My son passed his driving test on Tuesday, so I decided to take him out for lunch today to celebrate, and he chose Pizza Hut. We had the all-you-can-eat buffet, and I was looking idly at the bill (you know the way they leave it on the table part way through the meal) and noticed that they had only charged us for one buffet (i.e. £6.99 instead of £13.98). So I pointed this out the next time the waitress came over to see if we were OK, and she took the bill away and amended it.
So far, so simple. My son commended me on my honesty, and I said something about not being able to do anything else. This led, I cannot say how, to a long and involved discussion about comparative approaches to ethics, deontological versus teleological, which David said meant according different degrees of significance to principles or consequences. I argued that there were some things that were always right or wrong, regardless of consequences, and he proceeded to pick very large holes in my arguments by giving specific examples.
For example, I have always maintained that the dropping of nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was inexcusable and unforgiveable, and that nuclear weapons should never be used under any circumstances. He argued that if those bombs had not been dropped, many more thousands of people on both sides would have died in a war which would have lasted until 1950. In other words, the consequences of dropping the bombs were less bad overall than not dropping them. I still don't agree with him, but he has a point.
Why is our world so complicated? Why aren't ethical decisions simple and straightforward and obvious? Wouldn't it be a much better world if they were - if there was an obvious right and wrong decision to make? My inner child would love things to be that simple; if there were only one obvious source of evil (like Sauron in The Lord of the Rings) and all the "goodies" would be on the other side, and good would always triumph over evil. That would be so much more satisfying, and easy to pontificate about.
But our world is not simple (thank goodness). There are no black and white answers to any complex questions - there are always and only shades of grey. The problem with seeing things in black and white is that it is such a narrow point of view; in order to judge wisely (notice I don't say "to judge rightly") you have to look at all sides of a question and use what Karen Armstrong calls empathic compassion - putting yourself in the other person's shoes. Maybe if more of us tried to do this for more of the time, there would be less anger and hatred and misunderstanding and deprivation in the world.
The Charter for Compassion http://charterforcompassion.org/ is an important step in the right direction. And if supporting it means always seeing the other person's point of view and acting according to the Golden Rule, then maybe David was right and I was wrong, and consequences are more important than principles.
But then why are we taught that some things are right and some are wrong? I still could not have walked out of Pizza Hut without saying anything about the bill, because that would have been dishonest and that is wrong. (Even though, as he pointed out, Pizza Hut makes massive profits and wouldn't have missed my £6.99). But in another circumstance, would dishonesty be right? David gave me the example of Robin Hood, who robbed the rich to give to the poor, (which was technically a dishonest crime) and many of us today (including me) support the Robin Hood Tax. But isn't that condoning legalised theft? My brain is hurting already.
I think that the biggest wrong that we can do is not to think about these things, but to judge hastily and without thought, according to what someone else tells us. I think that in most cases there are no absolute right or wrong answers, but that our absolute duty is to consider each individual case carefully and empathically, on its merits. That is perhaps the best we can do.