Ethics - Why Ideals Should Never Be At The Mercy Of History

Posted by A.C. Ping
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A recent newspaper article here in Australia suggested that the actions of anti whaling campaigners was unfair and that because the Japanese people have been hunting whales for generations it should be ok.


This is an interesting dilemma and goes to the heart of many ethical issues and the answer to the question 'How ought we to live?' - which is central to Ethics.

So - first let's start with the three key questions that one can ask when addressing ethical issues -
1. What is right?
- here we are talking about morals and rules for living a good life such as the Ten Commandments.
2. What is good?
- this question considers the outcome and the utility of various options. The simple rule is - the greatest good for the greatest number with the least amount of harm to the fewest number.
3. What is fitting?
- this addresses the cultural question. So - what fits culturally? For instance, in most western countries it is seen as a sign of honesty to look someone in the eye but in many Asian countries it can be seen as a sign of disrespect.

You can read more about these key questions and my model for ethical decision making in my book 'Sensitive Chaos - A Guide to Ethics and the Creation of Trust' available at the Webshop

The thing with these three questions is that they don't often agree - and if they do then it's not really a tricky ethical dilemma anyway.

Try something like - was it right for the USA to hunt down and kill Osama Bin Laden?

Is it right to kill someone? NO
Was it a good outcome? If you argue that he was going to plan more terrorist attacks and kill more innocent people then you could say YES
Was it fitting? In other words - live by the sword die by the sword? YES

On balance then you can argue logically and rationally that although it's morally wrong to kill someone in this instance the outcome or end justifies the means.

So, back to Whales, Ideals and History...

If you think about the World and how we answer that question of 'How ought we to live?' what becomes apparent is that over time our answer shifts. For instance we used to - have African slaves in the US, deny Aborigines the vote in Australia, pay men more than women for the same work and so on.

So, what changes?

Ideals don't change. Outcomes are based on a rational judgement. What changes is culture and what we see as fitting.

How to visualise it?

Imagine there is a train heading along a straight rail track into the future. The people at the front of the train are the idealists. They are pushing the boundaries and are willing to stand up for what they think is right or fight against what they think is wrong.

At the back of the train - usually in the club car smoking stogies - are the people trying to work out a good outcome. Or, in western free market society, these are the people trying to work out what is best for them - self interest gone mad! Here you will find the bankers and sadly often the politicians huddled in a corner doing deals over a few drinks...

In the middle of the train - being lobbied by the idealists and the outcome orientated people are the people trying to answer the culturally fitting question.

The idealist - as you imagine - argue based on ideals - that Whales for instance have the same right to life as human beings.

The utilitarians argue on the basis of outcome and unfortunately in our world the key measurement for utility is MONEY. 'Don't upset the Japanese they are a key trading partner and it will cost us MONEY!'

Ideals should NEVER be at the mercy of history. If our best argument for not standing up for an ideal is 'Because it's always been done that way' - then we have lost our connection to the highest aspects of what it means to be a human being.

Stand up for what you believe in. Fight for your ideals because by doing so we slowly forge a greater future together.

In peace and love always.

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