The ethicist will see you now: unravelling dilemmas at a decision-making helpline

I don’t want to seem a busybody. I like a nice social gathering as much as the next person. Wine, some snacks, good conversation – what more could you ask for?

But now? Really? Now we should all know the rules. Don’t travel from Sydney to Byron Bay to view real estate. Especially don’t travel from Sydney to Byron Bay to view real estate when you have the virus. Wear a mask. Check in using the QR code. Be super nice to shop assistants. Don’t have social gatherings with people you don’t live with, or who are not in your singles’ bubble.

I don’t want to seem a busybody, but I have a suspicion that my elderly neighbour, a highly sociable widow – who in non end-time days holds court at a local cafe – might be playing fast and loose with the rules, hosting illicit social gatherings in her garden during a rampaging pandemic. I’m agonising over what I should do about it.

I have shared my dilemma with a woman I’m going to call Doris. I’ve told Doris that I have heard a murmur of voices floating up from behind the high wall of this woman’s garden within our apartment block. I don’t want to be the one to shut down the source of society and connection for an old woman who lives alone, but nor do I want the virus to gatecrash her gatherings, her body and, potentially, our block.

Doris is a counsellor with Ethi-call, the 30-year-old, Sydney-based Ethics Centre’s free decision-making helpline. In the past year, in response to galloping demand, the volunteer-run, not-for-profit service has doubled its number of counsellors.

“It’s not a crisis line, but when you are stuck in an ethical dilemma and you’re having to make a challenging decision, it can be quite debilitating,” says Cris Parker, another counsellor with the helpline and the head of the centre’s Ethics Alliance, a community of businesses committed to raising the standard of business practice in Australia. “It can keep you up at night, you can really suffer.”

You’re asking the person who calls in, ‘what does good look like to you?’
The pandemic and the shifting sands of the new world it has created have elevated a raft of new ethical dilemmas. The centre has received calls from parents trying to juggle their competing responsibilities – to home-schooling their children, to their colleagues, and to their professionalism. It has heard from people fearful of the vaccination but mindful of their duty to the community, and from a vaccination centre staffer concerned about the vials of unused vaccinations she was required to discard at the end of the day, but which instead might be used for family or friends. She was torn between the rules and her desire to help people who potentially could fall ill, and at the same time aware that “jumping the queue” and nepotism are frowned upon.

But the by-appointment helpline continues to field perennial dilemmas: over business issues and relationships between colleagues, over family disputes and children’s social media use. Parents disagree over what they should do after accidentally seeing messages between members of their son’s football team that are derogatory toward female classmates. A mother passes away and leaves all her money to her grandchildren. One of her daughters does not have children. “She’s really stuck around what to do about that and does she risk a rift in the family,” says Parker.

She says that often people confused by ethical dilemmas “fall into a binary state of mind where you think, ‘well, I can do this, or I can do this’”. But the centre’s counsellors undergo “robust” training so they are equipped to take callers through a formal, non-judgemental decision-making process to help them see multiple potential options and reach conclusions based on their own values and perspectives.

The process draws on philosophical theories such as deontology, the study of the nature of duty and obligation, and consequentialism, which judges whether something is right by what its consequences are.

“You’re asking the person who calls in, ‘what does good look like to you? Which way would you like to see this going’ and then you might [talk about] virtue ethics, so that’s very much around character. So you learn about these different lenses,” says Parker. “People don’t always come to a solution after an hour. But they definitely get to a point where they think, ‘cool, okay, I have a lot more options’.”

I would ask you, what do you see as your duties
During my hour-long phone appointment with the helpline, counsellor Doris asks me multiple questions about the situation relating to my garrulous elderly neighbour – including about our apartment block, my relationship with other residents and what they might want, and what “non-negotiables” I might have in regard to an outcome. I tell her that I want to be a good and supportive member of the community and that I do not want a confrontation, or for any outcome that might leave a residue of bitterness or tension.

“Okay, so the next thing we’re going to do is to move into what we call the ethical lenses, and to try and flesh out your situation from the different ethical schools of thought,” says Doris. “The first one is deontology … So I would ask you, what do you see as your duties as a resident in the building, and as any other role that you play?”

As I have a “duh” moment – I realise the best solution for me is simple and staring me in the face – Doris notes another lens, the “teleological”, which relates to purpose, and then moves on to “framing the dilemma”, identifying the tensions between one approach versus another.

I feel I have a duty to my community, but I don’t want to contribute to shutting down an old woman’s only pleasure. “Which is potentially an assumption on your part, that she needs to do that,” Doris interjects.

The final phase of the model is the “sunlight test” – reviewing the option I have decided is right and considering whether I would be comfortable for others to know of it. “It’s having an external perspective,” Doris says.

I bring my decision into the sunlight and share it with Doris: as a member of the strata committee of my building I can organise for a general notice to be posted on notice boards reminding residents of government restrictions. It would be non-specific in terms of both its source and its target and might have even broader benefits for other residents unsure of what the rules are.

I think it would pass the pub test.