‘The right thing to do’ does not always have an easy answer

It’s not unusual for the question “Is it the right thing to do?” to come up every day in my work at the Center for Social Responsibility. While most people may shy away from this question and the subsequent “gray area” — the unknown, the uncertain — I can’t help but be excited.

That’s not to say the gray area is always easy, nor should it be, but when I hear questions about right and wrong, just and unjust, fair and unfair, it means students are thinking critically about an issue. While the questions and, frankly, the answers can be difficult and nuanced, I strive to talk about tough decisions and ethics in a way that is meaningful and real. That means we examine current social and economic issues, such as the minimum wage laws, student tuition debt, health care, journalism, weapons proliferation, marriage equality and many more through a lens of justice, equality, fairness and practicality.

I use a process that examines personal histories, perspectives and experiences of individuals before even attempting to tackle these issues. I believe that if we spend the time to study our core values, where those come from and why, we become enlightened to our own biases, perspectives and norms that may not hold true as we thought they once did. In order to make a good analysis (and decision), it’s important to understand all sides, not just the two we might typically see or hear.

I advocate that students know the history of the issue, understand the stakeholders, extrapolate the consequences of each potential decision and ultimately weigh their own ideas against those of their peers. It’s a process that ultimately asks students to make a moral argument that acknowledges the inevitable shortcomings of an imperfect world.

And while it may not always be easy, time and time again students understand that whether it’s an issue of telling your professor about a forgotten citation or the costs and benefits of genetically modified food, the process is the same. After all, ethics isn’t about who can speak the loudest or who can quote the most philosophers; it’s about what we know, how we feel and our ability to understand that it’s not always about the easiest or most practical or most efficient thing to do. It’s about the right thing, and that is itself a very gray area.

Lindsay Blumer is coaching Ripon College students for the National Ethics Bowl to be held in Costa Mesa, California, this month. She also has written a chapter, “Infusing Ethical Decision-Making into Service-Learning Experiences,” for the forth-coming The SAGE Sourcebook of Service-Learning and Civic Engagement.


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