Perhaps it is inheritance, perhaps it is training; but most of us who wish to live an ethical life (and not everybody does, of course), would like to face their decisions with some sense of the certainty of our choices. That is why most ethical writing (including my own) generally phrase ethics in terms of generalities.
Specific ethical-choice moments, the kind that teachers use to challenge their students – like the famous ‘big man on the bridge before the trolley hits five people’ example* – should remind us that ethical decisions must frequently be made in a world that is contingent and filled with uncertainties.
Let me pursue one of my own favorite specific-choice examples here to demonstrate.
If a man comes to us dressed in rags, and begs of us money, saying he needs it to pay for transportation home, and we provide him with this, have we achieved any good in the world?
For all we know, he may be begging money with which to procure drugs – that is a common assumption on the part of those who refuse to benefit panhandlers. But let’s push the matter further.
The man may indeed be misguiding us, but for different reasons. He may be on the way to a masque ball, the panhandler guise is a costume; he does indeed need transportation, because his luxury sedan broke down. He just forgot his wallet. Then why did he say he was on his way home? He may be playing on our sympathies; but perhaps that’s just a short-cut, a way to make a point without elaboration. Or perhaps the party is really being held at his home, he was on his way there after a visit with a lover. He hasn’t misguided us at all, we have been misguided by our own assumptions concerning his appearance.
Suppose later we meet his lover – a young woman all dressed in expensive finery, and she is in tears. He broke it off with her, and now she claims pain at the betrayal. She also begs money for transportation – say, to a clinic, a therapist, a church. But we gave our last bit of change to her former lover. For her, all we can do is comfort her, and suggest she pull herself together, devote her time and her wealth to helping others, in the future she might meet a man more faithful. This would seem a satisfying ethical gesture, even if insufficient to the woman’s request.
Except the woman (a lesbian who has no need for a ‘man more faithful’) seduced the man; she has no wealth. She intended to rob the man, and he discovered this and left her. And she just ate a raw onion of a very pungent aroma, thus the tears.
We tell her to help others – who? What specific charity should she devote her time to – one we favor and suggest? or one she favors? Perhaps her understanding of ‘helping others’ impels her to join ISIS and work toward the establishment of an Islamic state?
Since we cannot really know her, we cannot really tell her whom she should help. Besides, aren’t we being presumptuous? How do we know she hasn’t been spending years devoted to benefiting others, working gratis in a soup kitchen every day. How do we ask her that without sounding judgmental – and what if she suffers from low self-esteem? The woman has been attending to the needs of five senile aunts who do nothing but belittle her – ‘I can’t seem to do anything right!’ And we want to insist she buck up and do better?
What makes her apparel look to us “expensive?” Here, we could discuss fashion, but this only compares her dress with those we know from media presentations – it looks like the images we’ve seen in advertisements, etc.
For all we know, her dress is a cheap knock-off of a ‘brand’ product. Or she bought it second-hand. Or it was given to her. Or she may be an expert seamstress – she designed and produced it herself.
What is this “money” that is at issue in the two instances, anyway? The empty symbol for value-in-exchange. What ‘value-in-exchange’ do either the man or woman present to us, such that we have to decide whether to pass the symbol of it over to them? How are we to judge this?
Why do we want to help these people anyway? Again, we’re not talking ‘helping people in general,’ we are talking specifics – this man who approached us on the street, this woman we found sobbing on her porch steps. Are we being charitable? or do we simply want these people to believe we are charitable? Perhaps we think ourselves better off than they; we feel compelled by a sense of noblesse oblige. Or perhaps, ‘there but for the grace of god go I.’ Do we feel some unspecified animal sympathies urging us from within to help them? Or is it simply our upbringing – ‘Momma told us to.’
Thinking too hard about such matters could drive us towards a certain paranoiac suspicion of every individual that might present a case seeming to lay claim on our attention, even our assistance. But clearly that suspicion would be misguided. People are just as they are – they are a complex of motivations, confused thinking, confusing histories, mixed commitments. They are the social world we navigate. Thus there’s no point wishing for perfection – that would be a world filled with happy stereotypes, not real people. We should certainly be cautious, but final judgment concerning anyone we meet may have to be suspended indefinitely.
But doesn’t this paralyze our ethical decisions? If we cannot judge, how can we act?
I was raised a Roman Catholic. In that tradition, it is taught: ‘act as if you had faith, and faith will be granted to you.’ Well, the religious faith never came, and I am no longer a Catholic.
But one always acts. Arriving at decisions and acting upon them is what humans do. These decisions are tentative, and contingent, but the act is fully realized. ‘As if’ is one of the most powerful justifications for any ethical act made ‘in good faith.’ We may be wrong, but at least we have ‘done something,’ we have changed the situation in a material way, leading to other situations with other decisions to make and enact.
There is a story told in Paul Reps’ Zen Flesh, Zen Bones, about a zen monk who was accused by a young woman of fathering her child. He parents delivered the child to him for care, charging him with responsibility. “Is that so?” was all he said. He took care of the child. One day, the girl changed her story; her parents took the child from the monk’s house, with the explanation that they would now care for it, since the girl had been seduced by the son of a wealthy landowner, whose family refused child-support – the monk had thus been exonerated. “Is that so?” was all he said.
* The trolley problem:
Scenario one: Trolley roaring down a track. On the track it’s on, there are five people; on a track it can be switched over to, there is only one person. Flip the switch, and only one person dies, but five are saved. Your choice?
Scenario two: Trolley roaring down the track. On the track ahead are the five people. On a bridge above the track there is a man big enough so that if you push him off the bridge in front of the trolley, it will kill him, but stop the trolley and save five lives. Your choice?
Studies show that most people would flip the switch, but that most people would not push the big man off the bridge.
Neurological studies indicate that people choosing to flip the switch are using the reasoning centers of their brain, but when choosing not to push the big man, they are using emotional centers of the brain.
These studies also suggest that anyone who would do both – flip the switch, push the man – is showing brain activity similar to that of those diagnosed ‘sociopathic.’
But I have my doubts as to this final determination – sociopaths are notoriously deficient in ethical judgment, so it is unlikely that would bother flipping the switch, let alone push the man.
For my-self – and remembering this is only a thought experiment – I would do both (in hypothesis – one never knows how one will act until one must!). I don’t see the ontological distinction between flipping the switch and pushing the man – both reduce to assuring one person dies and five are saved. Or perhaps I’m just a sociopath? Well, I can live with that – because I must. I try to do the best I can; but I’m pretty much stuck with my own skin and its history.