Right and Wrong in the Real World

By Joshua Halberstam | March 1, 2006 | 0 comments

From our friendships to our jobs to our conduct in public, seemingly small decisions often pose tough ethical dilemmas, says Joshua Halberstam. He offers guidance for navigating the ethical dimension of everyday life.

Some years ago, a student asked to see me during office hours to talk about a personal problem that, she assured me, related to our recent ethics class. It seemed she was having difficulties with a new friend from the Dominican Republic. She explained that in normal circumstances she would have ended the relationship, but she was reluctant to do so now because of affirmative action.

“I’m convinced by the arguments and decided it would be wrong to demand the same standards from this girl as I do from my other friends,” she said. I, of course, immediately commented on how this was condescending and then pointed out that governmental and institutional policies don’t readily apply to our personal relationships.

Damian King

“But why not?” she pressed. “If it’s a good moral argument, shouldn’t it apply to my own life?”

My student’s sensitivities were surely misplaced, but explaining why isn’t quite so easy. In fact, they reflect the complex relationship between communal and personal ethics, between moral theory and our everyday ethical decisions. These aren’t idle ruminations: How we understand these connections is critical to understanding the moral quality of our lives. This is the realm of everyday ethics.

Now would certainly seem to be the time to care more about everyday ethics. We regularly complain about the moral decay of our age, and we have good reason to do so. Ethical misconduct is a mainstay of the news: CEOs raiding corporate coffers, widespread auditing fraud, unbridled cheating in school, scientists doctoring data, reporters lying about sources, politicians still acting like politicians—the incidence and variety of transgressions seem interminable. No wonder that in a recent Gallup Poll, nearly 80 percent of Americans rated the overall state of morality in the United States as fair or poor. Even more troubling is the widely held opinion that people are becoming more selfish and dishonest. According to that same Gallup Poll, 77 percent of Americans believe that the state of moral values is getting worse. This perception of decaying values—accurate or not—has its own adverse consequences: It lowers our expectations for other people’s behavior and leads us to tolerate unethical actions. For example, in a National Business Survey conducted in October of 2005, a majority of workers claimed to have observed ethical misconduct in the workplace, roughly the same number as reported misconduct in the 2003 survey, but the number of employees who bothered reporting those transgressions fell by 10 percentage points.

But should these findings surprise us? Isn’t wrongdoing just part of “the human condition”? Can we really teach our children to be more ethical? Or improve ourselves when we are adults? Moreover, when it comes to our personal interactions, who decides—and how—what is or isn’t moral?

These are difficult but not rhetorical questions. To address them, we need to get a better sense of what we mean by “everyday ethics” and where it fits into the larger picture of morality.

What is everyday ethics?

Consider:

• The ATM spits out an extra $100 in your favor. Keep the money and your mouth shut?

• At a restaurant you notice your friend’s wife engaged in some serious flirting with another man. Tell your friend—and possibly ruin his marriage—or mind your own business?

• You can avail yourself of a free wireless connection by accessing the account of your next-door neighbor. Silly not to? 

• Your colleague is forever taking credit for your and other people’s work. Is it okay to exact a little revenge and for once take credit for her labors?

• Your friend is on her way out the door for a significant date and asks whether you like her blouse. Do you tell her the truth: It’s hideous?

• Is it all right to laugh at a sexist joke?

We face choices like these daily: morally laden quandaries that demand direct and immediate decisions. Unlike moral issues that dominate our dinner conversations—legalizing abortion, preemptive war, raising the minimum wage—about which we do little more than pontificate, the problems of everyday ethics call for our own resolutions. But how do we arrive at our judgments? For example, in answering the questions above, do you have a quick, intuitive response about what is proper, or do you consider broader moral principles and then derive a solution? 

The history of philosophy is filled with competing theories that offer such moral principles—for example, there’s theological ethics, which looks to religious sources for moral guidance (see sidebar); consequentialist theories, which judge the moral value of an act by its results; rational, rule-based theories, such as proposed by Immanuel Kant, which argue that proper intentions are essential to moral value; and virtue-based theories, which focus more on character than on behavior.

But when your teenager asks if you ever did drugs, it’s unlikely that you’ll undertake a complex utilitarian calculus or work out the details of how a categorical imperative would apply in this case. In fact, in dealing with so many of our everyday moral challenges, it is difficult to see just how one would implement the principles of a moral theory. No wonder that many moral philosophers insist they have no more to say about these specific situations than a theoretical physicist does when confronting a faulty spark plug. Nonetheless, your response to your curious teenager, as with all cases in the domain of everyday ethics, presents a practical, immediate moral challenge that you cannot avoid.

Embracing the moral importance of these ordinary dilemmas, some ethicists have posited a bottom-up perspective of ethical decision making that places these “mundane,” ordinary human interactions at the very heart of moral philosophy.

According to this view, because traditional moral theories can’t reach down to our routine lives, we should question their practical value. Take, for example, the “demand for impartiality,” the notion, common to many moral theories, that we treat everyone the same. But of course we don’t—nor should we. Suppose you spend three hours at the bedside of your sick spouse and then declare, “Hey, you know I would do the same for anyone. It’s my moral duty.” Don’t expect your spouse to be delighted with your righteousness. Caring for a loved one because of a moral principle is, as the philosopher Bernard Williams said, “one reason too many.”

Other philosophers are uneasy with the moral ideal posited in mainstream theories; not only is the theoretical idea of moral perfection unattainable, it’s not even desirable. After all, who wants to hang out and grab a beer with a moral saint? Indeed, who wants to be the kind of person who never hangs out and has a beer because of more pressing moral tasks? Still other critics note that typical academic moral arguments ignore the complexity and texture of our ordinary lives. As philosopher Martha Nussbaum and others suggest, an observant novel will often be more instructive about our moral lives than an academic treatise. 

Well, if we don’t appeal to moral theories when deciding problems of everyday ethics, how then do we make these decisions? 

At the outset, we need to recognize—and take seriously—the difficulties inherent in these judgments. The interesting ethical questions aren’t those that offer a choice between good and evil—that’s easy—but pit good versus good, or bad versus even worse. Take, for example, the case of our friend walking out the door wearing that unappealing blouse on her way to a crucial date. She asks for your opinion on her attire. Honesty demands you to tell her the truth, but compassion urges you to give her the thumbs up. It’s worth noticing that other values, say friendship, surely should count here… but how? Perhaps one ought to be more truthful to a friend than a stranger, but then, too, one ought to be especially encouraging to a friend. Appealing to clear-cut moral principles such as “Do unto others as you have them do unto you” isn’t decisive here, either: Do you want to be told the truth in this case?

Presumably, different people might offer different answers.

We can, nonetheless, draw a few lessons from even this hasty consideration of everyday moral dilemmas.

One: We need to be clear about which values are at play. While we often don’t have the luxury of a long, careful weighing of competing principles, our actions will be moral only if they are the firm result of our intention to act morally and not, say, to fulfill a selfish interest.

Two: Intellectual honesty is always a challenge. With regard to lying, for example, we need to acknowledge how easy it is to justify dishonesty by claiming compassion or some other good when, in fact, we merely want to avoid unpleasant confrontations. Our capacity for rationalization is remarkable: “Everyone does it,” “I’ll do it just this one time,” “It’s for her own good,” “It’s none of my business,” and on and on.

Three: We need to give slack to people with whom we disagree. Inasmuch as the problems posed by everyday ethics are genuine dilemmas but do not allow the luxury of lengthy, careful analysis, decent people for decent reasons can reach opposing conclusions. 

But how then do we make our quick judgments about what to do in these everyday moral situations? What’s going on in our minds?

The science of everyday ethics

Over the past few years, evolutionary biologists, neuroscientists, and cognitive psychologists have been exploring these very questions. And they are making some startling discoveries. 

For example, using functional MRI (fMRI) scans of the brain, neuropsychologist Joshua Greene has found that different types of moral choices stimulate different areas of the brain. His findings present an astonishing challenge to the way we usually approach moral decisions.

Consider, for example, a popular thought experiment posed by moral philosophers: the “trolley-car” cases. Suppose you are the driver of a runaway trolley car that is approaching five men working on the track. As you speed down toward this tragedy, you realize you can divert the train to a side track and thereby kill only one person who is working on that other track. What do you do?

Now consider an alternative case: Suppose you aren’t the train conductor but are standing on a cliff watching the train careen toward the endangered five people. Next to you is a fat person whose sheer bulk could stop the oncoming trolley. Should you give him a shove so that he’ll fall onto the track and be killed by the train—but in the process, you’d save five other lives?

Most people say they would save the five lives in case one, but not in case two—and offer complicated reasons for their choices. What Greene found in his research was that different parts of our brains are at work when we consider these two different scenarios. In the first case, the area associated with the emotions remains quiet—we are just calculating—but in the second case, which asks us to imagine actually killing someone up close and personally, albeit to save five other people, the emotional area of the brain lights up. In Greene’s view, this suggests that we bring to our moral judgments predilections that are hard-wired in our brains, and emotions might play a more significant role in our decision making than we realize, particularly in the case of everyday ethical dilemmas that affect us personally.

Brain research of this kind underscores the claims of evolutionary psychologists who maintain that many of our moral attitudes are grounded in our genetic history. They suggest, as does Greene, that because we evolved in small groups, unaware of people living halfway around the world, we have stronger instinctive moral reactions to problems that affect us directly than to those that are more abstract. In this view, for example, evolutionary strategy dictates our preferences for kin over strangers, and makes us more likely to display altruism toward people we can see first-hand.

Cognitive psychologists, for their part, are examining how moral decisions are formed—demonstrating, for example, how selective images, such as pictures of starving children, can alter and enlarge our sphere of empathy, and how social environments can either stultify or nurture compassion. 

Many warn against seeing a “science of ethics” as the ultimate arena for the study of moral decision making. They remind us that our pre-set inclinations—how we are—do not prescribe or justify how we ought to be.

But this ongoing research is of vital importance to our understanding of ethics, and in particular, everyday ethics. In the first place, we will better acknowledge the constraints we battle in acting “against our natures.” For example, if evolutionary psychologists are right and our ethical decisions are informed by an evolutionary preference for those in our immediate group, we can better understand why it takes such an effort to get people to spend their money on the poor of Africa rather than on another pair of ice skates for their kids, or to respect members of other cultures as they do their own. Moreover, this research can be extremely helpful as we determine how best to teach ethics to our children. Indeed, studies of the brain and our genome might shed light on how it is that some individuals turn out decent and caring and others cold and obnoxious.

The challenges of everyday ethics

All this data cannot, however, answer our fundamental challenge: How should we act and what kind of people should we strive to be? As we’ve seen, we cannot rely on rarified moral theories to help us deal with the pressing demands of everyday ethics. Nor can we rely on our biological dispositions to point us toward the best ethical judgments. Rather, we have to confront the integrity of our character, our honed intuitions, our developed sense of fairness and honesty. And to see how these traits are exhibited, we need to see how they work in action. 

The articles in the rest of this issue do just that. This is how ethics gets played in the classroom, at work, at the supermarket, over the dinner table. While the usual moral evaluations of societies tend to focus on such broad issues as crime, economic equity, and foreign policy, just as important to consider is the moral health of our everyday interactions. For after all, this is how our lives are lived: day by day, one “small” moral judgment after another. 

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About The Author

Joshua Halberstam, Ph.D., is the author of Everyday Ethics: Inspired Solutions to Moral Dilemmas (Viking) and is currently an adjunct professor at Teachers College, Columbia University. In addition to his professional writings in philosophy, he has written several books for the general reader on the subjects of ethics and culture.

  

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