Moral Choices

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It is easy to judge others, but are not without blind spots in judging ourselves. In the domain of moral choices, this becomes particularly problematic. How many times have you heard or thought to yourself, “If I were he, I would have done that differently.” Or perhaps, “If I were he, I wouldn’t have done what he did.” But how many times have you said to yourself, “If I’m honest, if I were in the same situation, I really don’t know what I would have done.”

I’ve listed below a few such moral dilemmas, some drawn from real life accounts. I hope you will put yourself in each one and ask yourself three questions:

1. What is the right thing to do?

2. Would I do the right thing?

3. Am I absolutely sure what the right thing is?

A. If you have seen the 1957 movie Abandon Ship, you know the moral quandary in which Alec Holmes (Tyrone Power) finds himself. Holmes is second in command of a luxury ocean liner which strikes a mine. He takes charge of a life boat when the captain (Lloyd Nolan) dies from injuries sustained in the explosion. The small vessel is seriously overcrowded (including numerous people who are hanging on from ocean-side), has limited supplies of food and medicine, and is in shark-infested waters with only small amounts of  shark repellent in hand. Those hoping to survive include the young and old of both genders, some of whom have been grievously injured as the ship went down.

Soon they become aware that no SOS was sent, because the explosion destroyed the radio. Concluding that no rescue ship will be looking for them, Holmes determines the infirm and weakest must be ordered off the so that the remaining individuals can have a chance at survival by rowing the very great distance to the nearest land mass, with enough food to sustain them until they reach it. What would you do if you were in charge?

B. This comes from the oral history of a Holocaust survivor as described in Holocaust Testimonies: The Ruins of Memory by Lawrence Langer. Imagine that you are one among many Jews swept up in the Shoah (the Hebrew word for the Holocaust). You have been separated from your parents. You aren’t certain whether they are alive or dead. In fact, the Nazis have taken a large group of Jews, including your mother, to a place in the forest. They have required these people, at gun point, to dig a long, deep trench. While doing this, the soldiers are joking, smoking, and drinking. Once the trench has been dug to an adequate depth, a handful of the soldiers shoot their machine guns at the diggers along the line of the trench. Some are killed instantly, some dive into the trench to escape the gun fire, and others are wounded to various degrees of severity.

Meanwhile, you are far from this action. Perhaps you heard the gun fire in the distance. But once it is finished, the Nazis assemble a group of Jews to fill in the trench, to cover over their dirty work, quite literally. You are in this group, assigned to this grisly task. The soldiers have their guns on you and your co-workers, reminding you to work quickly or else. Much moaning and screams of pain are heard from this place. And one more thing: From the trench in front of you, a familiar voice is also heard, quite distinctly. It is your mother’s voice. She is telling you that she is not wounded and pleads for your help. What should you do? What would you do?

C. You are Agamemnon, the leader of the Greek expedition to Troy, provoked to war by the abduction of Helen of Troy, the wife of your brother Menelaeus. Before you and your 1000 ships can reach Troy, however, your fleet is stuck in place, stopped by the intercession of a god named Artemis. Time passes. Your supplies of food and water are dissipating. In addition to your family responsibility to defend the honor of your younger brother and help him retrieve his wife, you are aware that Zeus, the most powerful and important of the gods, has demanded that you sail to Troy. A seer is consulted to determine what might be done to appease the god Artemis and enable the fleet to be launched. You are told that you must sacrifice your virgin daughter, who is not far away. What should you do? What would you do?

D. The economy is tough. You have been out of work for some time. You don’t want to lose your home or apartment, and you are afraid that if you can’t find work soon, that might eventually happen. But, you’ve been networking, and it finally pays off. You are offered a job selling AK-47s, assault weapons that fire 600 rounds per minute, whose principal use is to kill people. While you would only be expected to sell these arms to “legitimate” buyers, you are also aware that the AK-47 is one of the world’s most frequently smuggled weapons and the rifles you sell are likely to get into the hands of criminals and drug lords. Should you take the job? What would you do?

E. An elderly aunt dies, one you have not seen in many years. She has named you the sole beneficiary of her estate, a total of $600,000. You are doing well financially, so the money is not a necessity for you, but you can certainly imagine an enormous number of uses for it (including charitable giving), not to mention the fact that it would allow you some peace of mind, knowing that you will be even more financially secure. You also have two siblings and two cousins, none of whom were more or less close to your aunt than you were. You are under no legal obligation to share the money with them, but you wonder whether you should. What would you do?

F. You are politically “pro-life.” You have campaigned for candidates who believe, as you do, in the sanctity of life from the moment of conception. You believe that abortion is murder, without qualification. Financially stable, you have donated money to prevent abortion. A young woman approaches you, someone you know, and who knows and respects the aforementioned beliefs. She is pregnant out-of-wedlock. She would like you to adopt her child. She knows that your two children, who you had when you were quite young, are grown, and believes you would be just the right parents for the new life she carries inside of her, in part because of your moral stance against abortion. She is terrified to give up her child to someone she doesn’t know and who might not provide the kind of home that she believes you and your spouse can provide. But the two of you had decided some time ago that you only wanted two children and, in fact, you have been looking forward to any empty nest and to the freedom it would permit you while you are still in your 40s. What should you do? What would you do?

G. The Holocaust again. This time you are a German gentile. You have a spouse and children. You are not wealthy, but you are getting by. You are not sympathetic to Hitler, but well aware of how the Gestapo works, and that anything seen by them as disloyal to Hitler and the Reich would likely cause you to be interrogated, perhaps sent to a concentration camp, or worse. Your family depends on you for their livelihood. A Jew comes to your door after dark. You know him, but only very casually. He asks you to hide him. You have heard rumors about what is happening to the Jews once they are sent away and, in fact, have been told by a witness that they are being murdered. What should you do? What would you do?

I am not here to give you answers to these questions, assuming that I would be able to come up with just one acceptable moral choice; or that I am some sort of moral authority, which I am not. It can be argued that some of these situations do not allow for a “right” action; not all situations in life offer absolute clarity. Life can be complicated, as these examples demonstrate.

To be sure, none of us are as good as we could be, but that does not mean what is good is always apparent. Indeed, in Aeschylus’s telling of Agamemnon’s story, the title character utters the words “(Which) of these things (choices) goes without disaster?” in describing the the conflict between his public responsibilities as leader of his troops, head of his (and his brother’s family), and the demands of the gods Zeus and Artemis versus his private responsibility as the father of young Iphigenia. The heart break is readily apparent in this man’s dilemma of whether to honor all the aforementioned interests except the one closest to his heart in “such sacrifice of (the) innocent blood…(of) the beauty of my house.”

On a daily basis, we can only do our best to lead moral, principled lives. Not just to talk about it, or formally worship a deity on a holy day, or even to donate some money, but to weave those beliefs into the fabric of daily, commonplace interactions, and try not to fool ourselves when we fall short; to minimize the everyday fibs, moral compromises, and inconsiderations; to show kindness, be forthright, go out of our way for others. To do what is right when no one is looking.

On the other hand, if we want to find out if our morality goes the distance, then we have to be tested — confronted with something difficult and costly, if not dangerous, if not horrible in its implications, as in the examples I’ve given you above; and until then, be humble, not knowing exactly what we would do.

Being a “nice person” is easy enough … until the chips are down.

Most of us won’t ever know the answers to the kinds of questions I have posed, that is, what we would do if actually faced with them.

Best not to know, I think.

The photo above called Choices, choices… is the work of Duncan Lilly, originally sourced from geograph.org.uk, sourced for this blog from Wikimedia Commons.

Can You Sleep At Night? Being Ashamed and Feeling Guilty

There is an important distinction between being ashamed and feeling guilty. Both are connected to wrong doing, errors, mistakes, or failures. Both involve emotions. Feeling guilty, however, unlike being ashamed, doesn’t require an audience.

A person typically feels guilty almost automatically when he believes that he has done wrong. It matters not whether anyone else knows or finds out. Often, it doesn’t even matter that others might forgive the transgression. Thus, a sense of guilt is an internal state connected directly to an act thought to be wrong.

Shame, on the other hand, requires an audience, or at least, others’ knowledge of the inappropriate behavior or failure, even if they did not directly witness it.

By these definitions it is possible to feel guilty without being ashamed. One need only believe that one has done wrong. But someone who has been shamed (in other words, found out and condemned) might only come to feel bad if his behavior is widely known.

You might think that this always happens, but it doesn’t. Take the recently removed Governor of Illinois, Rod Blogojevich, who has yet to admit any guilt and who certainly doesn’t act ashamed; indeed, who appears quite shameless. Shamelessness is never a compliment, but rather a statement about someone who has no “shadow,” no sense of ever doing anything inappropriate.

To cite a couple of other examples, one a therapist and one a minister, neither felt guilty even after having their iniquity publicly exposed. In both cases the misbehavior was of a sexual nature that involved infidelity, as well as a violation of the code of ethics of their professions.

In the former case, the therapist had sex with ex-patients; in the latter example, the clergyman had sex with parishioners. Both were married (not to each other) at the time of these acts. The public exposure of their actions and ensuing humiliation mortified each of them and, indeed, each one contemplated suicide. But neither really believed what had happened was terribly wrong, and rationalized the transgressions in defense of his own self-image. In both cases the rationale involved holding the sexual partners largely responsible for the romantic encounters.

The connection between shame and suicidal depression is interesting and can be found even in the epics of Greek mythology. When Achilles died in battle, the Greeks held a vote to decide who among them should be awarded the splendid armor of Achilles, which had been fashioned by the god Hephaistos. Ajax (Aias) the Greater, the best warrior after Achilles, lost this competition to the cleverest of the Greeks, Odysseus, who had designed the Trojan Horse strategy that won the war. In his humiliation, Ajax went mad and eventually killed himself. Such is the devastating effect of a “loss of face.”

It should be said that the therapist and the minister I have referred to were quite narcissistic people who saw themselves through a very forgiving lens. Both terminated contact with old friends following their public embarrassment, in order to avoid facing them. In a sense, the self-love and lack of a well-developed conscience of the two people in question set the stage for their wrong doing — they believed that they were without moral flaws and therefore that anything they thought to do would automatically be a morally acceptable behavior.

Beware of those who say that they can sleep easily at night and use this standard as their primary method of judging or evaluating their own behavior. I doubt that the worst of the totalitarian rulers and despots of history would have failed this test of moral correctness, despite the murder, unhappiness, and genocide they created.

In the USA, on the political front, we have seen lots of people who don’t admit wrong, who rationalize what they do, and who serve themselves while claiming to be acting “on behalf of the American People.” I’m sure some of them come to believe their own story, their own rationale — shameless, as I said before; indeed, almost a kind of self-delusion.

In my experience, people who come to psychotherapy because they feel ashamed (but not particularly guilty) don’t usually take responsibility for their actions in the course of treatment. Rather, if the process follows the typical course, they will recover from the injury to their ego and be able to go on with life, still guarded against significant self-awareness. Moral self-reflection doesn’t seem to come easily or naturally to them.

By contrast, individuals who experience guilt that causes them to enter counseling often can learn to forgive themselves and recover from the depression that usually accompanies their guilt. For them, however, the risk is in taking too much responsibility and being too severe in their self-judgment, exactly the opposite of the person who is only ashamed.

It is useful to be capable of feeling guilt, to admit wrong doing, and to feel ashamed; that is, if one is to lead a moral life. On the other hand, it might be argued that those who are shameless and who rarely feel guilt probably have more fun in life and are less troubled — the mirror reflects their image back to them in the way that they want to see it, and not in the way it actually looks. They live in a state of ethical blindness. Whether that permits a satisfying life is another story.

You be the judge.

The above image is Shame by Libertinus Yomango, sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Infidelity and Its Treatment

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The names don’t really matter. Today they are Tiger Woods; Mark Sanford, Governor of South Carolina; and John Ensign, U.S. Senator from Nevada. Tomorrow they will be someone else. Every day, there are other names, little known, but causing no less pain.

How does it happen? How does it happen that people who claim to live by well established moral norms, who have taken a public oath to remain faithful to their spouse, violate that promise? There are several reasons:

1. Power and celebrity = opportunity. People in positions of power and celebrity have more opportunity than most to be unfaithful. They are surrounded, sometimes literally, with admiring and attractive younger people. As Oscar Wilde said, “I can resist anything, except temptation!” The famous and powerful have plenty of that.

2. Contiguity. You might think that the separation of sexes in some religious fundamentalist societies is unfortunate or wrong, but it does keep opportunity at a minimum. In modern Western secular civilization, men and women work together, eat together, and travel together on business. Repeated contact with a sympathetic business associate, pulling together with that person as a team on a business project, creates not just the opportunity for sexual contact, but the chance to get to know and like one another. Perfectly moral and decent folk can find themselves stirred by the presence of a person to whom they are not married, even though they weren’t looking for anything outside of the marriage.

3. Disinhibition. Alcohol and drugs. If you are around sexually attractive people in a party atmosphere or when you are “under the influence,” your judgment and hesitation are more likely to be set aside.

4. The “Great Man” rationale. More than once, I’ve heard men justifying the concept of infidelity in the case of those who are accomplished and powerful. Often, the rationale includes reference to the role that “the great man” plays in benefiting society. According to this line of reasoning, the “heroic” figure is thought to have earned the right to live by a different set of rules than the common man, and should be given the chance to be compensated for his contribution to society by being allowed multiple sexual partners.

5. The “It won’t hurt anyone” rationale. The faithless sometimes persuade themselves that there is nothing wrong with their behavior so long as anyone who might be injured (spouse/children) never knows about it. This is akin to the old philosophical question, “If a tree falls in the forest, but no one is present to hear it, does it really make a sound?” What the argument ignores is that the transgressor is changed by his act of betrayal, that he must tell a continuing set of lies in order to maintain the fiction of his character, that he risks his partner’s physical health in the event that he has become a carrier of a sexually transmitted disease, and that it is impossible to guarantee that the secret will never be revealed.

6. Mid-life crisis. Poor humanity. Poor man. We age, we lose our youthful good looks, sometimes our hair, our virility, our energy, our strength, our stamina. The antidote? A youthful or new sexual partner who, for a time, can help us shut out the dreaded and self diminishing passage of time.

7. Solace. The ups and downs of life are inevitable, even in the luckiest of lives. The best marriages are not immune to the daily stress that  takes a toll on a spouse’s ability to be compassionate, encouraging, and supportive. Financial worries, business reverses, family illness, house keeping, and child rearing soon diminish the “date night” and honeymoon atmosphere of the early days of the relationship. A fresh and sympathetic set of ears, all understanding and acceptance, often develops into something more, and something sexual.

8. “It’s not natural.” Some people, mostly men, justify infidelity with the notion that man was not meant to be a monogamous creature and the flowers of the field (i.e. the opposite sex) were meant to be enjoyed.

9. Longevity. At the turn of the last century in America, that is, about 1900, the average life expectancy was about 50 years. By that standard it was usual for marriages to be relatively short, 25 to 35 years at the most, many much shorter. No longer. Many now last 50 years and more. What happens in that time? People get older, their bodies change, and their personalities alter as well. When I do marital therapy, I usually ask couples what initially drew them together. The most frequent answer I get is something like, “He was hot and we had a lot of fun.” Thirty years on, it goes without saying, he isn’t so “hot” and they sure aren’t having fun.

In order for marriages to thrive into mid-life and beyond, the couple has to work very hard at the relationship, to keep the sexual spark alive despite physical changes and familiarity, and to see to it that personality alterations are compatible or synchronous. Too often one partner wants the marriage to be exactly as it was at the beginning and believes that both the personality and physical changes in the other person amount to a breach of contract. Meanwhile, the other might feel held to a contract that is no longer appropriate to the current state of the couple’s life together and to their age, personality, and experience. One or the other very well may see infidelity as tempting under such circumstances.

10. The scoundrel factor. Although an injured spouse sometimes believes that “evil”  is the most likely explanation for her spouse’s betrayal, in most cases it really isn’t. Most people don’t set out to behave badly and many feel guilty when they do. That said, there are certainly more than a few cads among us, and they do with impunity what others only do with hesitation, a troubled conscience, or not at all.

11. Boredom. Boredom doesn’t cause anyone to stray, but it does set the stage for the temptation. Routine can kill even the things that we love. The pattern is well-known: wake up, go to work, come home, play with the kids, do the bills, and collapse from exhaustion. Or, the stay-at-home parent’s version: wake up, make food, shop, make food, take care of the kids, do the housekeeping, make food, clean, and collapse from exhaustion. Either way, the routine is deadening and there is little room for excitement.

12. A lack of sex. Again, this doesn’t cause infidelity, but can set the stage for it. A warning here: cease sexual contact at your own risk and at the risk of your marriage. But, this is not to suggest that you should have sex only because your partner wants to.

13. Cruelty, sarcasm, and a lack of appreciation. If the marriage has turned into a battle ground, with gratitude replaced by indifference or hostility, infidelity is more likely on either side.

When the infidelity is exposed, the result is devastating to the victimized spouse. Rage, sadness, a loss of self-regard, and feelings of inadequacy are common. What did I do? What didn’t I do? Why did he do that? If he felt that way, why didn’t he leave first before he took on another partner? The devastation occurs whether the infidelity is fresh, or the betrayed person discovers it years after it occurred. The emotional clock of devastation only begins to run from the point that one becomes aware of what happened.

If a couple comes to therapy in the wake of such news, several factors go into the therapist’s evaluation of the situation. First, is the infidelity over or is it still going on? If the marriage is to have any chance, the “other” relationship has to end. Moreover, it has to end because the spouse having the affair wants it to end and believes that the marriage is worth saving, not because his marital partner is threatening to leave or because of the fear of financial devastation in the course of a divorce.

The therapist will try to gauge what still binds the marital couple together, if anything. Do they still have positive memories of their courtship? Do they have children and are they concerned about the effects of a divorce on their offspring? Are they still in love? If there is no love on the part of even one partner, therapy is almost certain to fail to recreate it.

If the both parties want to save the marriage, have positive memories of the start of their relationship, and if loving feelings still exist between them, treatment often can help to repair things. One of the first items in need of attention will be allowing the injured spouse to grieve. This will require both tears and anger, but will need to be time limited. That is, however great the injury, the victimized spouse must understand that he cannot forever bring up the infidelity to be used as a weapon when he feels unhappy or aggrieved in the future. As the old farm expression goes, “Don’t burn down the barn to kill the rats.”

Of course, apology by the roving partner will be necessary and it will take time to rebuild trust. Once the immediate crisis is over, the couple needs to look at what contributed to their estrangement and what changes need to be made in their relationship. They have to reaffirm a set of values by which to live and goals for their relationship and for the family. Changes in patterns of communication will likely be necessary, as will time and attention to each other. Serious self-reflection and responsibility-taking will be particularly important for the unfaithful member of the relationship, but the partner too must be willing to look at the possibility that he contributed to his spouse’s feelings of disaffection.

Such situations aren’t easy, but they can come out well. Good will, sincere contrition on the part of the person who strayed, and emotional generosity on the part of the victim are all key. The betrayal is never forgotten, of course. But time does its work on the scar of infidelity, just as bodily scars tend to soften and fade over time, even if they never fully disappear. Happiness and love may yet flourish.

The image above is a cropped screenshot of Lana Turner from the film The Postman Always Rings Twice, sourced from Wikimedia Commons.