  4. Never call someone by name if I am criticizing a view they hold (“Some people have argued that _____” not “Bill said ___”)
  5. Include statements that allow for disagreements (“I recognize others may disagree . . . “)
  6. Be mild in my proclamations (“I tend to think cats deserve cuddling” not “You should cuddle cats”)
  7. Protect others when they are attacked (on threads I am hosting, and sometimes elsewhere)
  8. If I change my mind, admit it and thank others for widening my views
  9. If I offend, apologize sincerely (without turning the blame back on them by saying I’m sorry they misunderstood me — a non-apology)

What would you add?

Anger In Online Interactions

The horrific events at Sandy Hook Elementary School have set people across the nation on edge. People are shocked, grieving, angry, confused, frightened, and more. People are reaching out to one another. In person (on the street, in coffee houses) and on social media (Facebook, Twitter, blog comment threads) people are conversing.

As a proponent of dialogue throughout my career, in some ways this is heartening. We don’t engage in serious conversation about public issues nearly enough. Still, it is dispiriting to think it takes a national tragedy of such magnitude to get us talking.

scream and shout
Scream and Shout, by Flickr user mdanys

More troubling, though, is to observe how difficult it seems to be for people to be civil to one another. I see thread after thread (especially on Facebook) devolve into name calling. This is not new, of course. It comes with the territory online — people are not really themselves online. Or, rather: they are themselves without the filters we usually have to enable us to operate in polite company. I will say something online that I would not say to your face.

This is a challenge those of us who try to hold open spaces for people to talk about difficult issues often face. Over the past few days, I found myself reliving my time as publisher of the local news site, Rockville Central — which my friend Cynthia Cotte Griffiths and I ran in order to provide a space for dialogue. One of the reasons that we shut it down after a number of successful years was the sheer nervous energy we had to expend maintaining the norms and decorum. On Facebook, I have experienced the same anxiety as I watch personal friends who don’t know one another go at it on threads I established. Then, sometimes, when I ask them to be civil, they attack me in turn.

I like to believe that, as a society, we have not yet adapted to social media as a medium of conversation. We behave in very crude ways to one another because we haven’t collectively figured out what the rules are.

However, I often fear I am wrong — that, in fact, we have figured out what the rules are and, in general, they are anything goes.

Photo credit: Flickr user mdanys.

Time For A Conversation

A good friend writes on Facebook:

Now is not the time, but sometime soon, while the searing memories are still fresh, we must have a candid conversation about how we all will live in the new world climate change is bringing to us. After a disaster, there is a defiant urge to remake what was lost, brick for brick and beam for beam. But the real challenge before us will be not to remake what was, but to make something different. As our case is new, so we must think anew and act anew.

Stilt Houses
By Flickr user dpu-ucl

I think he’s right . . . and I believe there is a growing consensus that it is time to have a national (or global) conversation about climate change and how to live with it. This conversation would not simply be an argument over what causes it or whether it is occurring. Neither would it be simply about how to stop, or slow it.

It would be about what we should do — how should we live, how can we adapt, how can we mitigate?

This is not a technical conversation, but a political (small p) conversation. That is, it is rooted in what we hold valuable. We have mistaken the problem as something that experts can handle, and because all the answers really cause us to face tensions between things held valuable, we slide into partisan rancor. It’s time to hold a conversation on that level, rooted in our concerns and aspirations.

There is a very interesting piece by Andrew J. Hoffman in the latest Stanford Social Innovation Review on this topic — sorry to say, it may be behind a paywall.

Photo credit: Flickr user dpu-ucl