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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

Making Decisions About Right and Wrong

Margaret R. McLean

On occasion I ask students in my undergraduate ethics course at Santa Clara University to relate their first ethical memory--what was their first choice about right or wrong, good or bad? Most of them relate a story about a six or seven-year-old confronting a choice between honesty and desire--the ill-gotten piece of sweet, juicy bubble gum; the quickly denied detour on the way home from school to "the forbidden playground"; the resounding claim of ignorance when asked who had been using the house as a backstop just prior to the crackle and sparkle of shattered plate glass. Indeed, these are all fine examples of ethical dilemmas, those decisions between what we want to do and what we ought to do that we have been making all our lives.

All of our lives, we've been struggling with just how it is that we ought to decide. Are there lists to be made--columns of "good results" and "bad results" to be conceived, compared, and contrasted? Are there rules to follow--do this; don't do that? Are there good ways to be--be patient; don't lose your temper? We struggle not only with what in fact we ought to do, but also with how in the world we are to decide whether it is right to lie just this once.

We all tend to approach decisions about right and wrong in one of three ways. First, there are those folks who think that the results make all the difference. Why won't you lie? It will hurt people; the results are bad. Second, there are those people who follow the rules. Why won't you lie? There's a rule that says to always tell the truth, "to do unto others as you would have them do unto you." And, thirdly, there are those individuals who aren't much interested in either results or rules. They are interested in the kind of person you are--a person of compassion or courage. Why won't you lie? Because I'm an honest person, a truthful person; that's just the kind of person I am. Results; rules; character traits--all are important parts of how we decide.

Part of what makes decisions about right and wrong so difficult for us is that we don't all go about it in the same way. That is just fine, really. Such diversity in how we decide reflects the rich tapestry of resources we each bring to our decision making. Although some may argue for good results and others for following the rules, one thing is certain:  Ethics is always more than just what we might like or dislike, always more than rash opinion. My choice never to eat spinach is not an ethical choice; it merely has to do with the chemistry of my taste buds and a particular leafy green vegetable. I don't like spinach! What ethics requires of us is making judgments that we can explain, making judgments that rely not on opinion or our taste buds, but on results or rules or good habits. We need to remember that how we decide is just as important as what we decide.

Margaret R. McLean is the associate director of the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics and director of the Health Care Ethics Program.  A version of this article appeared in the Winter 1996 edition of the O'Connor Health News, a publication of O'Connor Hospital, San Jose, California. 

Aug 18, 2015