What should you do in each of the following situations?
1) You’re the director of a non-profit organization that works to meet the basic needs of local, low-income children. Your budget has just been cut and you have to make a decision about which of your very successful programs to terminate. You could end the food pantry project, which sends kids home from school with a backpack full of food every Friday to supply their families over the weekend when school lunches aren’t provided. Or you could end the tutoring service, an after-school program that assists kids with completing their homework, with the aim of closing the academic achievement gap and putting kids on a path to college.
☐ End the food pantry (hundreds of kids will no longer be able to meet their daily nutritional needs on weekend days).
☐ End the tutoring service (hundreds of kids will no longer be able to read at grade level and will have little chance of attending college).
2) You’re a middle class professional and a parent of young children. Both your career and your family demand lots of your time and attention, and on an almost daily basis these demands conflict: you can’t do a fully satisfactory job in your office unless you put in longer hours, but your family wants to see more of you; the day your client calls you with an emergency, one of your children is home sick; you know you’ll be letting your colleagues down unless you focus more on your work, and you know you’ll be over-burdening your spouse with childcare unless you focus less on your work.
☐ Put more time and attention into your work (your family will suffer).
☐ Put more time and attention into your family (your work will suffer).
☐ Skimp a bit on the time and attention you give to each (both your family and your work will suffer some).
3) Your young adult son has become addicted to opioids. So far, he’s been taking prescription drugs bought illegally. But these are expensive and you believe that he’ll soon progress to using heroine. You love him and want him to overcome the addiction before it gets worse, but he doesn’t want your help and refuses to enter the treatment program that you’ve offered to pay for. Meanwhile, unless you continue to support your son financially, he’ll become homeless, as all his money is going toward drugs.
☐ Give your son financial support (you will enable his addiction but protect him from some of the dangers of living on the street).
☐ Refuse to give your son any financial support (you will avoid enabling his addiction, but he will become homeless).
Congratulations—I’ll assume that you’ve made the best possible decision in each case!
But if you were really in any of these situations, this would probably be of little consolation. Each case is a dilemma, a situation in which even the best possible action is a wrongdoing of some kind—a failure to do what we would normally judge ourselves to be absolutely required to do, or a violation or loss of something that matters deeply to us.
The problem with quizzes like this is that they tend to imply that the difference between innocence and guilt, between what is morally good and morally bad, depends only on whether you choose the better or the worse of the alternatives that you face. This is deceptive because it makes it seem like whether you succeed or fail is within your control. But in each case the whole situation is beyond your control: as the non-profit director, you didn’t control the budget cuts; as the working parent, you didn’t control the fact that our social and economic structures typically make it difficult to be fully engaged in both careers and families; and as the parent whose son struggles with addiction, you didn’t control the opioid epidemic that has affected someone you love. In each case, once you’re in the situation, some sort of failure is unavoidable. It’s not that it makes no difference whether you choose the better or worse option of those that are available to you, but the difference that it makes is not the difference between success and failure.
You gave the right answer to every question on this quiz (I’ll assume). But in every case, you had no opportunity to do something that we would actually want to call good.