Dealing with Antagonists

The following essay was written by Hamilton Priday and appears on his web site. It is a lengthy read, but one that is thought provoking. It encouraged me to read his book, Seizing the Essence. I found it a tough read, but discovered it conveyed an interesting perspective. Better yet, it introduced me to Rushworth M. Kidder’s book, How Good People Make Tough Choices. This is an easy read and well worth the investment in time.

Consider that . . .

• It is right to protect the endangered spotted owl in the old-growth forests of the American Northwest–and right to provide jobs for loggers.

• It is right to honour a woman's right to make decisions affecting her body–and right to protect the lives of the unborn.

• It is right to provide our children with the finest public schools available–and right to prevent the constant upward ratcheting of state and local taxes.

• It is right to refrain from meddling in the internal affairs of sovereign nations–and right to help protect the undefended in warring regions where they are subject to slaughter.

• It is right to bench the star college quarterback caught drinking the night before the championship game–and right to field the best possible team for tomorrow's game.

• It is right to resist the importation of products made in developing nations to the detriment of the environment–and right to provide jobs, even at low wages, for citizens of those nations.

• It is right to speak up in favour of a minority viewpoint in your club–and right to let the majority rule.

• It is right to support the principle of creative and aesthetic freedom for the curator of a photography exhibit at a local museum–and right to uphold the community's desire to avoid displaying pornographic or racially offensive works.

You get the idea. Right versus right is at the heart of our toughest choices. Does that mean that there are no right-versus-wrong choices? Is "wrong" only someone else's definition of what I think is "right"? No. The world, unfortunately, faces plenty of right-versus-wrong questions. From cheating on taxes to lying under oath, from running red lights to inflating the expense account, from buying under-twelve movie tickets for your fourteen-year-old to overstating the damage done to your car for insurance purposes--the world abounds with instances that, however commonplace, are widely understood to be wrong. But right-versus-wrong choices are very different from right-versus-right ones. The latter reach inward to our most profound and central values, setting one against the other in ways that will never be resolved simply by pretending that one is "wrong". Right-versus-wrong choices, by contrast, offer no such depth: the closer you get to them, the more they begin to smell. Two shorthand terms capture the differences: if we can call right-versus-right choices "ethical dilemmas," we can reserve the phrase "moral temptations" for the right-versus-wrong ones.

When good people encounter tough choices, it is rarely because they're facing a moral temptation. Only those living in a moral vacuum will be able to say, "On the one hand is the good, the right, the true, and noble. On the other hand is the awful, the wicked, the false, and the base. And here I stand, equally attracted to each." If you've already defined one side as a flat-out, unmitigated "wrong," you don't usually consider it seriously. Faced with the alternatives of arguing it out with your boss or gunning him down in the parking lot, you don't see the latter as an option. To be sure, we may be tempted to do wrong?but only because the wrong appears, if only in some small way and perhaps momentarily, to be right. For most people, some sober reflection is all that's required to recognize a wolf-like moral temptation masquerading in the lamb's clothing of a seemingly ethical dilemma.

The really tough choices, then, don't centre upon right versus wrong. They involve right versus right. They are genuine dilemmas precisely because each side is firmly rooted in one of our basic, core values. Four such dilemmas are so common to our experience that they stand as models, patterns, or paradigms. They are: truth versus loyalty; individual versus community; short-term versus long-term; and justice versus mercy. The names for these patterns are less important than the ideas they reflect. Whether you call it law versus love, or equity versus compassion, or fairness versus affection, you're talking about some form of justice versus mercy. So too with the others. But while the names may be flexible, the concepts are not: these four paradigms appear to be so fundamental to the right-versus-right choices all of us face that they can rightly be called dilemma paradigms.

Under this sort of analysis, the fundamental fact that creates an authentic dilemma–the collision of core moral values–stands out in bold relief. By understanding the value differences, we can easily see why we have a conflict: each value is right by one perspective, and each appears to exclude the other. The more we work with true ethical dilemmas, the more we realize that they fall rather naturally into these paradigms. So any situation that fits one or more of the paradigms must in fact be an issue of right versus right. But what about those situations that strike us as ethical conundrums but resist every effort to fit themselves into the paradigms? Usually there's a simple reason they don't fit: they turn out to be right-versus-wrong issues. Any attempt to make them square with one of these four patterns typically mires itself in frustration. While one side immediately appears right, the other side doesn't. Why? Because there's nothing right about it: It's wrong. In this way, the litmus of the paradigms helps us spot the difference between ethical dilemmas and moral temptations.

But merely to analyze a dilemma–even to fit it into the above paradigms–is not to resolve it. Resolution requires us to choose which side is the nearest right for the circumstances.

Of the many theories that have been propounded for ethical decision-making, three principles are particularly useful in helping us think through right-versus-right issues. Each gives us a way to test the twin rights of a dilemma. Each has a long and noble tradition behind it. Each has powerful arguments in its support–and significant refutations lodged against it. For clarity, we'll give them three shorthand labels: ends-based, rule-based, and care-based.

Ends-based thinking is best known by the maxim Do whatever produces the greatest good for the greatest number. It demands of us a kind of cost-benefit analysis, determining who will be hurt and who helped and measuring the intensity of that help. It is the staple of public policy debate: Most legislation, these days, is crafted with this utilitarian test in mind.

At the heart of this principle is an assessment of consequences, a forecasting of outcomes. Philosophers typically refer to utilitarianism, in fact, as a form of consequentialism?or, more precisely, as a teleological principle, from the Greek work teleos, meaning "end" or "issue." Why? Because you cannot determine the "greatest good" without speculating on probable futures. Hence the "ends-based" label: Utilitarianism examines possible results and picks the one that produces the most blessing over the greatest range.

Rule-based thinking is often associated with the name of the German philosopher Immanuel Kant who somewhat obtusely called it "the categorical imperative." Kant put it this way: "Act only on that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law." Simply put, that means, "Follow only the principle that you want everyone else to follow." In other words, act in such a way that your actions could become a universal standard that others ought to obey. Ask yourself, "If everyone in the world followed the rule of action I am following, would that create the greatest good or [in Kant's words] the greatest `worth of character'?"

This mode of thinking stands directly opposed to utilitarianism. Arguing that consequentialism is hopelessly flawed?how, after all, can we ever imagine we know the entire consequences of our actions??the rule-based thinker pleads for acting only in accord with fixed rules. Never mind outcomes: Stick to your principles and let the consequential chips fall where they may. Based firmly on duty?on what we ought to do, rather than what we think might work?it is known among philosophers as deontological thinking, from the Greek word deon, meaning "obligation" or "duty."

Putting love for others first, care-based thinking comes into play most frequently in the Golden Rule: Do to others what you would like them to do to you. It partakes of a feature known to philosophers as reversibility. In other words, it asks you to test your actions by putting yourself in another's shoes and imagining how it would feel if you were the recipient, rather than the perpetrator, of your actions. Often associated with Christianity?Jesus, after all, said, "All things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them" (Matt. 7:12)?it is in fact so universal that it appears at the centre of every one of the world's great religious teachings. While some philosophers (including Kant) have disputed its standing as a practical principle, it is for many people the only rule of ethics they know, deserving consideration for the moral glue it has provided over the centuries.

How do these three principles apply? Let's consider a hypothetical situation.

You are a magazine editor and a staff writer turns in an article to you for publication which you later discover has been plagiarized. You can't publish it, of course, but what should you do about your writer? The utilitarian will typically urge an examination of consequences. Sure, throw the book at her. But what will you do if, the next day, you read that she committed suicide? That her private life was so entangled that she was driven to desperation?and you pushed her over the brink without even bothering to find out what was wrong? Or what if she sues you for sexual harassment because of your vigorous actions? What if, and what if? All things considered, the utilitarian might argue for bending the principle that plagiarism is a cardinal evil?leaning toward mercy, even if just this once.

The Kantian will want to ask not about the what ifs but about the rules. Remembering that whatever you do will be done by every editor in similar circumstances from now on, the Kantian wants to lay down a firm standard. If you must always obey one or the other side, which will it be? Here the logic may lean toward justice–an enforcement of the rules, with no concern for the consequences of your action in this particular case, but with a clear eye on the larger duty of eradicating plagiarism. After all, to lean in the other direction–to make mercy the infallible rule–would in essence make justice void. If every editor always acted as though justice could be set aside "just this once," what good is justice?

The Golden Rule, focusing on reversibility, asks, What would I want to have my superior do to me in such circumstances? What, I might ask, would have driven me to do such a thing? Am I struggling with overwhelming personal problems? Then maybe I want counsel. Am I frightened by the possibility of failure? Then maybe I want to be encouraged. Am I driven by a need to succeed at all costs? Then maybe I need to be brought to my senses by the tough, swift response of my boss. Maybe, in fact, this is an unconscious plea for help–a situation so blatant that it cries out to be caught, punished, and reformed.

The decisions examined here are tough. And they are tough in the same way. They pit one powerful right against another. In succeeding instalments we'll look at the concept of crime and punishment, considering how our system of criminal justice reflects what our core values tell us about what's right and wrong. First, however, we need to explore some 20th-century answers to some age-old questions. What about wrong behaviour? What motivates people to do bad things?

Psychologist Abraham Maslow wrote that all people are driven to fulfill their fundamental human needs for safety, security, love, a sense of belonging to a group, self-esteem, and the ability to attain one's goals. A group of conflict theorists–among them Herbert Kelman and John Burton–have adopted Maslow's ideas to conflict theory, suggesting that these needs underlie many deep-rooted and intractable conflicts. When social conflicts are caused by the denial of one or more of these existential needs, the victims will fight indefinitely for their achievement and will not give up until that goal is attained.

If this is true, it easily explains why needs conflicts tend to be so intractable. However, unlike many interest-based conflicts, needs conflicts do not have to be win-lose. The reasons they seem to be, argues conflict theorist Jay Rothman, is that they are confused with interest conflicts. Yet unlike land or water or money, which are often in short supply, needs do not run out. The provision of security to one group does not deny security to another. Rather, needs tend to be mutually-reinforcing. If one group stops threatening the other, the first will, most likely, stop threatening them.

Problems develop when conflict becomes so ingrained in the culture that certain people or groups are unwilling to change their attitudes towards their opponents, or are unwilling to forgive, even when their opponent's attitudes and behaviours have changed. Gradual reduction of tension can begin a process which will lead to conflict reduction and eventually, resolution. However, reconciliation of needs conflicts cannot even begin before the legitimate needs of all people and groups are recognized and steps started, at least, to meet them.

Interactions with others, whether family, friends, or colleagues, challenge us to deal with the differences in how we perceive the world. As members of a collective, we share a worldview when individuals place value on the same objects and communicate their value. Collective world views create the general environment or larger picture in which individual world views evolve. For example, every human group develops value concepts such as justice, fairness, compassion, virtue, freedom, and rights and draws these concepts into the framework of their morality system.

Collectively, we think of this framework as fundamental guidelines for human concern and how we should live. As members of a group, individuals function inside a collective framework in accordance with the general group concept of morality. This is part of the complexity of our situation: within an individual's framework, the collective worldview and its values are translated into uniquely individual personal meanings. As a result, individuals may create very different meaning constructs under the umbrella concept of collective morality. Individual and group identity fuse with moral values and this, then, becomes fertile ground for conflict at all levels: between individuals in the same group; between individuals from different groups; between different groups.

Relationships call us to be aware of our patterns of thought. What are the thoughts, images, and emotions running through you as you reprimand your child for some infraction of a rule? As you are unexpectedly interrupted by friends while at work? As you are faced with exploring biases and prejudices in a group setting? What are you recalling that informs you of how you need to behave? What beliefs and values do you reflect in your interactions? How does your script read? Unless consciously aware of the "whys" of our actions in adulthood, we act from a prescribed script. This script was written from learning acquired as a child. It evolved as an understanding of how to be from the child's point of view within the framework at the time.

The rationale for the script came from the child's need to create meaning. If a punishment model was dominant, the child wrote a script that dealt with protection. If a nurturing model was dominant, the child's script dealt with self-expression. Whatever your early experiences, you continue to play the same patterns of thought into adulthood until you consciously look at them. The patterns of thought that make up a child's script are grounded in assumptions based on and directly related to personal experiences. When we become adults, these same assumptions are at work creating meaning in our adult experiences. Yes, you may be in conflict with the neighbour based on childhood memories of similar events.

The scripts we use daily embody the truths in our world. We remake the world to our specifications. The world we see is The World According to (Your Name Here). When we experience conflict in relationship, we are experiencing conflict between two world views. Our personal interpretation is in conflict with another's personal interpretation. “. . . not only do truths differ for different worlds but the nature of agreement between a version and a world apart from it is notoriously nebulous". This leads to the following questions: Does one ultimate interpretation of the world exist? Is there one truth above all other truths? Behavioural studies indicate that the answers to these questions are the primary motivators for our interactions.

So how does this information help us when we find ourselves in conflict with an antagonist? In lengthy dialogue with others, two vitally important elements are typically found to be missing: 1) a deep understanding of our own world views and, 2) a deep understanding of how our world views interact. Dealing with conflict includes having a personal awareness of the assumptions that underlie our beliefs and values and recognizing that different assumptions inevitably underlie the world views of others.

All of this leads us to the practical importance of gaining self-knowledge. Self-reflective techniques are a priority if we truly want to understand the deep-rootedness of any conflict. Numerous books and tapes are available for learning various reflective activities. Useful tools may include free writing, daily periodic checking of thoughts for self-analysis, recognition of self-limiting thoughts and conscious reframing, self-monitoring of emotional responses while interacting, group work using dialogue and inquiry to enhance personal awareness, and specific daily reflection time. Such practices have resulted in major breakthroughs for individuals seeking to resolve conflict in their lives. Personal discovery gets translated into acknowledged and altered attitudes that impact interpersonal relationships.

Fundamental to understanding yourself is knowing what value you place on human life–specifically, in the context of conflict management, the value of your life relative to that of your adversary. If you have a belief system, such as a faith-based religion or a personal philosophy of life, you already have a value position. If your belief is strong enough to support your decisions and actions against those that antagonize you, then, by all means, explain it to your opponent and use it as the basis of your argument.

The Essentialist believes in the sanctity of the individual. We respect the dignity and freedom of our fellow man and expect the same in return. In any dispute, this principle should be made clear at the outset. Whatever grievances or actions may be confronted, it is important that your core values be laid on the table along with those of the offender. Following this rule will enable you to cut to the chase in resolving your dispute, and you will earn the confidence and respect of your antagonist.