Skip navigation

We live in an essentially complicated and dynamic world. It provides us daily with complicated and varied challenges, and these fluctuate both in their intensity and their results. Things are easier today, hard yesterday. Things that worked today will not work tomorrow. Through all of this, in the essential search through the distortion that life placed on the clear eye of the mind, a search goes on for order, a search for understanding that might give some clarity to the blurred vision we experience. To make what seems so hard, a little easier.

I have been doing a fair bit of thinking about what are commonly called ethical dilemmas; those situations where we find ourselves hard pressed to know what to do, to resolve the situation between what are conflicting and seemingly equally valid solutions. The more thinking I do, the clearer it becomes to me that at the top level ethical and moral dilemmas are not that difficult to resolve. Its not resolving them that is the difficulty rather, but that in their execution, to do the right thing, having already ascertained what the right thing to do is, that is where the challenge lies.

In fact I think there is an almost binary distinction that can be drawn that between its two limbs can expose most such problems. There are two components, firstly identifying what the easy thing to do is, and secondly identifying what the right thing to do is. If you want a cookie cutter formula to generate ethical dilemmas, this is it.

The challenge finds form in what we can require of ourselves. Do we have the discipline and organisation, the control and the calm, needed to do the Right Thing, as far as we are able to determine it. Can we accept the price that we have to pay? Can we subordinate our sense of individuality, personal dislike or fear to the demands of duty? It is these that generate a sense of dilemma, a sensation unfounded in fact in the actual nature of the difficulty. It is not that we are morally deficient in our understanding, it is that we are morally weak in our action. We lack enough conviction in our own moral principles, we are too quick to highlight personal inconvenience and reject personal difficulty in the pursuit of the easier solution.

The real deception of the dilemma is the notion of resolved’. We believe that if we can make a decision and stick by it, whether on the easy way or the right way, or in a manner equitable to both, that we can relieve ourselves of the burden that the dilemma imposed on us, and that we are free to move on with the next challenge in life. No one ever passed the world this memo, and correspondingly the world behaves nothing like this. We are stuck with whatever consequences flow from our actions, and more often then not it is the perilous axiom known as the Law of Unintended Consequences that we have the most to be wary of. The notion that tomorrow you will have to live with your decisions, to bear your chosen burden, even or especially when you cannot know what the burden will demand of you is what horrifies us into inaction in the face of a dilemma. You may be required to do nothing, your course may be optimal and most uninfringing. You may take a bold and decisive action that you will regret for years and might cost you the best part of your life. Verily, then one can see what could bring about such paralysing inaction.

But what I would not have people do is to misrepresent their paralysis, to feign that it comes externally, that a great weighing and balancing exercise is underway, and that much sand must slide down the hourglass before a determination is reached that they can accept. The decision is made in the blink of an eye, the right delineated from the wrong. I don’t begrudge you the time to seek courage and solace, to find the strength to fight for what you must, nor do I begrudge you retreat from the field if you find the challenge insurmountable.

Just do not lie about why you did the wrong thing.