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High road versus low road

Updated on August 23, 2017

A white dove

a flying white dove with a twig by lcg2001
a flying white dove with a twig by lcg2001 | Source

How we behave

In this world we are expected to behave in a certain way. When we vocalize this way we express an expectation towards behavior that is defined by ethics. When confronted with the behavior of others we expect those others to behave in our favor. So we can conclude that we humans have a problem with behavior. We talk of taking the high road, but we want to be treated according to the low road. In philosophical terms these two behaviors are named: deontological and teleological behavior.

Taking the high road by symmetry_mind
Taking the high road by symmetry_mind | Source

Ethical behavior

is a choice

Taking the high road or the low road has to do with two ethical paths humans always could choose from. The high road is the ethical path of deontology or doing your duty. The low road is the ethical path of teleology or effectiveness or goal orientation.


We often assume that there is only one choice we can make in our lives, as the distinction between deontology and teleology would suggest. But as always when we use sayings we forget the context of what the saying expresses, especially the literal context. Because when you look at the idea of the high and low road, a physical representation of making a choice between two behaviors, what we forget is that both roads are found on the same physical plain the planet earth. So the high and the low road need the earth to be able to go their separate ways. And as the earth is bigger than both separate roads, we have many more choices than just a high or a low road. The most simple choice being to choose at one moment for the high road and the next moment for the low road.


This constant behavior of choosing we see in people who are willing to do everything to become wealthy and the next moment are willing to use their wealth to help people in need.

So the one moment we are teleologists, the next moment we are deontologists. It seems we constantly switch between the high and the low road.

What does Amazon - have on the high road

High and low road - not only ethics

Choice of flowers by Darnok
Choice of flowers by Darnok | Source

So we constantly choose between the high and the low road. Often without really knowing why we want to go the high road the one moment and the low road the next moment. There are many reasons why we constantly and every moment of the day make a choice for a certain behavior.

Reasons we choose

One reason we choose for the high road is because that was what we learned from our parents. While at other moment we choose the low road because that was what our parents showed us. But also our human biology has to do with what we choose. For example, we see altruism as an expression of high road behavior. Were we find egotism or egotistical behavior an example of choosing the low road.

Biological altruism

However biological research has shown that altruism can be egotistical behavior, as it ensures the survival of the genes the altruistic being shares with others. This is for example seen in the behavior of bees, who will sting an attacker and sacrifice themselves for the safety of the queen bee. But as all bees in a hive are sisters with the same genes, one bee or hundred bees dying changes nothing in the genetic reality of the hive. So this altruistic behavior is not any different from human cells destroying themselves because they are infected with a bacteria or virus. But the suicide of a human body cell is not seen as altruistic or selfish. It is seen as common sense, needed for the survival of the body.

Biological egotism

On the other side of biological altruism we have egotism or egotistical behavior. The choice for egotistical behavior is often the consequence of the situation we find ourselves in. We often become egotistical when we find ourselves in an unknown and dangerous situation and our flight response starts working. This response forces us to act without thinking about what kind of behavior we will choose, instead we choose to fight for our own survival. Even if that behavior might bring others or ourselves in jeopardy.

High or low road

So we make choices between the high or the low road. Some of those choices are forced on us by our upbringing. Some of them are biologically sound choices as they protect the body or the mother or family members carrying the same genes.

But we also are able to choose between both roads based on what we know. At this moment we often start to talk of ethical behavior and choosing between deontological or teleological behavior. Are we going to do our duty or are we going for the goal we are trying to reach. A bad example we have seen the last few years in the financial markets was that most employees chose teleological behavior. Not because they wanted to, but because they were rewarded for reaching a goal, however that goal never was doing their duty, which in the financial system is giving their customers bang for their buck. The goal was getting their employer as much profit as possible, so everybody in the company could be paid bonuses in one form or another.

But not only the financial industry is an example of a system in which choosing teleological behavior went wrong. Politics is another system in which the goal has become more important than duty. Today the goal in the political system is no longer the good of the people, but getting re-elected. Because re-election creates security and certainty and respect and adoration and appreciation.

Do we have a choice - between high and low road

Is life really about choosing between the high and the low road.

Whenever confronted with a choice between the high and the low road, do you always choose the one or the other?

Rock supporting rock by Genista
Rock supporting rock by Genista | Source

What makes the choice

for the high road so difficult

So we have learned to choose or biologically we are wired to choose a certain way when it comes to the high road or the low road. Still at certain moments we have the possibility to choose for duty or goals and then often forget that doing our duty can be a goal we can choose. Often our greatest problem with choosing between goal or duty is a lack of knowledge or a lack of insight in the consequences of our choices. Which probably is the reason why many philosophers have told us always to choose for duty, because goals get in the way of our own survival. Because very often when we chose for a certain goal we ended up having to choose for duty. For example when Chamberlain chose "peace in our time" in negations with Hitler, he forced the British empire and the United States into a war to do their human duty of bringing about peace and protecting human beings against cruel and inhuman behavior.

Duty and goal

But the example of Neville Chamberlain makes something very clear about goal and duty. It was his duty to bring peace in their time, so he made it his goal. But as he chose to reach his goal by surrendering part of Czechoslovakia to Nazi Germany, he forgot his duty as a human being. As a human being it was his duty to refrain from deciding for people, who did not elect him into power, in which country they should live. Which makes it clear that it often is very difficult to do your duty and at the same time reach your goal if you forget that your duty towards one person can never surpass you duty towards another person. In the case of Chamberlain the prime minister that failed to prevent war, the problem probably lay in the fact that the seed of the second world war was seeded when the allies forced the German empire into going almost bankrupt paying for all the damage created by all parties during the first world war. This gave Hitler an easy scapegoat to blame for the situation Germany was in after 1929.


So choosing the high road is difficult because it often is obscured by the fact that our goals seem to coincide with our duty. Chamberlain choose peace in our time as his goal, to do his duty towards the English citizens. But forgot that peace is not achieved by appeasement of a bully. As the proverb addresses:

Spare the rod, spoil the child

Often we exactly get what we try to avoid by setting ourselves a goal instead of doing our duty. As the story of Oedipus makes clear.

But choosing for the high road is also difficult because we are taught to discern between duty towards our family and duty towards ourselves and being human. So we are not taught to understand and choose, which is needed if we want to choose. We are taught to choose based on what we think others expect of us.


Where did I get some of my information from.

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    • Normyo Yonormyo profile imageAUTHOR

      Normyo Yonormyo 

      16 months ago

      @Larry Rankin, I know what you mean.

      Sometimes the low road seems a lot easier, but in the end it often turns out it just postponed the outcome we did not want.

    • Larry Rankin profile image

      Larry Rankin 

      3 years ago from Oklahoma

      I usually take the high road, but sometimes it's hard.

      Interesting hub.

    • profile image


      4 years ago

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    • profile image


      4 years ago

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