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Reflections of an ethics teacher.

My day-to-day work over the years as an ethics teacher inevitably took on the problem of not seeing the forest for the trees. This could also have been a problem for my students. Reflection has the merit of looking over what one may have overlooked. I now realize, more clearly than when I was labouring from the lectern, how difficult it was for me to convince my students of the value of the Golden Rule, that we should treat others they way we would expect them to treat us.

When I casually observed my students chatting in the cafeteria, in the hallways, or before class, I found them persistently complaining about being mistreated by others. Such complaining, of course, is perfectly understandable. One has legitimate expectations about how one should be treated. We all have a built-in sense of justice and fair play. When these expectations are not met, we complain.

But when the bell rang for ethics class and my budding scholars took their seats, their perspective swerved 180 degrees. Consistently, the more vocal in my class would insist that an individual has a right to abortion, contraception, pre-marital intercourse, and so on. The balance disappeared; the self was no longer counterpoised by the other.

The ancient Greeks talked about the wisdom of "Know thy self." The Catholic tradition adds to this wisdom by urging believers to "No thy self." It we truly know ourselves, including our weaknesses and deficiencies, we realize that we have certain impulses and desires to which we should say "No." The fundamental ethical error is to make a moral exception for ourselves. If we demand kindness and consideration from others, we should make sure that we are ambassadors of these virtues ourselves. Yet, now that I think of it, it was all too common for students to complain about being mistreated when they were outside of class, but maintain a pro-choice attitude for themselves when they were in the classroom. The split between their personal life and their ethical philosophy was both startling and disturbing.

The Golden Rule is also a principle of equality. We ate all equally ethical beings; ethics applies equally to all of us. I cannot exempt myself from my personal obligations to others. I cannot be pro-choice for myself and ethically demanding of others. The Golden Rule, though it has roots in the New Testament, has a universal validity that has been expressed in a variety of ways. Isocrates stated, "Do not do to others what would anger you if done to you by others." In the Talmud we read, "What is hateful to you, do not to your fellow-men. That is the entire Law; all the rest is commentary." "Be just and gracious unto me," wrote Shakespeare in Titus Andronicus, "as I am confident and kind with thee."

On reflection, It seems that the fundamental task of the ethics teacher is to convince his charges that we ate all in the same boat and owe each other a terrible loyalty. A well formed conscience obliges us to choose what is right and not choose what is wrong. We must say, "Yes" to some things and "No" to other things.

Lent offers an excellent opportunity for Catholics to say "No" to certain things. It helps us to understand that choice, like a battery, has a positive and negative polarity. Oscar Wilde once quipped that he could resist anything but temptation. The great value of ethics is that it provides us with a way of avoiding the humiliation of being a slave to temptation. The poet John Dryden spoke wisely and well when he advised, "Better shun the bait than struggle in the snare."

If reflection provides insights that may arrive too late for one teacher to implement, they might be of help for others who continue to carry the torch of learning. Pro-life people have a pretty sound argument when they suggest that just as their adversaries should be grateful for not being aborted, they should not condone the abortion of anyone else.

Accepting the Golden Rule is the wise choice that liberates us from the pernicious illusion that we can exempt ourselves from ethics. It is fundamental and virtually self-evident, but it will be the final building block in the establishment of civility and peace.

Donald DeMarco, PhD is a Senior Fellow of HLI America, Professor Emeritus at St. Jerome's University in Waterloo, ON, and an adjunct professor at Holy Apostles College and Seminary in Cromwell, CT. Some of his recent writings may be found at HLI America's Truth and Charity Forum.
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Author:De Marco, Donald
Publication:Catholic Insight
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Mar 1, 2013
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