human behavior

Pick your poison

Posted in American Culture & Politics, Religion & Ethics by humanb on October 7, 2010

I’ve just passed my final med school exams, and in my desperation to forget the last five years, I’ve been gleefully recycling about 12 jumbo binders of lecture notes. I wish I had a bonfire.

I’ve kept some useful papers and I’ve found a few interesting ones too. In my earliest notebook I happened upon a print-out of a story that was used to introduce young medical students to situational ethics.

The story was designed to both challenge our thoughts about ethical behavior and demonstrate the diversity in ethical views held by even just the few students in the class. It’s a worthwhile story to revisit here.

I find it sheds a good deal of light on a variety of conflicts – romantic, social, even political.

Crocodile River

Linda, Christopher and Sam live on a large island across the crocodile-infested river from a small island on which live Robert and Kevin. The only bridge connecting the two islands was destroyed in a massive hurricane four months ago.

Linda and Robert have been lovers for several years and have not been able to see each other for four moths. Linda, desperate to see her lover again, asks Christopher (who has a boat) to row her over to the small island to see Robert. Christopher says that he is too busy.

Linda asks Sam, who also owns a boat. Sam says that he will row Linda over to the small island if she will sleep with him that night.

Linda agrees and the next morning Sam rows her over to the small island.

Linda tells Robert what has happened and what she had to do to be able to see him. Robert is appalled at her news and says that he wants nothing to do with her anymore.

Kevin overhears the conversation and attacks Sam, who falls into the river where he is devoured by crocodiles.

Rank each of the 5 characters in order of who you think is the “most good” (i.e., whose behavior you think is most acceptable to you – #1) to the “least good” (the person whose behavior is least acceptable to you – #5).






In ranking the behavior of the characters this time, I was surprised to find that my ranking had changed significantly in five years – evidence that one’s ethical views are susceptible to change. Even my “most good” and “least good” characters have changed. I was also surprised to find that I didn’t think critically about the character’s actions. That is, I didn’t identify the sins so much as react emotionally to situational behaviors. I suspect that if people were asked to rank generic sins divorced from particular situations, they would have a different ranking than the one the story would inspire. So consider the sins…

  • Linda: unfaithful
  • Christopher: selfish and insensitive
  • Sam: sexually manipulative
  • Robert: proud and unforgiving
  • Kevin: violent and murderous

Not surprisingly, my ranking has changed yet again when I consider just the generic sins.

For me, this explains the inherent hypocrisy of humans. We can preach about the importance of a particular virtue or rail against a particular evil, but find ourselves drawing ethical conclusions in contradiction to our stated ethics as situations change. Our ethics are a moving target.

This obviously explains the battle of the sexes. I imagine most men and women would rank the characters quite differently.

And this also explains the intractable and bitter conflict between, say liberals and conservatives, who fume with frustration and anger at political positions that seem to fly in the face of what each regards as universal truths about right and wrong. Ironically, more often than not, both would agree about what constitutes a sin or virtue.

The difference is in how they rank them.


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