COMMENTARY: The Struggle Between Wants and Shoulds

As a full-time ethicist – can you believe there is such a thing? – I spend most of my time talking about right and wrong with parents and politicians, kids and corporate managers, journalists and generals.

One thing I’ve learned is that ethics – being a good person and doing the right thing – is easier said than done.

Ethics, or the lack of it, is everywhere. It’s in the news, in schools, in the workplace, in sports, in parenting, you name it.

Ethics would be easy to adhere to if we never wanted to do things we know are wrong. Unfortunately, if you’re like me, there’s a constant struggle between what I want to do (my desires) and what I should do (my ethical duties).

I want to avoid taxes, pay lower insurance premiums, and have the freedom to go through the “10 Items or Less” line with 14 items. Business executives want larger profits, politicians want more power, lawyers want to win.

Too often, our wants overcome our ambitions toward honor and virtue. We lie occasionally or cheat a little. As a result, there’s a hole in our moral ozone, and it’s getting bigger. It’s going to take moral courage and real character to repair that hole.

This is Michael Josephson reminding you that character counts.

Comments 6

  1. There is a limit to human moral courage and character, therefore the only thing that can repair the moral ozone is holiness, that comes from God, through His son Jesus. Avoid it, deny it, argue it all you want. That is the bottom line.

    1. The growing popularity of “bottom lines” and lately our famous “red lines” all tend to philosophically push us into corners and acting from those “lines” on the edge of a particular spectrum. This has resulted in our global society substantially taking action from a variety of “edges” or positions of extreme preasure. This is not healthy and difficult to act with positive creativity nurturing our teams.
      Jesus’ teachings actually encourage moderation and the thoughtful loving position of serving one’s neighbors. The holiness of God’s kingdom is truly a miracle; but us frail humans must perform from our humanity. This is rarely a very holy state of mind, but thank goodness we most often DO prefer the “Goodness” of God’s kingdom. This has allowed over 7 Billion of us to become competitors in this same global kingdom !!! WOW — thank goodness we have lots of farmers and shelter builders !! :):)

  2. Michael – sometimes there are competing moral choices both of which are “goods,” and one must choose between a lesser good and a higher good based on a cost-benefit analysis, or based on which good intuitively feels the more important at any particular time. So often our choices are not black/white, either/or, but a series of grays and we have to choose knowing that we will feel both good and bad in the end.
    In Jewish tradition there is a principle called “shalom bayit” (peace in the home) and that can be more important for human inter-relationships and the interests of everyone involved than another value “emet” (truth). Truth is always black/white, good/bad. It is hard and fast, no in-betweenness. Shalom bayit requires compromise and accommodation to the other, as well as nuanced thinking, and is the only way to “shalom” (wholeness). Emet will not necessarily produce shalom though it can produce a sense of self-righteous rightness.
    Rabbi John Rosove

    1. Post

      Thank you for your comments. If I interpret your words correctly I think you are gently and lovingly suggesting that I let this go, that i abandon our lawsuit and move on. I could easily see myself giving the same advice to others so I take this advice quite seriously. The experience of responding to those who urge me to take a different path, has, however, helped me clarify the core beliefs and principles that motivate me.

      The moral complexity of this situation is enormous. Of course, reconciliation is always the best path, but if there is no movement or willingness to accept any accountability on the other side the choice is really surrender (or abandon claims one truly believes are righteous) or fight. A wrong that is not righted in some way can be a toxic infection that makes peace at home impossible. I evoke here the Jewish concept of atonement.

      The conflicting wisdoms that favor “letting go” (e.g., holding on to a grudge is like grasping a hot coal hoping it will hurt the person who offended you”) and fighting for what one thinks is right (“all that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing” and “what you allow you encourage”) simply clarify the moral dilemma.

      The principle driving me is not truth, but justice. I realize that merely quoting scripture in support of one’s position can be construed as self-righteousness but I include these quotes not because I think God is on my side but because they are part of my DNA

      Proverbs 21:15: When justice is done, it is a joy to the righteous but terror to evildoers

      Isaiah 1:17:Learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression.

      Proverbs 24:24-25: Whoever says to the wicked,

  3. All of the comments left thus far address their life experience yet I have to think that raising children in this day and age is so much more difficult. Parents that pay attention : to the real details that they want their children to recognize growing up. It’s a life long lesson that can not be preached but instead modeled by behavior and relationships. It requires a lot of time and energy to pass on values and morals . . . I think many parents, grandparents etc. forget how much influence they have! Yet also it may be that there just is not enough time and energy set aside for this purpose?

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