Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Making the Ethical Decision

by Anna Jones Buttimore

Aristotle defined ethical behaviour as “to do [the right thing] to the right person to the right extent, at the right time, with the right motive, and in the right way.” But he admitted that “this is not for everyone, nor is it easy.” (Nichomanchean Ethics II.9)

Ethics has become something of a buzzword of late. We have the option to invest our money with ethical banking schemes, buy ethical food—fair-trade or responsibly sourced—and even dispose of our waste ethically, by composting or recycling. Companies know that they can sell to us by appealing to our personal integrity, and telling us that their particular product or service is the ethical choice. For example, they may plant trees so that they can make the claim to be carbon neutral.

Those of us who like to think that we are “good” people, doing our best to be contributors to our communities and live according to our moral values, naturally like to think that we are people with high standards who make ethical decisions.  We all make day-to-day ethical decisions, however, and these are often not as clear-cut as choosing a fair-trade product over a non fair-trade one. From deciding whether to be honest in telling our spouse that a new item of clothing is not flattering, to telling the cashier that we have been given too much change, each of us must strive daily to balance our own comfort and well-being with our moral values.

Several years ago I bought a laptop computer on eBay. The previous owner had taken out a five-year warranty on it, so when it broke down I took it to a branch of the shop where he had purchased it for repair. I was told that under its terms the warranty was only transferable to the new owner (me) if I had a signed letter from the original owner stating this. I returned home and attempted to contact the original owner but his eBay account had been closed and emails were returned undeliverable. I returned to the shop to explain my predicament. The man behind the desk explained that they had no record of the original buyer’s signature, so there was nothing to stop me writing the letter myself and signing the buyer’s name. In fact, he positively encouraged me to do so. He wanted to fix my laptop, and knew the buyer would have intended the warranty to transfer to the me, but he needed a letter for his records.

I didn't do it, and left the shop with my laptop still broken. I knew that I wanted to be honest more than I wanted a working laptop. I knew that in a few months my Bishop would ask whether I was "honest in [my] dealings with men" and forging a signature was not honest.

A ‘dilemma’ is defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as “a situation in which a difficult choice has to be made between two or more alternatives, especially ones that are equally undesirable.” The roots can be traced back to Greek, di meaning “twice” and lemma meaning “premise”. Often an ethical choice is not clear-cut; we may find ourselves having to choose between two moral imperatives.

In facing such situations experts suggest that there are steps we can take to make the process easier:

1) Define the dilemma. Identify exactly what choices are before you. It may also help to look back at what led to this situation so that future conflicts of this nature can be avoided.

2) Analyse the consequences of each choice, both positive and negative.

3) Consider the action involved in each choice and how they measure up to your standards of integrity and dignity, regardless of the consequences.

4) Research the situation as much as possible. Gather all relevant information and ask questions.

5) Bring in other people. Ask advice of trusted friends, church leaders and relevant specialists.

6) Trust your instincts. If it feels wrong, it probably is.

7) Make a decision, and once you’ve decided, don’t dither. Make sure all parties involved are aware of the difficult situation you’ve been placed in, and the reasons for the decision you have made. Carry through, and deal with any consequences as they arise.

As we face daily difficult decisions, may we all recognise and choose the ethical pathway, even when that seems difficult.

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