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Robert Baird: When our better angels balance judgment, rules

Robert Baird: When our better angels balance judgment, rules

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When my daughter Kathy was 6 years old and my son, Rob, 4, Kathy got into the habit of telling on him every time he did anything questionable or that she thought might get him into trouble. She seemed to enjoy being a tattletale. So I sat down with Kathy for a little parental advice.

“Sweetie,” I said, “don’t be a tattletale. That’s not a desirable, not an attractive characteristic. You don’t want to act that way.” I was providing her with a guiding principle, a principle for life, a moral principle, if you will: Don’t be a tattletale.

A few days later I walked into the den only to see Rob on the floor poking something hard over and over again at an electric outlet, which had a cap on it but nevertheless presented a scary sight. Kathy was just standing there, watching.

“Kathy!” I said. “Why didn’t you tell us what Rob was doing?”

You know her response: “But Daddy, you said . . . .”

And that led to my first conversation with Kathy about the role of judgment in life.

Judgment! That is why moral decisions, including political decisions, are sometimes so hard. Decision-making is often not simply a matter of applying some well-established principle or rule. The situation has to be taken into account. Circumstances matter. Context is everything. The situation may require setting aside, abandoning, violating the apparently applicable rule. Tell the truth! That is one of the most valuable of our principles. In fact, civil society could not even exist if most people, most of the time, didn’t tell the truth. (That, by the way, is why we should be deeply concerned when a political leader habitually lies or when friends or acquaintances via social media constantly propagate falsehoods.)

So, yes, we ought to tell the truth. A fundamental moral principle if ever there was one. But it takes little imagination to think of situations in which we ought to lie.

Years ago, about the time I began my teaching career at Baylor University in the late 1960s, Joseph Fletcher, Harvard theologian and ethicist, published “Situation Ethics: The New Morality.” It created a firestorm (in retrospect that seems odd to me now) by claiming that moral principles should be understood as guidelines only, and that the situation always had to be taken into account when making moral judgments. That almost sounds like a platitude. Surely it’s obvious that when making moral judgments, the situation has to be carefully considered, the context fully examined. But as soon as that is acknowledged, it does make decision-making harder, much harder, for it emphasizes that at times guiding principles may have to be set aside. “But, Daddy, you told me not to be a tattletale.” “I know that’s what I said, Kathy, but sometimes you need to tell. It’s a matter of judgment, sweetie.”

Several years ago I read a criticism of college ethics courses. Students enter the course, the critic argued, knowing what is right and wrong but they leave confused about it all. I think “confused about it all” really meant that some students for the first time encountered the truth of the matter that often judgment (rather than thoughtless dependence on rules and principles) must be exercised. That does make things harder. But just because the truth of the matter makes things harder doesn’t mean that it is not the truth of the matter.

So what follows from this difficult truth of the matter, this recognition that judgment, rather than simplistic application of rules, often must come into play in moral, including political, decision-making? Many things, but consider four.

First, we have to admit that acknowledging the role of judgment in decision-making can open the door to rationalizing some very bad behavior. This is worrisome. It should be worrisome. And this worry is, I suspect, behind the critic’s unease with college ethics courses. For we humans do have a remarkable capacity for misusing the truth that a moral end can sometimes justify what is normally an immoral act. The moral end of saving a life could justify lying. Examples of moral ends justifying means that would normally be wrong can be readily multiplied. On the other hand, and here is the problem, one can sometimes serve selfish or nefarious ends by lying (or violating some other moral rule) under the pretext or delusion of serving some higher end or goal. So, yes, it is risky to acknowledge that rules and principles can sometimes justifiably be put aside or altered to achieve a good end. But again, just because the truth of the matter makes matters risky does not mean it is not the truth of the matter. Recognizing the risk of bad behavior, however, should motivate honest vigilance when we are motivated to put aside tried and true moral guidelines.

Second, since moral decision-making often requires a sensitive reading of complex situations, seeking the advice of others, engaging in conversation with others, especially those whom we judge (and there is that word again — try as we will, run as fast as we can, there is no escaping judgment) to be wise and experienced decision-makers.

Third, since judgment is inevitably involved in making moral and political decisions, and since people’s judgments differ, we would all be well served to try to understand why others judge differently from us rather than demonizing them. So easy to say, so hard to practice. Hard because often so much is at stake in our differences: over the upcoming presidential election; over reopening the economy in the midst of the pandemic; over reforming police departments.

Fourth, we should not in the face of these difficulties throw up our hands and conclude that all judgments are equal, that no judgment is ever better than other judgments. Being patient and kind and understanding of our differences does not preclude our efforts to engage one another in important conversation about those differences. Who knows? Civil conversation with, rather than demonizing, the person with whom we differ may open up the other to the reasons we have for our judgment. And, who knows, honesty may require at times admission that our neighbor’s reasons carry the day.

None of us is God. We are all fallible. All wrong at times. A little humility might go a long way in civilizing our relationships, solving some of our problems and contributing to the wellbeing of society. I know, I know how it might sound, but there really are some better angels buried in all of us.

Robert Baird is emeritus professor of philosophy at Baylor University.

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