Morality is no different in the 21st century than it was in any of the centuries past. Morality has always been based on the right thing to do. The right thing to do has remained the same over the millennia. It is embedded in our conscience.
However, societal values and laws relating to ethics interpreting the right thing to do are different today than they were centuries ago because these moral guidelines fluctuate with the government, ruling class, free time, and the education of the citizenry.
Let’s start with determining what “the right thing to do” is. Whenever you feel that hiccup before you take an action or whenever you feel a tinge of guilt while taking an action, you know this is not the right thing to do. Remember Jiminy Cricket in the Walt Disney movie, Pinocchio, and how he and Pinocchio were instructed to always let their conscience be their guide? Even when we know the right thing to do, we can rationalize or talk ourselves out of doing the right thing with little difficulty.
But society interprets “the right thing to do” through laws and ethical codes. So how does society determine what the right thing is? I believe that a fair and just society can use either one or both basic methods for making this decision. The first is what individuals think, and the second is what others think. Ideally, the law should coincide with one or both of these ethical perspectives, but that is not always the case. Many governments, including totalitarianism, impose arbitrary and capricious laws and codes on citizens.
Subjective ethics are relative to the individual. This theory is common in America, a country of immigrants from a variety of cultures with differing ethical values; however this subjective theory has inherent weaknesses because of our humanness. Objective ethics, also called rational ethics or moral absolutism, deems actions right or wrong based on a consistent objective test. It imposes a duty on all citizens to refrain from violating the rights of others. Sometimes, it is the better approach.
The closest objective test in law I could find was included within the elements of negligence. A legal duty must first exist between the parties to establish liability through negligence. As mentioned above, the duty in objective ethics is to refrain from violating the rights of others. The next element is a breach of that duty. This requires the actor to meet the standard of care, which in many cases is what a reasonable person would or would not have done under the same or similar circumstances. In other words, would a reasonable person believe this was the right thing to do?
For example, you are shopping at Kroger’s and you haven’t eaten for five hours, so you are tempted to take a grape and pop it in your mouth. Nobody would miss one grape. What is the right thing to do according to 21st century society? Well, let’s apply the subjective test. The majority of people in today’s society would not have a problem with this. Most would rationalize that nobody would really be hurt by the loss of a one grape. The store would still sell the bunch of grapes, and the purchaser would never know the difference because each bunch of grapes had a different amount of grapes anyway.
In earlier centuries, stealing a grape would have been different from stealing a horse only by the value of the item taken. But clearly, the moral and right thing to do would be to not take the grape no matter what century you lived in at the time of the decision.
What happens when we utilize the objective test in the 21st century? Let’s employ the quantum of proof required for negligence just like we learned in law school. In a civil case, the burden of proof is by a preponderance of the evidence also known as “more likely than not” and “greater weight of evidence.” A case under the Civil False Claims Act, 31 U.S.C. 2729, somewhat analogous to our determination whether an act is the wrong thing to do, also uses this burden of persuasion.
Let’s first examine the preponderance of the evidence test. If the scales are just a little lower with the weight of evidence on the side of this being the right thing to do, then it is the right thing to do. We would have to examine all the evidence and place it on the scales of justice to see where the scales tip.
In this case, we have evidence indicating that taking the grape would be good for the decision-maker because it would stem the hunger until the groceries paid for get home. We also have evidence that there will be little to no harm to Kroger’s or the ultimate purchaser of the grapes. The theft of a grape would not be worth prosecuting since the value is so low. Where do the scales tip in this instance? A reasonable person would not consider the taking of a grape as the wrong thing to do or, in other words, the decision to take the grape was the right thing to do after examining all the circumstances.
In certain situations, you may find that the scales seem fairly balanced. That is when we examine the “seven steps.” These seven steps should be taken to determine if any of them tip the scales.
The magnificent seven are:
- Examine your “gut” feeling. The NCIS “Gibb’s gut” is used. If your “gut” tells you that the action is not right, then more than likely it is wrong. This “gut” feeling could tip the scales for you on the side of deciding not to take that action.
- Take the “CNN test.” You can substitute any newspaper or television news report for CNN, but you need to determine if the action could create “bad press.” If you fear the action could lead to a problem with the media, you should, at least, run it by your public affairs experts.
- Examine the pragmatic angles. If the action is not practical, then why gamble with it?
- Res ipsa loquitur – “the thing speaks for itself.” This is an evidentiary rule that permits some degree of evidence from an inference of a breach by the outcome.
- Burden of persuasion is on proving that it is the right thing to do. A tie goes to proving that it is the wrong thing to do.
- Err on the side of avoiding gray areas in the law.
- Avoid even the appearance of impropriety.
In this case with the single grape, how would the application of the seven steps work out? Examine the seven potential tipping points.
- Your “gut” may be telling you that there are no real consequences to third parties.
- There will be no “bad press” because there is no potential for this being a violation of criminal law.
- Practical value of eating this grape to satisfy hunger is greater than problems encountered even if caught.
- A single grape makes little noise for itself. It carries little significance in the scheme of things.
- The preponderance of evidence is that a reasonable person would do this and consider this the right thing to do.
- There is no legalistic gray area.
- If this appears to be a problem, then it is a problem. This is where the 21st century ethics will not find this as even appearing to be a problem, while earlier centuries would find that the theft of anything would create the appearance of a problem.
And here is the tough part. Even if the scales are level, the burden of proof has not been met, and you cannot take or recommend taking that action. In other words, you cannot say that it was a “tie,” allowing you do nothing. It doesn’t work that way. Even if the scales are barely tipped to the side of not taking the action based on your “gut” feeling, the decision has been made, and you must argue to not take that action.
Who Makes the Final Ethics Decision?
Is there a judge or jury to decide the case for you? Or is the decision entirely up to you? Wouldn’t that be great if you could decide what the wrong thing was? You could rig it so that you could never do the wrong thing. All your choices would be spot on, dead center, right on target. But if you “ain’t the king,” you are going to be second guessed by everybody. Do I really mean everybody? Yes, I do, including: your supervisor, your co-workers, your secretary, your friends, your parents, your wife, your kids, and even your dog on bad days.
If your supervisor came into your office and asked you to change your opinion because it went against what the company wanted to do, how would you handle it? Would you comply or would you refuse to change your opinion? Would you apply the subjective test and rationalize that it wasn’t that big a deal to cave in to the boss? Live to fight another day. Or would you examine the situation using the objective test and present a logical argument to take to higher officials within the company, including checking with Public Affairs on their take on the issue?
When I was teaching the Law of Armed Conflict (LOAC) as an Air Force JAG to combat pilots, I always asked them to make their decisions after employing the “CNN Test.” You can insert any news media in place of CNN, but CNN was big back during Desert Storm.
What did I mean by the “CNN Test”? Any choices by pilots to fire or not to fire would be examined under the scrutiny of world opinion or the “CNN Test.” What would the world think about this decision? How would it appear in the newspapers tomorrow? There was always the thought that in war, “you gotta do what you gotta do.” We wanted the pilots to return safely from every mission, so if somebody were attempting to obtain a firing solution on them, they needed to fire immediately. But if they had time to think through situations like in selecting targets, they should think about the consequences of world opinion.
Now, why should we care about what other people thought? We are number one aren’t we? We are more important than other people. Who cares about other people’s opinion? Well, we should care because society benefits from people doing the right thing. We should place a high priority on doing the right thing and following laws.
21st Century Decision Making
An eighty-year-old grandfather told his grandson that there was a battle going on between two wolves inside us all. One was an evil wolf, filled with anger, jealousy, hate, greed, resentment, lies, and a huge ego. The other was a good wolf with joy, love, peace, kindness, humility, truth, and empathy.
The grandson asked which wolf would finally win. The old man leaned back and smiled, “The one you feed.”
I present 21 questions for the current century. I will first give the societal value answers of this century and then I will provide what I believe the moral answers should be.
- Why be good?
21st century: There is no good reason to be the good wolf, so do what you want.
Morality: Your conscience is a moderate, moral compass, telling you to be good.
- Is it ever permissible to lie?
21st century: Yes, lying is permissible in many cases.
Morality: Your conscience permits lying only in moderate amounts, when it is beneficial to the listener.
- What’s wrong with gossip?
21st century: Nothing.
Morality: Your conscience tells you it is wrong when it is not done in moderation and harms others.
- Do you have an obligation to be healthy?
21st century: No, you can do what you want.
Morality: Yes, your conscience lets you know that you should live a temperate life and remain healthy so you are not a burden on others.
- May I take a grape while shopping?
21st century: Yes, because it doesn’t hurt anybody.
Morality: No since quantity is not the issue in morality; moderation does not permit murdering of an infant because of their size; theft is theft and murder is murder.
- Is it wrong to make as much money as I can?
21st century: No, although this is changing as capitalism loses out to socialism in this century.
Morality: you should live modestly and make as much money as you need to survive, avoiding greed.
- What are my obligations to the poor?
21st century: None, although this is changing as capitalism loses out to socialism in this century.
Morality: You should take care of the poor by teaching them to fish rather than giving them fish.
- Can we do better than the Golden Rule?
21st century: Do unto others before they do unto you.
Morality: Do more for others than you would do for yourself.
- Why can’t I just live for pleasure?
21st century: You can.
Morality: Your living for pleasure must be moderated by your conscience.
- Why can’t I date a married person?
21st century: You can as long as the relationship is consensual.
Morality: Because adultery runs afoul of your conscience and is not temperate sex.
- Are jealousy and resentment always wrong?
21st century: No, these are human emotions that should be accepted.
Morality: They are wrong when they are not controlled and you keep feeding them.
- What are the rules for respecting privacy?
21st century: You have little privacy under capitalism and no privacy under totalitarian rule (socialism generally degrades into totalitarianism); both extremes in government take away your privacy.
Morality: The Golden Rule applies to rules of privacy.
- What do I owe my aging parents?
21st century: Nothing.
Morality: Your conscience will guide you to providing what your parents reasonably need.
- Should I help a suffering loved one die?
21st century: Yes, if it means one less person on social security and an early inheritance.
Morality: No, find a way to relieve their suffering other than killing them; murder is murder.
- Is “genetic enhancement” playing God.
21st century: There is no God.
Morality: No, it is playing Hitler; genetic enhancement is a dangerous tool that extremists could misuse.
- Is conscientious objection a moral right?
21st century: Yes, anybody can claim this right.
Morality: It is a reasonable right based on our freedom of religion and convictions, but this right cannot be claimed for spurious and disingenuous reasons; conscientious objection must be done in moderation, following the conscience.
- Is it always wrong to fight back?
21st century: You have the right to fight back as long as you aren’t going against the government.
Morality: No, you can even go against the existing government if it is a bad government that does not support the citizens of that country; non-violent revolution is permissible.
- Should the death penalty be abolished?
21st century: It should be permitted, especially for revolutionaries and crimes against the state.
Morality: Yes, it is murder and thus is not permitted by our conscience.
- Is torture ever acceptable?
21st century: Yes, it allows the government to obtain important information.
Morality: No, it goes against the very fiber of our morality.
- Do animals have rights?
21st century: No, humans are more important than animals.
Morality: Yes, humans are animals, and your conscience tells you that all animals have rights.
- Why should I recycle?
21st century: Because it is what everybody else is doing.
Morality: Because it is the right thing to do.
Have you ever looked for a book on moderation? There aren’t many. Have you ever wondered why? My guess is because the extremists are the squeaky wheels who are always getting the grease to get their books published. Extremists also have better sound bites for television interviews. Furthermore, extremists make better headlines and will sell more newspapers and books. Extremists excite you, energize you, and win you over to their powerful magnetic force.
Moderates are boring because all they want to do is stay in the middle of every argument. They are the weak force. But have you ever thought about how difficult remaining neutral really is? When you have two extreme forces tugging at you, it is actually extremely hard not picking a side. As the magnetic field strengthens, you generally are drawn to either the north or south poles. No wonder the world is becoming more polarized with moderates becoming an endangered species.
When we make decisions, we are generally influenced by extreme positions. Our two-party political system is an example of how two opposite sides polarize America. Moderate parties generally do not win elections. However, my conclusion is that people should utilize moderation in making choices in life. The “Golden Mean” of Aristotle, the “Middle Way” of Buddha, and the “Balanced Order” of Confucius are the heart of virtue ethics.
The 21st century societal value answers to the 21 questions were not moderate. But the morality answers tended to be more balanced. That is not to say that the morality answers were perfect. Any human answers are flawed by humanness, which is found in us all. But moderation is perhaps the best goal that we as humans can utilize to achieve a heightened sens of morality.
Unfortunately, a revolution generally does not lead to the reinstatement of morality. Typically, it leads to a new government with new laws, which more than likely will be based on something other than morality, subjective ethics, or objective ethics. The new leadership will have its own self-interests to serve. Even communistic revolutions, promising power to the people, have ended up with totalitarian governments taking away everything from the people, including their lives.
Perhaps, this is why morality should be the choice of the people rather than societal or governmental values.
 Gordon W. Brown, Paul A. Sukys, and Mary Ann Lawlor, Business Law with UCC Applications, 8th Ed. (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1995), 3 and 8-9.
 Richard A. Mann and Barry S. Roberts, Smith and Roberson’s Business Law, 9th Ed. (New York: West Publishing Company, 1994), 175.
 Roger C. Park, David P. Leonard, and Steven H. Goldberg, Evidence Law, A Student’s Guide to the Law of Evidence as Applied in American Trials, 2nd Ed. (St. Paul, MN: Thomson West, 2004), 93.
 Brian C. Elmer, et al., Fraud in Government Contracts (Washington, D.C.: Federal Publications Inc., 1993), 3-15.
 Many of these questions are found in “Moral Decision Making: How to Approach Everyday Ethics” by Clancy Martin, a professor of Philosophy at the University of Missouri – Kansas City. The answers are my own.