Morality is Choice

Most people have the wrong idea about morality. They think it’s mainly about rules.

Rules are involved, of course, but morality is mainly about choice.

It’s about how we choose to live, what we choose to do, and what kind of people we choose to be.

In turn, those choices influence which rules we follow and how we apply them.

The rules themselves are helpful mainly because they distill the results of human experience from many centuries.

Those thoughts came to mind as I was watching this week’s episode of “Love and Pi,” a television drama series from Taiwan. It’s on the streaming video channel.

Yuan Yuan, the main female character, grew up in a rural orphanage with four friends. When they left the orphanage at age 18, they all moved to Taiwan’s capital city of Taipei. Her favorite radio program is “Midnight Taipei,” a call-in show whose host Yu Guang dispenses sympathy, encouragement, and advice to his listeners.

Several years later …

(Warning: Spoilers ahead.)

Several years later, she works at a travel agency with a callous boss and a backstabbing co-worker. Two of her friends have opened a restaurant that is financially struggling. Her boyfriend tutors the neglected son of Director Bai, a ruthless businessman. She and her boyfriend try to cheer up the little boy by spending time with him.

Yuan Yuan needs a “win” to save her job at the travel agency. Director Bai accepts her proposal for a lucrative group tour, but with a condition: She must remove her friends’ restaurant from the itinerary and substitute a different restaurant. She reluctantly agrees.

That evening, she calls in to “Midnight Taipei,” using the name “Ghost” and sobbing that she betrayed her friends. The program host, Yu Guang, consoles her and tells her not to judge herself too harshly.

The next morning, her phone rings. Yu Guang wants to meet with her. When she arrives, she is astonished to see Director Bai at a table. He owns the radio station, so she deduces that he got Yu Guang to call her.

Director Bai has two important lessons to teach her.


Lesson 1: Our choices are our own responsibility

She tells Director Bai (in effect) that he made her hurt her friends. He replies that he didn’t control her actions. She made a choice.

Yuan Yuan is a sympathetic protagonist, but she tried to shift the responsibility for her choice to Director Bai. He justifiably rejected her suggestion, pointing out that she was responsible for her own actions. Her expression showed that she realized he was right.

Lesson 2: Our choices sometimes require tradeoffs

Director Bai then recites Yu Guang’s advice to her from the program. She realizes that, incredibly, the tough businessman and the compassionate radio host are the same person.

He explains that “Midnight Taipei” is his way of helping people:

“In order to maintain the essence of the program, I rejected many business collaborations, causing a constant financial drain on the radio station. I could only be ruthless in my other business ventures, in order to protect the project that I love.” ***

Yuan Yuan had to choose between saving her job and being loyal to her friends. Both were legitimate moral concerns, but there was no clear way to choose between them. No matter which choice she made, someone might have been hurt. Both choices were right, and both were wrong.

Likewise, Director Bai had to make difficult choices in his own life. Devoting himself to business required him to delegate care of his son to nannies and tutors. His feelings of guilt made him appreciate Yuan Yuan’s friendship for his son, and made him want to help her. His choices — like Yuan Yuan’s — were debatable but not irrational.

The problem we all face

Yuan Yuan and Director Bai illustrate the problem we all face. We are responsible for our choices. How can we make them responsibly?

I can’t give you the answers. Your own answers have to come from you.

*** English translation by the volunteers of the Infinite Love team for

Available October 15, 2018: My book Why Sane People Believe Crazy Things: How Belief Can Help or Hurt Social Peace. Kirkus Reviews called it “impressively nuanced.” Foreword Reviews called it “intriguing and vital.”

About N.S. Palmer

N.S. Palmer is an American mathematician.
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