How to Live Ethically in an Amoral World

Posted by A.C. Ping
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Since the crash of the stockmarket in 1987 brought an abrupt end to the carefree attitudes of the nineteen eighties, there has been an increased focus in the world on ethics and how one ought to live. Many books have been written about the subject, politicians and other public figures have been more outspoken, businesses have been making efforts to clean up their act and discussion in the media has been more prevalent. But from an individual perspective, how do you live ethically in this world of ours? Is it something that one can actually do, or is it merely an esoteric domain ?

The first thing that needs to be defined is ethics itself. Despite all of the media hype mentioned above and the liberal use of the phrases ‘that’s totally unethical’ and ‘you’re morally bankrupt’ around the dinner table, there has been little discussion on what ethics really is. To the average man in the street, it’s all a bunch of hoo-ha designed to confuse the issue. Surely most people know what’s right and wrong, they just need to stop talking about it and do it, don’t they ?

The word ‘ethics’ actually comes from the Greeks who considered ethics to be a practical science in which the basic rules were founded on a recognition of what was generally accepted in society as ‘good’. It was the climate of opinion in a society which determined the standards by which right or wrong was to be judged.

Unfortunately, this is exactly what makes ethics such a grey area today because the ‘climate of opinion’ in society is constantly changing. Way back in ancient Greece, Socrates gained some idea of the ‘climate of opinion’ simply by hanging out in the town square and endlessly questioning people but it’s not so easy to do these days. The advent of the ‘global village’ and mass immigration has meant that Australian society, in particular, encompasses a plethora of opinions. The closest we might get to Socrates now is the taxi driver who’s never short of an opinion. But besides this source, it’s no longer easy to know what is right and wrong. For example, in many remote areas of Australia it’s okay to have a gun and it’s good to shoot feral cats, but someone doing that in South Yarra would not be very popular.

The changing and diverse nature of societal opinions means that we need to look more deeply at ethics and what makes it tick. Like I said earlier, most people seem to know what’s right and wrong instinctively, even little children know when they’ve done something wrong, but how do they know ?

Let’s consider a typical childhood ethical dilemma. A group of young children are in a rather boring maths class when one student decides to throw a paper jet at the teacher. The jet hits the teacher on the back of the head and he reels around quickly, but not fast enough to catch the culprit. "Who threw that ?" he demands. The students look around the room at each other, avoiding the teachers glare at all costs. The teacher gets angrier, "If you don’t tell me who did it, you’ll all be getting a detention. Is that what you want ?", he fumes.

The students sit there poker faced, they know that honesty is a good policy but they also know that loyalty to their mates is more important - besides who wants to be known as a rat ?

Experiences like this teach us what is acceptable behaviour and what is not. We grow up having to make these types of decisions all the time and we soon learn which values are most important and when compromises have to be made. In this way values form the foundation of our character and give us the ability to resolve ethical dilemmas. Our values are the things that are most important to us and give meaning to our lives. They are not material things that we can touch, they are things that we think about and feel, they are things like love, loyalty, honesty, freedom, responsibility, fairness, tolerance and respect for life. To act ethically then, we need to know what our values are, know when our values are in conflict and, most importantly, have the courage to act.

This brings us back to the original question of how can we live ethically in an amoral world. Many people complain that we have lost our sense of community spirit, that the days of being good friends with the local shop keeper have been usurped by the rise of the multinational corporation with its 24 hour supermarket. That the boss is no longer the boss, but simply a manager of other peoples money. That the bank no longer encourages us to save coins but charges us to count them instead. As our society has grown, so has the complexity of the systems needed to ensure its continued operation. Paramount amongst these has been the rise of the global financial system and the creation of electronic money.

What we need to realise is that these systems are amoral, that if we do nothing to exercise our values, the systems will not do it for us. There is no element of ‘justice’, for example, in the financial system. That is, if I sell you something for more than what it is worth, there is nothing in the financial system which will stop me from cashing the cheque and spending the money. The system relies on individuals to impose some sort of moral judgement in their dealings with it. In fact if we make no attempt to be ethical our moral standards will come down to ‘what you can get away with’ within the bounds of the law.

Living ethically in this amoral world requires therefore that we make some effort to exercise moral choice in our dealings with others. This becomes especially hard when these dealings have something to do with the financial system and, more specifically, with money. It’s easy to be truthful about the pro’s and con’s of a house when there is no money at stake but when you stand to make thousands from a sale the decision becomes more difficult. It takes someone with a lot of moral fibre to stand up for the principle of ‘honesty’ when their own house payments are behind and one small lie or omission would reap them vast rewards.

Since the Industrial Revolution we have slowly sold out our traditional value systems and allowed money to become the dominant measure of value. It is this challenge of overcoming the dominant paradigm of money that is now the greatest obstacle to living an ethical life in this amoral world. There is an old saying that ‘everybody has their price’ but where does it end ? When do we decide that the longer term goal of having a healthy society is better than the short term goal of balancing the books ? When do we decide that it is worth paying more money for recyclable goods now so that our children will enjoy a healthier planet ? The questions are endless and the answer is always the same, it comes down to the fact that in between thought and action lies opportunity. To seize the opportunity all one needs is courage.

Courage to sacrifice short term gains for long term goals. Courage to sacrifice private benefit for community benefit. Courage to stand up for our values. Courage to stand up to the lure of the almighty dollar.

To many people this seems impossible, that the problem is too big and that they are just small fish unable to do anything in a big ocean. But history shows that individuals can effect great change in the world, that avalanches of change start from just small voices. Nelson Mandela pointed to this in his inaugural speech when he said:-

"Our deepest fear, is not that we are inadequate.
Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.
It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us.
We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented and fabulous?
Actually who are you not to be ? ……

And as we let our own light shine,
we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.
As we are liberated from our own fear,
our presence automatically liberates others."

So, be free from fear, be true to yourself, have the courage to act and your actions will liberate others and be echoed back to you.



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