A Down-to-Earth Look At Ethics

by Bill

Generally speaking, morals are basic guidelines for behavior intended to reduce suffering in living populations, and ethics are applied morals — what happens where the rubber meets the road.

Philosophers speak of “situational ethics,” i.e., ethics that vary according to the circumstances in which they may be applied. The term has come to have, in some circles, a pejorative flavor. The implication is that an ethical person is simply that, and that a good system of ethics will be applicable in all circumstances.

While that is true, the concept that ethics (and, for that matter, morals) should not be situational but rather black and white is typical of Western beliefs: sin/not sin, right or wrong, legal or illegal with no shades of gray, and these are in turn typical of the idea that all moral issues can be codified. The reality in any culture, of course, is quite different. People do as people will do.

For that reason, the idea that “situational” ethics bear some sort of stigma is unrealistic.

All ethics are situational, and can never be otherwise. Attempting to adopt a list of “thou shalt nots” is doomed to failure, and simply creates an atmosphere in which adherents, if they wish to get along in the world, have to break the rules.

Anyone who has raised children (successfully) knows that when you make rules you had better be sure they are enforceable. To do otherwise is to create disciplinary chaos. This leads to lawyers, whether around the kitchen table or in front of a judge’s bench, and the purpose of lawyers is to muddle the ethical waters to the point of complete turbidity.

In Western cultures there are four things that are believed to moderate individual ethics: the desire of the individual to be respected as a person of character, vigilance on the part of other members of society, visibility, and fear of punishment. A careful look at that statement will reveal that the only effective one of the four is character. The others may help prevent antisocial individuals from impacting society to a degree, but they do nothing to motivate cooperation and respect for others, they simply make people sneaky. The same is true of religious strictures. I may be dead set on living my life with no deviation from The Rules, whatever they may be, but a look around me will reveal plenty of folks who are comfortable doing so and who are suffering no discernible punishment for their choices.

The black and white, right and wrong approach simply creates loopholes. The ineffectiveness of our criminal justice system at enforcing social preferences is proof, needing no support beyond personal observation. As soon as we create a “thou shalt not,” we create a class of citizens who will attempt to circumvent or ignore it. Rigid rules could be enforced (to a degree) in small, intimate communities such as those in Biblical times, but one has only to look at the crime rates in cities as opposed to small towns to discern the truth: the volume of obvious unethical behavior is generally related to a society’s degree of anonymity and/or the ability to make one’s own rules and get away with it, and has very little to do with anything else.

I have no solutions to the problem of urban crime or crime in general. We know that roughly 2% of the population literally possesses no conscience (sociopathy, antisocial personality disorder, psychopathy — call it what you will), and that a variety of pressures can cause others to behave that way at times. All of the foregoing is for purposes of illustration, because what morality and ethics come down to, in the final analysis, are guidelines for dealing with other human beings, pretty much one-on-one.

Not even the Golden Rule measures up, because there may be times when we have no choice but to do unto others what we would not have done unto us, in order to keep them from doing it to us. Turning the other cheek and non-violence are interesting philosophically, but history teaches us that there is little or no survival value attached to such behavior, and that the meek do not, in fact, inherit the Earth. At best, they may attract attention to their cause — often posthumously.

I maintain that all ethics are situational. The only ethical guideline that can be applied across the board to every situation runs something like this:

Thou Shalt, At All Times, Behave Toward Others in a Manner That Will Cause the Least Harm to All Concerned.

This brings the concept of ethics and morality back to situational relationships, where it belongs. It allows the flexibility to look out for our own interests, as long as they do not harm others, and to defend them if necessary. It provides guidelines for the way we need to treat our loved ones — and ourselves. It requires that we live our lives mindfully, not in a thoughtless blur. But most of all, it calls upon us to consider the effect of all our actions on all the sentient beings with whom we share this fragile sphere we call Earth.

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