Sunday, June 23, 2013

Ethics - Is it really that complex?

I did, way back in the day, graduate from college.  I got a bachelor's degree in Public Administration from the University of Texas at Dallas.

What that degree course of study did NOT include was one on ethics.  It is a lack I have always felt was a mistake.  It also did not include anything on philosophy.

So, please understand that I am approaching this entirely on my own, from my own lifetime's experience.

Ethics, to me is the study of how people should act in their relationships with other people.  Being ethical is following the rules our society generally sees as the "right" thing to do.  Now, there is of course, a lot of discussion, argument and downright shouting at times over what is "ethical", and there are a lot of wannabe lawyers who will be happy to tell you the difference between ethics and what is legal.

Webster says ethics is:
the discipline dealing with what is good and bad and with moral duty and obligation
 Webster says morality is:
a : a moral discourse, statement, or lesson
b : a literary or other imaginative work teaching a moral lesson
a : a doctrine or system of moral conduct
b plural : particular moral principles or rules of conduct
3  : conformity to ideals of right human conduct
So, it seems that ethics and morality are inextricably mixed up with one another, and pretty much seem to be talking abut the same thing.

Human conduct, especially regarding how that conduct affects others, is at the heart of ethics and morality.

Now, our Christian neighbors will tell you that their morality is informed by the Bible.  I think we've talked about that before, and I have written before (but not on this blog) on how the Ten Commandments are a poor fit for what Americans see as moral and right - at least what I grew up with in the great State of Texas.

I did write a post about how biblical morals aren't American morals, and it is clear that they aren't.  You've just got to discard too many biblical verses in order for that to be true - I mean we actually fought a war over slavery, and most of us still see slavery as bad.  Americans are wedded to our mixed fabrics, eat who knows how many multiple tons of shellfish a year and make absolutely no distinction over whether our meaty animal donors have a split hoof or not.  I assume most Americans see genocide (including bashing babies) as an immoral act.  I certainly do.

So, if morals and ethics don't come from a holy book, where do they come from?


Morality and ethics is an inherently human thing.  I suppose one could argue that dolphins and elephants show moral behavior, and perhaps some species of hominids have their own version too, but the data from the examination of those species is pretty thin.

So, let's just go with the human aspect of it for now.

Humanity has been around in one form or another for several million years, although our current form, as Homo Sapiens Sapiens is probably from around 200,000 years or so ago.  For some reason, around 50,000 years ago, we began exhibiting more modern behavior, including cooking with fire and so forth, although there is now more evidence that we did use tools much earlier than that.

But for our current purposes, let's say that the human species has had at least 50,000 years of experience at building ourselves a civilization.  In geologic terms, heck, even in anthropological terms, that isn't much.  A lot of that time was spent hunting and gathering for a living, and it apparently took us quite some time before we discovered that cooperation was the key to not only surviving, but in getting ahead in the civilization game.  Slowly, over the intervening years, humans have discovered that group cooperation, including taking care of the elderly, the infirm and the unfortunate works even better as the groups get bigger.

Of course, a lot of other behaviors, including sexual, marital, professional, business and political, have become better and better defined, and we have found a lot of behavior that is best left out of our list of what is acceptable.

But religion has crept in and muddied the waters.  Too many people like to claim that our morals and ethics are defined by a revealed set of morals - morals revealed to us by some invisible deity.  Of course once we actually take a close look at those "morals", we find that most of them have to do with either allowable behaviors regarding the "in crowd" - the tribal group - or with proper religious behaviors, i.e., going to church on Sunday, not worshiping competing gods, etc.  Very few of the "revealed" proper behaviors are anything actually new, and most of the non-religious ones are values already known and enforced by previous societies.

The overriding value one sees as being seen as bad is the idea that one can hurt a member of the in group.  Overall, humans see the idea of not hurting one's friends and neighbors as being a behavior that is to be encouraged.  A lot of more complex behaviors can be extrapolated from that one idea, activities that cover the entire range of human activities.

This is the basis of my assertion that one can be good without a deity.  Good without god, if you will.  Examine the teachings of Jesus, throwing out the obviously religiously flavored ones, and the over riding principle one sees is this one - the thought that one should not hurt others, and indeed, should help them whenever and wherever you can.  It isn't unique with Christianity, however, and was part of several of the "mystery" religions in the Mediterranean area before the first century.  It is the heart of human "in" group behavior.

The thrust of our modern ideals of morality and ethics then, is convincing people to accept a wider and wider ideal of who, exactly, is or should be seen as being part of the "in" group.  It used to be family, then clan, or groups of families loosely related, then tribal and finally national.

Our modern era is now struggling with the idea that nationalism is the modern ultimate in divisiveness. At the same time, we are also struggling with the even more modern idea of dropping religion, which many see as even more divisive than nationalism.

Both nationalism and religion are about control.  Just about any governmental system is about control, and the further back one goes in history, the more controlling and divisive government is seen to be.  But today, if we can hold on to the ideals of democracy we started this country with, I think we can continue our experiment with the most free and the least controlling system man has invented.

But first, we need to drop the ideals of religion.  That is the most controlling of all, as it invades the mind and alters one's very view of reality.

It also twists one's view of morality and ethics.

Twisted ethics and morality are the bane of man's existence.  Let's get back on track.

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