We get into a lot of bad situations by degrees. The first step seems innocent enough. Then we convince ourselves that there’s no harm in taking another one. Before we know it we’re sliding fast down a road that our better self would not have advised, making up stories as we go along.
Addiction is the obvious example, as I learnt when I worked in the field. Even if people ultimately want to try controlled drinking, they are normally advised that abstinence should be the goal for at least a period of time. Then there is only one decision to make: to drink or not to drink. Reduction is a non-starter if the aim is the fuzzy one of “drinking less”. But even if people adopt a fairly specific goal (units per week, say), it’s just too easy to come up with any number of ad hoc reasons for why it’s OK to drink on this occasion.
The same applies elsewhere. Take romantic affairs: a drink becomes an exchange of emails becomes a deceitful entanglement. It’s too demanding for most people to think things through clearly when they are in the grip of a powerful desire, since at those times we almost inevitably end up rationalising the actions prompted by our lust.
A useful concept in this kind of situation is that of the “bright line”. This was originally used in legal contexts to indicate rules or standards that are not readily open to interpretation. Translated into daily life, it means that instead of naively relying on our own ability to make a wise decision in moments of temptation, we make a rule for ourselves that is likely to be clear even at those times.
If a course of action is a theoretical option, we are vulnerable to slipping into it by baby steps. A bright line, which we intend not to cross, makes life easier by excluding other possibilities. The rule has to be clear and unambiguous. But even this is not foolproof: always beware the mind’s ingenuity for self-deception.
Moral certainties may be thin on the ground, but most agree that there are some things we should never do. Sometimes lying might be necessary and killing justified, but it can never be right to rape or torture.
Yet it doesn’t take much philosophical ingenuity to imagine scenarios when even these apparent certainties become questionable. The “ticking bomb” has become a stock thought experiment in ethics, in which torture is the only means of getting the information needed to prevent a nuclear device obliterating a major city. A similar ghastly scenario can be imagined in which a ruthless military leader threatens to kill everyone in a village if you refuse to take part in the rape of a few of the women.
The logic of such thought experiments is that sometimes even terrible acts might be the lesser of two evils, and in such cases, not to choose them might be no more than a kind of moral squeamishness. If that’s right then arguably there are no firm lines in ethics: any act should be countenanced if not doing it has even worse consequences.
Some resist that discomforting conclusion by claiming that some acts are so wrong that nothing can ever justify them. But the credibility of this is challenged by simply upping the stakes: would you really prefer the extinction of all human life over the rape or torture of one individual?
A better response is to put these fanciful thought experiments in context. In the real world, we rarely have reason to think a greater good will come from an evidently monstrous evil. It is better to place a taboo on such atrocities and at least start with the assumption that they are always wrong.
Life does sometimes throw up moral tragedies – cases where all the options available are wrong in some way and the best we can do is to pick the least bad. In such cases there may still be clear moral lines, but also a need to cross them. Paradoxical though it may sound, something may still be wrong even when it becomes right to do it.
The Shrink & The Sage live together in southwest England.
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Illustration by Laura Carlin