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Book Review-How Good People Make Tough Choices: Resolving the Dilemmas of Ethical Living

Had you asked me a few months ago what it meant to make an ethical decision, I would have been inclined to tell you something along the lines of “doing what’s right.” It’s a fine response but one that overlooks a problem. How do you decide when you’re between two “rights,” and you can’t do both? That’s the heart of ethics and one of the first things that How Good People Make Tough Choices: Resolving the Dilemmas of Ethical Living teaches.

I was referred to this book by a friend of mine who teaches ethics after a discussion with him about The Righteous Mind. The parallels and plays off each other are striking and powerful.

Moral Temptations and Ethical Dilemmas

The opening gate of this story is the difference between decisions that are right vs. wrong when compared to decisions that are right vs. right. Rushworth Kidder draws a quick line between moral temptations, which involve choosing between right and wrong, and those decisions where there is no wrong answer. Moral temptations may be difficult, but there’s no question about what is and is not right.

Ethical dilemmas, however, are right vs. right decisions, where there is no wrong answer, and, more importantly, you can’t choose both things. You must make a choice and when you make that choice, something must lose. (Sometimes, even choosing not to choose is, in and of itself, a choice.) Ethical dilemmas are difficult to walk through. That’s perhaps the reason why we like to believe they’re not just difficult for us, they’re difficult for everyone.

In general, morals and ethics are used as synonyms with the former being attributed more to the character of the person and ethics more frequently being used to describe the principles or framework for making decisions. They’ll be used relatively interchangeably in this review – as they are used relatively interchangeably in How Good People Make Tough Choices.

Put Out the Fire

Prototypical Dilemmas

We all like to believe that our ethical issues are unique, different, and problematic. After all, if we’re struggling with it, and we’re ethical folks, other should struggle with it, too. Just because there are prototypical dilemmas doesn’t mean that everyone does not struggle, nor does it mean that there aren’t complicated variations on the four key themes that Kidder lays out:

  • Truth vs. Loyalty – Should you tell the truth or stay loyal to the person that asked you to keep it a secret?
  • Individual vs. Community – Should you look out for yourself or make decisions that are for the good of the community?
  • Short-Term vs. Long-Term – Should you spend today or save for the long term?
  • Justice vs. Mercy – Should you “throw the book at them” or grant them leniency?

The choices here are difficult. If you don’t decide to always pick one over the other, you must evaluate each situation individually – and it’s not practical to pick one over the other regardless of the circumstances. Evaluating the situation in context makes us human.

Foundations of Morality

Compare this with Haidt’s foundations of morality (from The Righteous Mind) – care/harm, fairness/cheating, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, sanctity/degradation, and liberty/oppression – and you’ll see some similarities and some differences. Truth vs. loyalty pits loyalty/betrayal and fairness/cheating against one another. Individual vs. community places care/harm and authority/subversion (authority over one’s own life). Short-term vs. long-term doesn’t have a good analog. Justice vs. mercy pits authority/subversion against care/harm – again, from a different perspective. Kidder provides no prototypical dilemmas for other conflicts of Haidt’s moral foundations.

Whenever evaluating multiple models with one another their strengths and limitations become more apparent. Kidder’s pragmatic focus on the dilemmas he most often sees is a great focusing lens to ensure we’re working on the areas of ethical dilemmas that are most likely to appear. Haidt’s framework allows us to address those areas where Kidder’s approach doesn’t supply ample direction.


Despite Kidder’s focus on right vs. right decisions, he stops off at moral temptations and, in particular, the research around cheating. There’s some research here, particularly by Professor McCabe, that has some tales to tell. The future career plans for the lowest incidence of confessed (yes, confessed) cheaters was education – at 57%. Cheating, the students felt, was a victimless crime and wasn’t important. These are the kinds of rationalizations that Bandura warned us of in Moral Disengagement (see my reviews of the Mechanisms and the Cases from the book).

Some of the more challenging findings – as if that weren’t enough – are that, the longer students stay in school, the more willing they are to contemplate cheating; that cheating is higher in families of affluence; and that playing sports reduces a student’s moral reasoning. Perhaps more troubling is the 80% of teens who believe themselves prepared to make ethical decisions, while 61% of them admitted to lying to their parents or guardians and nearly 50% said it was OK.

In 1993, this led Professor Leming, then of Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, to write, “There can be little debate that the character of youth is an increasingly serious problem for the United States.” No doubt – but what can be done about it? First, we need to understand how moral reasoning develops.

Six Stages of Moral Judgement

Lawrence Kohlberg studied boys in the 1950s and developed his now famous six stages of moral judgement, which fell into three main categories:

  • Pre-conventional
    • Stage 1: Fear of punishment and respect for authority
    • Stage 2: A sense of equal exchange and fairness
  • Conventional
    • Stage 3: Understanding of stereotypical good behavior
    • Stage 4: Generalized moral system
  • Post-conventional/Principled
    • Stage 5: Social contract that requires obedience to shared laws
    • Stage 6: Personal commitment to universal moral principles

These stages were the evolution of moral judgement observed in boys but are generalized to be the way that humans evolve our sense of morality.

Ethics, Laws, and Civil Disobedience

While the previous definition of ethics as right vs. right decisions is useful in the context of separating them from moral temptations, it does little to explain its ethos. Instead, Kidder quotes John Fletcher Moulton’s definition for manners – which he translates to ethics – is “obedience to the unenforceable.” That is, it’s what you do when no one is looking, because it’s what you decide is right – not because of fear of getting caught. Ethics is then a virtue or characteristic of a person that defies situational boundaries. However, we can’t ignore Kurt Lewin’s famous equation that behavior is a function of both person and environment, and therefore we can’t take environment completely out of the equation. We can only strive to further minimize its impact.

One way that societies have attempted to improve our compliance to ethical standards is to codify them into law. In effect, it’s saying these ethical precepts are so critical that we’re going to mandate it. Laws capture – at some level imprecisely – the ethical standards that the community holds dear. For instance, the ethical standard to do no harm shows up as laws against murder and violent crimes.

What happens, however, when the laws themselves are unjust? What if they unfairly penalize some group or run counter to the ethical standards that they are designed to uphold? In these times, the need for civil disobedience arises. Civil disobedience in any form should not be taken lightly, and anyone who is so moved to take this course of action to help correct an unjust law must be willing to accept the consequences of their disobedience lest they fall into simply being lawless.

The Role of Trust

The role of trust in societies is best expressed in Trust: Human Nature and the Reconstitution of Social Order. This work addresses the full measure of how trust impacts societies and how the focus of trust shapes the ethical considerations for the society. However, in short, you can see the breakdown of social order and ethical thinking when you find bribery and corruption. In countries where bribery is known to be a common and accepted practice, we see struggling.

When people can no longer trust their fellow man, the government, or anyone else, they stop trying to look out for the greater good and instead fall back to looking out only for themselves and their immediate family, closing off a huge swath of potential ethical thinking options. They’ll narrow their level of concern and take community “off-the-table.”

Uneven Values

We sometimes throw around the word “values” without being precise about what we mean. We sometimes speak of foundational values – like those Haidt discusses in The Righteous Mind – or what Kidder calls “intrinsic values” and enumerates as truth, respect, fairness, responsibility, and compassion. Alternatively, there are instrumental values like diligence, competitiveness, etc. Another way to think about this might be to think of instrumental values as means and intrinsic values as ends. (See my review of Flow for a deeper discussion on means vs. ends.)

Looking at two different personality profiles, we find Reiss’ 16 Basic Motivators and Strengths Finder as exposing instrumental values that people can hold. Reiss’ list is power, independence, curiosity, acceptance, order, saving, honor, idealism, social contact, family, status, vengeance, romance, eating, physical exercise, and tranquility (see The Normal Personality and Who Am I?). Strengths Finder 2.0 has achiever, activator, adaptability, analytical, arranger, belief, command, communication, competition, connectedness, consistency, context, deliberative, developer, discipline, empathy, focus, futuristic, harmony, ideation, includer, individualization, input, intellection, learner, maximizer, positivity, relator, responsibility, restorative, self-assurance, significance, strategic, and woo.

From Kidder’s point of view, the intrinsic values are immutable ends for which some of the instrumental values can be means to get to. When we’re describing values and how they fuel our ethical dilemmas, we must establish what sorts of values we’re talking about.

Codes of Conduct

Codes of conduct establish social norms. That is, they are like laws in that they codify ethical standards – typically with much less, but still some, chance for punishment for violation of them. Most frequently, violation of standards of a code of conduct are grounds for expulsion from the group. For employers, this means employee termination, and for civic groups, it means a revoked membership. Also, where laws are designed to be inherently enforceable, codes of conduct are expressed as a broad standard that is less prescriptive and more directional.

Creating a code of conduct that is sufficiently broad to accept differences and simultaneously defines the core values of a group is challenging. Kidder highlights The Ten Commandments, The Boy Scout Law, the West Point Honor Code, the Rotary Four-Way Test, The Minnesota Principles, McDonnel-Douglas Code of Ethics, and BD Values as models of different codes of conduct.

The Trilemma

If there are only two choices – left or right – then you have a dilemma. However, what if you could discover a third option that can preserve both the left and the right – at least substantially more than deciding to go left-or-right? “Trilemmas,” as they’re coined by Ambassador Harlan Cleveland, are a transformation from a very hard problem to just a reasonably hard problem.

They’re not compromises but are instead new ways forward that allow for both sides to get a measure of what they want.

The Methods of Evaluation

Kidder also explains that there are three fundamental ways of analyzing an ethical dilemma:

  • Ends-Based – Whatever produces the greatest good for the greatest number.
  • Rule-Based – What is our obligation in this situation.
  • Care-Based – Do to others what you would like them to do to you.

These three perspectives can be used to evaluate every ethical dilemma. While these three approaches may not always agree, they occasionally will. When they don’t, it is useful to evaluate them and see if a coherent response emerges by walking through the evaluative process.

The Checklist

As if the prototypical dilemmas and methods of evaluation were not enough, Ridder provides a roadmap in his nine-step process:

  • Recognize that there is a moral (ethical) issue – Identify that there needs to be a resolution.
  • Determine the actor – Identify the person with the dilemma. Is it mine or someone else’s?
  • Gather the relevant facts – What do we need to know about this to fully understand the situation?
  • Test for right vs. wrong issues – Is this a “simple” case of wrongdoing that breaks the law or regulations? Might it smell bad or be embarrassing if on the front page of the newspaper – or would it be something that you mother wouldn’t do? In these cases, it’s probably a moral temptation, not an ethical dilemma.
  • Test for right vs. right paradigms – Does this fall into one of the prototypical dilemmas? If not, can we identify which values are in play?
  • Apply the resolution principles – Use the methods of evaluation above to better understand the implications of the decision.
  • Investigate the “trilemma” options – Is there a middle road that is better than either of the individual paths?
  • Make the decision – At some point, a decision must be made.
  • Revisit and reflect on the decision – Learn from the decision about yourself and the environment, so that, next time, the decision is easier.

Even with checklist in hand, we’ve got to be aware of the forces that seek to unravel the ethical decisions that we want to make.

The Destructive Force of Individualism

As a society, particularly in America, we have a love affair with the idea of the rugged individualist. We don’t want to accept that, for the entire history of the human race, we’ve worked together, and our reliance on one another has allow us to be so successful. (See No Two Alike for more about how our cooperation has allowed us to become the creature with the most biomass on the planet.) Our Kids, Robert Putnam’s exploration about why not all children succeed, exposes the truth that our successful children have support and can rely on others. Children with fewer people and resources to rely on don’t fare as well.

No matter where you fall on the issue of religion or spirituality, you must acknowledge that every form of religion on the planet has a set of common values including care for others. (See Spiritual Evolution for a Christian perspective on our need to care for others and The Book of Joy for a discussion of how values appear across religions.) Sometimes, this concern for others is expressed differently, like Brené Brown’s discussions of the need for connection in Daring Greatly and Harriet Learner in The Dance of Connection. Lerner in particular raises the issue of being right or being in a relationship. (This was also addressed in The Titleless Leader.) The need for relationship and the desire to be right in our own individuality is at the heart of the destruction of ethical decision-making.

Ethics is about how we navigate this world with other people. When you’re an individual and you need no one else (or, rather, you believe you need no one else), you can operate in a moral vacuum. If you’re the only one that matters, you have no need for ethics, because ethics isn’t about you – it’s about you in relationship with others. In this framework, it’s no wonder that our ethical decision-making is under assault.

The Negative Effects of Affluence

Though there are still painful gaps between those humans who have the most resources and those who have the least, we are all – in general – much better off than we were a century ago. (See the discussion in Our Kids for details.) The problem with this affluence is that we no longer behave as “huddled masses yearning to breathe free” (a line from the poem “The New Colossus” by Emma Lazarus at The Statue of Liberty). Instead, we drive in our personal cars to our lonesome houses, where we have fewer intimate connections, and we seek to go it alone. (See Bowling Alone for the unraveling of social connections.)

The Greatest Generation agrees: “I believe we’re being victimized by our affluence. We don’t appreciate things because you don’t work for them.” In short, we’ve bought into the lie that we don’t need other people. We can go it alone – and that means we have no need for ethics.

The Counteracting Force of Purpose

Red Goldfish makes a well-reasoned and passionate plea for corporate leaders to understand that increasingly more consumers are demanding products from companies with a mission. It’s no longer enough to make a good product for a reasonable price, you must also have some sort of benefit to society. Simon Sinek encourages leaders to Start with Why to get people behind a purpose. This seems even more important today, when employment markets are tight, employers seeking to retain their employees for fear they won’t be able to hire replacements.

In some ways, our affluence has given us the capacity to live out our values by choosing our work more carefully. We can choose to find part-time roles that sustain our financial needs and give more of our time to philanthropic endeavors. While this is now becoming possible (or emerging), it struggles against the weight of the individualistic tendencies.

Moral Resolve and Technological Advancement

Alone Together explains the changes that are happening in our society and how technology is racing ahead of our society’s capacity to adapt. While we feel connected through the always-on, instant-messaging world in which we live, we feel less connected. Sherry Turkle explains that we’re exposing ourselves and our children to technology in ways that we’ve not had the opportunity to test. We have no way of knowing the long-term impacts. We make this choice in the interests of rapid improvement.

Two engineers working at the Chernobyl plant created the greatest ecological disaster known to man. A drunk captain steered the Exxon Valdez into some rocks in Prince William Sound, impacting 1,300 miles of coastline. Onel de Guzman created an estimated $5.5 billion dollars in global damage with a computer virus that became known as “I Love You.”

Our technology allows us general affluence and creates powerful benefits for mankind, but, simultaneously, it creates opportunities for the mistakes of a few – or, more frequently, just one – to cause havoc on a global scale. Perhaps our ethics and morality aren’t declining. Perhaps our need for moral and ethical thinking is on a sharp rise, and our capacity isn’t keeping up. In any case, it’s becoming harder for good people to make hard choices well. However, there is a way to learn How Good People Make Tough Choices – if you’re able to make the time.

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