All of us have ethics. We may not think consciously about them – but we have them. Sometimes these ethics are in conflict with each other – when that happens we find Hamlet, struggling with self doubt, pondering, “To be or not to be?” Ethics do not follow a smooth continuum of linear progression, with clarity of priority.
Convicted armed robbers serving twenty years to life are aghast when a child molester is placed in their population. They huddle together and point and snarl at the new member of their club. We all have ethical values.
There are necessary conflicts, times when we have to chose between two competing values. For example, I have a value that says I will not kill another human being. I have another value that says I will protect my family. When my grandson is spending the night I am committed to taking care of him; protecting him from the world and from his youthful lack of judgment.
If we are asleep upstairs and I hear a bump in the night – I get up to check it out. I hear glass breaking, the dull thud of heavy boots downstairs, then the creaking of my stairs as an intruder begins the ascent into my life. My ethics are in conflict. Well, not too much – I am pretty sure protecting my grandson is going to win that battle – but it will be an internal battle that will totally consume me. I will silently debate my choices for the rest of my life.
Abortion carries with it extraordinary conflict. We will protect our children and we will not take a life. Protecting the child from the world and from their youthful lack of judgment. You can see where I am going with this.
The sixteen year old honors student who has hopes and dreams of becoming a world class surgeon becomes pregnant. To be or not to be. A thirty-five year old single mother of three, barely able to feed her children, becomes pregnant. A fifteen year old girl, already dropped out of high school, with abusive parents and an unforgiving home, becomes pregnant. Teen girls in the Sudan or Darfur become pregnant – there is no hope their child will live to one year – the child will certainly die of starvation and disease. What are these folks to do?
We can, and do, debate the causes of these problems. We talk about prevention. We talk about sex education. We talk about contraception. But even here our ethics are in conflict. Do we teach contraception or abstinence? My thought is that we teach people to not break into houses. But they do – and then we have to deal with the problem.
There are some who would say that my ethics are mushy, that I justify violating my own ethics depending on the situation. The logical next step is that I have no ethics because any situation could justify discarding an ethic in favor of my own selfishness.
You see, life is full of conflict. These problems, like abortion, are not simple black and white issues. The debate is important. Articulating our ethics is important. And having good judgment when there is conflict is most important.
To be or not to be.