Suppose I invited you to dinner, and as you sat down, you were handed a menu. It wasn’t one like so many restaurants—with pages of choices. It had only two options—you could have a nice steak dinner, or you could have a bowl of pine cones. It would be nice if all our choices were that easy—between something we like, or at least can stomach, and something that we find inedible. It would be an even easier choice if it were genuinely between good and evil—as if the choice was between the steak dinner and punching someone in the face. But a lot of our choices are more like the choice between steak and chicken—both reasonable and good, but different. And you can’t have both.
Making an ethical, moral choice is not always easy. We’re not often faced with a genuine “good/evil” kind of decision. We are more often confronted with trying to choose between competing good things, and choosing one shuts the door on choosing the other. If we choose the steak dinner, we can’t have the chicken, too. We can spend some of our money on fixing the roof, or we can give it to a charity. Both are good, but you can only spend that money once. So how do we navigate these ethical puzzles, as moral people who want to live a flourishing life?
Irene McMullin is a professor of philosophy at the University of Essex. She suggests that one of the challenges in acting morally is found in the different frameworks we make these decisions in. She uses our language and use of pronouns to illustrate the principle: there are first, second, and third-person pronouns—there’s “I,” “you,” and “they.” Making moral decisions from the “I” framework focuses on the role of personal responsibility and agency. McMullin says, “From the first-person stance, you navigate the world as an agent trying to realize your projects and satisfy your desires.” From the “you” perspective, “you understand yourself and the world through the lens of other people, who are a locus of projects and preferences of their own; projects and preferences that make legitimate demands on your time and attention.” And from the “they” perspective, “you understand yourself as one among many, called to fit yourself into the shared standards and rules governing a world made up of a multitude of creatures like you.”
Classic ethical stances like Utilitarianism may lean too heavily on the third-person perspective, sublimating the personal and the small-scale relational for the good of the many. It makes sense that we would think that the good of the many outweigh the desires of the few, but taken to its logical conclusion, strict Utilitarianism becomes a cold, impersonal way of choosing. McMullin offers this illustration: “Critics of utilitarianism, meanwhile, have pointed out that maximizing ‘total expected utility’ – ie, getting as large a ‘quantity’ of good results as possible – might require us to, say, harvest someone’s organs when she arrives for a routine check-up at the doctor’s office, since five of her healthy organs could save the lives of five critically ill people. Allowing her to keep her organs will save only a measly one.”
In contrast to this third-person extreme, McMullin notes that “the approach to moral agency dear to economists and libertarians – rational egoism – swings far in the other direction, insisting that the individual’s power to govern her own life and express her own will is the only thing that is truly valuable, the only thing that can show up as a genuine reason to do anything.” The problem with this profound first-person approach is that it is essentially selfish, treating people or institutions as “immoral insofar as they thwart any individual’s efforts to satisfy her own preferences.” Whatever choice impinges on our personal gratification is—by definition—evil. Yet, embracing the only remaining perspective—the second-person “you”—denies the inherent merit of the other positions. So what is an ethical person supposed to do?
McMullin suggests that ethical living consists of a balance between these three perspectives. Truly ethical decision-making means thinking of our own needs and desires, those of friends and family, and of the greater community in a dynamic, intentional manner. To flourish as ethical people, we must resist the temptation to fall to any single perspective—too much time spent in the first-person, and we lose sight of the relational riches of the second-person and the social responsibility of the third-person. Too much time in the third-person and we end up treating others as faceless, interchangeable cogs in the machinery of society.
When we find ourselves too much in one perspective, then it becomes easy to see the world in binary “good and evil” terms. When our decisions are based on what is good for me alone—the first-person—then whatever blocks what we desire (the good) is inherently bad. But the third-person might just flip the script on that perspective—the very “evil” we are trying to avoid as first-person moral agents may be the “good” of the corporately focused, third-person thinker. Choice “A” may appeal more to the rational egoist, choice “B” may be favored by the utilitarian, but the reality is that it’s steak and chicken—both reasonable and good.
The follower of Jesus is naturally going to be concerned with ethical choices. And it’s healthy for us to balance each of these three perspectives, valuing not only the personal autonomy offered by the first-person, but also the more community-rooted perspectives of the second and third-person. When we work toward this balance, then we can see the good of multiple options, and while we may not ultimately choose what our sisters and brothers choose, we can respect their choice as a heart-guided movement toward an ethical, flourishing life. We may not want a chicken dinner, but it may still be a fine choice to make.