It’s part 2 of our Conflict and Ethics series (Part 1 can be found here) We’re going to discuss the philosophical concept of right and wrong. Without even thinking about it, you’re continuously justifying your decisions on their ethical merit as you navigate each passing day. It can get interesting when life provides you with people on the opposing side of your beliefs; Often resulting in serious disagreements. Is it ever possible to have secure knowledge of what is right and wrong? Or is the quest for a universal reason to justify these behaviours unobtainable?
The debate of ethics is an inherently human problem. When you’re a creature as complex as us, capable of elaborate manipulation, deception and intricate planning – the concept of ethics is an important topic to understand. Ethics allows us all to theoretically understand who to trust around us and what to predict from people based on their outlook. When you find yourself encountering someone with a vastly different ethical foundation than yourself, you’ll likely see them as a threat to some degree. I personally subscribe to a game theoretic view of ethics as a social game where we all get to collectively decide the rewards, rules and subsequent consequences for disobedience.
Throughout history, different cultures have gone through a complex process that continues to this day of building ethical frameworks and freedoms. These rules are regularly debated by man and continuously changed with the passing of time. The ethics you stand behind today have been developed and refined over thousands of years. History reminds us that these ethical frameworks have often been manipulated and decided by kings, emperors, religious scripture and politicians to create the necessary living environment to achieve grander social goals.
Ethical behaviour is legitimised when protected through law and allegiances of nation states. Those who subscribe to the game of ethics in their location are rewarded with the freedoms that come from this particular arrangement. When one submits themselves to a society’s ethical framework, they can pass their time without worrying too much about barbaric acts or injustice from outsiders. A very convenient arrangement for us all, wouldn’t you say? But for those who choose not to play by the rules, brings a different experience. One that doesn’t provide the same rights and freedoms typically afforded to the rest of the populace. They will be the outcasts, treated with suspicion and ridicule and often placed in cages if necessary. These are the characters who are unpredictable and play by their own rules. A dangerous player in the game of life that must be viewed with suspicion when you just want to go about your day in peace.
Most people inherently follow the ethical subscription of their society without little fuss. Rather too easily in fact, to be born into this world and follow the narrative without little questioning is the simplest of behaviours. This allows one to focus on more important things, Like working hard, putting food on the table and having fun. Questioning ethics is a privilege typically afforded to those who have the ability to do so. For those less fortunate, questioning the concept of ethics is not something which is high on the to-do-list. More pressing matters demand one’s attention.
The driving force behind ethics
So how did we get here? How does a particular society justify their ethical position on an issue resulting in a population accepting these rules into their everyday existence?
I am of the belief that ethics are fundamentally driven by the human design. This belief in itself is highly subjective and has been debated through millennia. Many religious readers would be validated to dismiss such a notion. After all, they receive their ethical guidance from deities beyond this very reality. But for those like myself who fail to endorse any scripture on this earth that claims to offer godly enlightenment, we have no other choice but to come to our own conclusion.
Our ethical frameworks have served a fundamental role in providing humanity with the most effective environments for groups to coexist in harmony. For those like myself who subscribe to the above theory, the historic framework of ethics is inherently guided by the human reward system. (Good = Human prosperity/Bad = Human suffering)
This awareness of ethics and its history, allows one to ultimately define them moving forward. Things that are morally inexcusable today were the moral norms of yesterday. What moral norms are inexcusable today that are still tolerated due to social obedience? One powerful photo comes to mind as I attempt to highlight this point. This is Elizabeth Eckford, a 15-year-old black girl who is attempting to go to an all-white school. An angry Mob surrounds her in Arkansas, USA. Then soldiers of the National Guard, under orders from Arkansas Governor Faubus stepped in her way to prevent her from entering the school. This all took place in 1957… Just under 60 years ago, where it was morally acceptable for a specific community in the USA to behave this way. Just take a moment to look at the anger in this photo and tell me that our ethical frameworks are not vulnerable to bad thought.
For many spiritualists, what I speak of is a dangerous path. Leaving the questioning of morality to the personal interpretation of humanity is one that could lead to Moral Nihilism (The meta-ethical view that nothing is intrinsically moral or immoral) as evident by this quote I came across from a prominent Buddhist.
“By assigning value and spiritual ideals to private subjectivity, the materialistic world view… threatens to undermine any secure objective foundation for morality. The result is the widespread moral degeneration that we witness today. To counter this tendency, mere moral exhortation is insufficient. If morality is to function as an efficient guide to conduct, it cannot be propounded as a self-justifying scheme but must be embedded in a more comprehensive spiritual system which grounds morality in a transpersonal order. Religion must affirm, in the clearest terms, that morality and ethical values are not mere decorative frills of personal opinion, not subjective superstructure, but intrinsic laws of the cosmos built into the heart of reality.”
— Bhikkhu Bodhi, an American Buddhist monk
Unfortunately, I have little respect for Mr. Bodhi’s advice. I’ve grown up in a world that has shown me any man is capable of moral evils under any flag. Men who wear the cross who commit sexual acts with children, leaders of prosperous nations involved in lies and public deception, law enforcement personnel abusing their power against the weak… The list goes on. The world is full of hypocrites and men who have no respect for their word. You’re damn right I’m going to expose my morals to private subjectivity. If you decide to let time pass without asking some fundamental questions about your existence and behaviour then someone else will make that decision for you and you’re not always guaranteed that person(s) will have your best interests at heart.
The process of being free from a moral allegiance is quite the trip. And one which is often necessary to explore the dark rabbit-hole of Meta-ethics. I would implore you all to try it at least once, even for just 10 minutes as a thought experiment. (We’re not acting upon anything for this experiment, simply pondering) Take a brief moment to dismiss all your preconceived notions of what is right and wrong and challenge the reasoning behind why you believe something is inherently good or bad. When we look into the sky through the darkness of space, upon the infinite collection of stars and distant galaxies and we ask ourselves – is it wrong for me to eat a pig? Does this cosmic perspective assist in our query? In this thought experiment, attempt to observe the pull of the question and get a feel for the drive that pulls our ethical allegiance towards one direction or the other without bias.
Is it your religion that tells you it is wrong to eat a pig? We’re experimenting now, drop the bias. Free the mind of this notion and now ask the question again. Still, think it is wrong? Why? Because the animal is suffering? So what? You squatted a fly on the wall yesterday, and that didn’t seem to matter to your conscience. See what we’re doing here? The philosophical exploration of our motives and the process of figuring out what drives our decisions leads to more questioning and further exploring. I can’t tell you where your conclusions may take you. For many, it’s possible that your ethical foundations may struggle to remain standing when it is subjected to heavy scrutiny and questioning.
But what is the point of such an analysis? What do we benefit from stripping down our ethical reasoning to its source? That I can’t answer, as each and every one of you who opens up to this concept will come to a unique conclusion. I’ve personally found an increased ability to relate to others in my journey so far. By better understanding the forces that pull somebody towards a certain ethical direction, I’ve found it easier to relate to a position I may disagree with. I haven’t concluded my grand analysis of ethics and nor do I feel I will anytime soon. In the meantime; Philosophic literature, discussions with friends and endless hours of pondering await me.