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The Big Answer

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How Good People Make Tough Choices

a book by Rushworth M. Kidder

(our site's book review)

If you feel the need to learn about choosing ethically and morally, read Kidder's Shared Values For A Troubled World instead of this one, since it has little of the either/or thinking that How Good People Make Tough Choices suffers from.

The author examines the moral landscape of the 21st century, shaped by technology, terrorism, pressures to drop out and retreat into our shells for safety and simplicity, conflicting values, etc.

In the 21st century some of us retreat into our shells for safety
In the 21st century some of us retreat into our shells for safety

His book is awkwardly framed and includes crudely selected and ill-thought-out either/or choices between truth and loyalty, individual and community, short term and long term, and justice and mercy. These ostensibly represent choice dilemmas. He states which of the two he favors. Ironically, it is just such either/or thinking which is part of the problem and could spell disaster for the 21st century.

The book cries out to have its black or white examples replaced with dialectical synthesis in which thesis and antithesis are transcended via synthesis. (Maslow, in his classic Toward a Psychology of Being, discusses how being-cognition-utilizing, autonomous, self-actualized people are more likely to think and perceive in ways that resolve polarities, unite divisive elements and transcend continuums.)

Kidder's resort to absolutism smacks of religious bias unacknowledged (he's on the advisory board of Religion & Ethics Newsweekly on public television and he was a Christian Science Monitor columnist). We do not need liberal moral relativism instead of such either/or thinking. There ARE real rights, wrongs, goods, and bads. We need holistic, systems thinking as opposed to the reductionistic errors in absolutism.

For example, in a choice between individual and community, Kidder chooses community. This may be compassionate, loyal, or unselfish—or it may even be pretentious. But one thing it isn’t is balanced. Communists and Fascists have both chosen the collective over the individual in their infamous and bloody social engineering experiments. Modern Americans seem to have chosen the individual over the collective and rights over responsibilities—the rash of school shootings by teenagers and the statistics of homicide in the U.S. bear solemn testament to this conclusion. But our Founders chose to invent a new kind of democracy in which the two were in balance.

School slayings
School slayings

As Eberly and others have reminded us, these Founders expected that strong community connectedness and individual character and morality and civic responsibility would undergird the republic and provide a context for rights balancing responsibilities. Alexis de Tocqueville warned us over a century ago about the consequences of the degeneration of this undergirding. Therefore, Kidder’s either/or “choice” is counterintuitive and counterproductive, not to mention naïve and reductionistic. Our nation was actually born out of the poignant, timely and very transcendent synthesis of the continuum of rights versus responsibilities in a context of freedom restricted only by the potential for harm to others.

So one would have to take Kidder’s conclusions and advice with a grain of salt, since good people make tough choices better with dialectical, holistic, systems thinking than with linear, reductionistic either/or thinking. Neurotics are said to be characterized by black-and-white thinking and are often incapable of seeing the “grays.” So are simpletons. So are bigots. But even a well-programmed computer with heuristics and statistically weighted decision paths can be taught about “gray” rather than simply the 1=yes/on and 0=no/off type of logic intrinsic to computer circuits. The book needs updating to new, ecological-holistic-paradigm systems thinking that finds win-win balance in a world of win-lose competition. Or, better yet, avoid the book and check out, Kidder's Shared Values For A Troubled World.