Most people do not talk about ethics very much. For the religious, ethics is subsumed in catechism. There is little room for discussion of fundamental philosophical concepts unless it is some sort of proof (St. Thomas Aquinas). For atheists, ethics usually takes a back seat to rationality, preoccupied as they are with disproving or making fun of established dogmas (the objectivists). Often ethics is subsumed under the quasi religious code of universal humanism, a secular form of fairly standard religious doctrine.
Each approach has problems. For example, most people will argue in favor of revenge killing, i.e., the death penalty. But why do many argue for the justification of killing so vociferously? Perhaps because they want to convince themselves as to their own righteousness. Does such a poisition of righteousness follow logically from any discussion of ethics or does it come straight out of a person's feelings of anger against murderers? Clearly, feelings of revenge, on a social basis, tend to dominate individual judgment.
It is very rare that a person makes ethical decisions based upon his own well thought out or considered principles. More likely, the stated principles serve to reinforce a particular lifestyle, or set of group norms. It is far safer to conform to group norms than to stick one's neck out for what is really right.
Simply feeling something does not make it right, as is evident by all compatriots who have died in wars believing that they themselves were fighting for God and/or Country. In the name of goodness, the worst evils are "justified."
Thus, feelings can adapt to any position and are thus an unreliable guide to making truly ethical decisions. One also needs reason and logic in addition to feelings. A useful discussion of ethics cannot rely upon blind faith, upon what someone has told you, nor can it be devoid of all sentiment. it cannot be based strictly upon instrumentalist logic or upon ad hoc assumptions.
What is needed is a discussion of the role that any action plays in our on-going social and individual lives. It also entails a discussion of the relationship of the individual to society. There are fundamental questions here. Does the individual exist for the benefit of society, or is society simply an aggregation of individuals? How we answer these basic philosophical questions will have a great bearing on whether individuals are considered "expendable," for example, like bees in a colony.
Americans share a common set of ethical beliefs, which is embedded in the text of any American history or social studies book, a code which is naturally hotly debated among those interested in defining what is "politically correct," i.e., what our common ethical system should be.
Whatever conclusions you come up with, such as Sally should live or die, you should have some philosophical debate with yourself over the fundamental issues of ethics. When you (we) stop having these kinds of debates, then you and I are in trouble.
Almost always, the lack of honest debate favors the permission of one kind of killing or persecution. When people are sure, too morally sure, then the killing usually starts.
Americans live on the edge. A person can be so nice one minute and a virtual demon the next. Take care not to set off the dynamite! It is this potential for violence, for unthinking action, that we need to examine in the American psyche.
Part of this comes from the desensitizing influence of living in a violent family, neighborhood, country, and world, particularly as media brings in wider and more intense descriptions of such violence. This cannot be all blamed on the media, however, as impact is greatest according to everyday experience. A loving home may offset media influences while a disdraught family life can make a violent fantasy come to life.
It is not just the graphic depiction of violence, but the myths and fables of the rationalization of violence, in stories, discussions etc. that make up the foundation of a violent code of ethics. Such a code is largely taken for granted rather than objectively chosen. It lies beneath the surface, forming part of the cultural substrata.
The unconscious acceptance of potential violence is a particularly acute problem when we come to aggregations of individuals working in unison, in a nation or state for example. And we should ask the question: do democracies necessarily safeguard us against mass insanity? Maybe not.
In the U.S., we have our constitutional and human rights. But these are easily abridged when a consensus forms that some sort of threat exists. The crowd is too easy to manipulate to feel the comfort of such paper freedoms. Mass sentiment is usually negative rather than positive inregard to the protection of human rights and genuine civil liberties.
Moral arguments do seem to be very effective in preventing war. Perhaps part of the reason why is because ethics is disconnected from practical considerations even though it often has a large impact on the final outcome of most real life conflicts.
So we can argue that ethics is very relevant in a pragmatic or instrumental way, although looking at it soley in such terms too narrowly defines the discussion.
Any discussion of ethics usually starts with a set of philosophical axioms, things which people take for given, as self evident. I prefer to go the other way. I look at the results and go back to see why it is that people think and act this way. Perhaps you could call this a more scientific approach, or at least a more inductive one.
If we understand the basis for human behavior, then we have more freedom to make informed rational choices, assuming this is something we would like to do. In times of national emergency, remember, people are usually told not to think for themselves, not to debate, but to follow strict rules, the application of which may violate common sense standards of morality.
So, to me, any discussion of ethics should involve a discussion of the origins of human behavior, of human ethical belief systems. It should look at human behavior in the extremes, not just in times of quietude, when the dog is sleeping so to speak.
Today in particular, Americans are asked (by the government and the UN) to interfere in the affairs of peoples around the globe, ostensibly for our own security concerns, for "self-interest." Should we use military force to prevent a war in XYZ for example? From a public policy perspective, there is the larger question of resolving questions of right, conflicting belief systems that usually come into conflict over a particular piece of real estate.
Americans tend to have a superiority complex in this regard. Why is it that our own self-interest should take precedence? Because we are strong enough to enforce it? Thus, we tend to see ourselves as the ultimate judges of world outcomes. After all, it is nice to control the world. Isn't it?
If this is our ethical standpoint, then our thinking has not really changed that much from the 18th century, a time of self-congratulatory national imperialism.
But there is not just the question of ethical outcomes, but one of ethical processes, and how the two are related.
This debate can be greatly informed by the science of collective bargaining. In this model, ethics may have the nature of a joint product, a work in progress. Compromise may come to be seen as the greatest ethical principle, in which case Washington, D.C., is a den of virtue! But let us not turn everything on its head at the outset.
Still, a very strong case can be made for bargaining as opposed to fighting. Few wars have not been futile, at least when viewed after the fact. When they are over, how useless and nonsensical all of them appear to have been. Of course, national histories always tend to rationalize each past war as necessary. Necessity is the antithesis of genuine ethical thinking. Necessity is employed to shut off debate, to shut off thinking. Official history is not a good guide to making ethical choices.
So method is very important to long term outcomes. And if method is directly related to ethical considerations, then ethics does play a more important role in history than would appear to be the case at first glance.
The ethical considerations of a Robinson Crusoe are fairly narrow. It is living in society and among societies in an ever shrinking globe that brings this discussion to the fore.
Ethics on a desert island are purely instrumental in nature. Of course, many people extend the instrumentalist approach to their daily lives. Of what use is a person to me? This is perhaps the dominant form of ethics in a market society, wherein the value of friendship is measured in pecuniary terms, i.e., having useful or powerful friends.
The instrumentalist approach can be seen even among the religious, as when a priest says that you should educate your children in the religious life so that they will have a belief system and so be more mentally stable and thus happier. Religion is thus seen as a means to happiness, through psychological health! Today there is a strong focus upon psychology as the basis for much of sociological theory.
I have always rejected the instrumentalist approach to ethics. I have always thought that there is little merit in being good for a reward, even the reward of being loved. If one chooses to be nice instead of evil, surely there is no better reason to make this choice than because you chose to. We could have nice or evil gods for example. This is the whole meaning of free will, which is presumably better than conditioned response.
To what extent do we really have free will? Are we truly free to make ethical decisions, or do we just follow along with the crowd? In normal times the crowd is fairly benign, but when things turn nasty, the crowd is very mean. Then you are asked to be a murderer of your fellow man and to rape your sister woman. In many kinds of war, normal people then turn into those who commit the most unspeakable atrocities. The religious leaders then usually turn their heads and look the other way.
Clearly our will is not totally free. We live in society. Nor is it totally determined by historical forces. We can as individuals change the fate of society. So we must always add up our strengths and weaknesses. We must be vigilant against mass hysteria, least it overwhelm our own thinking and feeling.
Today, it is chic to be natural, to think of our thoughts and feelings as fitting in with some natural order, like the "circle of life." Unfortunately, this begs many questions, is in fact a determinisitc, almost fatalistic, viewpoint. In the extreme, we hear: life sucks, then you die. Such is the cirle of life, the circle of death. This perspective quicly becomes very cynical. Cynicism becomes part of the national character. Personally, I do not like fatalistic or cynical perpectives. To me they are only one way to look at reality, too often a self-fulfilling prophesy.
Opposed to this determinisitc viewpoint is the concept of constructed reality. According to this view, since there is no necessary natural purpose to our human existence, we are free to construct any purpose we like. It is our free will, our self-consciousness, that allows us to find interesting things to do, despite the predators lurking in the bushes, or in your neigborhood. It is not necessary to live in fear, certainly not in dread, even of our own mortality (or immortality).
A theory of free will is difficult to generalize. It is almost an individual matter. But, the more wills move in unison, the less variable, less free, is their nature.
Yet the beauty of society is joint construction, a jointly constructed mental picture. Indeed, there is some question as to whether a solitary animal could develop any self-consciousness. Consciouness, to varying degrees, probably only arises among social species. A purely isolated mind would descend back into the unconsciousness of the natural order.
Genuine human mental life is really a struggle to get some perspective on nature, to separate from the aesthetic of the forest, which mesmerizes and arrests conscious reflection. Perhpas this is why we seek to modify, and even to destroy, nature. Even the great artist must abstract from nature some sort of essence.
So, the idea of free will is very much part and parcel part of the concept of free thought, i.e., self-consciousness itself. Some modern intellectuals even go so far as to think of themselves as "transhuman," (the extropians for example.) Intellectuals have a tendency to think of themselves as gods, or the inventors of god, or at least as beyond he bounds of common reason.
Of, course, we do invent many gods or potentates, but any mathematician can concieve of even greater infinities. It is not what you call yourself, or what you invent, that makes you meaningful, or invincible or immortal. Such is but an illusion of consciousness, or else an extention of hubris.
It is merely your thought, your conscious thought which takes on ephemeral wings of extra-natural existence. For a brief moment you fly, well, wherever you want to. This is the meaning of immagination. For what purpose(?) one might ask. Immagination needs no purpose. And it can incorporate feelings as well as abstract ideas. It need not be all number system theory. It need not be excruciating. Such is free will, wherein a consciousness is born that has some existence beyond the natural world, even if only on paper.
So the philosopher, the poly-mathematician, is king, the inventor of free will.
Myths are an effort to explain the unknown. So is science. The difference is that science is really about a particular method, the "scientific method." Science does not depend upon any predetermined conclusion. It is impossible to disprove science in general, because it is only a description of what we know based upon a particular methodology, one with reproducable empirical or predictive results.
Myths may be contradicted by scientific understanding, but they may never-the-less be interesting and useful. Chinese people, for instance, have many conflicting myths. They also use the scientific method. Their world is richer for all of it.
One of the mistakes that Westerners make is to circumscribe science in the interest of a particular myth, and vice-versa. The reason of course lies in the attempt to codify a particular set of legal ethics in a religious belief system. Science was used during the European Enlightenment to free the law and the state from religion. But the battle has waged on ever since.
Historically, the concept of god/emperor is the alienation of the peasant from a more worldly divinity, the high priest or offical. It is the elevation of someone to the thrown of ultimate judgement (life and death over you, often at a whim).
The concept of the loving "God" ("God's son") really only becomes a dominant theme after the loss of state power by "the Church." In earlier times, fear predominated. Belief was a matter of simple coercion, of brainwashing. Now we are free to believe or not to believe, but perhaps this is because there is no strong moral consensus.
If we were to go back to the unity of church and state, even implicitly, such freedoms of belief would soon vanish.
In China, there was never a unity of Church and state, at least not for long, so today Chinese people have very little religious intolerance. Indeed, there seems to be a more profound diversity of personal belief than is found in our own country. Chiense accept Chistianity much more readlily than we accept Chinese ethics. Of course, there is some tension to the extent Christianity is intolerant of the spirit of other's beliefs--it has created some divisions among Chinese which did not previously exist.
To me, it is not the belief in the supernatural which is a problem, certainly not the belief in a universal loving force in the universe. Such is an ideal. If we call this a myth, it is a good myth.
The problem is that intolerance and exploitation arises from those who claim to represent supernatural forces in a restrictive way, to force their beliefs and ethical practices upon others by law or means of force.
The main point however is that a discussion of ethics is about more than a particulary belief system. We can talk about ethics in generalized philosophical terms without getting hung up about religion and/or science.
One must also avoid the pitfall of thinking that ethics is a problem that can be solved by the scientific method. It cannot.
In the old "socialist" world, there was a predisposition to think of everything, including ethics and philosphy as being part of a grand scientific system of thought. The result was a quasi-scientific mythology that few really adhered to.
The power of the will tends to become egotisitical. It sees the world only in relation to self, to survival, to self-happiness, what many simply call "happiness."
Ethics is reduced to a categorical logic, to a universalist or common motivation, such as self-interest, the quest for "life," or happiness.
In this ideal (or rather mundane) order, ethical questions are reduced to the mitigation of competing wills. There are only seekers of individual happiness, which of course has a million names.
In this world of the free-willed individualist, ethics is indeed a problem. There is the problem of explaining why we should all not simply turn barbarous towards each other. Perhaps it is the problem of pulling an immaginary world of individual freedom and justice out of everyday economic and political strife.
The conclusion tends towards the instrumental, towards survivalism, whether collective or individual. Ethics is reduced to the science of mediating conflicts, interests etc. Survival is too often seen as a zero sum game.
If we live in a economic class society, then certainly some individuals live at the expense of others. There are not enough resources for everyone to live in a lavish or luxurious way, or to be able to afford the weilding of raw political power.
So we create myths to extol the virutes of the "rich and famous." We laud the fortunate and disdain the miserable. But of course, ideology always tends to rationalize what see around us, what appears natural or immutable.
Charity is the ethical device of the fortunate, to maintain their self-image as well as to mitigate the desperation of the unfortunate.
Ethics is then preoccupied with possiblities rather than actualities. It is enough that everyone have the same chance in the lottery of life, whether that lottery is to pick those who will be rich or those who should risk death.
To me, this is a narrow individualistic way of looking at ethics. It is fitting ethics to a particular individualist social order of competing self-interests.
Surely there is more to the subject matter than this.
I start by considering the perspective of the women of each society, as it is usually the women who are most concerned with ethics and morality. They are the bearers of culture, as some anthropologists have noted (e.g., Rayna Rapp). By looking at the relation of women to men, and to the collective, to the state, we get a quick working knowledge of how a society is constructed at the micro level.
I look at ethics first through the eyes of the Polish grandmother, the Chinese grandmother, etc. It is an inductive approach. First, one should understand the simple life of the grandmother, which usually revolves around grandchildren. The first principle of ethics is thus intergenerational love. Indeed, in China, filial piety has traditionally been elevated to the highest principle. The flip side of filial piety is love of the grandchildren. You cannot get respect when you are old unless you have given love unselfishly.
Interestingly, traditional Chinese ethics do not depend upon any system of formal religion, perhaps because there is such a great degree of consensus about ethical principles among the Chinese. Even the bad guys make no excuses to justify themselves. In America, in contrast, every action seems to need personal ideological justification.
We can say that part of the problem of the lack of respect for old people in American society is selfishness and the abandonment of the young. There is a fairly strict age segregation here.
Ethics in practice is not really based upon universal principles, and perhaps not even in theory. The theories tend to adapt to practices, to life as we know it. There are aspects of this life which seem natural and good, and other ways that are clearly distorted and despicable.
When I want to understand ethics, I start by talking to the grandmothers. It is the grandmothers who have the clearest perspective about practical as well as ideal ethics. They are the bearers of our ethical culture.
Without the Polish grandmother, there could be no Polish pope. He would have no true believers. It is the grandmother who, by example and love, passes on the basic ethical principles of unselfish love to the new generations. In the final analysis, it is the Polish grandmother, and perhaps the Irish grandmother, who is the real social basis for the continuation of the Roman Catholic Church.
Perhpas it is that women are more connected to the natural order, want to destroy it less. The male brain, being rent more in twain, must see things in opposition, in contradiction. So men must be free, must have a greater free will. Yet, it is not free by itself. The male must have a female icon. The Catholics need Mary. The objectivists need Ayn Rand: not individually really, but collectively speaking. Basically, we live in a feminist society, even if it is ostensibly patrilocal or patriarchal.
Suffice it to say that the male brain creates an abstract feminine order, a feminine universe, mother earth etc. But for all this abstraction, it lacks the ethical common sense of those who actually care for the household, practical rural economy, those who do the menial tasks of intergenerational love. This is why we have to begin and end our examination of practical ethics with the grandmothers of the earth.
After all, free will in the abstract is merely a fleeting thought. Ethics is constrained by a common social plight, by a motherly condition, a feminine construction. By and large, it is women who define both beauty and femininity, sociality and hospitality, ethics and social morality.
It is the tendency of man to circumvent this naturalist social order, to use economic power and the prestige of the state to create other realms of importance, other measures of emergency and contingency, and in the extreme to lay waste to the female household itself, whether through war or the preparation for war. In the most war like states, or periods in history, woman is reduced to the status of slave.
Often, throughout history, man is so often anti-ethical, except in so far as ethics provides a code for circumscribing the position of women in society. Correcting this problem is not done by throwing ethics out the window, not the abandonment of the female household or the feminine self-conception.
Rather it is the study and consideration of such female economy and systems of social morality in relation to the larger question of the military-class state, i.e., to force as the basic organizational principle of society (but see Engels Anti-Duhing which critiqued the force theory of history).
We perhaps already have enough ethical systems to look at already. The point is to move beyond your own vantage point, to look ahead as well as back.
One of benefits to middle age is the ability to look ahead and back at the same time, as you are still part of both the young and the old to some extent. For youth in particular, those under 20, there is the greatest opportunity to understand society and yourself without making the same old mistakes, although it does require a lot of self-discipline, a lot of hopefully free will.
We will have an opportunity hopefully to write more about living the good (virtuous) life, or at least a useful way for yourself, providing the intellectual tools necessary for you to avoid the more common traps and pitfalls.
But I do not wish to present you with an instrumentalist conclusion. The meaning of life to me is more hopeful: such as beauty and virtue. The full appreciation of beauty requires some training of artisitc appreciation, and virtue requires an appreciation of the philosophy of ethics.
Virtue can also be extended to include excellence, a la Aristotle, but perhpas maybe not excellence in the abstract or without a sense of genuine feminine purpose. Certainly, it is not an excellence that debases motivation and the spirit by virtue of complete abstraction.
Even as we might concieve of ourselves as gods (something I find less than useless), most of our motivations are still somewhat toad like (my apologies to the amphibians). Knowing does not exempt us from the laws of nature. Still, there is quite a bit of leeway for poetic construction, for the construction of the immortal idea-emotion, however brief its spatial actuality.