To Do a Great Right, Do a Little Wrong

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The essay “Jamieson and Regan’s Chainsaw” presents a moral dilemma. The authors ask us to imagine that we have borrowed a chainsaw and have promised to return it whenever asked. At the time he asks for it back, the friend is drunk and dragging a beaten man with him. So, I find myself asking, when is it okay to break a promise? Or one step further, when is it okay to be dishonest? People break promises all the time. You can't really live a life and not break promises. The trick is knowing which ones you can break and which ones you can't. Shakespeare helps answer this question in “The Merchant of Venice” when he says, “To do a great right, do a little wrong.” Giving your friend his chainsaw when he is acting in a violent and drunken manner could result in someone‘s harm, or even death. By choosing to break the promise and not give your friend the chainsaw, you are potentially saving a man’s life. You are also saving your friend from being condemned as a murderer, which he may regret when he is no longer inebriated. Hence, in this case, breaking a promise is the right thing to do.

When someone’s life is in danger, the lesser of two evils is clearly breaking the promise. It is better to break a promise than to have a dead man on your hands. But making exceptions to this rule opens up the possibility for exceptions to other moral rules such as lying, stealing, cheating . . . etc. Margaret Fuller did say “Nature provides exceptions to every rule.” Where do we draw the line then? What makes an exception valid? Does someone’s life have to be at risk to make dishonesty acceptable? I think not. Perhaps it can be much less serious, like when the feelings of a loved one are at risk, or when parents have the opportunity to teach their children valuable lessons. Perhaps a family is in need or resources that cannot be obtained in any honest way. In all of these circumstances, Shakespeare would be correct in...
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