The Good Person -- Ethics and Morality
Ethics are about rules of conduct or, more
precisely, modern ethicists attempt to decide what good and reasonable behavior
is. All humans make decisions and evaluate the behavior of others. A scale of
evaluations from right to wrong is typical of ethical judgments. Each group
develops norms to guide actions and judgments about behavior. The presence of
ethical standards requires individuals who can anticipate the consequences of
actions; evaluate consequences in terms of selfish and of group interests; and
who have the ability to choose between alternative courses of action
In practice, professional ethicists are employed by governments,
universities, hospitals and other organizations; they do best by
examining specific situations and engaging the people involved in
conversations about specific interactions. When behavior and/or
decisions are questionable but laws have not been broken, Ethics
committees substitute for judges or juries and deliver advice or
judgments. The value of ethics decreases as issues involve business or
are issues of law. Professional ethics can be appreciated as an abstract
exercise in description and reasoning that may fail to appreciate the
deep determinants of human feelings, beliefs and conduct. This inquiry
is about human nature, complete with descriptions of imbedded social
regulation and morality. An understanding of these discussions is
required for meaningful ethical discourse.
I often read ethic statements that, in essence, suggest that humans
should not act like humans. While I agree that it would be better if
some aspects of human nature were permanently changed, that is
improbable. A realistic human puts fantasy aside and deals with the
really real. Humans are not always nice, reasonable or fair. Sometimes,
humans are brutal savages.
There are two kinds of ethical statements: the first and most
common is a more or less arbitrary rule that must be obeyed. Rules
proliferate as the kinds of human interactions proliferate. Obedience to
rules is learned, practiced, and varies greatly. Criminal laws define
unacceptable behaviors and proscribe punishments for those found guilty
of those behaviors.
The second kind of ethical statement is a deeply felt, personal
expression of caring, concern, justice and freedom. There is a deep and
archetypal sense of freedom, goodness and fair play. Any lasting ethics
must be congruent with this deep but undifferentiated sense of goodness
which can be called “morality.”
The natural, moral part of an ethical system involves bargaining with
others in an effort to achieve the most benefit for the people you care
about. Deep feelings for others are local and specific. Whenever
competing demands are made from others, innate tendencies prefer the
most local and most specific demands. Humans are inherently selfish, so
that I am first to receive benefits from my actions. My family and close
friends are next. Fellow members of local groups are next. More distant
relationships and obligations receive the least benefit from my actions.
The more abstract the relationship, the more learning and effort are
required to support loyalty or obligation.
In academic discourse, ethical problems are posed in an abstract
manner, dealing with strangers in another place and in another time.
Abstract "reasoning" has several limitations; the main limitation is
that humans are built to evaluate close and immediate situations that
have personal relevance
Distant events can only be evaluated by
learned protocols that vary with the education and socialization of the
evaluator. Close and salient encounters invoke innate tendencies that
are relatively independent of education and experience and will tend to
supersede learned rationality.
Good People and the Future?
Clearly, some humans are more insightful than others and some humans act
ethically beyond self-interest and others do not Ideal justice involves
the fair and impartial measurement of human behavior and more or less equal
treatment for all citizens. Can the ideal be realized? Probably not.
Events in the first decade of the 21st century point away from all idealist
visions toward the harsh realities of human conflicts and suffering that have
prevailed as long as humans have walked the earth.
While a pessimistic view is easy to support, humans have the option of learning to override harmful
innate tendencies through education and gain tolerance and understanding of
others through sports, social and cultural interactions .
“A human being is a part of a whole… He experiences
himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest... a
kind of delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a prison for us,
restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons
nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening
our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature
in its beauty.“ Albert Einstein
The approaches to further cultivating the smarter, kinder
aspects of ourselves involve a deep understanding of human nature.
At an individual level, sustained learning, disciplined action and a
clear mind are three essential ingredients of good people doing good deeds on
planet earth. Success in careers, professions and business are expressions of healthy and smart humans who receive
valid information and work hard to achieve reasonable goals. The development of
knowledge, free of delusions, anger and blame are required before solutions for
perennial human problems can become stable and enduring.