Moral and Ethical Dilemmas
One of the most difficult trials I face in my life are ethical and moral
dilemmas. They can be soul-wrenching and searching experiences that tax my
character and cause me to really “put my money where my mouth is.” Sometimes
I’m quick to see ethical faults in others, but slow to see them in myself.
Other times I see all to clearly my mistakes and wonder why I don’t measure up.
I believe one purpose for this life is to learn to act for ourselves. Learn to
see a situation correctly and act righteously. In this paper I wish to discuss
many of the thoughts I have had recently on setting a pattern for making ethical
decisions throughout my life. I will present many of the traps I have fallen
into or observed in others.
Everyday I’m faced with decisions of right and wrong, most of which are
easily and correctly dealt with. Sometimes however, decisions need to be made
that are not easy or clear-cut. They require thought and often prayer. I like
to draw on past experience to make comparisons that help give insight to new
problems. Many times, however past experiences cannot be related to present
problems and can confuse and obscure possibilities. Even the opinions or
actions of friends faced with similar dilemmas may not be helpful. Often you
feel pressured by piers that say, “it’s no big deal”, or “you’ll understand
later”. It’s important that I understand why a particular action or resolution
is correct or incorrect. If I can’t or don’t it’s difficult to feel I’ve been
honest with myself. That for me can be a good measure of ethical behavior, my
The ideal way to deal with difficult questions is to have a foolproof
formula. Find steps that will always lead to correct decisions. Unfortunately
I do not yet have such a formula and often learn by hard experience right and
wrong. Let me start by saying I firmly believe the formula exists, and is to be
found in the gospel of Jesus Christ. The only way to live a perfectly ethical
and moral life is to be Like Him. There is no other way. The entire world will
experiment and try all other forms of self-indulgence and soul searching and
will not be one step closer until they begin with His gospel. I heard it said
once that “he who picks up one end of a stick, picks up the other end also.” No
matter how hard you try or want happiness, you cannot pick and choose values and
beliefs according to your tastes and wants. It really is all or nothing. That
is why I will discuss my formula in a gospel light, because any other way is a
waist of time.
I believe that in order to make correct and righteous decisions you must
first have proper perspective and motivation. The Apostle (???), said that “the
true character of a man can really be seen when he is alone and no one will
know.” Many people, myself included, are motivated by responsibility or
leadership. They ask, “what will my wife, or kids think?” or “what will my ward
think?”. These are good motivations and the mantle of responsibility can mold a
person, but they can also betray us and make decisions quite difficult. If you
rely on pressure to make decisions, what will you do when a decision is
unpopular, or when no one is looking?
Still others weigh consequences or outcomes to aid in decision making.
Rather than look at the question and judge it by it’s own merits, they want to
see who’s affected or what it would really cost. It’s like putting a price on
your character. If it’s small or doesn’t hurt anybody, than it won’t be a big
deal. We can “nickel and dime” our moral piggy bank to death. It’s the old,
“the ends justify the means.” Criminals aren’t made in a day.
Some of the most unethical and unjustifiable behavior I know of has come
out of our own political system. The very men who are responsible for making
our laws have little or no regard for them. They live under the philosophy that
“I’m an ethical person until I get caught…” and when their caught they exclaim
that their human. Ethics has nothing to do with other people. It’s called
personal integrity and character and no one else will ever be my judge but me in
that regard. An ethical person has character and personal integrity.
What of the argument, “Remember the SPIRIT, or LETTER of the law”? I
think all too often I use both of these arguments to justify myself. When I may
not exactly follow a law to the letter I can justify myself by babbling about
“original intent or spirit”. On other occasions it’s an easy way out of a
dilemma by taking too literally the letter of the law. The classic argument
against war is “thou shalt not kill”. If a person wishes to look blindly on a
rule or a law and will not see a larger picture, than they easily justify the
letter of the law.It is for this reason our courts are overloaded with
endless cases and appeals. Criminals go free on technicalities caused by forced
“letter of the law” rulings. I believe it’s important to understand both the
letter and spirit of the law in order to make correct decisions.
Drawing analogies can often help me to understand complex subjects. I
think traffic laws are a good microcosm of our society. We are a car along the
road of life (sorry if this is too much, just bare with me). On the road we
have laws, which are straight forward and strict. We also have guidelines, that
are not laws, but still expected. On this road, we also interact with other
cars and difficult situations. “Can I pull a u-turn in the middle of the road
when there’s no sign that says I can’t?”, or “Can I park here?”, “Should I stop
that drunk driver?” etc. There are many examples that can be directly related
to our lives, and can demonstrate the purpose for law and order. Are there
times on the road when we justify an action by an individual situation or
outcome? Are there times when we are justified to not obey the law? Some may
think these examples are too much of a stretch, and I agree that they only apply
so far, but in a Priesthood session not long ago we were asked, “how many of you
brethren obeyed all traffic laws when driving to conference today?” I believe
that it is easy to justify traffic infractions, just as it is easy to justify
small compromises in our character.
I believe there are situations that merit not following the law. As we
discussed in class, The revolutionary war was begun as a result of outright
rebellion of the colonies. When a people is deprived of life or liberty they
have a human right to claim it and fight for it if necessary. Imagine if a
police officer over enforced laws on you, or unreasonably harassed you. Even
though technically he may be within the law to do so, do you have a right to not
obey him. Many courts have stated you do, and for good reason. Recently in
Alabama an officer was chasing a women on the highway for a traffic violation.
He was in an unmarked car. It had no police lights on the top or any markings
that would show it’s identity. He flashed his brights and told her to pull over
for miles, but she wouldn’t pull over. She was frightened of the man and
wouldn’t believe he was an officer. After several miles she finally pulled to
the side of the rode. The officer was furious and pulled her out of her car,
through her on the ground, cuffed her, and arrested her. Here, the officer was
justified in pulling her over. In Alabama police are not required to be in a
marked police car. The officer has the right to arrest someone that doesn’t
pull over. Technically the women broke the law, but was she justified? I
believe she was. She feared for her own safety, and could not be faulted for
doing so. Fortunately her judge felt the same way and the officer was suspended.
I believe this example, and others can show that ethical decisions are
not always black and white. They usually require thinking and good judgement.
I realize that I can’t look at situations always at face value, but must
endeavor to understand them if I always want to make the best decision I can.
A simple guide that I have used throughout my life is the golden rule.
Do unto others as you would have done unto you. I believe this is a good rule
of thumb to fall back on, but I don’t believe it’s foolproof. So often we can
justify actions by using this kind of reason. Just because you would do it, or
have it done to you in no way means it’s ethical or right. Sure it may keep you
from stealing, or murdering, but what about the gray areas. “I’ll do it for him
because he’d do it for me.” “Everyone else would take this opportunity, so why
can’t I.” Even putting yourself in someone else’s shoes may not help very much.
You must have a stronger foundation to base all your ethics on.
The motivation for doing right should be based far deeper than just
testimony, commandments, or responsibility. I believe it must come from a true
desire to be the best person you can be. Don’t settle for second rate behavior.
Expect the best out of yourself and your fellow man. Be forgiving both of
yourself and others, but don’t be clumsy and just stumble through your mistakes.
I believe the savior didn’t do all he did on the earth just to obey, or just to
be righteous. Those were true motivations, but I believe His motivation was
more proactive rather than reactive. He was good, and He loved us, and wanted us
to be like Him. He knew the only path possible for our return. That is why He
volunteered and submitted. I could compare it to temple attendance or
missionary service. We may serve by commandment alone, and reap all the
blessing and rewards, or we could look beyond and see the work of saving souls.
We could see the absolute need for our service and give our lives for it.
I believe with that kind of true motivation we will more easily be able
to see right from wrong. We will not seek to satisfy our own needs or wants,
but will see others needs along with ours. We could more clearly see the
importance of ethical and moral behavior. Whether someone is watching or not is
irrelevant and has no part in our decisions. I admit that this in no way will
make the decision making process easier; quite the contrary. No longer will
decisions be made based on popularity or gain, but on what’s right and good.
Unfortunately I will still have to learn by experience when the answers are not
clear, so I will get burned a few times. But in the process of learning, I can
be confident that I am really doing my best and improving always. By refining
this formula I will find myself better able to resolve difficult dilemmas and
feel good about my decisions.