Modified Ethics for the Common Good
Modified Ethics for the Common Good by Stephen Hudak
Sheila Murray Bethel writes “when standards and performance do not match, when they do not send a clear sound, we lack authenticity, confuse our followers, and set bad examples” (Bethel 128); to do otherwise destroys relationships, devours trust, and loses supporters. It is said that the real character of a man is revealed when he is alone. Are we the same person when we are alone as are with family, friends, at work, at church? Ethics should have no setting; it must be who we are, how we act, regardless of the circumstances we face.
Easier said than done.
Bethel references a story from the San Francisco Chronicle of money from an armored car open door flooding a street and how some persons gathered money for their own pockets while others garnered it for the police to return to the rightful owner. Ethics does not play games. Finders keepers; losers weepers is only for children’s games. Or is it? Does ethics judge?
I felt my ethics were fairly well grounded, but during a recent trip to India I witnessed such poverty and depression that the above Chronicle story was considered through more passionate eyes. If some of those plucking dollar bills off the ground stood naked, dirty, diseased, and lame my initial response is to let them have it for their bloated-bellied children. A few dollars could feed them for weeks – a few hundred dollars for many months. I know the money is not theirs, but who could better use it?
Bethel poses the question of whether we would “…have to think very long” (Bethel 132) to find our answer. For one to whom money does not mean immediate life, then I say return it to the rightful owner; for those such as the Indian children dying lying on a dirt floor under a cardboard roof I say keep it. This brings us to the multi-authored essay “Thinking Ethically.”
For the Common Good
Manual Velasquez and others write of the “Utilitarian Approach” in which “…the ethical action is the one that provides the greatest good for the greatest number” (Velasquez 139). Even though it might be ethically right to deny found money to skeletal children it must certainly be morally wrong.
Or is it?
If a father steals bread for his child he is guilty in the eyes of the law, but a savior to the child. If an urban youth steals a video game most would feel that is wrong. What is the difference? Well…that is obvious, need opposed to greed…but is either ethically right? If we subscribe to the utilitarian approach, then hunger rises above the need for entertainment. If we consider the bread-game question under Velasquez’ five ethical problem solving questions we can perhaps come to conclusion.
First, What benefits and what harms will each course of action produce and which alternative will lead to the best overall consequence? If we go under the assumption that the bread thief is indeed taking it for his child then the benefits outweigh the harm and the potential cost of getting caught is insignificant. A game is not a necessity in any regard.
What moral rights do the affected parties have, and which course of action best respects those rights? When morality is brought into the equation the father is operating under greater moral direction than the game-thief. The one who loses bread (provided she is not in similar circumstance to the man) does not suffer nor does the merchant minus one game. The affected parties lose little, the game-thief loses nothing, and the father gains much.
Which course of action treats everyone the same, except where there is a morally justifiable reason not to, and does not show favoritism or discrimination? This problem solving question is perhaps the most difficult to answer in our situation. It begs us to remove emotion from the circumstance and to focus on facts. The reasons for and results of the act are subjective. Objectivity is required to answer the substance of the question – treating everyone the same – regardless of from where the one stealing comes. The act itself, of stealing, is wrong in everyone’s eyes.
Which course of action advances the common good? To eliminate theft from any society would be the goal. To eliminate the need for thievery in the case of the father is a great moral and economic dilemma. A society, such as that in India, where overpopulation is far greater than that of any other country needs great reform in order to provide jobs, housing, and other basic needs for its citizens. Stealing a game cannot be justified. Neither act advances the common good by itself, but both create community awareness of what is lacking in a society – basic needs and moral education.
Which course of action develops moral virtues? Finally, both the deeds of the father and game-stealer necessitate justification. If rationalization is considered in moral and ethical questions we enter situational ethics. Right should be right and wrong should be wrong, but in a world of varying color and culture perhaps there can be no black and white decisions – only answers to the first question of benefits and harms.
Bether, Sheila Murray. “A Leader has High Ethics: Building Trust with Your Followers.” Leadership Development Studies. Ed. Monika S. Byrd. Mississippi: Phi Theta Kappa, 2006. 128.
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