When a manager told me to lie to a prospective customer – oh, it must have been 20 years ago now – I refused. It isn’t that I was supremely secure in my position. It isn’t that I didn’t understand it would mean money in her pocket. It wasn’t even the fact that lying about what you can deliver – when you know you can’t – is bad business. To me, it was a matter of right and wrong.
I stood my ground, and then she backed off. That I positioned the ultimate consequence – we would lose the customer – certainly made my argument more persuasive.
Morality, Moral Relativism
Do we live in a time of moral relativism? I daresay most would agree that’s a YES. Then again, perhaps we always have, if we give credence to the notion that individuals are capable of free will whether they act on it or not.
But that’s a hefty “if.” So I repeat: We live in a time of moral relativism.
As for morality, let’s be realistic. Money and power motivate many. Facing oneself in the mirror – easily – motivates others. Of course, the way I was raised is different from the way I raised my children. The fundamentals I retained from my own upbringing, as modified by my life experience, were passed along to my sons. I imagine they will take what they find applicable to their lives and modify further – one day teaching their cultural and personal values to their own children.
And yet some things, for most of us, remain simple to distinguish. For example, I am a marketer. There’s spin… and there’s lying. There’s spin for business, spin for self-interest, spin for survival and lying for any number of reasons, including a good cause.
Most of us know the difference between spin and lying, though naturally, in the example of standing up I mentioned, some would have made a different choice. For me, the path was clear, and so was my conscience.
There are other times when choosing right from wrong is less clear; there is no obvious win, no explicitly wronged party, and the possible outcomes pose challenges no matter which way we direct our decisions. Perhaps we’re twisting the truth to protect a child – or to help him or her gain an advantage. Perhaps we’re explicitly not doing so, to assure an important lesson. In either case, we have good intentions.
What is a Crisis of Conscience?
Relationships present these challenges frequently, and we most typically address them in the context of marriage and infidelity. For example, do we withhold information from a partner so as not to hurt him or her, or do we do so to protect ourselves? Do we share information in the interest of clearing the air or coming closer? Whatever our actions (or non-actions), we generally try to justify them. We imagine ourselves as wearing the white hat, and resolution of the crisis of conscience may lead to relief, to guilt, or to greater understanding.
Surely, these aren’t the only arenas in which conscience comes to stir the pot, and we find ourselves stuck – having made a choice (or a non-choice), and wondering if it was the best under the circumstances.
For clarity, a crisis of conscience may be defined as follows:
… a time when someone is worrying because they think that they have done something unfair or morally wrong
In a recent article on Forbes by psychologist Todd Essig, “The Tragedy of Harmful Acts of Conscience,” a very explicit situation is described over the course of several columns in a series. But I would like to focus on mentions in this, the last of the three articles, and themes we can all relate to.
Dr. Essig makes a distinction between effective and harmful acts of conscience, as well as intentions and actions. He points out that moral choices are complex, involving:
conflicting ethical principles, the ethics of not doing something, the reality of multiple allegiances…
And he reminds us in no uncertain terms:
… intentions alone don’t define an action. Actions have meaning and consequence even when all one is trying to do is do the right thing.
Moral Choices: The Devil on Your Shoulder
Paying attention to the devil on one shoulder versus the angel on the other is a nifty notion. But most decisions are far more nuanced. The devil isn’t demonic, and the angel’s halo fell long ago. We find ourselves confronted with gray area, as we go for the “little” lie to attend a parenting function rather than a business meeting, or to take a mental health day that we reason will result in greater effectiveness tomorrow.
In a grander context, we remove ourselves from the “good fight” because we believe that in itself is a statement of disapproval, and perhaps it absolves the conscience from further action. Couldn’t we put not voting in elections into this category – as if that protest, however well-intentioned, is meaningful in achieving one’s end? Is that too simplistic a conclusion on my part – if you actively engage in working within the political system to make changes, or for that matter, you participate in civil disobedience?
What about picking one’s battles? What about the fatigue that comes from fighting the good fight for years? What about situations in which you don’t wish to be affiliated with a group that violates aspects of your personal ethics? How much more complicated is all of this when the parties involved are all well-intentioned, acting out of belief, or simply oblivious to what they’re doing?
The Concept of Conscience: Outmoded?
Even with good intentions, isn’t inaction itself an action more often than we realize? In our era of moral relativism, are we excusing consequences with the “good intentions” cover-up? What are we modeling when we don’t vote, when we don’t stand up for what we believe, or when we compromise whatever moral framework we’ve established for our families?
And how often do we speak about conscience itself?
I highly recommend the series of articles by Dr. Essig, which takes us through a number of examples of moral leadership – and consequences. These questions are not for the faint of heart when it comes to examining our values, our options, and what we stand for. Among the points Dr. Essig leaves us with are these: how we fight for what we believe is important; thinking through both action and inaction is critical; following one’s conscience can, at times, undermine the very objectives we’re hoping to achieve.
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