Is this moral dilemma familiar to you?
You are a simple citizen living in Nazi Germany, and you are hiding some Jews in your home. The SS comes to your house, and asks if you are housing any Jews. What do you say?
The dilemma, of course, is that if you say “no”, you are lying, and everyone knows that lying is wrong. However, your hideaways are safe.
If you say “yes”, you can pat yourself on the back for upholding honesty, and then watch the troops escort the Jews out of your house to their fate.
We struggle to find the best way out of this situation. How can you maintain the value of honesty while allowing people to walk to their doom? In my culture, our best response to this dilemma was usually answering honestly, and then hoping the Jewish families would miraculously not be found. Pretty lame, looking back on it.
The interesting thing is that this is only a dilemma for some people. It perplexes universalists and people who don’t accept that value ranking is a natural part of how we behave. Everyone else is trying to figure out where the actual dilemma is.
For these other people, the question is “Why would I not lie?” If I’m already sticking my neck out for these people, they must be very important to me, therefore of course I would lie for them.
(There is a parallel historical scenario in India when many Sikhs were killed following the assassination of Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards. Thousands of Hindu families hid Sikhs in their homes until the violence subsided.)
Do these people who would lie value honesty? Of course, but when honesty and saving the lives of people are in conflict, their rankings are pretty obvious.
Would you lie to protect your friends?
In Riding the Waves of Culture, Fons Trompenaars and Charles Hampden-Turner share a scenario where they asked people from several different countries if they would lie to save a friend who had broken the law. There were many other nuances to the scenario, but the statistic shared was that 93% of Americans would not lie to protect their friend, while 54% of Indians said they would not lie. (UK & Australia were 91%, Germany was 87%, France 73%, Japan 68%, China 47%).
There is an interesting dynamic that happens in international business around the idea of trust. People that come from universalist countries (who are unlikely to lie for a friend) say of their business partners from opposite worlds, “How can we trust these people? They will lie to protect their friends!”
Whereas Indians (and many others) will ask of people from the universalist side of the world, “How can we trust these people? They won’t even lie to protect their friends!”
You see the value rankings again. Most Indians clearly have relational loyalty above honesty. However, most Americans and other Westerners do not think in terms of value rankings. Therefore loyalty is a virtue to uphold, as well as honesty. But because honesty is a much more discussed value, it often gets first preference. (Although if you forced them, many Westerners would also rank relational loyalty above honesty.)
This reinforces the #GreyIsWhite theme of ethics clashes. If you don’t understand the concept of value rankings, the relational ethics of India are often overwhelming and hard to handle.
Photo Credit: Aoife on Flickr