Friday, August 25, 2017

Basics of Ethics for Ordinary People

This is an article for a few friends who are struggling to understand how to think about questions of good and evil, because they have swamped the front pages of papers and captured commentary on evening news broadcasts.  Even more, they have become routine fodder for late night comedians.  How then are ordinary people supposed to  think about them?  Scholars and academics can safely skip this one, but it you read it, keep your guffaws to yourselves.

Most people encounter questions of ethics or morality through habits of the heart deeply rooted in whatever they were taught as children.  It works well enough as long as the questions don’t get too complicated.  The question of evil, if it comes up at all, is heard most often from preachers who can’t give it a rest.  They use it like a bludgeon to intimidate their congregations.  Talk radio hosts use lies and distortions to make the evil look good, and the good look evil.  They’re poor foundations for engaging with serious questions about good and evil, and, given the current political climate, we are beset with serious questions.

So this is a brief article on a few basics that might be of some help to some of my friends, and perhaps some of yours.  Let’s start by saying that what is ethical and what is moral are the same thing.  Somehow ethics has become an arid term having to do with arcane things philosophers talk about as they explore whether something should or shouldn’t be done.  If not that, it has to do with how close something is to being illegal.  What’s ethical is important, but dull.  What a shame.  Too bad ethics can’t be more sexy, like morality.  Morality, it seems, has come to be almost always about sex one way or the other.  I have no idea how it came to this, but let’s untie the knot and say that the ethical and moral are identical twins.

Evil is another problem that needs to be unpacked.  In rough terms there is a difference between natural evil and moral evil, with the understanding that, in its simplest form, evil is something bad that happens in our lives.  Natural evils are events that occur because we are creatures who exist on a living, breathing earth in a living, breathing universe.  Life depends on it.  Wind, rain, earthquakes, hurricanes, blizzards, tornadoes, wild fires, tsunamis, they’re all the breathing in and breathing out of Mother Earth.   When we were few in number, getting out of the way of nature was not a big problem, but no longer.  There are billions of us, and we get in the way of nature by building our towns along beaches, in flood plains, and on earthquake faults.  We populated “tornado alley.”  Moreover, there are enough of us with the right kind of technologies to disrupt and exacerbate nature’s normal rhythms.  Mother Nature doesn’t like being messed with.  Natural evils destroy and kill, but they don’t do so by choice.  They do what they do to keep the earth alive, making life possible for all creation.  Wondering why God lets natural evil happen isn’t helpful.  The better question is, how can we live more comfortably and safely in harmony with nature?

Moral evil, on the other hand, lies entirely in our hands.  It’s the result of decisions we make.  There are obvious moral evils that occur when we choose to do something that betrays, cheats, injures, kills, or steals.  You know the Ten Commandments, and the record of man’s inhumanity to man is always before us.  There are less obvious moral evils that occur when we do the same things, but in more socially acceptable ways, or in ways that elicit little more than a tut-tut.  St. Paul suggested a partial list: envy, murder, strife, deceit, craftiness, gossiping, slandering, demeaning God, insolence, haughtiness, boastfulness, foolishness, faithlessness, heartlessness, ruthlessness. He probably wasn’t done; just ran out of steam.  The point made two thousand years ago is still valid.  These are behaviors common to the everyday life of so called good people.  They are among the moral evils we tend to gloss over, unless we can use them to smugly accuse and judge someone else.  

Natural evil and moral evil overlap.  We can, and do, make decisions about how we use the earth and its creatures to create conditions under which something bad happens.  Building a town in a flood plain, for instance, puts people in harms way.  Fracking causes earthquakes in some places.  Over grazing destroys the ability of the land to refresh itself.  Shortcuts, greed, mistakes, and sloppy designs create unsafe structures, vehicles, and equipment.  The famous law of unintended consequences is the adult version of a child’s whining cry that “I didn’t mean to.”

Obviously making moral decisions requires doing good while avoiding evil.  It also means avoiding, where pragmatically possible, placing ourselves and others in the path of natural evil.  It means avoiding doing things that accommodate moral evil.  Laws, for instance, have sometimes been used to accommodate moral evils such as slavery, discrimination, and various forms of oppression and  injustice.  Laws have also been used to reverse them.  That’s what politics is about.  

What society popularly accepts as right and natural is often a poor judge of what is good and just, not because society doesn’t care.  It’s because society doesn’t think about hard questions with any consistency.  It goes back to uncritical acceptance of what we were taught as children.  Of course not everything we were taught as kids was wrong.  Much of it was very good indeed.  That means for most of us, it’s relatively easy to choose between an obvious good and an obvious bad.  It’s good to be honest.  It’s bad to be dishonest.  Easy.  We learned that in kindergarten.  

It gets a little harder when the only choices are bad ones.  Which bad choice will do the least evil, while possibly doing some good.  Eisenhower had a lot to say about the decisions he had to make in WWII.  It was a war to defeat an obvious evil, but at the cost of many lives, much destruction, and that’s evil too.  What plan would do the least harm while achieving the desired outcome.  For him it was not an abstraction.  He knew he was sending thousands to their deaths, and he did it on purpose (Dear Mom & Dad: Tomorrow your son will be dead, and I decided it was for the best. Thank you.).  Few of us have to make those kinds of decisions, but our voices contribute to them, and we should think it over before leaping to endorse one way or another.  

Oddly enough, a tougher choice is between two or more goods.  We must choose, but choosing will mean one desired good will be sacrificed for the other.  An obvious example might be the debate over Affirmative Action.  If a college wants to make some places available to persons who were previously kept out, it means someone who previously might have got in, won’t.  If I have enough money to pay the rent or buy food, which will it be?  I want lower taxes, but I also want good roads and schools: choose one or the other, but not both.  

So what are we to do?  How do we choose?  Let’s go back to habits of the heart.  Throw out the ones you learned in childhood.   It’s time to take the training wheels off, and learn to ride without them.  Adopt adult habits of the heart.  The Ten Commandments are a good place to start.  Look deeply into the Sermon on the Mount.  Jesus once said that the greatest commandments were to love God and love your neighbor.  Weigh every decision on that balance, and you will not be far off.  If they are integrated into the habits of your life, you won’t have to debate everything that comes along.  Your natural responses will be ethical, moral.    

More complicated questions require more intensive pondering, but always in the direction of why are we doing this?  What purpose does it serve?  Who benefits and who gets hurt?  Is it just, is it fair, is it equitable?  Most of all, how does it stack up against the commandments to love God and love neighbors (who are always the people we would rather not have as neighbors).  We don’t always get it right, but we can always do better than we have done before.

What is required of you?  Do justice.  Love kindness.  Walk humbly with your God.


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