Sep. 13th, 2017

joreth: (boxed in)

Q. Is this thing wrong?
A. Yes.

Q. Am I a bad person for doing it?
A. Well, that depends on context.

Q. What should be the consequences or punishment?
A. Uh, first of all, consequences and punishments are two different things. And what they "should" be depends on a LOT of nuance.

This is a problem in a lot of online advice seeking. The answer depends on how you ask the question. A thing can be wrong, but *how* wrong it is, what kind of character you have for doing it, and how you should be treated going forward are all *very very* different.

For instance, is stealing wrong? Yes. But on a scale of all wrong things, stealing a loaf of bread for your starving children isn't as bad as, say, murdering unarmed black people for selling cigarettes.

Is the person who steals a bad person? Well, what is the context for the theft? I used to steal food when I was poor and briefly homeless as a teen. Everyone I know "steals" other people's intellectual property. A lot of people steal office supplies from work. Everyone in these examples also pays taxes, donates to charities, cares for their children (if they have any), has been there in a time of need for a friend, and otherwise exhibits compassion and consideration for others. Except for maybe when they steal something. Does this make them "bad people"?

What about going forward? Can you ever trust someone who steals? They've proven that they're willing to take things that don't belong to them, how do you know that they won't take something of yours? Again, go back to the context. What's the motivation and where is the line after which they justify the action?

What should the consequences or punishments be? Consequences can include legal repercussions and loss of trust. Do those consequences also act as punitive? How about preventative?

The point is that the answers to the question all depend on the framing of the question. Something can be wrong, but what does it really mean to be "wrong"? Is physical violence "wrong"? What about in self-defense? What about in defense of someone who can't defend themselves? What about in defense of a nation? Of an ideal? Of an ideology? What about the best defense being a good offense?

And then there's the confounding element of the other players, such as with the violence question. Hitting people is "wrong", but what if it's the only way to make someone stop hitting you?

I see a lot of people justify cheating by saying that the spouse being cheated on has somehow wronged the cheater first. OK, so that just means that there are two wrong parties, not just one. Doing a bad or wrong thing doesn't absolve the other person from also doing their own bad or wrong thing. Selling individual cigarettes is illegal. Doesn't justify being murdered for it. Jaywalking is illegal. Doesn't justify being murdered for it. Committing a petty crime and running away is illegal. Doesn't justify being murdered for it.

Two wrong people. But also in context, one more wrong than the other.

It's less helpful to ask "is this thing wrong?", because that answer is often a simple "yes" or "no". It's more helpful to ask *why* and *how* it's wrong, because that's where we get to the more interesting answers.

Is lying wrong? Usually yes. But why did the lying happen? Was it someone trying to avoid responsibility for something they did? We can talk about cowardice and selfishness. Was it someone trying to protect the lives of Jews hiding in the basement from Nazi concentration camps? We can talk about when lying is an act of courage.

Is cheating wrong? Yes. But why did the cheating happen? That will tell us where they draw the line that justifies doing a wrong thing, how trustworthy that person is and under what circumstances, and more importantly, what other solutions to the problem other than cheating may be more effective (or at least, more compassionate and ethical).

Rather than ask "is this wrong", ask "what is the context, the motivation, the subtext, the consequences, the responsibility, the goals?"

Is this wrong? Yes. Now what? What do we do with that answer? Well, that depends.


September 2017

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