ETHICAL ISSUES: WHAT ETHICS IS ALL ABOUT
Unplugged, in its musical connotation, means unamplified—unembellished (acoustic) content. In another sense it refers to removing obstruction(s): clearing the way to the goal (think plumber’s plunger). Both apply here; simplicity is the watchword. Getting at ethics via philosophy can be daunting, so we’re going to bypass all that for now. Ethics (with respect to its adjective ethical) can be reduced to a simple model that can be applied to everyday living in a very basic way. Here it is—ethics for everyone, in five paragraphs.
HOW TO BE ETHICAL
You certainly can get by without walking the ethical line. Most people do in fact wander from it whenever it suits them. But Natural Law comes with our being, and we’re able to take advantage of (or ignore) it because it’s always there in spite of us. The truth is that we correctly assume that most people will behave predictably because of it, and most of us do, most of the time. But it’s also true that some of us take advantage of those trusting souls who generally do follow it. We can use it to our advantage without subscribing to it, but is this right? It certainly isn’t ethical. To be ethical, the Golden Rule really says it all if you would reflect on all that it implies. Simply “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Or if that doesn’t resonate, try the Confucian “Do not do to another what you would not want him to do to you.” Or Kant’s more prolix Categorical Imperative: “Act only according to that maxim through which you can at the same time (resolve) that it should become a universal law.” (More simply: what if your mother read about it in the newspaper…) But maybe you expect something more than (what really are not) platitudes, so let’s try another tack: Honestly acknowledge, affirm, accept and apply what is (fact, truth), and actively encourage the same in others. This will work very well, by the way. You can stop right here and have the gist of this article. Or you may read on for more detail. It’s a fact that you can’t know something that isn’t true. Knowledge requires truth—fact—which represents what is. What isn’t counts for nothing. To be ethical you have to first acknowledge and affirm the facts, accept them, and apply this knowledge, honestly; first to yourself, then to others, and do no harm while doing so. Put in the form of simple exclusionary rules, try these: Do not violate trust (don’t lie, mislead, cheat or steal); and Do not cause harm (don’t murder, damage, impair or deprive). Stop me if I’m wrong, but we’re back to the Golden Rule and Confucius again. Why make things complicated when they’re not? In the spirit of even greater simplicity, being ethical can be described in just one word: integrity. Look it up and you will find that it means the quality of possessing and steadfastly adhering to high moral principles; the state of being sound, undamaged. Synonyms include: honesty, truth, actuality, veracity, reliability, incorruptibility, soundness. You get the idea… What comes next should fill in the gaps and demonstrate why being ethical is essential to the complete human being.
Approached head-on, ethics can be quite simple (maybe not easy, but simple). Initially we’ll use the terms ethics and morality interchangeably to keep us from becoming unnecessarily plugged by semantics. Ethics, founded in truth, promotes the good—ideal—life. It is that field of philosophy dealing with what one ought to do, which is in no way situational. What one ought to do is not to be determined by any person, no matter how learned, wise or benevolent, nor would it be affected by circumstance. Ethics does not evolve, nor does it change with the passing of time. It is a universal given. There is only one path to be followed in any case: that which is in accordance with one’s personal responsibility to humanity. One ought to do what is in accordance with natural law, that is, in the best interest of humanity. Difficulties in dealing with ethics and morality begin when we fail to see (or choose to avoid) their inherent truth. Both are about virtue, integrity, character and similar principles, words that can make us uneasy; we naturally tend to become uncertain when confronting absolutes like perfection. (In fact, this uncertainty is a reason why many of us deny the very idea of absolutes like perfection and avoid the truth of ethics.) Ethics can be thought of simply in terms of right being. Being, in this context, means existence and authenticity, both of which imply truth. Right means absolutely right—correct, valid, accurate, precise, genuine; not “right” as defined by any individual, institution or group no matter how learned or benevolent. Ethics does not require confirmation by anyone for verification. It is basic, whole and positive, easier to know than to define. Right being isn’t easy because of worldly pressures. But it’s not required to act as others would have us act; it’s a choice. The decision to act is individual. This is important, because so is the accountability. Each of us is, in the final analysis, responsible for himself and accountable to mankind. And that’s what this essay is about. The field of ethics goes back at least to the birth of Western philosophy some 2500 years ago, when Socrates posited that ethical truth was not only rational but demonstrably absolute. His student Plato expanded on this idea, and since then countless philosophers have put in their two cents worth only to demonstrate that Socrates had it essentially right at the outset. Aristotle’s subsequent metaphysics defined ethics as virtue as a means to happiness, opening the door to scholastic conflict and beginning a long history of questioning just what is meant by happiness (and virtue, for that matter). With the advent of the “Common Era,” (politically-correct terminology created to erase the reality of religion denoted by the former perfectly adequate B.C. and A.D.), philosophy became fair game for academics both religious and secular. However, Plotinus, a philosopher of the middle Third Century, would seem to have provided a bridge between the two camps. Plotinus was a neo-Platonist pagan writing at the very advent of a budding Christianity (about 250 A.D./C.E.), whose thinking harked back to Socrates,. He understood the underlying unity of the universe in terms of The One (the source of all being), an eternal permanence witnessing everything at once by what can best be described as some form of meditation. The One is innately simple, with no structure (not existing, simply being). While Plotinus was a (non-religious) pagan, he was spiritual. The religious community might identify his One with God (as classically understood), while the secular might associate it (whatever it might be) with the source of the Big Bang as currently understood. But one thing is certain: ethics does not have its roots in religion.
ETHICS and MORALITY
Definitions of ethics and morality appear to be fundamentally alike, but then why are they two different words? They must be dissimilar in some respect. They are differentiated here on the basis of ontology (basic principle) and teleology (application to real life). Ethics has its roots in Natural Law and First Principles, the foremost of which is absolute truth—perfection. While it’s difficult to approach the idea of perfection with confidence (because nobody’s perfect, after all), we can at least appreciate the concept. The frustration of coming up with a good definition using standard references increases with the number of references. “A branch of philosophy…” can bring us to full stop without even considering the ambiguity of “the study of the nature of morals and of specific moral choices…” (whatever they may be). “Rules of conduct” doesn’t work because anyone may define his own rules of conduct according to his own standards, all of which would be “ethical” by this definition. If this were true, then ethical would not be the wholly positive term that we intuitively know it to be. Intuitively know it to be? Yes indeed. Consider your conscience. A sense of knowing when something’s wrong comes as standard equipment with every rational individual. Now, ethics may indeed be an area of study and a branch of philosophy, but neither helps at all when trying to explain what any of these has to do with being ethical, universally understood as a wholly positive state of being. What we need is a universally applicable definition of ethics that supports its adjective, ethical. Ethics is not the plural of ethic (both are singular), defined as a body of moral values governing a particular group (the operative words here are group and values). Values (and any ethic that may be connected with them) are set by a group and can’t be extrapolated beyond the group. Neither the group nor its values are necessarily universal. But as an integral part of being, ethics is ontological (as basic as it gets—it ‘comes with the farm’) and universal–both vital and inviolate. Ethics is, in fact, the standard by which any ethic is measured. Ethics is not right, true or good as defined by anyone regardless of their qualifications. Ethics is universally right as opposed to wrong, universally good as opposed to bad, universally true as opposed to false, and unvarying over time. Ethics is right being. In terms of being ethical: That which is ethical is right; That which is ethical is good; That which is ethical is true. Conversely, that which is wrong can only be unethical. That which is bad can only be unethical. That which is false can only be unethical. Nothing complicated here. While right and good may seem to be open to debate, truth is not. Stripped to its bare bones, the root of ethics is Truth with a capital T. And, in its only context (humanity), ethics will be here defined as the definitive system of universal moral principle. And if ethics is difficult to define, consider its foundation—truth. How does one define an essential a priori idea so basic that all else, including the words describing it, rests on it? Simply, it can’t be done. It’s a fact that one cannot prove a principle using that which the principle creates. For example, philosophy can’t be defined using science, which has philosophy as its parent. Therein lies the difficulty in defining truth using words which we have invented even in the name of truth. Because truth comes first. It’s perfect—a timeless given—that very First Principle that’s been redefined to the point of pointlessness as we’ve savaged moral doctrine. Truth has to be perfect. Everything else springs from it. Furthermore, truth requires knowledge—one cannot know something that isn’t true—and knowledge requires intelligence. “Facts,” John Adams noted, “are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts…” Daniel Moynihan stated succinctly, “Everyone may be entitled to his own opinion, but everyone is not entitled to his own truth.” First principles are those ideas that every rational being can’t not know. They are inborn, an essential part of what makes us human. To claim that we don’t know them is moral denial. So philosophy (the pursuit of truth), being derivative from truth, cannot be used to define truth. However, we need a definition that satisfies our idea of the concept in order to proceed—after all, that’s what words are for. Allow me to posit a meaning (not original) of truth based on perfection: a verified or indisputable fact, proposition, principle; being in conformity with reality. This admittedly imperfect definition will be used here and henceforth. Ethics/truth is consistent across time—it does not evolve or change. What was ethical/true then is ethical/true now and will be ethical/true subsequently. But without some sort of application, ethics would be an empty formal abstraction to be studied, debated and disputed, even misunderstood (but not changed!). In fact, ethics has suffered study, debate and dispute and in the process, seems to have become a misunderstood empty formal abstraction. It’s time to return to the basics. In doing so we’ll distinguish between ethics and morality so that we can move beyond the individual.
While the words may look and even sound alike, there are significant differences in meaning between moral, morals and morality (and we can add mores for good measure). All are societal —morals and mores are both nouns, cultural expressions with their roots firmly planted in society. Moral, the singular noun, is an ambiguous term that can mean anything from lesson to platitude to principle. But morality and its adjective moral are concepts founded in that old absolute, truth. (If this were not so, morality would have no basis at all.) Morality, being teleological (associated with actions in relation to their ends or usefulness), can be considered simply as applied ethics; so, if the essence of ethics is truth, then morality = applied truth = honesty. So if ethics defines right being, then morality (and moral, the adjective) defines right doing. Morality is integral to mankind, not a product of it. There are no man-made standards for moral conduct. They simply are, and they are known (think once again of conscience). And so you have the premise of this essay. That’s all there is to it…for now. Ethics unplugged.
The foregoing has been excerpted from the book, “To Tell The Truth…”