How to respond to wrongdoing

“Let not any one pacify his conscience by the delusion that he can do no harm if he takes no part, and forms no opinion. Bad men need nothing more to compass their ends, than that good men should look on and do nothing.” John Stuart Mill

John Stuart Mill

The Moral Problem

I have found moral reasoning most challenging when responding to wrongdoing — reacting to people behaving badly, unethically, or immorally. Avoiding doing wrong ourselves is tough enough. What should we do when we encounter someone else is doing wrong? This can be a severe test of our character and wisdom.

I believe in principle with the John Stuart Mill’s quote suggesting that siting on the sidelines in experiencing bad behavior or injustice does not absolve one from blame. Doing nothing can have as much impact as doing something. But determining whether a response is warranted and what that response should be is the challenge. Often it is unclear what the right response should be. I have lost much sleep in these situations. It has, in several instances, been painful but also an opportunity to grow and gain wisdom.

The hardest moral problems for me are in a narrow category. These are situations where I know the person (or know the person affected) and the wrongdoing is significant. Sometimes the actions are directed at me where there is intent to hard or hurt me. Sometimes the actions affected me but were not consciously directed at me. Some involved behavior in the workplace. Sometimes I was not involved directly but my community – my work, social circle, and family — was.

The actions that concern me here are not abstract or distant. These are situations where my action or inaction was likely to have direct consequences for me and my community. These are not hypothetical moral dilemmas. They are not the broad cosmic questions about responding to broad injustice, corrupt institutions, or international conflicts. These are the personal, real world situations that many face at some point in life.

I have found broad ethical or moral principles most of us desire to live by (e.g. honesty, love, acceptance, forgiveness) can be hard to apply to complex situations. I have heard the advice “just love them” when that is not the issue. The love is there, the difficulty is knowing how to love. These are situations where the advice “just do the right thing” is simplistic and inadequate.

Some examples may illustrate the challenges. Perhaps a work colleague is required to do something unethical, but you know they may lose their job if they refused. Maybe your nephew is stealing cars, hacking computers, or selling drugs but you know they live in a dysfunctional home. An employer you know is cheating your friend who works for them, but your friend is too timid to do something. Your married boss is having an affair with your co-worker and it’s affecting a project you are working on. A child or sibling threatens you or betrays your trust, but you know they are angry with you about something. A close friend breaks your basic moral codes, jeopardizing their future in the process, but is doing nothing illegal.

These present moral problems because responding (or not) is not simple. Getting it right takes more than a snap decision.

Complexity, Ambiguity, and Personal Risk

Responding to simple situations is easy. I know what to do when I see a physical assault on the street – stop the attack if I can and call the police. I don’t know the people. I don’t know why the altercation started or who is right or wrong. I can act on a simple principle that stopping physical harm is right in nearly any situation. This is not a tough moral decision. My instincts work well.

The situations that challenge me are complex, ambiguous, and risky.

The situations are risky because they involve or affect people I know, people in my immediate community. My actions, or inactions, may adversely affect me or people I care about. Friendships could be destroyed. Personal reputation and status in the community could be harmed. Job and career opportunities could be diminished. In rare cases there may be physical risk. There could be negative consequences from my decision.

Complexity and ambiguity can further confound my moral reasoning. Complexity and ambiguity increase when I know more about the situation. I know the wrong doer when they are a work colleague, family member, close friend, or neighbor. I know more about the context for their actions and the precedents. More sides of the situation are visible. Motivations and mitigating circumstances are better understood.

Often what at first seems to be a clear-cut case of right and wrong becomes ambiguous. Simple rules for responding fall short. Conflicting moral principles are involved. Judgement needs to be finer and more carefully considered.

A Process for Deciding How to Act

Having a process for making difficult moral judgements works for me. I find value in stepping back and thinking before acting. This has helped me to do several things. Sometimes I have needed to confront my motives. I have had to ask what is driving my response and what do I expect to happen. I have questioned my beliefs about right and wrong. It has humbled me as sometimes I become less certain of my initial moral judgment. I have questioned my courage to act and faced my fear of the consequences.

A couple simple questions help me work through challenging ethical decisions about responding to what someone has done. It is not perfect and does not lead unerringly to the right answer like a mathematical equation. I still make big mistakes. But it has improved the odds of making a good decision and acting wisely.

What is My Motivation for Acting?

This question often stops me from doing anything. My initial reaction when encountering wrongdoing is emotional. It is just human nature. Someone insults me and I want to insult them back. Someone treats me or my family unfairly, I want them to pay a price. Most of us have an innate sense of justice and fairness and react viscerally when we are treated unfairly. Our immediate actions can be driven primarily by our desire for emotional satisfaction rather than solving the problem or achieving real justice.

I have come to see that frequently my motivation is satisfying my emotions. I may feel better after venting my anger, demanding an apology, extracting retribution, or defending my status.  I feel better but the feeling is short lived. The root of the wrongdoing may still exist, and no higher purpose served.

Is a desire to feel better a sufficient cause for action? I don’t think so. As the Stoics teach, it is better to control emotions and give our reasoning ability a chance to work. Sometimes the only harm I experience is hurt feelings. I can choose not to feel hurt or to ignore the hurt.

We should not be doormats and put up with bad behavior. Acting in self-interest is proper if someone’s wrong actions are affecting our livelihood, our physical well-being, or our ability to provide for our family and loved ones. Emotions can motivate us to act but we should not be so driven by emotion that we act instinctively rather than thoughtfully. It is better to let go of emotional reactions and work on mastering our attitude instead. It is perhaps a version of the advice to “turn the other cheek.”

I make better decisions if I am motivated by a desire improve a situation, help another person, or help my community. This takes work. Self-interested emotions are much stronger than our desire to help others. I feel I am on firmer ground if I can tamp down my narrow emotional self-interest and redirect my thinking toward acting in the best interest of others. This is a tough test and hard to apply in an emotionally charged situation. If I can become self-aware enough to realize I am not acting in the best interest of others, then I can reconsider what I am about to do. If my motivation is off, it is hard to act properly.

Altering my motivation has been a great help to me. I do better when I can respond to wrongdoing with a conscious desire to make the situation better and act in the best interest of others. My primitive emotional responses often lead me astray. Paradoxically focusing on others rather than the self, if genuine, is calming and gives one much more power. We admire those who rise above the heat of the moment and act wisely. I have more confidence I am acting properly for good if I can do that. I find there are more people on my side. Success is more likely.

Was the Action Wrong?

Focusing on what is best for others leads to the question – was the action wrong? The question seems strange at first. Is it that hard to determine right from wrong? Sometimes, yes. There are situations where an action can have strong moral arguments for and against. Viewing the situation from the other’s perspective often reveals logic and values we may have missed.  

I have learned to be skeptical of my first reactions on what is right and wrong. I do best when I can gather the facts and better understand the situation and the people involved. That brings out the complexities of people’s actions. I try to hold off on judgements until I gain insight into a person’s action. That includes the facts of what occurred (sometimes what happened is not what you thought happened), the frame of mind for the people acting, the environment at the time, and their values.

Next is determining the moral principles at play in deciding right or wrong. I ask myself what moral principles are important here.  When our gut tells us something is wrong it is best to figure out what moral principle or value makes it wrong. We need to know both what we believe and why we believe it. Do I really want to do something with potentially serious consequences without knowing why I should act?

At times I have been unable to explain why something was right or wrong. Perhaps I could make a vague statement. I would feel something was wrong. But I would have difficulty mounting a persuasive, reasoned defense of my feelings. This has raised doubts in my mind. Perhaps I was wrong and not the other person.

These situations forced me to learn. My interest in moral philosophy came about in part from realizing I cannot fully trust my instincts on right and wrong. My instincts do not always account for the complexity of the world. I needed to work hard to be certain I had a solid moral framework and moral reasoning process. In the most difficult circumstances, I needed to take the time to figure out what I believe and why. Without that framework I was adrift in making tough moral choices.

Situations can pose dilemmas because of conflicting moral or ethical principles. These conflicts are frequent in modern, Western society. For example, we value individual freedom highly. We tend to favor a “live and let live” morality and a “consenting adults” standard. If the adults involved freely agree and no one else is adversely affected, it’s good, right, and moral. We are cautioned not to be judgmental. “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone…”

Simultaneously we see injustice in inequality. We want to eliminate poverty and see unequal outcomes as evidence of wrongdoing and immoral acts. We are encouraged to punish behaviors and people that may cause inequality. Yet these two principles – freedom and equality – are in constant tension and conflict. You cannot have more of one without less of the other.

This is just one example of the many moral or ethical principles that may be at play in any given situation. We need to tease out those to inform our moral reasoning. We need to understand the inherent conflicts between moral principles.

The law provides some guidance for making right and wrong judgements. Few disagree that breaking the law is wrong. There may be special situations, civil disobedience for example, where a moral case can be made for violating laws. It is often said that you cannot legislate morality. But what are laws but our collective judgement about right and wrong? Laws even have degrees of wrong – misdemeanors and classes of felonies. This is not to say that there are not bad laws. There are. But the rule of law is a fundamental principle. Without it there is anarchy and with power alone determining right and wrong.

While the law is a basic test of right and wrong, much bad human behavior occurs within the boundaries of the law. An action may be legal, but is it right? Here we must apply our own ethical codes regarding good and bad and our own judgement regarding balancing conflicting ethical principles.

I like to test my moral reasoning using the touchstone of human thriving. An action is good or bad depending on whether it furthers human thriving (individually and collectively) or not. There is complexity in determining the relationship between actions and thriving. Balancing competing principles is needed. Humility in examining beliefs and developing reasoning helps.

Better judgements about right and wrong are the foundation for wisdom. It is the result of developing sound moral reasoning to achieve an overarching end (thriving), applying that reasoning to our actions, and learning from the experience.  

The point here is that before reacting to wrongdoing we should be confident the action was wrong. To do that we must understand the situation, consider moral principles involved, and apply them wisely. That is not easy, but it beats snap judgment.

What is the Nature of the Harm and Who is Harmed?

The next question I ask is whether it is worth responding to wrongdoing. I want to consider whether the person’s actions are serious enough to warrant a response. There is not the time or capacity to right every wrong; picking our battles is important.

A key factor is whether the person’s action affects only themselves. A person may do something I consider wrong, but it only affects them. If the effect on the person is minor, is it enough for me to act (e.g. try to change their behavior, stop being their friend)? John Stuart Mill argues that an individual is not accountable to society for their actions, even if they are immoral, if they affect only themselves[i]. We should put less weight on wrong actions that affect only the perpetrator since it is their happiness, not ours or societies, that is affected. The degree of harm is a factor too. Actions causing only minor harm to the actor deserve less attention than to actions that cause serious harm.

This libertarian view has significant practical limitations which have become more apparent to me with experience. The biggest is the difficulty separating actions affecting only the person acting from actions affecting others. Humans are a social species and cannot survive as individuals. Some actions fall into this category, but we are so connected that it is the rare action that affects only the actor.

Another consideration is whether the person’s actions impact only us or affect others. If someone insults me or even assaults me, I am the one harmed. In many instances I can control how whether I am harmed or not. The Stoics were noted for being able to set aside and ignore harm done to them individually. Cato the younger, a Roman Senator and opponent of Julius Caesar, was famous for responding when asked about what to do to person who had hit him in a bar “I don’t even remember being hit.” There is so much done to us by other people that can be ignored. We can decide not to experience harm. If we aren’t really harmed, is it worth responding?

What is left are the more troubling set of actions – those causing serious harming to us and other people. Actions harming others, harming society, create greater responsibility for us to respond. Society is within its rights to apply social or legal sanctions for actions harming the interests of others. Mill, one of the most eloquent and persuasive writers on the importance of individual liberty, was clear that society was within its rights to punish behavior detrimental to the well-being of others.

With this last group, proportionality is an important principle to consider in deciding how to respond. I try to consider the magnitude of the impact of another person’s actions. I do not want to overreact and spend effort trying to correct something that is minor. Conversely, I do not want to ignore an action that has grave consequences. A minor lie that has minimal impact warrants less attention than a substantial and persistent lie that causes serious harm to other people. One has a much greater negative impact than the other.

My goal is to become wise enough to ignore the minor slights in life, allow people the freedom to manage their lives as they see fit, but to focus my attentions on responding to wrong actions when the consequences of those actions are serious, with particular weight placed on wrong actions affecting other people and society.

[i] Mill, John Stuart, On Liberty, Chapter IV, Of the Limits of the Authority of Society over the Individual.

What Response Will Be Effective?

I reach the point where I must act when I determine a person has done wrong, I know why they are wrong, I know the impact of their actions is significant, and I know they are within my sphere of influence. I cannot ignore the situation but what is the right action to take? What should I do to make the situation better?

A good first step is educating the person about the error of their actions. I can explain why their actions are wrong and how their actions impact them and others. I can offer better approaches to take in their situation. We do this as parents raising children. It can be appropriate with adults.

This approach takes courage and wisdom. It can be risky since the person must be confronted. It requires clearly articulating why the person’s action are wrong. It must be done calmly and with compassion for it to be heard. It requires a basic respectful relationship with the other person.

Two quotes from Marcus Aurelius highlight this perspective.

When people injure you, ask yourself what good or harm they thought would come of it. If you understand that, you’ll feel sympathy rather than outrage or anger. Your sense of good and evil may be the same as theirs, or near it, in which case you have to excuse them. Or your sense of good and evil may differ from theirs. In which case they’re misguided and deserve your compassion. Is that so hard?[i]

If they’ve made a mistake, correct them gently and show them where they went wrong. If you can’t do that, then the blame lies with you. Or no one.

Withdrawing from interacting with the person or supporting them is viable alternative when education does not change behavior. We can simply stop associating with the person if they continue their wrongful activities. Here we take a courageous stand consistent with our values. We send a continuing signal to the person that their behavior is unacceptable. We avoid indirectly supporting their behavior by interacting with them and pretending all is well.

This approach needs monitoring. Hopefully, behavior will change in time and associations can be resumed. But as anyone who has practiced “tough love” knows can tell you, sometime is does not work and relationships are permanently severed or constrained.

John Stuart Mill has a good passage in “On Liberty” on this course of action.

We have a right, also, in various ways, to act upon our unfavorable opinion of any one, not to the oppression of his individuality, but in the exercise of ours. We are not bound, for example, to seek his society; we have a right to avoid it (though not to parade the avoidance), for we have a right to choose the society most acceptable to us. We have a right, and it may be our duty, to caution others against him, if we think his example or conversation likely to have a pernicious effect on those with whom he associates. We may give others a preference over him in optional good offices, except those which tend to his improvement. In these various modes a person may suffer very severe penalties at the hands of others, for faults which directly concern only himself; but he suffers these penalties only in so far as they are the natural, and, as it were, the spontaneous consequences of the faults themselves, not because they are purposely inflicted on him for the sake of punishment.[ii]

The most drastic action is using societal and coercive sanctions to achieve justice. It might involve calling the police or the local social service agency in the case of serious harmful or illegal actions. It might involve civil legal proceedings to administer consequences to the wrongdoer. This is a last resort and, in many cases, does not work well. It may be necessary but only after alternatives have been tried and failed.

Much of my thinking on this topic in influenced by experience. I have experienced situations where people have wronged me, acted illegally, and persistently caused significant harm to themselves and others. I have chosen various paths and experienced success and failure. I have made painful and difficult choices and experienced the consequences (good and bad) for me and others. I know the complexity and messiness of trying to do good when experiencing wrong. I have learned that right action does not ensure good results. You can do everything right and still have a bad outcome.

I have been a coward and not acted when I should have. I like to think that rarely happened, but I know how seductive avoidance is. It is easy to believe problems will resolve themselves, our actions will not change things, and it’s not our place to interfere.

In the important moral decisions, knowing you have done what you believe is right may be the only reward. Some believe the only truly moral action is one that goes against your personal self-interests. All else is simply self-serving and easy. Following your principles when it is not easy shows true character.

[i] Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, heading 26 in Kindle version.

[ii] John Stuart Mill – On Liberty, location 1560 in Kindle version

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