When The Ethical Solution is the Most Frowned Upon: What To Do?

photo from Stanford’s Encyclopedia of Philosophy

There are many times throughout our daily lives where the most ethical thing to do is the most frowned upon by those around us. Whether it be work, family, or business related, when we discuss with those close to us what we intend to do, it usually results in a clash. Those who we have told reply saying that we cannot execute the ethical solution because it could potentially cause pain for others, or would cause a negative outcome for a certain group of people. The question when this happens then becomes “are we obligated to care?”

When thinking about ethical solutions that are frowned upon, one situation that is a hot-button issue in society right now is that of the border crisis in the United States and other countries. In the United States, millions of Mexican Refugees demand asylum, and are crossing the border at record numbers. Instead of advocating for legal asylum, Joe Biden secretly flew hundreds of illegal immigrants into the country without informing anyone. While some may look at that and deem it as a good thing because the United States is a country that can offer refuge for fleeing migrants, we can see how allowing them in illegally and providing handouts for assistance may not be the best solution. For one, there is no way to screen the millions of people at the border for COVID, second, domestic taxes could potentially shoot up to provide assistance to the illegals, and third, it could cause crime, homelessness, and other domestic issues to skyrocket. What are we to do, then, with this crisis, and how are we to solve it? In 1974, Garrett Hardin wrote a piece of literature called Lifeboat Ethics: the Case Against the Poor. In it, he proposed a simple thought experiment that went like this:

Suppose that you are on the Titanic, or another boat that is sinking. You manage to get on the only lifeboat with fifty other people. The lifeboat’s total capacity is sixty, which would allow room for ten more people to be saved. The catch, however, is that hundreds of people are swimming to the lifeboat. What is the ethical thing to do?

We see here the situation, and one can come up with many different avenues to solve the problem. One could argue to save ten people to fill the boat to maximum capacity, but who would you choose? Would you choose only women and children, the first to get to you, or would you just randomly grab people out of the hundreds surrounding you? Other than the dilemma of who deserves to be saved, you would be giving up the boat’s safety room, which would make it easier to flip and could potentially kill everyone. If you try to save everyone, the boat would collapse because it would be above its weight capacity, causing everyone to die. It can therefore be argued that the most ethical thing to do in this situation is not to save anyone, despite this solution being deemed the most unethical by postmodernist standards. Now, replace the lifeboat with the United States, and the adrift swimmers with the millions of people who are banging on the country’s door for entry. By applying this thought experiment to the border crisis, we can see that the most ethical thing to do in this situation is to not let anyone in, especially with the COVID-19 pandemic. This, though, sounds terribly harsh, and creates feelings of negativity, neglect, and sympathy for those who wish for a better life. Are we then not supposed to do what is most ethical in this situation by letting our emotions get in the way?

Hardin proposes the solution to this ethical dilemma as well as others in his piece and others he has written, however, the question which I am trying to answer is not about the border, but about what action to take in situations where the ethical answer is the most frowned upon. Many times the most ethical and just thing to do in certain situations is the one that causes the most grief emotionally, and many times, emotions get in the way of us acting ethically in certain situations. Think of, for example, someone in a toxic relationship. The individual knows that the ethical thing to do is to leave, but his or her emotional attachment towards the other individual would prevent him or her from doing so. There are many other situations where emotions get in the way of action, such as having to lay off someone you care for form work, going against familial wishes, et cetera. How do we, as individuals, take action over emotion, and how do we not let our emotions get in the way of ethics?

Emotions as “False Friends”

Firstly, it’s important to recognize that emotions are “false friends.” Just because we may have a certain emotion towards something does not mean that the emotion is necessarily true. For example, I prefer to go to the Traditional Latin Mass over the Novus Ordo Missae (I am Latin Rite Catholic), but my negative emotions against the Novus Ordo do not justify me not attending if I cannot attend a TLM, because the sacrament is still just as valid (see this article for more information). In the same way, having negative emotions towards something for no justifiable reason does not mean that those emotions are necessarily true. Not liking someone or something emotionally does not distinguish logical truth or consistency in the matter. Emotions, therefore, cannot justify an ethical or logical truth, and are therefore “false friends.” This is where the main epistemological error of postmodernism lies: postmodern society believes that emotions are the truth opposed to the truth itself, which is incorrect. We see this notion in new movements such as gender ideology, “cancel culture,” and others.

Moving Past Emotions

We understand that emotions serve no truth, and can get in the way of us executing what we should be ethically doing, but the question still remains unanswered: what are we to do? Are we to sit here in moral conflict as our emotions prevent us from doing what we want to do, or do we push through our emotions and do it anyway, not worrying about the consequences of our actions? This is the hardest question of all, but I have a simple way of overcoming the emotional barrier we face and gaining the motivation to do what is just:

  1. analyze the situation from all angles
  2. decide what is the most ethical action to take
  3. think of the consequences to said action
  4. weigh consequences with emotion
  5. if the desired outcome is ethical, despite consequences, execute it

In order to really understand how to take these steps, we must look at each point and make sure we understand it. Let’s go back, temporarily, to a previous thought experiment and articulate it a little further. Let’s say you’re a boss at a company and you became really good friends with one of the employees under you. Unfortunately, higher management says that you must lay off people, and your workplace friend is one of those people. To make matters harder, let’s assume that your workplace friend is desperate and needs this job, and if he loses it, he could potentially lose his house. If you do not lay this guy off, you are going to be fired for failing to execute what the company needs. What are you to do?

There are three angles to look at this situation from: that of upper management, you, and your friend. From your friend’s perspective, he needs this job and is doing the best he can to do his job efficiently. You, yourself, are in a pickle, having to choose between the company or your friend, while the company doesn’t care either way, they just expect you to do what they ask of you. Second, decide what the most ethical action to take is. What would you do in this situation? It may seem like there are only two options to choose from, but there is a hidden third one: why not call up higher management and express how you feel to them, and ask permission to lay off the person whom is performing the least in the workplace? You can call and say “I understand you guys want me to fire X, but he is doing marvelous and is one of my best workers here; I think it would be better for the company to lay off Y instead, as he is the least performing person in the workplace.” By doing this, you would not only be sparing your workplace friend, you would also be seen as a valuable asset to the company because you are looking out for the company’s best interest by laying off someone who is not doing his job well. We see here, by analyzing the decision made, that we did both the third and fourth steps simultaneously (thought of the consequences of the action and weighed the consequences with emotion). Yes, the person performing the worst in the company would be upset that he got laid off, but there is reasoning as to why they are being laid off that is logical opposed to laying off someone who is doing good work. Now we move to the fifth and final step, which is to execute the desired outcome if it is ethical. Now, those four words — if it is ethical — are very important; if a motive is unethical, one should not execute it for the simple reason of it not being ethical. If it is ethical, such as the outcome to the proposed question, it should be executed.

I believe that through these five steps, we can not only learn how to better execute ethical decisions, but can also learn that emotions do not justify logic and ethics, but are “false friends” as described before. Now, this opens up a new question that I find very intriguing: is ethicality objective? Is what’s ethical to me ethical to you? How do we find an objective definition and execution of ethics? These questions are very loaded, and will be addressed in future articles.

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The Gmojiverse is a trip inside my mind as I contemplate the philosophy of ethics. My thoughts will be written here on various topics and shared for all to see.

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Gordon V. Moccio

Gordon V. Moccio

The Gmojiverse is a trip inside my mind as I contemplate the philosophy of ethics. My thoughts will be written here on various topics and shared for all to see.

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