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Ethics: time to revisit the basics.

Ethics could be said to be very much like the weather in the sense that everybody talks about it but nobody does much about it.

Nearly all of us acknowledge the importance of ethics. Most of us hope for and expect ethical behavior and treatment from particular segments of society. Some of us pay close attention to the subject and seek to engage others in discussing (and practicing) it. But regrettably few of us really understand ethics as well as we think we do or as well as we should.

When people discuss ethics, there is a widespread tendency to gloss over the fundamental nature of the subject--as if it is so widely and well understood as to obviate the need for frustrating, time-consuming exegesis. The thinking is that it is better to immerse ourselves in real-world applications. After all, hasn't all that can be said on the subject already been said?

Yet, as with so many ostensibly well-understood concepts that provide continuing sources of disagreement, too much is left to assumption. Otherwise why do so many of us hedge our bets in daily discourse by consistently invoking the semantic couplet of "ethics and morality," much as we do in referring to "training and education" or "order and stability"? We aren't sure if there is a meaningful distinction between the two terms, but we don't want to sound stupid if there is, so we rarely mention the one without the other.

Why, similarly, do we so frequently conflate ethics and the law or morality and religion? Is complying with the law necessarily ethical and breaking the law unethical? Can a person be morally upright only by conforming to the dictates of religion? Conversely, does religiosity equate with ethical conduct?

And why, if we understand ethics so well, can't we reach readier agreement on what issues are ethical ones and thereby deserve to be treated as such? Pick an issue; the possibilities are endless: abortion; globalization; capital punishment; defense spending; gun control; genetic engineering; church-state relations; drugs; foreign aid; poverty, economic inequality, and welfare; intelligence gathering; affirmative action; covert operations; corporate performance and responsibility; democracy; military intervention; environmental degradation; government secrecy; privacy and transparency; health care; campaign financing; law enforcement and criminal justice; literacy and education; trade; immigration; propaganda; unemployment; homeland security.

Such matters, even if they are predominantly political, economic, social, or military in nature, nonetheless have demonstrable ethical dimensions or ramifications. If we fail to recognize this fact, if we fail more fundamentally to understand ethics itself, we do the issues and those affected by them a serious disservice.

Ethics can't be dealt with as Justice Potter Stewart famously dealt with the inherent complexity of pornography. We can't, in other words, avoid defining pornography and say we know it when we see it because it isn't clear that we do. Ethics can be meaningfully discussed and applied only when it is fully understood. Such understanding requires that we periodically revisit the basics.

What Ethics is About

So for starters, what is ethics actually all about? Ethics is about right and wrong:

"No man is prejudiced in favor of a thing knowing it to be wrong. He is attached to it on the belief of its being right."--Thomas Paine, The Rights of Man.

"We do not call anything wrong, unless we mean to imply that a person ought to be punished in some way or other for doing it; if not by law, by the opinion of his fellow creatures; if not by opinion, by the reproaches of his own conscience. This seems the real turning point of the distinction between morality and simple expediency."--John Stuart Mill, Utilitarianism.

Ethics is about good and bad, or good and evil.

"Things then are good or evil, only in reference to pleasure and pain. That we call good, which is apt to cause or increase pleasure, or diminish pain in us; or else to procure or preserve us the possession of any other good or absence of any evil. And, on the contrary, we name that evil which is apt to produce or increase any pain, or diminish any pleasure in us: or else to procure us any evil, or deprive us of any good."--John Locke, Concerning Human Understanding.

"Moral philosophy is nothing else but the science of what is good and evil in the conversation and society of mankind. Good and evil are names that signify our appetites and aversions, which in different tempers, customs, and doctrines of men are different and diverse men differ not only in their judgment on the senses of what is pleasant and unpleasant to the taste, smell, hearing, touch, and sight; but also of what is conformable or disagreeable to reason in the actions of common life.... So long as a man is in the condition of mere nature, which is a condition of war, private appetite is the measure of good and evil: and consequently all men agree on this, that peace is good, and therefore also the way or means of peace, which ... are justice, gratitude, modesty, equity, mercy, and the rest of the laws of nature, are good; that is to say, moral virtues; and their contrary vices, evil."--Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan.

Ethics is about virtue and vice.

"It seems to me that virtue is something other and nobler than the inclinations toward goodness that are born in us. Souls naturally regulated and well-born follow the same path, and show the same countenance in their actions, as virtuous ones. But virtue means something greater and more active than letting oneself, by a happy disposition, be led gently and peacefully in the footsteps of reason. He who through a natural mildness and easygoingness should despise injuries received would do a very fine and praiseworthy thing; but he who, outraged and stung to the quick by an injury, should arm himself with the arms of reason against this furious appetite for vengeance, and after a great conflict should finally master it, would without doubt do much more. The former would do well, and the other virtuously; one action might be called goodness, the other virtue. For it seems that the name of virtue presupposes difficulty and contrast, and that it cannot be exercised without opposition."--Michel de Montaigne, Essays.

"Vice, the opposite of virtue, shows us more clearly what virtue is. Justice becomes more obvious when we have injustice to compare it to. Many such things are proved by their contraries."--Quintilian, Institutio Oratoria.

Ethics is about benefit and harm.

"A man can confer the greatest of benefits by a right use of [such things as strength, health, wealth, generalship] and inflict the greatest of injuries by using them wrongly."--Aristotle, Rhetoric.

"The two essential ingredients in the sentiment of justice are the desire to punish a person who has done harm, and the knowledge or belief that there is some definite individual or individuals to whom harm has been done."--John Stuart Mill, Utilitarianism.

Ethics is about propriety and impropriety.

"Socrates. And will not the temperate man do what is proper, both in relation to the gods and to men--for he would not be temperate if he did not? Certainly he will do what is proper. In his relation to other men he will do what is just; and in his relation to the gods he will do what is holy."--Plato, Gorgias.

"Without an acquaintance with the rules of propriety, it is impossible for the character to be established."--Confucius, The Analects.

But ethics isn't simply about all these things--right and wrong, good and bad, virtue and vice, benefit and harm, propriety and impropriety. So too is it about principle--fixed, universal rules of right conduct that are contingent on neither time nor culture nor circumstance:

"If habit is not a result of resolute and firm principles ever more and more purified, then, like any other mechanism of technically practical reason, it is neither armed for all eventualities nor adequately secured against changes that may be brought about by new allurements."--Immanuel Kant, Introduction to the Metaphysical Elements of Ethics.

So too is it about character--the traits, qualities, and established reputation that define who one is and what one stands for in the eyes of others.

"Nothing can possibly be conceived in the world, or even out of it, which can be called good, without qualification, except a good will. Intelligence, wit, judgment, and the other talents of the mind, however they may be named, or courage, resolution, perseverance, as qualities of temperament, are undoubtedly good and desirable in many respects; but these gifts of nature may also become extremely bad and mischievous if the will which is to make use of them, and which, therefore, constitutes what is called character, is not good."--Immanuel Kant, Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysics of Morals.

So too is it about example--an established pattern of conduct worthy of emulation.

"When thou wishest to delight thyself, think of the virtues of those who live with thee; for instance, the activity of one, and the modesty of another, and the liberality of a third, and some other good quality of a fourth. For nothing delights so much as the examples of the virtues, when they are exhibited in the morals of those who live with us and present themselves in abundance, as far as is possible. Wherefore we must keep them before us."--Marcus Aurelius, Meditations.

And so too is it about conscience--"the voice of the soul," "the pulse of reason," "that inner tribunal," "the muzzle of the will," "the compass of the unknown," "a thousand witnesses".

"The moral sense follows, firstly, from the enduring and ever-present nature of the social instincts; secondly, from man's appreciation of the approbation and disapprobation of his fellows; and thirdly, from the high activity of his mental faculties, with past impressions extremely vivid; and in these latter respects he differs from the lower animals. Owing to this condition of mind, man cannot avoid looking both backwards and forwards, and comparing past impressions. Hence after some temporary desire or passion has mastered his social instincts, he reflects and compares the now weakened impression of such past impulses with the ever-present social instincts; and he then feels that sense of dissatisfaction which all unsatisfied instincts leave behind them, he therefore resolves to act differently for the future--and this is conscience."--Charles Darwin, Descent of Man.

What Ethics Involves

There is more to ethics, of course, than just knowing what it is about. As important to understanding its nature is what it involves. Is there something about the process of ethical reflection and choice that distinguishes it from other modes of thought? Some years ago Clarence Walton, former president of Catholic University, suggested the following: "Ethics involves critical analysis of human acts to determine their rightness or wrongness in terms of two major criteria: truth and justice."

Walton would have us understand, first, that ethics has virtually everything to do with the quality--even more than the content--of our thinking. How we think may not guarantee a right or best answer but it dramatically improves the prospects of finding one in sound, defensible fashion. As Pascal observed: "All our dignity consists ... in thought.... Let us strive then to think well; that is the foundation of all morality."

To think well is to think critically. Critical thinking--the conscious use of reason--stands clearly apart from other ways of grasping truth or confronting choice: impulse, habit, faith, and intuition.

Impulse is nothing more than unreflective spontaneity--the sudden whim of a mind on cruise control or autopilot. Given the magnifying and accelerating effects of the media, impulsiveness is much more likely than deliberation in characterizing the response of today's policy practitioners to the manifold crises that define contemporary political affairs.

Habit is programmed repetition, the routinization of thought by which we remove presumably mundane matters to our subconscious so they can be dealt with more efficiently or conveniently without the attendant need to constantly revisit first principles. For example this is what we do when we standardize, generalize, or stereotype.

Faith, in the words of Walter Kaufman, "means intense, usually confident, belief that is not based on evidence sufficient to command assent from every reasonable person." Intensity of feeling and insufficiency of evidence are the operative features here. The dictionary might tell us that faith is belief--in an idea, a person, an institution--without need of certain proof. For the true believer, though, it isn't just the certainty of proof that is unnecessary; evidence itself is superfluous, especially evidence that contradicts an established belief system, worldview, or doctrine. This is what cognitive dissonance is all about--the prevalent human tendency to ignore or reject events or data that run counter to one's preconceptions or predispositions. Though faith and trust may go hand in hand, blind faith typifies a deadening of the intellect that may just as readily produce intolerance, disrespect, and distrust. The nineteenth-century Swiss philosopher Henri Frederic Amiel noted: "Action and faith enslave thought, both of them in order not to be troubled or inconvenienced by reflection, criticism and doubt."

Intuition is what we colloquially refer to as gut feeling or sixth sense--a way of speculative "knowing" based more on experience (lived or vicarious) than on reason, more on our overall sensory apparatus than on the workings of the mind. It is in this sense that a superficial impression of what appears to be--traits, behaviors, tendencies--so often gives birth to deep-seated pseudo-knowledge of what is. Intuition is neither entirely conscious nor entirely rational. In the words of George Santayana: "Intuition represents the free life of the mind, the poetry native to it ...; but this is the subjective or ideal element in thought which we must discount if we are anxious to possess true knowledge."

What distinguishes these various forms of "unreason" from critical thinking is the systematic, investigative nature of the latter. "If you wish to strive for peace of soul and pleasure," said Heinrich Heine, "then believe; if you wish to be a devotee of truth, then enquire." Thinking critically is a disciplined pattern of thought or mode of inquiry that requires three things: first, questioning--assertions, opinions, and givens--rather than accepting them at face value; second, seeking and weighing evidence on all sides of an issue, not just evidence that affirms one's beliefs; and third, employing rigorous logic to reach defensible conclusions.

The object of critical thinking is to achieve a measure of objectivity to counteract or diminish the subjective bias that experience and socialization bestow on us all. Why should this be necessary? Because when we are dealing with matters of ethical concern, the well-being of someone or something beyond ourselves is always at stake. In the extreme, the lives of others may literally depend on the choices we make or don't make--whether we are jurors in a court of law judging the guilt or innocence of an accused, or policymakers committing the blood and treasure of society to a foreign venture. The quality of our thinking, then, is a measure of the investment we are willing to make in an issue or situation. As Spinoza said, "If we live according to the guidance of reason, we shall desire for others the good which we seek for ourselves."

What is it, then, that we should think critically about? Human acts, suggests Walton--human rather than nonhuman--rather than thoughts. We focus on things human for two reasons. First, humans presumably possess abilities--predominantly intellectual--that other living species do not: the ability to make moral judgments, to deal with abstract concepts, to extrapolate from one set of circumstances to another, to exercise free will that surpasses conditioned response. "It is characteristic of man," said Aristotle, "that he alone has any sense of good and evil, of just and unjust, and the like."

Accordingly, a second reason we focus on humans is that we expect more of them than we do of other species. We don't expect the dog or cat, or even the dolphin or chimpanzee, to contemplate the propriety of its actions, to refrain from harming others, or to display empathy. We do expect such things from humans. But we also have grown to expect humanity's imperfections to outweigh its potential with disturbing frequency. Thus Mark Twain was moved to observe, with cynical accuracy: "The fact that man knows right from wrong proves his intellectual superiority to other creatures; but the fact that he can do wrong proves his moral inferiority to any creature that cannot."

We focus on human acts because acts have demonstrable effects on others. "The great end of life," said T H. Huxley, "is not knowledge but action." To know is merely to possess the truth. To act is to do, to make something happen, to get something done. Thoughts, in and of themselves, have tangible effects only if they are translated into acts. This assumes that thoughts and actions are separable, that one can act without thinking or think without acting, that it is possible to harbor hatred or prejudice, understanding or good will, in one's heart (or mind or soul) without actually putting such feelings into effect. It isn't always clear, of course, what constitutes action, and therein lies much moral ambiguity. Is speech an act? If I say I am homosexual, call someone a disparaging name, or advocate the overthrow of government, am I acting? Should I be held responsible for such thoughts? By the same token, is inaction action? If I do nothing--like possessing (but not using) nuclear weapons, ignoring genocide, or declining to pay United Nations dues--am I actually doing something?

Why do we critically analyze human acts? To determine their rightness or wrongness. There are any number of bases for making such determinations.

We might rely on some principle, precept, or rule: a law, executive order, or regulation, for example, that mandates or prohibits something (such as full financial disclosure or political assassination or the mishandling of classified information); or more abstract guidelines for behavior, such as the Golden Rule, the Ten Commandants, or an honor code that proscribes lying, cheating, and stealing.

We might be guided by the anticipated consequences or effects of our actions. Who benefits, and who is harmed? Who benefits most or what is the greatest benefit? Who is harmed least or what is the least harm? What consequences matter--physical ones only or also psychological and emotional ones? Temporally and spatially proximate ones only or also more distant ones?

We might concern ourselves with the intentions or motives behind one's acts. Does it matter why we do (or fail to do) something--or are results all that count? Do intentions outweigh effects or not? If I unintentionally inflict harm (or do good), should I be held culpable (or receive credit)?

We might focus on the rights of those involved in, affected by, or having a stake in our choices. Who deserves or doesn't deserve what--conditionally or unconditionally? Are there fundamental, natural rights that all persons deserve to enjoy merely by virtue of being human? Do rights reflect underlying needs that all humans recognizably have? Whose rights and which rights take precedence over others?

Conversely, we might emphasize obligations, the flip side of rights. Do those with a stake in our choices bear certain obligations toward others? Do the powerful or those in authority have special obligations, for example? Does the possession of rights impose attendant obligations?

Or we might be guided by values--traits, behaviors, or qualities to which we ascribe some worth or importance. The question in every case, of course, is which values--which normative values (or virtues)--should we seek, and which should we consider more important than others. Zeno, the Greek Stoic philosopher, spoke of wisdom, courage, justice, and temperance aa primary virtues. Aristotle spoke more expansively of justice, courage, temperance, magnificence, magnanimity, liberality, gentleness, prudence, and wisdom, in that order. But there are yet other salutary values that seem no less worthy of attention: compassion, competence, decisiveness, empathy, honesty, integrity, loyalty, reliability, tolerance, and vision--to name but a few. The most nettlesome and difficult moral dilemmas we face often revolve around value conflicts in which two or more positive values are at stake in a given situation: duty verses friendship, for example, or honesty verses compassion, or loyalty to subordinates verses loyalty to superiors.

When we seek to determine the rightness or wrongness of something, we should do so with two major criteria in mind: truth and justice. Ralph Waldo Emerson made the monumentally insightful observation that "truth is the summit of being; justice is the application of it [truth] to affairs." The two go hand in hand. Ethics--ethical reasoning, ethical choice, ethical conduct--requires that we seek the truth, the pinnacle of life, in order to have a proper basis--the only legitimate basis--for achieving justice. Justice served is ethics realized.

Truth is what is--conditions, occurrences, statements whose existence and nature are there to be confirmed or verified by observation or reason. To possess truth is to have knowledge, the expected outcome of critical reasoning. If we possessed the truth, we would know what is ethical. But therein lies the rub. Truth is inherently elusive, and our ability to grasp it is tenuous at best, even illusory. Take any truth claim that passes for a statement of fact by those who believe it. To cite just one example: in the matter of whether women should be permitted to serve in combat, these are among the commonly asserted "truths" that drive discussion of the issue and ultimately determine whether justice is served or denied:

* Women are incapable of performing in combat.

* Women are less aggressive and less courageous than men. Combat requires aggressiveness and courage.

* Women destroy unit cohesion.

* The presence of women creates sexual tensions that otherwise wouldn't exist.

* Women require more protection than men. Women bring out natural protective tendencies in men.

* A woman's place is in the home.

* A minimally qualified man is preferable to a better qualified woman.

* A woman has less of an obligation to serve than a man does.

* The American people deserve the best defense the military can provide them.

Such claims pass for self-evident truth among those who are already thus predisposed. But such so-called truths are rarely anything more conclusive and unequivocal than arguable propositions that cry out for supporting evidence.

There is an old saying: "A man with a watch knows what time it is; a man with two watches isn't so sure." This aphorism suggests a number of things about certainty and doubt, fact and opinion, objectivity and subjectivity, perception, bias, conviction, and socialization. Truth, like beauty, may lie as much in the eye of the beholder as in the thing observed; there may be multiple claimants, all more or less equal in standing, to the same truth; two or more parties can observe the same thing but see something completely different, or even that the same party can observe the same thing over time but see something different each time. Believing something intensely, even if that belief is shared by others, doesn't necessarily make it true in some objective sense.

Truth--perhaps precisely because it is so difficult to grasp or discern--is the essential precondition for justice. If justice is to be served, other than by accident, it must be predicated on the truth. Of course in any given situation there may be multiple truths that we would like to have--or that we knowingly or unknowingly need.

Let us say the question at hand is how to respond--justly and justifiably--to the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States. We would like to have the truth of what actually happened (however seemingly self-evident). We would want to know the truth of who did it, how it happened, why it happened, what its effects have been, and what the effects of particular responses will be (for example, will punishment deter future such incidents and enhance U.S. credibility?).

Or take global warming. If we are to respond to it appropriately (in a timely, conclusive, affordable manner that doesn't create or exacerbate harm for those affected), we clearly want to know the truth of whether it actually exists; whether it is temporary or permanent, natural or human-made, recurrent or not, widespread or confined; and what its causes, effects, and implications are.

Justice is about receiving one's due or getting what one deserves--whether we are talking about one's standing or status, one's access to valuable resources, or one's treatment at the hands of others. This could mean obtaining a proper (fair) share of humanity's or society's goods (wealth, perquisites, esteem, and basic necessities), or receiving appropriate rewards or punishments for what one has or hasn't done (from bonuses or promotions to criminal conviction or military retaliation). Why would (or should) we care, for example, if 5 percent of the population controls 95 percent of society's wealth; if particular people are advantaged or disadvantaged because of their birth or personal-attributes rather than because of their accomplishments; if a third-time minor drug offender is sentenced to a long prison term or a confessed murderer is set free on a legal technicality; if civilian noncombatants are subjected to the violence and destruction of war? Because in every case these are matters of justice and injustice.

Trust: The Bottom Line

Together, truth and justice constitute the basis for trust. Therein lies their ultimate importance in distinguishing what is ethical from what is not. As Sissela Bok observed in her thoughtful and perceptive 1978 book Lying: "Trust is a social good to be protected just as much as the air we breathe or the water we drink. When it is damaged, the community as a whole suffers; and when it is destroyed, societies falter and collapse.... Trust and integrity are precious resources, easily squandered, hard to regain."

Trust is social glue. It is what unites rather than divides, what turns a gaggle of individuals into a community with a sense of oneness. If I am sure I can count on you to tell me the truth, to seek the truth where I am concerned, to treat me fairly, to care whether I get what I deserve and deserve what I get, then our relationship is more likely than not to be defined by trust. Where such trust exists--thinking, not blind, trust; lasting, not momentary, trust--the prevalence of ethical conflict and the burden of ethical choice are materially diminished. Restoring trust thus is the great task of ethics, and understanding ethics accordingly is the great task before humanity today.

Gregory D. Foster is a professor at the Industrial College of the Armed Forces, National Defense University in Washington, D.C., where he previously has served as George C. Marshall professor and J. Carlton Ward distinguished professor and director of research.
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Author:Foster, Gregory D.
Publication:The Humanist
Date:Mar 1, 2003
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