The questions aren’t easy: If you find out your friend is having an affair, should you tell their spouse? Is it okay to lie to your dad about being gay so that he’ll keep paying for college? Kwame Anthony Appiah, the philosopher and NYU Law professor who authors the New York Times‘ weekly Ethicist column, shares his process.
  1. 1.
    Make sure the ethical question is, in fact, an ethical question.
    “An ethical question is, roughly speaking, a question about how you ought to conduct yourself, what you owe to other people, how you ought to think about what you do, and how it impacts the world—whether on other people or on animals or on the environment,” Appiah says.
  2. 2.
    Follow your instinct. If necessary, phone a friend.
    Though he’s a world-renowned philosopher, Appiah approaches tricky dilemmas the way most of us would: by first going with his gut. “The first thing I do is decide what my hunch is about the right answer to the question,” he says. “I don’t sort of reason my way towards it—I just kind of think about it.” That process sometimes involves running a question by his husband, say, or thinking out loud in the company of friends.
  3. 3.
    Apply logic. Consider from all angles.
    “Does the person have any duties that they ought to consider, or are they free to do whatever they judge is best independently of any duties? What are the likely consequences of the various forms of action that they're contemplating, in terms of impacts on others? There’s a sort of toolkit of things that philosophers think are important in trying to understand what to do and who to be,” says Appiah.
  4. 4.
    Change your mind, maybe several times. Breathe.
    Even for a philosopher, such choices can be wrenching, and Appiah often flips back and forth on a given issue. In many ethical dilemmas, Appiah says, “There’s a genuine case for doing A and a genuine case for not doing A. Sometimes, I start thinking my hunch is one way, and then I end up going the other.”
  5. 5.
    Write. Revise. Submit. Rejoice.
    “I write it a certain way,” Appiah says, with a nod to style, “and then I rewrite it to make it more intelligible and perhaps a bit more entertaining.” Dithering over other people’s problems, writing, rewriting, editing—it’s a labor of love, for sure. Appiah quips, “What else would I do with my weekends?”