Daily moral decisions

We live in a particularly divided time, where factions of our society have turned upon each other, and in some cases, have turned upon themselves. Political groups find themselves in internal debates, even civil wars, unsure of what causes they support. What common beliefs they hold.

For journalists, this conflict takes another dimension. Journalists hold themselves out as being more principled than the average professional. Journalists believe they must be devoted to the truth, and to reporting it ethically, even when it doing so would be personally difficult.

Yet, on the pages of the same newspaper or website, there are words written by commentators who don’t follow the same ethical standards. Their intent is not to report the truth, but to express an opinion, perhaps even advance an agenda. And for some, the outright goal is to spread propaganda.

Propaganda is not concerned with truthfulness. In fact, if it’s more effective to do so, the writer of propaganda will embrace the lie. So what is the ethical journalist supposed to do when their counterparts in the editorial department are spreading lies?

The first tactic would be to compartmentalize. I’m doing my job, he’s doing his. So long as there is a clear line between news and opinion, one could opine, there’s no harm in an editorial writer lying to the public.

The second tactic, which we’ve seen in recent days, is to send the message that you are disappointed in the propaganda that appears in your newspaper. To make it known, anonymously, that the truth-tellers don’t like being associated with co-workers who deliberately distort the facts.

But is that ethical? Would a principled journalist be able to work alongside commentator who engages in deliberate propaganda? What if that journalist thought the propaganda was dangerous?

For the person who works for a living, somebody who reports to a boss, it’s easy to imagine the situation that would arise when there’s a conflict with a co-worker. How difficult it could be to balance peaceful coexistence at work with the inner outrage one might feel when witnessing something they believe is wrong.

Perhaps the more righteous among us would protest immediately, either by demanding a change or quitting. But psychologists would tell you that the more likely scenario is that we would look for excuses not to act. That we would first ignore the problem, or compartmentalize it. And in many situations, that might even be the wise thing to do. There’s no need to disrupt your workplace because your co-worker has an annoying habit, or was caught coming back late from lunch.

But there’s a wide gap between the whiny tattle-tale and the righteous whistleblower. A wide range of behaviors that a good worker either could ignore or report. But it’s not late lunch-taker that concerns us. And it’s not the middle manager who’s embezzling millions from the company. We all have an idea what the proper response would be for those offenses.

The problem is the in-between issues that don’t have a clear solution. The workplace scenarios that give us pause, that force us to have internal debates, that can be most troublesome. It’s the times that we negotiate with ourselves that can cause the most damage.

The problem with self-negotiation is that it almost certainly leads us to make compromises with ourselves. While the thought process may begin as an evaluation of the situation (Wait, what’s going on here? Is this a problem?) it will likely lead to a judgment, and possibly a reassessment of values (This is a problem, but maybe I don’t care about it as much as I thought.) And this reassessment of values can have a cumulative effect.

How often have you made a moral compromise then gone back days or weeks later and re-established your moral bearings? Have you ever run a redlight just this once because you were running late? Did you tell yourself you would never do it again? How much easier was it run the light the next time?

What about bigger moral lapses? Have you ever condemned an acquaintance for cheating on their spouse? Did you have the same reaction when you found out your best friend was guilty of the same thing? Did you later think about cheating as well?

What about loved ones who disappoint you with bad behavior, over and over again? Aren’t you less outraged with each offense? Do you even notice with the offenses get worse and worse? Perhaps you’ve even felt relief when the loved one seemed to get better for a stretch. Yes, he was arrested again, but at least it wasn’t a felony this time.

The reality is that moral compromises have a tendency to snowball. Today, we imagine an offense that we would never approve of, that we would certainly protest if it should ever come to pass. We may even draw lines in the sand, telling ourselves that this is the limit of misbehavior that we will tolerate, either in ourselves or others. Yet when we get to that point, crossing the line doesn’t seem to be such a problem. Because we’ve been inching up to that line over time, overlooking relatively minor violations, until we’re standing right next to the edge.

The truth is that the moral boundaries we set for ourselves, if we truly set them at all, are much more flexible than we would ever want to admit. It is so easy to move our moral goalposts in our day-to-day lives that we often don’t even realize that we’re moving them. It is only when we make a concerted effort to evaluate our decisions, sometimes day, months or years later, that we truly recognize what it is that we stand for.