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Monday, January 26, 2015

Is ethics a useless pastime

I got hooked into a LinkedIn discussion group on "Applied Ethics." A lot of the postings I find a bit silly or not interesting. One I responded to discussed survival as the foundation of ethics. Yes, I agreed, according to updated Darwinian theory, our genes use our species like all others to survive  (See Richard Dawkins The Selfish Gene.) So survival is indeed a fundamental drive written into our DNA.

But in humanity's case, to give us an edge on survival, we developed the special capacity we have been discussing over these past few blogs: the capacity for symbolic behavior or thinking. And with that came two (at least) more fundamental drives: for respect in community and for meaning. The three drives experienced as desires to live, to love, and to know correlate to three realms of human existence: economy, politics, and culture.

Furthermore, culture and the desire to know can be categorized in four or more desires for meaning: conventional wisdom and morality (common sense), beauty (art and aesthetics), transcendence (myth and religion), explanation (science). I would add the explanation for getting these meanings all together the job of philosophy of which the study of ethics is a part.

I wasn't going to respond to another question from the LinkedIn discussion group: Ethics is the pastime of the middle class. At first I thought the initiator of the discussion was saying that ethics was  the useless play of the bourgeoisie; but as the discussion progressed, it sort of settled on whether the wealthy concern themselves about ethics the way the middle class does.

The answer depends on what is meant by "ethics." It could mean conventional wisdom and morality which is how a lot of responders use the word. Or it could mean critical thinking about our conventional wisdom and morality which gets it in the realm of philosophy.

I prefer to use the word to mean critical thinking before, during, and after we act. That means that when businessmen, doctors, social activists, politicians, teachers, church ministers, artists, administrators, and other actors think before, during, and after their actions deciding how they fit with who they want to be and what kind of a world they want to create, they are being ethical. They may or may not describe their assessment of benefits and consequences in the discursive language of philosophy. But thinking about what they are doing, often conflicting with conventional morality, is practicing ethics. Certainly NOT a useless pastime.

I also argue that all we actors do have access to a "higher power" for weighing the good or bad of what we are doing. But that higher power is not outside in some belief system or divine revelation since those need to be critically assessed as well. The higher power is the awareness of our own existence as reaching for truth, beauty, and the good through our actions. That's how I define conscience (the word in many languages means self-awareness of the knowing as well as doing subject).

Religious people may call this awareness of our creativity, intentionality, and transcendence the "divine spark" or the "likeness of God in which we were created."And that is fine with me. But I see it philosophically in our evolved ability to behave symbolically, i.e. to think, which loops back upon itself in consciousness/conscience.

Symbolic behavior defines human existence as communal, spatial, temporal, and transcending. We think therefore we are--human. On that principle I build my ethics.