Here are some hard questions: Is the value of human life absolute? Should we conform to the prevalent values? What do we owe our country? Is justice indispensable? How should we respond to evil? Is it right to forgive bad actions? Is shame good? Should we be true to who we are? Do good intentions justify bad actions? Are moral evaluations overriding?
The questions are hard because each has reasonable but conflicting answers. When circumstances force us to face them, we are ambivalent. We realize that there are compelling reasons for both of the conflicting answers. This is not an abstract problem, but a predicament we encounter when we have to make difficult decisions whose consequences affect how we live, our relationships, and our attitude to the society in which we live.
I consider these questions from a point of view that is practical, not theoretical; particular, not general; personal, not impersonal; and above all concrete, not abstract. The questions are asked and answered from the point of view of actual people who face actual predicaments whose resolution has implications for the rest of their lives. There are reasonable answers, but they depend on the evaluation of the relative importance of the reasons for and against the conflicting answers. Such evaluations must take into account the character, attitudes, experiences, and the possibilities and limits of the social context of those who face the questions. They vary, and that is why reasonable answers to hard questions must be personal, not theoretical, and be based on comparisons between the conflicting answers given by two people for whom a hard question has arisen in their context.
Some examples of such comparisons are between a Japanese kamikaze pilot who gave up his life for his country and an American draftee who refused to serve his country; between a young girl who endured and survived the horrors she had to endure when she was forced into daily prostitution and humiliation that lasted for more than a year, and a priest who struggled with trying to reconcile his faith with his knowledge of what was inflicted on the girl; between how a communist commander of one of the Gulags thought about the inmates’ hard labor in subzero temperature, on starvation diet, and the brink of death caused by the terrible conditions he imposed on them, and a high-ranking religious SS officer who knew about the exterminations and did what he could to save lives; between the contrary responses of two women one of whom accepted her society’s standards and felt shame because she was shamed by them, while the other defiantly refused to feel shame even though she was shamed by her society’s standards; between a man who valued social harmony more than justice and a woman who gave up her life for the sake of justice; and between an honorable soldier who killed himself when circumstances made it impossible for him to remain true to himself and a young man who was deliberately false to himself by rejecting the past that made him who he was.
These comparisons reconstruct the predicaments faced by the protagonists, trace the reasons that have led them to arrive at the difficult life-changing answer each gave, and enable us to learn from them as we struggle with hard questions as they arise in our own lives. In discussing them, I rely on the resources of anthropology, history, literature, politics, and religion. They make concrete the predicaments of people who had to face hard questions and how they answered them, some more and others less reasonably. The practical, particular, personal, concrete, and comparative nature of these examples exemplifies an approach to ethics that is an alternative to the theoretical, general, impersonal, and abstract approach that characterizes the mainstream of contemporary ethical thought. I attempt to show that ethics can be done in a way that reasonably and concretely addresses the vital concerns of reflective people.
Featured image credit: “concrete” by Valentin Lacoste. CC0 via Unsplash.
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