Rebirth of Reason


Those Tough Choices
by Joseph Rowlands

A man has a dilemma.  He's cheated on his wife, and now he has to decide what he's going to do.  Let's just assume he wants to stay with his wife, and considers the affair a mistake.  Now he has to choose between telling her or keeping it a secret.  Neither sound very appealing.  If he tells her, it could ruin their relationship.  Even if she decides not to leave him, she may never trust him again.  Not to mention the screaming, the crying, and the fighting.  Their families and friends will all learn, and he'll be looked down upon by everyone.

If he decides not to tell her, he's got a different set of problems.  He'll fear that she might guess or learn about it somehow.  He'll feel guilty whenever she shows him affection because he'll know it's based on a lie.  He won't be able to enjoy her love because he'll know he didn't earn it.  He'll know that he's a liar.  He won't be able to get on with his life, as his future will be based on a very unreliable foundation.

What should he do?  How does Objectivism help him decide on a course of action?  Is there an easy answer to this problem?  The answer is yes.  He shouldn't have had the affair in the first place.

I know, that's kind of cheating.  I did posit the question as if it had already happened.  But if we're really going to talk about a morality of self-interest, we can't just start in the middle of a bad situation.  Ethics isn't supposed to be used only when you get into a bad situation.  Properly applied, ethics should help you avoid the bad situations in the first place.

There is no reason for the man to wait until he's stuck with this kind of choice.  We're not short-sighted animals who make decisions at the range of the moment.  We can make predictions of what's to come.  We can expect certain consequences to our actions.  And we can plan accordingly. 

In this case, the man should have known he'd be stuck either living out a lie or ruining his relationship.  He should have weighed the values involved, not just at the moment of the affair, but his long-term values as well, and avoided the situation.  Or he should have ended the relationship with his wife before having the affair.  The specific course of action isn't that important.  The important point is that he should have avoided this bad situation in the first place.

The short-sighted view of ethics is applicable to the virtues in particular.  When you think of honesty, what do you think about?  Telling the truth and not lying, right?  Except the virtue of honesty encompasses more than that little decision.  The virtue tells you to avoid situations where you'd have to lie in the first place.  In other words, don't do something you'll want to lie about later.  We don't normally think of choosing not to act in a particular way as being 'honest'.  But in fact, that's usually the most effective way to practice the virtue of honesty.

Other virtues work the same way.  Take justice.  It can be difficult to apply justice in certain circumstances.  Imagine you lend money to a friend, and he says he'll pay you it back soon.  You wait and wait, but he doesn't pay it back.  You find that he spends money on unnecessary items, and still doesn't pay you back.  You get angry, but you don't feel you can really call him on it.  You didn't specify a date he had to pay it back, and you didn't say he couldn't spend it on other things.  So, although you believe he's not respecting you, you may find it difficult to do anything about it.

Now change the scenario a bit.  Imagine you lend him the money, at a fixed rate of interest, and with a maximum time he has to pay it back.  On top of all of that, you keep something of his as collateral.  Now if he spends money on unnecessary items, it doesn't bother you because you're making interest.  If he waits until the last moment to pay it off, no problem.  There's a strict deadline, and if he misses it, you take ownership of the collateral instead.  Easy.  The point being that if you want to practice the virtue of justice, you don't wait until you're in a tough situation.  The virtue of justice includes making it easier to be just.  Setting the terms of the situation to be more favorable to the value of justice is a more effective way of practicing the virtue of justice.

That applies to every virtue.  They're not limited to making tough choices when you find yourself in a bad situation.  Each of them involves looking at the big picture of your life and steering it towards values and away from costs.  They provide you guidance, not just on what you should do at this moment, but also in how you should plan for the future.

Virtues are means to achieving values.  But the values gained will always be limited in scope as long as the virtues are seen as ways to react in specific scenarios.  Using them effectively requires an understanding of how they achieve the values they aim at, and how you can create better scenarios.  It requires not just reaction, but purposeful action.  Only then can the true potential of the virtues be unleashed.

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