Moral Dilemmas

Most of us do not have to contend with excruciating moral dilemmas. However, as Ruth Benedict has pointed out, we need to understand the subtle differences between a guilt culture and a shame culture. A guilt culture in its essence is based on one's conscience of what is right and wrong: belief rather than knowledge underpins this process. The positive aspect of a guilt-culture at its best is its concern for truth and justice and the preservation of individual rights. The sense of guilt might also preserve us from engaging in wrong-doing which no one would ever discover. But it can also be misplaced and potentially neurotic.

 In a shame culture, what other people believe is much more powerful. Indeed, one's principles may be derived from the desire to preserve one's honor or to avoid shame to the exclusion of all else. We see this in operation all the time. When was the last time you openly disagreed with a colleague? In a pluralist society, culpability may be determined by one powerful segment of society and in ignorance of the facts of the case, since there is less incentive to prove them. And in that plural society, if my particular segment or reference group were to think there is "nothing wrong with", say, driving after drinking alcohol or stealing stationery from one's workplace or cheating an insurance company, it may not exert any influence on my behavior in that respect. Thanks to social media and the instant proliferation of "like" and "dislike" it is easy to see why we fall a prey to something that is "acceptable" as opposed to something that is "right."

With this background, think of these hypothetical situations and answer the question that follows:
1. You are involved in a two-car crash on your way to work one morning in which you accidentally hit and kill a pedestrian. As you get out of the car, you are intercepted by a tearful woman who seems to think that she hit and killed the pedestrian. You are not sure why she thinks she hit the person, but she is convinced. There's only you, the woman, and the person you hit on the road; there are no witnesses. You know that whoever is deemed responsible will probably be sent to jail. What do you do?
2. You have a job as a network administrator for a company that also employs your best friend's husband. One day, your best friend's husband sends you a message asking you to release an email from quarantine. This requires you to open the email, at which point you discover it is correspondence between this guy and his secret lover. After releasing the email, you find yourself in a pickle. Your instinct is to tell your best friend about her husband's infidelities, but divulging the contents of company emails is against company policy and you could lose your job. Once it becomes plain that your best friend found out about her cheating husband through a company email, all trails will inevitably lead to you as the leak. Do you tell your best friend about her husband's infidelity?

3. Your family is vacationing alone on a private stretch of beach with no lifeguard. Your daughter and your niece, both 7, are best friends and are eager to get into the water. You caution them to wait until the water calms some, but they defy you and sneak in anyway. You soon hear screams of distress and find them both caught in a strong current. You are the only swimmer strong enough to save them, but you can only save one at a time. Your niece is a poor swimmer and likely won't make it much longer. Your daughter is a stronger swimmer, but only has a 50% chance of holding on long enough for you to come back for her. Who do you save first?


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