What governs your behaviour?

We all make mistakes. And, we all know that we will make more. “To err is human.”

But what governs your daily behaviours? Whom do you listen to or take direction from?

Let me ask you a few more questions: Why do you wear a mask during the pandemic? Do you drive the speed limit? Do you stand when you hear another country’s national anthem? Do you respect a moment of silence during a funeral service? Do you have heightened respect for your elders? If there is an extra slice of pizza at a party, who gets it?

There is likely no single authority or rulebook that you rely upon in order to make everyday, routine decisions. It depends. Sometimes there is your own internal voice guiding you. Sometimes you might hear your mother or father’s voice. Perhaps, the Bible or the Koran. A prime minister or premier. The CEO of the company. The policy manual. Your spouse.

Rushworth Kidder’s book, How Good People Make Tough Choices was, and still is, my “go-to” reference when confronting difficult choices. In short, Mr. Kidder outlines the four major ethical dilemmas we face regularly. And, to be clear, these are not the obvious right-versus-wrong type of decisions. For example, there is no dilemma regarding stealing, killing, lying, cheating or the like. For most people, those decisions are easily resolved by relying on one’s moral compass. Instead, Mr. Kidder outlines the challenge we have when there are two “rights” in a situation.

Some broad societal scenarios offered by the author include:

  • Is it right to protect the endangered spotted owl and not protect jobs of loggers?
  • Is it right to refrain from meddling in another country’s internal affairs and not protect the undefended in warring nations?
  • Is it right to support creative artistic freedom and avoid displaying offensive works?

The four ethical dilemmas outlined by Mr. Kidder are as follows (with my examples):

  • Truth vs Loyalty (e.g. I know my best friend did something wrong, but I support him.)
  • Short term vs Long term (e.g. I have an important day tomorrow and I should go home but I am having too much fun.)
  • Individual vs Community (e.g. I am not going to attend that team meeting because I have to help my mother.)
  • Justice vs Mercy (e.g. She has apologized for her actions but there needs to be consequences.)

Doing the right thing can sometimes be complicated. It’s probably why I have had to apologize so many times in my life.

Mr. Kidder has provided multiple lenses and different perspectives through which to look at the impacts our decisions have on others. It’s interesting and fun to create different hypothetical circumstances with your kids and discuss what might be the right thing to do if faced with such a situation!

After all, it’s a little trickier to consider the right decision, after the fact.

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