Weighing decisions of character against feelings of discomfort

In our continued debates over moral issues, it is not uncommon for politicians, opinion leaders and others to announce that, after agonizing over the issue, they have decided to change positions or announce positions in favor of things like abortion or redefining marriage or whatever.

Some of these announcements are well-meaning and sincere, some are opportunistic and cynical. A common explanation is that the experience of a relative or friend or prominent advocate has led to the change of heart (or mind). It’s probably not appropriate to try to guess motives – and certainly not to assume ill motives – but sincerity is not the only factor that ought to be considered.

For instance, how should our discomfort (even very acute or agonizing discomfort) caused by the fact that moral standards appear to create hardships for others be weighed against other considerations? Does the fact that we know or admire or love someone who has rejected the standard absolve us from upholding it?

To paraphrase a statement I heard years ago, there is a need for decisions of character apart from sympathy.

In other words, our comfort or discomfort is often a very poor guide to making difficult decisions. As Dennis Prager recently wrote, “It is not enough to mean well in life. One must also do well. And the two are frequently not the same thing.”

We will often have to make difficult decisions about policies to support, counsel to give, and standards to enforce that will cause us discomfort and might give others temporary pain. Notwithstanding, we have to do the right thing. It is a matter of character and will be far less destructive in the long term. To acquiesce in the relaxing of moral demands for reasons of expedience, or to gain political advantage, or to avoid disrupting relationships or because we fear hurting feelings will be an abdication of a duty. It will also not help those we are trying not to offend. They too would benefit from exacting standards. It is no favor to anyone to pretend decisions don’t have consequences, especially in such realms as family and morality.

There is something of selfishness in self-consciously choosing to abandon moral demands in public policy. For those who recognize the social implications of family policy to submerge those concerns to avoid personal discomfort or to be on the “winning side,” the hand-wringing and anguish don’t relieve responsibility.

It will not do, for instance, to tell children that their entitlement to grow up in a world that values their ability to know and be raised by a mother and father; or their ability to live; or their opportunity to be raised in a morally unpolluted environment; or their opportunity to grow up in an intact family have been subordinated to personal concerns of adults. We owe them much more than this.