What do you do in face of laws that are abusive or cruel? What do you do when upholding one ethical thing conflicts with some other demand for compassion or protection? Most of the time, the good and ethical choice is fairly obvious. What do we do when nothing is simple?
Picking an honourable path is to a large extent something you have to figure out on your own. Doing that requires having a system of priorities. I would, for example, lie to keep someone alive because I think protecting life is more important than being honest. I might however decide that it is more important to be honest than to maintain a relationship that depends on me lying.
There’s a lot of room for personal choice here. How we relate to laws is an interesting case in point for thinking about how our honour systems work. On what terms are we willing to break the law? What do we do when the laws themselves are not just? Laws are often made by people with power and may be in place to protect power and financial interests. How far is it honourable to go in order to tackle an unjust system? I’m not personally inclined towards violence, but I do think there are times when it is an appropriate response.
When faced with complicated situations, I’m interested in what would cause least harm and do most good. When those two things align it can be easy to make decisions even if the price-tag on a choice is still high. However, it often isn’t that clear cut because there’s usually an element of guesswork involved. I don’t know how everything is going to play out. I have to acknowledge my own biases and preferences. Like most people, I am inclined to value the good outcomes for people I care about over harm caused to people who mean nothing to me. It is harder to place a value on what would be good when I’m thinking about people I actively don’t like.
I’m not the sort of person who believes that the ends justify the means. I don’t believe in winning at any cost. I try not to see life as inherently competitive and I don’t believe that for some people to ‘win’ and have success other people must lose.
Every now and then a situation comes along where it’s hard to see what to do for the best and I have no idea what the possible outcomes are. Which leads me to a question I struggle with – to what degree should I be willing to treat good outcomes for me as the least important thing? To what degree should I treat my own good outcomes as important? It’s not as though a good outcome for me is something that only impacts on me. Usually if I’m winning at something that benefits other people in all kinds of ways. There are people who will suffer if I suffer.
Generally speaking I believe in behaving honestly and with compassion. However, none of us can see the future, we only guess at where our choices might take us. I’m increasingly interested by the way in which a person’s scope to act honourably depends on both their ability to understand the complexities of situations they are in, and their ability to predict outcomes. An apparently kind choice based on profound misunderstanding can cause a lot of harm. What scope do we have to make honourable choices if we don’t understand what’s happening and what the implications are? This in turn suggests that attempting to make sense of things might be a critically important moral choice, on which all scope for acting honourably must depend.