Monday, March 19, 2007

Ethics and Values

Someone who may cease regarding me as a friend was offended by my admittedly imprudent comment concerning what I observed was this person's lack of ethics, which I expressed -- with some imprecision -- as "values." Because I think this is a crucial issue of our times, I'd like to review this, as a self-clarification and an exposition that I think is missing in our society.

First, I need to distinguish between value, values and ethics.

A value is the result of a comparison: X is more worthy than Y. There are economic values (thing X is worth Y amount of work, represented as money), aesthetic values (the looks of blonde X are more valuable than those of brunette Y), behavioral values (I like doing action X more than action Y) and so forth. These are all largely subjective, arbitrary, malleable and impermanent. Values lend themselves to collective persuasion, either through coercion or through seduction of various levels and degrees, as is the case in dictatorships, advertising and fashions enforced by peer pressure.

Everyone has values. They represent some of the limits we place on behavior due to social convention, ranging from manners to law.

Ethics, on the other hand, is the branch of philosophy that studies human behavior, its concepts, its norms and its application. At one level, we explain what ethics are. At another we propose what is virtuous and what is not. At yet another level we attempt to apply or derive principles from questions about certain human behavior: Is abortion moral? What are human rights and how do we determine them?

In our society, the majority is not ethical. Many people derive ethical values from their inherited religion. Some people merely observe group behavior and christen what is conventional as ethical. Most people, in the end, rely on their own will to decide what is ethical.

It is this latter point that concerns me today. We have gotten to the point that most folks think that they must canonize whatever they do as moral and good, regardless of its consistency with any other kind of thinking. In this, my friend is like the majority. This is not ethical thinking, this is self-indulgence disguised as "ethical" by way of setting oneself up as one's own judge and jury -- without an external or internal code to which the court must hew.

In the last half century, it seems, we went from inherited, external and absolute systems of ethics to their displacement by allegedly higher internal, situational ethics that in the end became one long paean to the self -- anything goes if I feel good about it and since I should be good to myself and my precious self-esteem, it turns out that anything can be made to feel good.

No one is ever guilty of anything; even politicians who claim "family values" (but divorce often or are caught in flagrante delicto) will go so far as to assert responsibility but avoid having to give the required response, the payment due for the wrong done.

I find this problematic, yet when I assert it I get in trouble. I am called self-righteous, priggish.

People don't like to be asked to consider what ethical standards there, much less to weigh submitting to them, whether it feels good or not, whether it is legal, fashionable or acceptable.

Let's examine an example that is close enough without being uncomfortable for too many people today.

There was a time in living memory in which certain prejudices were acceptable, some forms of it were enforced by law, in some circles some form of prejudice was acceptable. Jews called African Americans Schwartze with disdain; the Irish called Italian Americans "wops"; people knew of lifelong bachelors who never married or lived with roommates of the same sex and whispered about them; a woman's place was in the kitchen; and, of course, no white Southerner wanted his daughter to marry a Negro or a Catholic.

All these ideas could be expressed more or less openly -- although the politest people did it behind the backs of the victims. Now they can't. Conservatives call the change in norms "political correctness"; they would like to go back, to "conserve" the ethos of prejudice.

In fact, prejudice hasn't disappeared. Jews whisper Schwartze and it has been reported that a black actor on the set of television's Grey's Anatomy called another actor, who is apparently homosexual, a "faggot."

Now, to ethics. Is prejudice wrong? Why? Was it always wrong or is it merely wrong since 1964? Are most of us guilty of this wrongdoing (in thought, word or deed)? Do we deceive ourselves by thinking that we are not, only to surprise ourselves when we blurt out something not quite as ridiculous as "macaca," but close? What ought we to do to assume reponsibility and give the required response for our actions?

Or is it that if I feel it's OK, I'm entitled to act, speak and think in a prejudiced way?

True confession here: I am prejudiced. One of my prejudices is against British people. I deplore so much of what the British Empire did and find the British so obnoxiously arrogant, that I rarely cut Brits much slack even though I admire many things that are of British origin. It's just the people I can't stand.

Granted, I tell myself that a large part of British arrogance, imperialism and general obnoxiousness is compensation for living in a small island with terrible weather, for being stripped of humanity in childhood by parents who care for pets more than for their children (go to England and you'll see plenty of fat pets and plenty of underfed children). It's a sense of inferiority disguised as somethings else.

Pity the poor Brits. They are racists because deep down they hate themselves. They are obnoxious because they are shy. They conquered everywhere because who the hell wants to stay somewhere you get soaked every day of the year. They started the slave trade from Africa because they knew their own workers were whiny shirkers whose skin was too sallow and bodies too infirm from their benighted climate to be any good at sturdy physical work.

So it's not really fair of me to prejudge every Brit I come across. Not really kind not to look for explanations and excuse. I should think of them as I think of the Spaniards: valiant, stubbornly principled, religious to a fault, life loving. Or is that a prejudice, too?

How does one confront the ethical wrong of prejudice? How does one, having admitted (with a little fun) that one is wrong, take a different course?

It seems to me that merely passing a law (the Civil Rights Act of 1964) and adopting a new fashion (political correctness) hasn't worked. Prejudice abounds. Racism abounds: witness the Bush Administration on Katrina.

Here is the core of ethics: a principle that makes us all uncomfortable because it describes ways in which all of us could improve. Whether we like it or not.

An ethical principle survives the excuse of upbringing, suffering, anything other than lack of awareness -- which ends when we've named and recognized our behavior in the damning principle.
Post a Comment