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Right Action? Wrong Action? How Do We Know?

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Robert A. Hunter
April 1, 2024

Much has been written lately about ethics on the printed and electronic pages of PA Times by astute authors. Rightly so, for in this day and age ethics should be a repeating topic of emphasis.

Marcus Aurelius, the last of the Five Good Emperors, succinctly expressed it this way: “Cold or warm, tired or well-rested, despised or honored, dying or still busy with other assignments – just that you do the right thing. Nothing else matters.”

But, according to President Lyndon Johnson, “Doing the right thing is not the problem. Knowing what the right thing is – that’s the challenge.”

Vice President Harry Truman was thrust into the presidency during World War II upon the death of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Till that point he had no knowledge of the Manhattan Project—the secret development of the atomic bomb. Just twelve days into his presidency, Truman was briefed and was immediately burdened with the weight of deciding whether to use that weapon of mass destruction to bring closure to World War II.

Historians’ calculations vary, but we know that somewhere between 60 and 85 million soldiers and civilians from more than 40 countries died during that unthinkably hellish conflict.

Truman was faced with an ethical dilemma—drop the bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killing thousands upon thousands of innocent people, or allow the warring devastation to continue, killing thousands upon thousands of innocent people.

After stern warnings about obliterative consequences, the Japanese still refused to surrender, so Truman made the life-changing call to drop the bomb. That action immediately made him a devil to some and a hero to others.

Though he claimed never to have lost sleep over that decision, and wrote nothing in his journals about it, some of his associates noted that he suffered nightmares. That is a more believable assumption. Perhaps Truman felt it would show weakness to admit to emotions of empathy. Who knows?

While I personally consider Truman to be a hero, I also subscribe to the words of renowned essayist W. Somerset Maugham. He wrote:

“I do not believe they are right who say that the deficits of famous people should be ignored. I think it is better that we should know them. Then, though we are conscious of having faults as glaring as theirs, we can believe that that is no hindrance to our achieving also something of their virtues.”

One virtue is vulnerability. It is not wrong to show emotion. It is not wrong for a man to cry. It is not wrong to reveal mistakes. It is not wrong to admit to experiencing indecision or ethical dilemma.

The highest form of ethical behavior involves vulnerability—to question our own thinking, to allow others to question our actions and to sort through political considerations, personal aspirations and simply what we genuinely believe to be right and wrong.

One everyday example I recall is when I was just a child in kindergarten or first grade. Our family was struggling financially and my mother decided to take a job at a local school, the school I attended, located about two miles from our countryside home. With our one car required for use by my father in his job, my mother walked to work. There were no rural sidewalks, the absence of which restricted pedestrian movement. One very snowy day, our bus driver, Mr. Watkins, saw my mother trying to navigate the snowdrifts. He stopped the bus and invited my mom to climb aboard.

“I’m not allowed to get on the bus,” she said. “You know the rules.”

Mr. Watkins insisted: “Get on the bus. What the school board doesn’t know, won’t hurt them.”

What was the ethical thing to do? Mr. Watkins had to choose between the rules of the district and the feelings of the heart. All I know is that the little boy in me was grateful that someone cared as much about his mother as he did.

On a daily basis, regular people are faced with ethical issues. And often we must rely on an unfogged conscience to make the right choices.

The range from major international decision-making, through professional work-a-day actions, to personal relationships with friends and family, always requires ethical judgments.

Will the international problems ever be solved by joining hands, instead of waving fists?

Will our domestic issues ever be resolved by listening to understand, instead of playing the blame game?

Will our workforces be more productive through more thoughtful attention from their leaders, instead of the preference for higher profits?

Will our families and neighbors be more pleasant by putting others’ needs above our own?

Reminding ourselves that kindness is the key and that being vulnerable enough to ask ourselves, individually, how we can improve, will open the door to our ability to make the highest ethical decisions.

Marcus Aurelius would remind us to be courageous enough to “just do the right thing” by focusing on Summum Bonum (the Highest Good). “Nothing else matters.”

Author: Robert A. Hunter is a longtime leader in Utah’s political, public service, and nonprofit circles. He currently serves as public policy advisor for United Way of Northern Utah and teaches Leadership and Political Life at Weber State University. He may be reached at [email protected].

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