Ethics. Morals. Values. Principles. Right and wrong. Standards of behavior. Codes of conduct. Virtues. Dictates of conscience.
Yes, you can see it coming: yet another massive subject inappropriate for the limited confines of a blog. Yet, you would be right; he is about to start up again.
I’m not walking away from the Constitution posts either. But I think even I have come to realize that is really too big a subject to blog about. Several shelves in many libraries are filled with thick books about the U.S. Constitution and the philosophy behind it. Even the U.S. Supreme Court can’t agree on what it means half the time. So I intend to lower my sights a bit on that and only blog (at some future date) about socialism in America, and how the federal government has led us down that ten trillion dollar path paved with good intentions. Or how we have allowed it to lead us.
Not now, though.
::Scarlett O'hara: "I just won't think about that ten trillion dollars until tomorrow."::
Today, let’s talk about “society” (for want of a better word) and how we try to get along with one another, with varying degrees of success.
What are the “rules” of society? (Here I am talking about Western Civilization, realizing that the rest of the world doesn’t think the same way “The West” thinks, to say the least.) In other words, when I talk about something being “right” or “wrong” I am speaking in a Western context.
This is not something I am trying to “teach” here on this blog. Rather it is only intended to stimulate discussion, in an effort (as usual) to suck new information and ideas out of you to feed my insatiable appetite for new morsels of information and facts and points of view. I believe that the more options one is able to identify, the better are the choices one makes. And I believe options come from knowledge.
If you are formally studing Ethics (Western Philosophy) at university you will soon come to the opinon that there are three main schools of thought: Aristotle (who speaks of “Virtues”); Kant (who speaks of “Duty”) and Utilitarianism (trying to make the most people happy.)
That’s pretty boring, though. I want to be more practical. So let me talk first and then you can attack.
::Climbs up on his imaginary blogger soapbox with the siderails which keep him from falling off in his excitement and agitation:: The following comes from me, and not from a particular textbook.
Why a formal code of ethics? Why not just do as you think is right? Live and let live?
That works fine as long as you are the only person living on the planet. But when there are two or more of you, then you need some rules. And we have a lot more than two now.
The word “ethics” means a list of moral principals which govern a person’s (or group’s) behaviour.
What is morality? What is a moral principal?
Morality goes deeper into human “character” than simple "rules" or societal laws. Morality addresses “goodness” and “badness”. Who defines good and bad? Who says killing another person is bad? Society says. The group of people you have chosen to live among, that’s who. So, I define “society” as a group of people who are living together and who are trying to get along with one another.
Right away, we can see that you don’t get to make the rules you live under, at least not the basic rules. If you want to be a pig and smell like a bear and push other people around, then go live in the mountains somewhere by yourself. But if you want to live around other people, then take a bath and watch your mouth and don’t push to the head of the queue.
And more. A lot more.
But beyond simple rules that help us get along with each other on a day to day basis, there arises the concept of morality: good and bad. Or as Dubya would say, “Good and Evil.”
I am not here right now to address the concept of “evil”, although that sounds like a really good argument for a future post. Evil smacks of religion. Of course I acknowledge the “input” of religion over the years in forming the ethical code of conduct we live under in Western Civilization. So I can’t promise not to talk about religion at all in these posts.
Ethics are more than just the ground rules that society says you have to live under. If the society you live in says “Don’t murder or we’ll kill you”, then don’t murder. But I would also hope you don’t murder because you think it is morally wrong to murder.
Some of you may notice I seem to be tap dancing around the terms “murder” and “kill.” This is because I believe murder is always wrong and killing is not always wrong. In other words, I believe that taking another’s life is wrong in some cases and not wrong in some other cases.
And this is probably a good place to stop the first post rather than raising a whole list of ethical questions. One is enough for now.
My thesis: “Murder” is unlawful killing. Unlawful killing is wrong. Legally wrong and morally wrong. Society says it is wrong and the philosophy held by Western Civilization says it’s wrong.
But there are times when killing is legal and therefore not murder. Society (that group of people we talked about earlier) has a right - both a legal and a moral right - to protect itself and to enforce the rules the people in the society have agreed to. Therefore, the soldier or the police officer does not do murder when they kill in the course of their societal mandate, and neither does the state executioner do murder when he kills at the direction of the state.
Murder is hardly the only subject that we can talk about when we discuss “ethics” or “morality” or “personal codes of conduct.” I have a lot more issues that I will bring up in later posts. Yes, indeed. The photograph at the top of this post, for example, suggests another question of morality, at least in the antebellum American South: how could one condone the institution of slavery and still claim to be a moral and upright person? And that, in turn, brings up another question of ethics (or at least situational ethics): how will we be judged by people 200 years from now? Or should each man be allowed to live in his own times and be considered moral if he keeps to the ethical standards of his own time?
Like so many of these questions, there are no cut and dried answers, but I hope much food for thought and conversation. And yet, is there not a common thread of morality that defines Western Civilization, over the ages, in a larger sense? If so, what is that larger, more general, set of values that define us as a people, regardless of the era we live in, and set us apart from the Eastern school of ethical thought?
I have a feeling that my views here are not the only ones that exist, and I have a feeling I will hear from you. But don’t just tell me that you think I am wrong. Tell me why.
::Carefully steps down off his soapbox as he wipes bits of spoiled tomatoes from his chin::
The right to be heard does not include the right to be taken seriously. (Hubert Humphrey)
The First Amendment protects you from being dragged off to jail by your government for what you say. However it does not protect you from being booed and hissed in the comments. (Relax Max)
All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten
Don't hit people.
Put things back where you found them.
Clean up your own mess.
Don't take things that aren't yours.
Say you're sorry when you hurt somebody.
Wash your hands before you eat.
Warm cookies and cold milk are good for you.
Live a balanced life -- learn some and think some and draw and paint and sing and dance and play and work every day some.
Take a nap every afternoon.
When you go out into the world, watch out for traffic, hold hands, and stick together.
Wonder. Remember the little seed in the Styrofoam cup: The roots go down and the plant goes up and nobody really knows how or why, but we are all like that.
Goldfish and hamsters and white mice and even the little seed in the Styrofoam cup --they all die. So do we.
And then remember the Dick and Jane books and the first word you learned -- the biggest word of all -- LOOK.
Everything you need to know is in there somewhere. The Golden Rule and love and basic sanitation. Ecology and politics and equality and sane living. [The book is by Robert Fulghum. If you don't have it, you should have it. Peruse it here.]
The photograph at the top of this post is an out-take frame or publicity still from the motion picture "Gone with the Wind", based on the novel of the same name by Margaret Mitchell. Depicted are award winning actress Vivian Leigh in character as Scarlett O'hara, and award winning actress Hattie McDaniel in character as Mammy. Miss McDaniel is the first African American to be nominated for, and win, an Oscar. Selznick International Pictures or its successors owns this motion picture and thus the photograph.