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Susan Smalley, Ph.D. Headshot

How Often Do You Make a Moral Compromise?

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The other day I took a personality quiz and one of the questions was, "Do you compromise on moral issues?" (often, occasionally, rarely, never). It gave me pause to think about "moral compromise" and where that fits into my day-to-day life. I checked "rarely" and went about the day, but then I noticed how often moral decisions are required.

What is a moral decision anyway and a compromise at that?

We face moral decisions when an action conflicts with our internal intention or conviction of right and wrong. A few years ago I came to the realization that I wanted to live by a single moral conviction: to help, not harm. It is the basic definition of "kindness," and is a simple ethic that underlies a whole range of moral convictions (e.g., do not lie, cheat, gossip, steal, etc.). Yet, there can arise dilemmas with the simplest of intentions.

Three experiences I recently faced illustrate the point. The first is around my intention to be a vegetarian. I became vegetarian 12 years ago when I changed my Midwestern diet to macrobiotic after reading it was a means of preventing cancer (I had just had an early stage melanoma diagnosed on a small freckle). At the same time, I began meditating and experienced "transcendence," where there is a loss of self and a felt sense of being "one" or experiencing our interdependent nature. My vegetarian stance shifted from being self-focused for health to one based on this sense of this interconnectedness. Fast-forward to the present where I've been suffering from chronic sinusitus (for six years), and the Western and Eastern medical practices have done little to relieve it. One Eastern doctor has been pushing me to put fish back into my diet, arguing that it provides a host of protein and fatty acids not equally assimilated from supplements and plant-based products. Several years ago this would have been an idea I easily rejected, but now the toll of sinus issues is making me reconsider. Herein lies the moral dilemma: Does being kind to my body (i.e., the possibility that eating fish will help my health) override my intent to be kind to other animals by not eating them?

The answer lies in the "possibility" part. If eating fish guaranteed an end to my sinusitus I would definitely do it. I would compromise my moral conviction if my health improvement were guaranteed. (The outcome certainty weighs in.) I realize how often we compute cost/benefit analyses when we face moral decisions. Most of the time, we don't raise the analysis into consciousness, but it's this process of bringing it into awareness that helps us grow in wisdom.

While the fish-eating dilemma is easy for some, it is hard for others. That leads me to the next moral dilemma, "Would you hide Anne Frank in your attic?" I just read the book, Hope: A Tragedy, which raises this question in a very humorous way.

Would you save the life of a stranger if it meant putting your life at risk? Most people I know answer a "yes," until you raise the question -- what if it meant gravely risking the lives of your children as well? That leads to greater turmoil and the question of moral compromise comes to light again.

We face moral dilemmas all the time, but most of them lie beneath our conscious awareness. There are many day-to-day examples of minor moral dilemmas that fall under conscious awareness, like telling a white lie to protect a friend's feelings, gossiping, texting while driving, ignoring a homeless person on a street corner, etc.

It's the big ones -- like the Anne Frank question or the "eating fish" question for a vegetarian - that trigger awareness of the decision-making process itself.

Another big one arose for me around the issue of prostitution and sex trafficking. I recently returned from India where I met survivors of sex trafficking up close and personal. I went there knowing I wanted to help end sex trafficking, but I had never considered it to be on an extreme continuum of other behaviors linked to buying and selling of sex, like adult prostitution, pornography, strip clubs, and even the objectification of girls in the media. Now I know that the average age for an adult prostitute to have entered the "life" is 12 to 14 years, so most began as children or adolescents. The majority of adult prostitutes are in "the life" not by choice but by coercion or force, so the difference between prostitution and sex trafficking is a very fine line. The Pretty Woman sort of prostitute (aka, a woman with a wide range of career options who chooses prostitution) happens very, very rarely (some would argue never, others say under 1 percent). Life as a prostitute is typically full of violence, rape, a high risk of death, and a range of unimaginable abuse.

I was completely unaware of the data on adult prostitution and frankly I wasn't that interested in learning about it. It fell beneath my radar screen as I focused on other things. But once the facts made their way into my consciousness, it wasn't something easily ignored. The moral compromise comes in when we know atrocities arise around us and yet we choose to ignore them. James Carse calls this "willful ignorance," and it happens all the time. Perhaps it also reflects a sort of moral compromise -- I know it's wrong, but I'll ignore it anyway.

Mindfulness teaches us to become more discerning with time, to lean toward things that are beneficial and away from things that are harmful to oneself, others and the planet. As we become more discerning, it likely means we will notice the frequency with which moral compromise is part of our day-to-day lives. There will invariably arise dilemmas: What's helpful to me may not be so helpful to another, or vice versa. Our evolutionary past has brought these two sides of the coin into the human species -- cooperation and competition -- and into our conscious awareness.

I've learned not to think there's always a right and wrong course of action immediately evident. It can be important to observe and explore one's thoughts and feelings around a moral decision -- however big or small. It is often the small ones that can be the easiest to address so these are ones not to ignore, they give practice for the larger issues. When it comes to the big ones, what you think you will do and how you will act in the situation may differ as well. As a wonderful mindfulness teacher pointed out to me, some decisions are best if made by the heart and not the thinking process. I agree with her point, and see mindfulness and other heart-developing practices as vital to action, however, I also see the value in examining the moral decisions we make -- day in and day out -- and how they fit (or not) with our underlying ethics. It is through the cultivation of both heart and wisdom that our best actions are likely to unfold.

As we create a greater awareness of our interdependent nature through mindfulness, meditation, social media, and other tools, we will recognize that the "other" and the "self" are not so clearly defined. E. O. Wilson suggests that this blurring of lines, the ability to transcend the self, likely evolved to coalesce human social groups through group selection. Feeling part of a "whole" or a shared humanity increases altruism and cooperation among us all. Perhaps with time, such experiences will shift the question, "Would you hide Anne Frank in your attic?" to a mental scenario so far from reality that it will never need to be asked again. In the meantime, perhaps it's useful to bring into consciousness the variety of moral decisions we face day in and day out, and observe how we handle them.

For more by Susan Smalley, Ph.D., click here.

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References:

[1] E.O. Wilson, The Social Conquest of Earth (2012)

[2] James Carse, The Religious Case Against Belief (2008)

[3] Shalom Auslander, Hope: A Tragedy (2012)

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