Sometimes people encounter a dilemma and they pretend to have dementia. They forget about the right thing to do.
Decades ago, we had this negotiation seminar held with another company. We split into six groups and did this prisoner’s dilemma test involving a share purchase. If all the groups co-operated in this fictitious share purchase, then we would all partially benefit in the range of tens of thousands of dollars. But if only one group acted in opposition, then all of the benefit would go to that group and they would be unjustly enriched by hundreds of thousands of dollars. The other groups would get nothing. So of course the first five groups all co-operated, but by the time the six group revealed their decision, they went in opposition to the other five groups. The sixth group won the challenge and went home with all of the bragging rights and the fake money.
Now, this seems all fine and dandy if they actually had won millions and could retire from life. But they didn’t, and they couldn’t. We all returned to our work the following week. Unfortunately, and not my proudest moment, this colored my interaction with this one manager on the sixth team that had done me wrong, along with the rest of people. So, apparently, once people show me who they are, I tend to believe them.
A number of times when speaking to accountants, in a more relaxed setting, they tsk tsk the poor lawyer or accountant that got nabbed for stealing $40,000 or $50,000. They always boast they would never steal that amount of money. They would wait for the big deal, and go for a few million. Not to generalize, but it always the guys that seem to say this, but my sample size is small. Is this just bravado, financial locker room talk so to speak? “When you are a star lawyer, you can do whatever you want. Grab em by their proxies” for example?
Do you have a figure (financial, not body) that would tempt you? If so, you may wish to rethink the value statement that holds you together.
As for myself, I seem to have developed an unusual value statement for situations like this. I could never see myself taking anything from an employer or trusting client. I value my freedom far too much. I would never trade my right to go into any fast food joint of my choosing at any time. If I feared being apprehended at any time, that potential joy would be lost.
This always seems odd to me since I have not voluntarily gone to any fast food place for at least 40 years. There were the times I had to when my kids were growing up. Then you have no choice since any opium den will do. Society frowns on you when you feed your children cough syrup so you can rest. But if you take them for a greasy flat burger and sodden fries, well then you are the greatest dad in the world according to your kids and the commercials.
The first ethical problem for most people appears to be recognizing there is a problem. You should ask yourself if a situation or decision could be damaging to someone or to some group. Is there a choice between a good and a bad alternative such as you see in the plot of a superficial science fiction movie? Or perhaps you have a choice between two bads such as you find in one of your darker dramatic comedies perhaps?
As the complexity increases, unless you’re trained in ethics (like a lawyer), or unless you encounter more ethical dilemmas than most people (a religious advisor) then you really need a framework to analyze these situations. Having a great framework does not help much if you simply don’t care. It seems that lawyers and religious advisors get into ethically tough (ie criminal) spots quite often. So knowing ethics is not the same thing as practicing ethics. I am sure that ethic professors in university get into trouble too, but the media simply does not care.
Getting all of the fact surrounding an issue would be the next thing to do, right after recognizing that you have something to do. This includes finding out who might be impacted by your decision. Consulting with this group may identify some creative options.
When dealing with an ethical issue, once you have all the facts, you should evaluate the alternative options. One way is the Utilitarian approach. Which option will produce the most good and the least harm?
Let’s take the example of a science fiction movie and a spaceship of aliens arrive in your yard. They look friendly enough. Big eyes, big tongues, long shaggy ears and a mouth that curves up in smile loaded with lots of white gleaming teeth. They all have black, cold noses. Very golden retriever looking. They say they can provide you with a new vaccine that could save thousands of people from a nasty influenza virus. But in exchange, they want your cat. Actually they want a lot of cats. At the mention of this the antennae on top of their helmet wags quickly side to side.
Usually a science fiction example is extremely forced to become unbelievable, but you are faced with a simple choice. The most good obviously means saving the most people, but that one evil act seems to taint everything. This always leaves the decision maker on the horns of a dilemma. There only seems to be two options. Both unpalatable. But in most science fiction stories we wait until the very end when a third option finally become available that saves the people and the cat(s). Just as well since no one really wants to see a negative for either option. The non-cat people may have a different opinion mind you, but that’s another discussion.
The Rights approach looks for the option that best respects the rights of all those who have a stake. Here we are looking at a more complex situation where a number of groups have a say, and ultimately everyone is going to have to give a bit in order to get along. Here the drama becomes so subtle that it doesn’t make for good movie material. Not even the straight to video downgrade. Back when straight to video actually meant something. We would have to ask the cats their opinion on the topic. There only seems to be a downside for them. The Aliens don’t really have any rights to speak of and the other people do not necessarily a have a right to a vaccine which does not yet exist. So the no-go solution seems to be obvious.
The justice approach treats people equally or at least proportionally. Now here, a lot more people would be relieved in not getting sick at a cost of only a few cats. But the cats are seemingly paying a higher price. So they are given a higher weighting when it comes to balancing off the two groups. Once again, the price remains too high from the cat perspective. And again, the Aliens do not have any rights in this approach.
The Common good approach looks at the option that best serves the community as a whole and not just some members. Once again, the community would likely be aghast at giving away a community of cats for the benefit of a smaller group that may have gotten ill. So again, we have a no-go situation.
Finally, you could examine the virtue approach which leads you to act as the sort of person you want to be. Now, this does leave room for someone to be a complete jerk, and this seems to happen more than what you would think. Personally, I could not see myself making anything suffer just so others may benefit. So we could say that the cats are saved, but the default approach should be that they would not be at risk in the first place.
You tell the Aliens that they can’t have your cat or any others. The Aliens might be sad, but their faces have this perpetual golden retriever smile. You aren’t sure how they feel, except that their antennae looks droopy.
Finally, you should examine the results of your ethical solution, and you should examine yourself. An unexamined life means that you just haven’t gotten around to it yet.