Most ethical dilemmas, like most tragedies, are not a conflict of right and wrong but a conflict of rights. People want different, competing and sometimes worthy things that cannot coexist.
The authors of “The Federalist Papers” knew this well. When James Madison writes that “the causes of faction cannot be removed and that relief is only to be sought in the means of controlling its effects,” he is telling us that there will always be division — there will always be good reasons for division — and we have to be vigilant in not allowing those divisions to destroy us.
Work and family, competing loyalties, rival loves, universalism and particularism, understanding and opposition — many things make a claim and sometimes their clash will result in tragedy. As we grow, we try to bring things together that once seemed far apart. But since outside of God there is no ultimate unity, life calls for thoughtfulness, empathy and the restraint that does not deny conviction, but tempers it with understanding.
Rabbi David Wolpe is spiritual leader of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles. Follow him on Twitter: @RabbiWolpe. His latest book is “David: The Divided Heart” (Yale University Press).