September 2009

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Right and Wrong

By Jonathan Wallace

Ethics is one of those abstract human concepts, like quality in the business world, which everyone assumes is off in a domain of its own, to be treated as an afterthought, but which actually is pervasively present at every moment, whether we recognize it or not.

In the world of business consulting, meta-thought about how to operate businesses, I remember the point being very effectively made that you couldn’t mass manufacture a car, then hand it to a last group of workers with an instruction to “add quality” before sending it out the door. If your determination was to manufacture the highest quality vehicle possible, you had to make a series of fateful decisions at every step of your manufacturing process, starting from the design and conception of a new vehicle, and actually even before it, in the original philosophizing as to the goals and methods of the organization itself. Thus quality, or its lack, was present as an unstated objective of every conversation about the business, from the day its progenitors decided to launch it.

Ethics is a similar abstraction. We envision that our lives are for the most part a series of actions and decisions as usual, a flow of life and our role as tiny individuals going with the flow. Then an ethical issue arises and we all put on different hats, like the workers assigned to instill quality in the finished automobile. We may privately feel astonished that something so routine has become a moral issue, while others may secretly feel angry or helpless that the ordinary must now be talked about as if it were something very different from its true nature.

Here is where I say in every similar essay, that I regard morality as a series of overlapping, possibly conflicting human rulebooks, and not as a matter of absolute truth. There is no God-given or natural law, in other words, just human proposals, some beautiful and some appalling. (I remember the fighter pilot in “Captain Newman MD”, who always directed the first salvo at God, before he could aim at the enemy.)

In reality, moral choices pervade our days like the air we breathe. Some appear academic to us, because pertaining to matters of less immediate personal interest, such as the environment and the effect of small actions of ours on its quality for future generations. A decision to litter or to pour chemicals down a sink drain is a decision of this nature. A choice at the fish market whether to buy orange roughy (an endangered species) or farmed salmon (spreads disease, fouls the environment, escapes and drives out wild species) is also an ethical decision. These are glorified choices, affecting realms we don't like to think about; we don't think that our small decision, to buy one orange roughy fillet every few months, is really going to affect anything, and we are not in the habit of applying Kant's categorical imperative, in which we consider what would happen if everyone else acted the way we did. So those who insist on our thinking through the implications of these choices are viewed as silly, puerile, egg headed types who are afraid to walk on the grass for fear of stepping on ants.

Other choices of this type are the use of disposable or permanent bags at the supermarket, recycling, purchase of durable light-bulbs or “Energy Star” appliances and the like. Tedious thoughts all. Even Jesus got indignant when he was told he could sell his hair oil and give to the poor: “The poor you shall always have with you.” And Obama seemed very tired when asked about such environmental choices in a debate. He knew that the choices individuals make can't save the world, if their governments aren't trying to.

Still, there is an ethical domain even huger and more immediate than the environmental, and that is the one pertaining to human relationships. Every time we pay a visit or decide against it, speak a truth or decide not to, there is an ethical choice involved. When the cashier gives you too much change, do you return it or keep it? Do you wait your turn at a traffic circle or shoot in ahead of a slow moving vehicle? What kind of lies are you willing to tell in the course of a day? What's your take on pirated music or computer software? Do you give money to homeless people or street musicians? If you do, are you worried that you are encouraging addiction or some other bad lifestyle that they wouldn't be able to sustain otherwise? Are you trampling on the preserve of the government or social service agencies?

If you give money only to certain supplicants, what are your criteria? Race? Gender? The fact they have a child with them? If the latter, are you possibly supporting the exploitation of children? Do you care what story they are telling? If so, does the story have to be true or just innovative? Around 1970, I gave money to a man who said he had just that day been released from a three year term on Riker's Island, which he had spent dreaming of an Orange Julius. I didn't believe him but chose to reward the story. Imagine my surprise when he immediately walked into a store behind us and bought the frothy, sugary orange drink. If you give money to a street musician, does it matter if she plays her instrument well or badly? Does it matter which instrument it is? One day recently, I arbitrarily decided to reward every accordionist I saw with a dollar. But when one responded by playing the Star Wars theme, I wanted my money back.

There has been a debate in various states recently about creating a crime of sending text messages while driving. Law doesn't overlap morality entirely—some laws ban behavior which isn't immoral in itself, like selling t-shirts on a street corner without a municipal license. Other arguably very immoral behavior—like walking out on a faithful, loving wife of thirty years for reasons of vanity and appetite—is not illegal.

Criminalizing the sending of text messages while driving is laudable but also may obscure the purely moral element of the issue. Every time we choose not to pay attention to the road while driving, we are not only gambling our own lives (which we have a greater right to do) but the lives of others. We are making a moral choice, that the goal of sending a message to one's girlfriend NOW rather than in twenty minutes, is more important than the risk to others.

On a different note. The other day, on a highway in Florida, two stopped cars, one on the side of the road and the other in the median, alerted me something was happening. I slowed down and veered around a large turtle crossing the road. The eyes of a woman standing on the median flashed with alarm for the threatened animal; a moment later, as I too pulled over on the side of the road, I saw her run across the highway, retrieve the turtle and carry it into the woods on that side of the road.

As I have learned from turtle related lists I follow, there is an ethical protocol turtle lovers quite fastidiously follow whenever a turtle crosses the road: you carry it to the side of the road it was heading towards, and leave it out of danger on the shoulder. You don't place it in your car with the intention of keeping it as a pet, or even of bringing it to a safer place.

A year ago, I inadvertently tried to break this rule, of which I was not yet aware. An aquatic turtle was crossing the main road on Sanibel Island. I had never seen any fresh water in the immediate vicinity, so I placed the turtle in my car, planning to drive it less than a mile to the development where I was staying, which had a fresh water pond. A passing busybody, a local fire official, stopped and told me I could be arrested for keeping the turtle, so I released it. A few minutes of Googling Florida law confirmed that I had the right to take five turtles of this species every day, for the purpose of eating them, if I wished. My officious interlocutor assumed the turtle was a protected gopher tortoise. If it had been, he would have been right.

Only a few weeks later, I learned our pond was dominated by a five foot alligator, so if I had succeeded in transporting the turtle, I might have done it no favor.

The woman who stopped in the median, in the later incident, was risking her own life by running across the highway to help a turtle. This reminds me of stories you hear of people who are killed, or kill others, braking so as not to hit small animals they could have run over without harming themselves or their cars. One thing which makes many small, daily, almost unconscious ethical choices so interesting is their potential for backfire.

This morning, on my way to a Duncan Donuts in Fort Myers Beach where I have a weekend ritual (I eat an egg sandwich and then work on the Spectacle), I stopped in a Circle K store to buy the New York Times and the local paper, the News Press. I know from long experience that this is a $2.92 purchase, including tax. The young woman behind the counter wanted to charge me $1.06, and even argued with me when I told her it was too little: she said that the local paper cost seventy five cents, which was correct, and that the Times (which is $2.00) cost a quarter (which was true thirty or forty years ago). I stood my ground, and she realized she had somehow confused the Times with the Naples, Florida newspaper.

Why fight with her, if she was so determined to undercharge me? There are several possible explanations. (The purpose of this essay was not primarily to discuss the roots of morality, but it is impossible for me to tell these anecdotes without touching on motivation.) The most standard one through human history is a fear of consequences in the after-life, that I would end up burning in a lake of ever-lasting hellfire as a consequence of “stealing” the newspaper and other small bad choices. Another is a fear of the shame (as opposed to guilt) which can ensue from the public exposure of a bad action. A third is the desire to comply with an internal rulebook—to be the kind of person you have always wanted to be. A fourth, which overlaps the third, is vanity.

I think the third explanation (and to some extent the fourth) is the prevalent one in my own decision-making. The chances of my running into this particular clerk again are very small, and if I did, and she recognized me, and accused me of underpaying, I could shrug and say that I had innocently, like her, believed $1.07 to be the correct price. More likely, at the end of the day, if the store even had a system for determining that there was too little money in the till, she would have been genuinely uncertain how the disparity came about.

I don't believe in hell. But I have much experience of the way I feel when I don't live up to my own expectations. I have always wanted to be the kind of person who corrects an error in my favor when a cashier makes it.

I stop for turtles for two reasons, because I genuinely like turtles and don't want harm to come to them, and because I want to be the kind of person who stops for turtles.

(Note that I did not say, “I care for cashiers and don't want harm to come to them”. As I get older, I find that I have much less compassion for people than I did; it is possible I care more about turtles than people, at this point.)

The vanity comes in when a cashier thanks you for not letting her make an error, or in the complicit looks I exchanged with the other two people who had stopped for the turtle on the road: “We are members of a small but valuable group of humans, those who stop for turtles.”

An experience of which I am partially very proud occurred many years ago. I sublet my apartment to a friend who had a boyfriend I didn't like. He was not of the same race, which I hope did not factor into my disapproval; most importantly, his means of making a living were mysterious (he once asked to borrow $250, a very large sum of money for me in 1981 (and again today!) and promised to return it, with interest, the next day).

The following summer, when I moved out of that apartment, I could not find a backpacking tent I was sure should have been in the closet, and I called my friend and asked if her boyfriend might have taken it. She defended him, but in the most hesitant possible way, as if she thought it was perfectly possible.

We lost touch. In the intervening ten years, a flood damaged my parents' basement in Brooklyn; as I was helping with the clean-out, I found the tent which I had no recollection of having stored there. Some time after that, I ran into my friend. There was no need to bring up an ancient misunderstanding, which involved a man she had broken up with not long after. I remember having a little internal struggle; if I didn't say anything, no one would ever know except me; there would be no consequences except my own disappointment in myself. When I said, “I was wrong about that old boyfriend of yours,” I had a feeling of chemical relief, like a cleansing hormone released by my glands when I tell the truth. And when she said, “Most people wouldn't do what you just did,” she stoked my vanity.

As a corrective to this last (because it is a form of boasting), I will repeat another story I have told before. I was an executive in a family of companies, detailed to spend part of my time supporting one affiliate, run by a man who didn't like me and wanted maximum independence from our mutual boss. This situation involved a built in conflict I was poorly equipped to handle; I naively wanted to be everyone's friend. When an employee of the affiliate made a nasty comment in internal email about people with New York accents, I forwarded it to my boss; soon after, my colleague who ran the affiliate, asked me if I had shared his employee's provocative, dangerous comment with anyone. I took the line of least resistance, lied to him and said I hadn't. I was exposed as a liar within a day. I regret the lie, which damaged my already equivocal relationships with the locals; and I regret it not only because of the embarrassment, but because I really don't want to be the kind of hapless fool who gets into a highly conflictual situation he should have foreseen, and then tells lies to keep the waters calm.

Our confusion about the pervasiveness of moral issues is reflected in our movies as well. We rarely think of most of the films we enjoy as moral fables; in fact, we get dull-eyed and sleepy if forced to watch anything which has been represented to us as a moral discourse. But this is not because of the presence of moral choices in the story, but because they are described to us heavy-handedly and didactically, an approach which kills any kind of story telling. If you scan almost any movie for its moral assumptions and fateful choices, you will be startled by how many of them you notice.

Westerns and film noirs are always about moral struggles, of communities against predators, duty versus desire, loyalty against the benefits of betrayal. A major feature of the appeal of westerns for so many decades was the deployment of grand themes against grand scenery. Film noirs, by contrast, told stories about morally striped people—good and evil in one mixed vessel—set against the striping of the light cast through venetian blinds, in small cramped spaces and large deserted ones.

I saw a television interview recently with Quentin Tarantino in which he denied that “Inglourious Basterds”, or any of his movies, are moral tales, and in other interviews I found on the Web he denounced the “hand-wringing” of most Holocaust-related movies. But like every movie, “Basterds” takes place in a particular moral universe. Aldo Raines, the hill-billy leader of a group of American Jewish commandos, tells them: ““We will be cruel to the Germans, and through our cruelty they will know who we are. They will find the evidence of our cruelty in the disemboweled, dismembered, and disfigured bodies of their brothers we leave behind us.” And he requires each member of the squad to present him with one hundred Nazi scalps. At this moment, “Basterds” (which I thoroughly enjoyed) both sketches its moral landscape and indicates the route the characters will take through it. Rather than claiming his movies take place in a universe where morality is not represented, Tarantino might more accurately have said something like, “I have a greater respect for people who counter violence with violence, without hand-wringing.” Which illuminates the moral rulebook of the filmmaker.

Tarantino's professed amorality is completely belied by the movie's final scene. The lead Nazi character, brilliant, funny and murderous, makes a deal with Aldo's bosses. He fails to stop their attempt to kill the Nazi leadership; in return he will receive a pardon for his crimes and a home on Nantucket. We are presented with a vision of the equivocal political world in which we actually live, where rocket scientists and other men of perceived value were pardoned for their involvement in the Nazi party. But Raines proves to be a unique moralist: he cannot just let the deal go, but must act out his own unique moral disapproval of the Nazi and the deal, by carving a swastika in the man's forehead.

At most, story-tellers may argue that the moral background against which their story is set is driven by the profit motive, actually chosen for its entertainment value rather than to educate the audience or to carry on any kind of dialog. In the 1970's I first noticed trends in movies, including those made for television; one year, sympathetic stories about the empowerment of women; the next year, male vigilantes avenging the rape and murder of loved ones. It occurred to me that the same individual, putatively a left leaning liberal, might make both types of movies, dealing at times in right wing, militia oriented, pro-weapons tales personally repugnant to him because “I tell the kind of stories the audience wants to hear.” Of course, the profit motive completely fails to erase or excuse the moral context; it is a moral context.

We swim in a sea of moral issues in our daily lives; each day we experience scores, even hundreds, of choices and communications about right and wrong. In most cases, we are unaware that that is what they are. Most of the choices are minor, but many are fateful, and every once in a while, one is a life and death decision.