This isn’t a parody on Hamlet’s great soliloquy, “To be or not to be, that is the question!” It is rather a mundane question of how to react to the many problems that arise in basic human interactions. Usually we never consider at any length what we should be doing, we just do what seems right in the moment, based on our habits. However, sometimes we are directly confronted with a situation where we have a moment to consider our ethical responsibilities, and this post is aimed at giving a definitive and actionable description of what you can think about that will help you make a reasonable decision and act upon it.
Perhaps you are confronted on the public streets by a person who appears to be in great need of assistance. Often they will have a sign explaining their plight, a specific need that a small sum of money would resolve, and a thank you from God for helping them. It is easy to give a small sum, and generally you will feel you did them a good turn, but then a moment of guilt may arise that you are just supporting them in an unworkable lifestyle, and possibly they will use the money to buy illegal drugs. I was in a conversation where these ideas were being discussed, and near the end of our allotted time we were asked for specific suggestions for solving these types of ethical challenges. After pondering over this for a bit, I said there are three negatives and three positives that need to be considered, and these can be quickly decided with yes or no answers.
The negative aspects of the question are: Will the anticipated action injure me? If it will then I won’t do it. Will the action injure the other people involved, and if it will then I won’t do it. And thirdly, will the action be injurious to society in general, and if it will, then I won’t do it. The positive side of the potential action is: Will the action help me, and if it will, then I will do it. Will the action help the other person, and not injure me, and if it will then I will do it. Will the action help society if I do it, and if it will then I should do it. You can think through those questions quickly as — Will this hurt me, or him, or others, and will this help me, him, or others.
This series of questions begins with deciding if I am at risk of being hurt, and that is always a first question in any transaction. Usually that is an automatic animal reaction based on evolutionary survival instincts. Will this action injure the other person, either by doing of the requested act, or not doing it, and deciding that requires some thoughts and human analysis of the person and the situation. Will this action injure others who are uninvolved, or injure society in general? That is a more abstract consideration that requires a broad overview of what is healthy for society and what will harm it and thus make everyone’s life situation worse. It is not so quick a decision but usually it can be made based on observation of the situation.
The positive aspect begins with, will I benefit from this transaction, and if the answer is yes then the politic answer is to go ahead and do it. If it will help the other person we might do the act if it won’t injure us in any way; but giving money is injuring us a little because we could use it for helping ourselves or our family. Then the question becomes whether helping this needy person helps society or would it make them become dependent on what they are going to do with the help, and that is unknowable.
To decide whether to act or not to act depends on the individuals involved, but it begins with the maturity of you, or the person doing the giving. A self-centered child will not get beyond is it dangerous, and an adolescent will stick with the personal benefit. An adult person will think in terms of will it harm that needy person or help them, and a mature person will make considerations of how their actions will help society in general. It begins with knowing yourself.
Everyone decides whether to act depending upon their level of understanding.