S1E7 – A: Individual Dilemmas

After so many days in Theory-land, we finally begin solving ethical dilemmas. In this part of the episode we discuss the characteristics of individual dilemmas and solve a dilemma coming from Confucian philosophy.

“Look! It’s moving. It’s alive. It’s alive… It’s alive, it’s moving, it’s alive, it’s alive, it’s alive, it’s alive, IT’S ALIVE!”

That’s the famous quote from Henry Frankenstein when his creation began to show signs of movement, and in a way, I can totally relate from this point onwards we begin to use the DREMSI theory in actual dilemmas. Now is the time to use it in real-life scenarios and confirm if it actually works as explained. In the third phase of this work, we will use the DREMSI methodology to solve a wide variety of dilemmas that apply not only to an individual but as well at a corporation and state level.

In this specific episode, we will put all our attention to individual challenges, dilemmas that arise during personal interaction and that apply to our most common roles. The idea would be to analyse each situation from a different perspective, from the multiple roles that are involved in any given situation.

The progression of this episode will be as follow:

  • In Section A, I’ll provide a brief introduction to the characteristics of individual dilemmas, including a resolution to a dilemma coming from Confucian philosophy.
  • In Section B, we explore a dilemma that is related to parental responsibility.
  • In Section C, we then focus on a loyalty kind of dilemma, with a marriage infidelity example
  • Lastly, in Section D, we close with a small review of a Freedom of speech example and we wrap up general points from the whole episode.

Through the episode we will be solving dilemmas using the DREMSI methodology, which as explained in previous episodes it follows a step-by-step progression, organizing the relevant information about the situation so that we can make the best decision. The flow will feel a bit mechanical and repetitive at times but is important to go through all the steps if we want to display the methodology in action, especially as this is a skill that has to be applied very quickly and multiple times through the day, hence it has to be semi-automatic.

Dilemmas for Individuals

To begin with, I wanted to provide a small context on how we will approach dilemmas.

This work is grounded in the idea that culture is the outcome of social interaction, and that within it exist multiple relational systems; a relational system can be as small as a family and as big as a political party. In this view of society, the individual will perform multiple roles as they interact from space to space, a mother in the morning, a colleague in the afternoon and a friend at night, it all depends on who is the person interacting with. 

To have everyone on the same page, an ethical dilemma will be any situation in which an actor has to choose among multiple standpoints that are likely to break social expectations and cause injuries.

To solve each dilemma, we will follow the two phases of the DREMSI methodology: first, identify if the actions are ethical or not, and second, make a judgement on which is the best action to take.

To be pragmatic, during the resolution I will not provide too much background on the decision, much of it is common sense I am merely reorganizing based on the methodology. Context on how the method works can be seen in episodes 4 to 6.

Last but very important point, the objective is not to solve a specific problem in society, but more to highlight how the DREMSI method works in a consistent format across dilemmas.  I will not provide a politically correct answer, nor i’ll please all possible views. The aim is first and foremost to display an ethical judgment using the DREMSI methodology; in the best cases the solution will be easy to accept but in many instances, it will feel uncomfortable. Although it may seem a problem, this is a necessary outcome if we aim to make progress on the field, as making consistent decisions has to displease people at some point. In the words of Diogenes, “of what use is a philosopher who doesn’t hurt anyone’s feelings”

With this small introduction finished, let us begin with the first dilemma.

The first dilemma, the Confucian Analects.

First dilemma to analyse, is inspired by a famous example in the Confucian school of thought. For those not familiar with Confucius, he is one of the most important Chinese philosophers and a pillar of Chinese society. His philosophical teachings emphasized personal and governmental morality, the correctness of social relationships, justice, kindness, and sincerity. I have found that many of his writings match the ideas presented in this work. His conception of role-based relationships and his emphasis in learning are both attributes that are present throughout this thesis. Because of this I couldn’t resist the idea to bring forth one of his most controversial statements.

The dilemma is based on the story ‘the father-covering-son’ from the Analects. In there, we read about a conversation between the governor of She and Confucius. The governor highlights how they have an upright person name Gong. He bears witness against his father stealing a sheep. Confucius responded: “in my village an upright person is different: Father doesn’t disclose Son’s wrongdoings and Son doesn’t disclose father’s wrongdoings and the uprightness lies in it”.

This statement is a puzzle because while Confucius’s theory implies that concealing a theft is wrong, Confucius contends that covering one’s father is right. Although there was no clear explanation in the analects, scholars contend that Confucian philosophies place much regard on the relationship type and family values, hence it is not a surprise to consider the relationship between father and son as sacred, one that cannot be easily betrayed.

For our exercise, I’ll use the story above but with a little twist to bring forth different perspectives of it. This is a perfect situation to analyze the complexity of the “blood contract” and the level of social expectations that come from being blood-related.

The story at hand

This is the story of Alfred, happily married for five years to Emily whom he met in high school, they have two kids, and they are just your average married couple, nothing extraordinary. One day late in the evening Alfred’s father visits Alfred and asks him to speak in private. He shares with him, that he has committed a crime and that he will go into hiding in a cabin in the mountains. He simply came to say goodbye, get a sleeping bag and asks him to keep it a secret. A week later the police come to Alfred’s house to ask him about the father. The police say that his father has been stealing money from a company and they are looking for him to pay for his crimes. Alfred now faces a situation in which the police want to know if he knows his father’s whereabouts. During the conversation between Alfred and the police, his wife Emily is present while the kids are at kindergarten.

With this the dilemma begins, should Alfred tell the police where his father went to hide?

From the father’s perspective

To answer the dilemma, we simply follow the steps within the DREMSI Method, it will sound a bit mechanical but a more fluid explanation will be visible in the conclusion section.

Phase 1  – Evaluation of Injuries

1.1 Introduction of standpoints:  

  • Standpoint A – To tell the police that the father went to the mountains, betraying the father and leading to a potentially serious injury to him.
  • Standpoint B – To lie to the police and claim one doesn’t know, delaying their work. With the risk of being found out and getting an injury, which in turn could hurt his family.

1.2 Clarifying roles & stakeholders:

  • As a son to the father.
  • As a citizen to the police and society.
  • As a father to the family.

1.3 Assigning expectations:

  • To the father, Alfred is expected to show loyalty and not reveal his whereabouts
  • To the police, Alfred is expected to support them with any information he knows.
  • To the family, Alfred is expected to ensure its safety and prosperity.

1.4 – Estimating Injuries.

  • In standpoint A (telling them): The injury Alfred causes to the father is critical, as he would clearly be breaking a spoken agreement.  This option is critically unethical
  • In standpoint B (lying to them): The injury Alfred causes to the police is serious, with the potential to cause a critical damage to the family in the case the police find out and Alfred suffers the consequences (such as jail time). This option has no injuries if he is not found out, but in the case he is this has the risk to be critically unethical.

Phase 2  – Decision Taking

2.1 Arranging standpoints by the level of damage

At first glance standpoint A causes the largest, however Standpoint B has the potential to cause even more damage depending on the likelihood that Alfred is discovered by the police.

A risk assessment has to be done taking two aspects into consideration, first how likely is the police to find out his involvement and second what is the actual legal penalty involved? On this last point if the penalty is small (like a monetary fine) then there is little harm to the family.  Assuming the legal penalty for lying is very high (jail time) and the risk is of getting find out is too high, then both standpoints would cause equal damages.

Since they both seem of equal damage, a tie-breaker logic then can be applied to decide which option to choose. Choosing by stakeholder (the family over the father) would be a reasonable pathway.

2.2 Legal aspect of each option

Standpoint B is illegal. If we consider that, “one is allowed to break the law for the avoidance of a critical injury, without causing another critical damage.” Then choosing Standpoint B is not an acceptable option.

2.3 Beyond expectations

For this example, there are no obvious actions to take that fall within the beyond expectations realm.

2.4 Taking a decision

Taking everything into consideration, given that Standpoint B will break the law and cause critical injuries, the best option to take would be Standpoint A and tell the police.

To provide more context on the outcome, let me highlight two observations:

  • First, it is common that we have to estimate the probability and risk of any standpoint, to determine how likely are things to happen if one selects such option. In this example, if the risk of being found by the police would be small, then it wouldn’t be surprising that we believe one can select this choice and avoid any damage at all.
  • Second, I believe this case highlights the necessary connection between ethics and the legal system. In this situation, if the punishment for lying would have been too low, then Alfred wouldn’t have faced a potential critical injury, making him more likely to lie to the police.

From the mother’s perspective

As highlighted earlier, the idea is to analyze dilemmas from multiple perspectives, hence let us shift perspectives and analyze the dilemma from Emily’s perspective (Alfred’s wife). Unbeknown to Alfred, Emily secretly listened to the conversation between him and his father, and to provide a dramatic tone, Emily works as a police officer in the local municipality, she was currently on maternity leave so she technically is not an active police officer, still one may have larger expectations from her than the average person.

The dilemma is then this, should Emily tell the police about it or keep it quiet?

It is easy to visualize how this situation is much more complex than before as not only there is a family relationship but an important professional question in place. As we solve this situation, the distinction between the different roles will prove really valuable to untangle the problem.

Phase 1  – Evaluation of Injuries

1.1 Introduction of standpoints:

  • Standpoint A – To tell the police, betraying her husband and father-in-law,
  • Standpoint B – To not tell the police, failing her duty as a police officer. Delaying the investigation.

1.2 Clarifying stakeholders:

  • As a wife to Alfred,
  • As a daughter in law, to Alfred’s father
  • As a police officer to the police and to society,
  • As a mother to her family

1.3 Expectations in jeopardy:

  • To Alfred and his father, Emily is expected to be loyal and not cause them any harm
  • To the police, Emily is expected to cooperate on anything they request.
  • To the family, Emily is expected to ensure its safety and prosperity.

1.4 – Estimating Injuries.

  • In standpoint A (telling the police): As a wife, she will be making a critical injury to her relationship with Alfred and his father. In addition, Alfred is likely to suffer a legal penalty that would cause a critical injury to the family. This option is critically unethical.
  • In standpoint B (not telling the police): As a police officer, in the case she is found out she will be making a serious injury to the police and society. In addition, there would be legal consequences for her and Alfred, that would cause critical injuries to her family. This option is critically unethical.

Phase 2  – Decision Taking

2.1 Arranging standpoints by the level of damage

Just like in the previous example, we need to estimate the likelihood for things to happen. Given that the mother secretly listened to the conversation between Alfred and his father, it is very unlikely that anyone can prove she did; hence, Standpoint B (not telling them) comes with a very low probability to cause injuries. On the other side, Standpoint A is certain to cause injuries. Taking the probability of things happening into consideration,  even if both options have critical injuries, standpoint B has significantly lower probabilities to happen hence is the one with the lowest damage.

2.2 Legal aspect of each option

Standpoint B is illegal. Since following this standpoint would cause additional critical injuries to her family then it is not a permitted action.

2.3 Altruism and Social Change

For this example, there are no obvious actions to take that fall within the beyond-expectations realm.

2.4 Taking a decision

Taking everything into consideration, the best option to take would be Standpoint A and tell the police.

In this case, the injury that the family will get if the parents are found out to be lying becomes a dealbreaker. In this example, we assume jail time which would be a critical injury to the kids in the family, but if it were to be just a monetary fine, then we wouldn’t consider the injury critical but merely serious, making Standpoint B a more attractive option to take.

Concluding remarks on the dilemma

All in all, using the DREMSI method we conclude that the best is always to support the police so that we can avoid hurting our family due to the legal consequences of lying to the police. I’m guessing Confucius would not be happy with the outcomes of these two situations. Is important to recognize that in these cases we not only assume a hard legal penalty for lying, but we equally put in low regard the crime of the father; had it been the case that the father committed murder or was planning to bomb a building then the risk of the critical injuries would have been much higher, exuberating the need to tell the police even more.

From a wider perspective, I am convinced that in the development of a country’s culture, a fine balance between ideology, resources, punishment sanctions, and ethics counter and support each other at all times. A situation that is perfectly visible in countries with high corruption, where people simply stop having respect for the legal system as it can always be voided.

I want to emphasize that the out ome clearly displays that both options are unethical, and we simply chose the one that we believe will cause the least injuries. By recognizing both options as unethical, we acknowledge that both (family and truthfulness) matter, the most important question becomes, in this situation which one matters the most? Unfortunately, we cannot have perfect lives with easy answers, there are always tradeoffs. In this direction, Ethics is not relativistic in individual values as everyone agrees loyalty is important, ethics is relativistic on priorities as sometimes one is more important than the other. With the DREMSI method, we minimize the relativist aspect of the priorities by selecting the one that matches better the purpose to minimize injuries.

Now let’s move on to the next dilemma where we don’t have to take legal aspects into consideration and we simply focus on the injuries and social expectations.

NEXT: S1E7 – B: Parenthood and the TikTok Dilemma

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