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All Decisions Are Ethical

Consider this typical exchange:

“We love New York, its culture and the lifestyle, but two of my brothers live in Austin and my parents live an hour away. If we moved back, we could see them more often and Eloise would grow up with her cousins. It’s a hard decision.”

“It’s not a matter of right or wrong, it just depends on what you want. It’s not a moral decision, but a personal decision.”

I disagree. It may be wrong to move to Austin. It may be wrong to stay in New York.

Our choice of career, city, spouse, and family-size are usually thought to be personal decisions, outside the realm of right and wrong. However, these decisions often have a significant impact on ourselves and our loved ones, making them some of the most important decisions we make in our lives.

They are also complex decisions. Contrast the decision about where to live with a simpler decision: “Should I have sex with my secretary tonight?” Everyone agrees that cheating is wrong. This consensus makes it possible to pass universal divine laws regarding adultery: “Thou shalt not commit adultery” or “though shalt not look with lust in your eyes.” When we violate this divine law, we sin—we do wrong.

It’s not possible to pass laws for more complex decisions: “Thou shalt live close to family” doesn’t work. What if there is a famine? Since laws can’t handle all complex situations, following the law is necessary but not sufficient to be a good person. There are many selfish, lazy people who never go to jail but also aren’t particularly good either.

The moral incompleteness of the law is not only true for human law, but also for any possible divine law. If God tried to write a divine law that applied to every possible situation, it would be impossibly long and complicated for humans to comprehend. Thus, the best that can be done is to provide divine law for the simple cases, moral principles for the complex cases, and let humans reason through their application to the particulars.

In an absence of divine law, when faced with a complex decision, it is tempting to settle on the easy (and very American) “it just depends on what you want.” This laziness is sometimes encoded in the use of terms such as sin and moral. “That’s not a moral decision” implies that some decisions are moral and others are personal. It gives us an out. If sin is a violation of divine law, then in the absence divine law there is no sin, and we can do what we want.

These simplistic terms deceive us. Just because a decision is too complex to reduce to law doesn’t mean all of the available choices are equally good. (One may disagree about what the good is, but for this essay, that is besides the point.) Any law is built on a concept of the good and is meant to guide us towards it. Therefore, clearly the good applies to both to complex decisions as well as the simple ones.

When faced with a complex decision, we should ponder its consequences and our intentions. Why do you want to live in New York? How will living in Austin affect you, your wife, your family, your children? The same logic applies to smaller decisions about how we spend our time or money, like “how should I spend my evening?” or “should I buy this expensive coat?” Sometimes the particulars may be too complex to know what actually is right or wrong, but we should try. Other times all of the choices may really be equally good. Yet all decisions end up being moral decisions in the sense that one choice may be better than another.

Taken too far, one could be paralyzed with guilt, stress, and uncertainty trying to analyze all these decisions. There is a golden mean between the vice of excessive analysis and the lack of it. I think most people in our time lean towards one side of the mean. We must exercise prudence to find the right balance. Generally, the more important or complex a decision is, the more time we should spend thinking about our choice. Very common decisions (like what we eat) may also warrant more analysis, even if any individual choice isn’t too important, not only because the sum total impact is larger, but also because they can create bad habits.

In summary, don’t let the lack of divine law give you an easy out when faced with complex decisions. All decisions are moral and should be pondered.