Ethics - Out Beyond Right and Wrong
“Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and right doing,
there is a field. I will meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass,
the world is too full to talk about
language, ideas, even the phrase each other
doesn't make any sense.”
There is a Parliamentary Inquiry going on here in Australia to determine whether Ethics classes should be abolished in NSW School. Ethics classes were introduced in 2010 as an alternative to Scripture classes from which 25% of students had opted out. Until the introduction of ethics classes schools were forbidden from holding alternative classes for these children.
The Inquiry has heard many submissions including one from Dr Bernadette Tobin, the director of the Plunkett centre for ethics and associate professor at the Australian Catholic University who warned of teaching ethics to children before they learn what is right and what is wrong.
"If you encourage children to think in those ways before they've got that background, you run the risk of teaching them to be sceptical about right and wrong." she said.
And here I find myself compelled to respond because I don't necessarily see that as a bad thing.
In seeking to answer the central question of ethics of "How ought we to live?" or "What constitutes a good life?" there are three feeder questions - What is good? What is right? and What is fitting?
In my post "Escaping the Boundaries of Time" I argued that one should consider acting as if one was going to live forever therefore opening yourself up to the long term consequences of your actions and therefore the benefits of acting according to a set of higher principles.
I've also argued in my post "Why Ideals Should Never Be At The Mercy Of History" that we should also not sacrifice these ideals simply because it has been culturally fitting historically to undertake actions such as Whale hunting.
Now I would like to address the limitations inherent in being tied to a fixed view of how the World works and what is right and wrong.
The task of trying to work out what is right and wrong is the task of seeking to establish a set of uniform rules that can be applied in any situation. It is usually referred to as Universalism because it seeks universal rules.
Examples are embodied in every religion and usually in every spiritual group or sect as well as communes and tight knit communities. The Ten Commandments is probably the best known example in the Western World but similar sets of rules exist in Judaism, Islam and Buddhism. The result of a group of people sharing a set of clear cut rules is that it engenders trust and allows community.
In mainstream society, the way that we answer the question of 'What is Right?' gets translated into law which is in turn enforced by Police and the Judiciary. Again, the aim is to create a community where we all understand what is right and wrong and therefore what constitutes acceptable behaviour. In other words - act in accordance with the Law and you will be living a good life.
The problem is that such rigid thinking has significant limitations AND it is not specifically supported by the system that we have for dividing up our collective resources. So, how about we look at this from an Ontological Philosophical perspective - or to put it simply - from the perspective of Being.
So - we live in the three Worlds of the Past, Present and Future.
In Ethics we are trying to determine - how ought we to live in order to lead a good life. Note that this means we are trying to work out how to live now in the Present so that when the Present becomes the Past and we look back and judge we can give our seal of approval on how we have lived.
Universalism is about trying to determine a universal set of rules that we can follow that will enable us to lead a good life. Universal rules arise from Ideals and Values that by definition are aspirational and hence live in the Future.
Let me give you an example. We aspire to live by the value of Honesty which in turn gives rise to the rule "Thou shalt not lie".
I think it would be fair to say that most people would aspire to live in truth however how many of us can say with all honesty that we have never told a lie??
Likewise we aspire to live by the value of Respect for Life which translates into the rule "Thou shalt not kill" but how many people have been killed in an act of War by Christian countries?
Or - if someone broke into your house in the middle of the night and held your young daughter at gunpoint threatening to kill her - how many of you would hesitate to kill them to prevent that happening?
So, you see Right/Wrong thinking has its limitations.
Rigidity leads to fanaticism, judgement, war.
If we become so convinced that our view of the World is Right then we make those who disagree with us Wrong. Which means instead of living in the aspirational Future we are living in the judgemental Past.
So, a note of warning - The people who will fight nobly for a cause include heroes as well as fanatical villains.
The other problem with Right/Wrong thinking is that it isn't supported by the economic system that we currently use to divide up our resources.
Free market economics is based on Ethical Egoism - or put bluntly Self Interest.
The father of free market economics is Adam Smith who proposed that if all the forces in the market were working efficiently then a mystical 'Invisible Hand' would reach in and set a fair price.
Problem is, the simple translation of free market economics into ethical terms is "What's in it for me?"
People struggling with an ethical dilemma don't then consider what Values they are aspiring to and what is right and wrong - instead they try and calculate what the consequences of various actions will be in the hope of finding one that causes the least pain and the most benefit. Hence this form of ethical reasoning is termed Utilitarianism or Consequentialism.
Values pretty much go out the window.
Consider a hostage drama. Three gunmen and holding twelve people in a bank threatening to kill one every hour until they are given free passage.
The SWAT team leader says "No problem we can get in there and take out the hostages with minimal casualties - say one or two hostages"
The Universalist says "What's paramount is Respect for Life - therefore we cannot risk one innocent person being killed. We need to find another way."
The Consequentialist says "Ten benefit, two may lose - ok go ahead and do it"
The Universalist is constrained by rigidity. The Consequentialist is constrained by the need to try and predict the future.
Reality is lived in the Present.
So, back to the point of this article.
In an age where wars are being fought over who is right and who is wrong, the willingness of young people to question the stated norm of what is Right and Wrong is, I believe, a healthy thing.
The key to leading a good life is the ability to see dilemmas from a range of different viewpoints, to be able to engage with one another to find a solution that allows us to aspire to live according to higher principles but also to be beyond judgement of others and firmly rooted in the present.
In peace and love always.