Ethics and Asking Yourself Why

Milton Wolf is running for Senate in Kansas. He is a radiologist and regularly posted a collection of gruesome X-ray images of gunshot fatalities and medical injuries to his Facebook page.

Tim Carpenter of the Topeka Capitol-Journal recorded a short interview with him, which is available at Slate Magazine. Carpenter remains very calm and focused. He seems really to be searching for a meaningful explanation. I was particularly impressed with Carpenter’s calm, but urgent, question “Why would you do this?” (3:53, Carpenter is asking about a photo of a murdered man, purportedly posted prior to the man’s funeral) I found Wolf’s response inadequate–not simply in content, but also in tone.

This question of “Why would you do this?” is profound and particularly so when applied to an action that dehumanizes someone, diminishes their self, or creates buffoonery out of their pain, as it seems Mr. Wolf’s Facebook page did. It is not simply that our actions affect other people, or even that our actions combine to create the tone of the world; it’s that a person’s choices create the context of everything that person does.

Having a thoughtful, considered answer to this question is important, not because you convince others of your sincerity or morality. Not because you are able to justify your behavior. It is necessary because it shows attentiveness to both context and consequence. A thoughtful, considered answer demonstrates your ability to understand not only yourself but your surroundings and the people in them, as well as the impact of each on the other.

It’s a lot to ask of people–it’s a real burden of expectation, wanting to people to ask themselves why they would do a thing before they do it, believing they should consider why they have done a thing once it is done.

The purpose of having a considered answer to the question “Why would you do this?” is not to prove that your actions meet a standard of care or conform or some measure of right. Rather, it’s to demonstrate that you have met a baseline of measured thought and meaningful intent in your choice. This is particularly critical for people who would accept positions of public trust.

Knowing why you would do a thing lets you judge whether doing was worth the impact it had on others and on yourself. It guides you through the next time, if you can assess the value of your motivation against the value of the outcome.

By the way, asking “why would you do this?” is not the same as forbidding the act nor condemning the act. Answering the question, too, is not about picking the answer people want to hear or finding the response that makes you look like something other than a heartless creep.

Asking the question, and answering the question, are, like I wrote at first, about an awareness of your own motivations and your impact on others. But it’s also about recognizing that complexity of life and internal conflicts in motivations allows for simple disagreement as to whether any given Why is substantial enough. Sometimes, simple disagreement alone is enough to counsel against an action.

A person is a composite of her thoughts and her actions. The value of the latter depends upon the quality of the former.


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