Markkula Center of Applied Ethics

It May Be Right... But Will It Work?

The question of right and wrong can never be entirely abstract. We might say in the abstract that killing is wrong, but start adding details-a person threatening our child or an enemy at the gates-and the answer is not so clear. On the other hand, we might find an action that seems clearly right is simply unworkable. It may be good, for example, to be honest, but sometimes shading the truth seems necessary to protect state secrets or simply to spare feelings.

In this Issues in Ethics, we look at some of the intersections between ethical and practical considerations. "The Income Gap" examines growing disparities in the incomes of rich and poor Americans, concluding with a discussion of solutions in terms of their efficacy and efficiency.

What will work takes on life and death importance in "Neighbor to the Assassin: Transitional Justice in Guatemala." In this article, the value of bringing human rights abusers-particularly in the military and the government-to justice is weighed against the danger such prosecutions might pose to the very precarious beginnings of civil society in Guatemala.

"Gated Communities in Cyberspace" is also concerned with a practical question: how to create an environment conducive to commerce on the Internet. The answer, the authors allow, "may seem antithetical to democratic views" because it involves using electronic signposts to create the virtual equivalent of gated real estate developments. But in order to function effectively as a commercial environment, the Net, they argue, must create safe communities.

Practical and ideal come into conflict in our case study, as well. Nitty-gritty neighborhood issues such as traffic congestion are pitted against questions of religious expression in "The Case of the Sikh Temple." In this, and, we hope, in all our articles, we acknowledge the struggle to behave ethically takes place in a real and very complicated world.