The moral code and the trials that test our adherence to it. (Philosophically Speaking).
A famous and controversial illustration of this dilemma is the story of Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe and German mathematician Johannes Kepler. In 1600, Brahe invited the promising mathematician to Prague to help with the calculations he hoped Kepler could derive from his observations about planetary motion. For years Kepler patiently waited for stray bits of information that would help him in his calculations. These bits came only intermittently. Upon Brahe's death on October 24, 1601, the books of data that were his life's work became the patrimony of the Brahe family. Despondent, Kepler stole the books and fled the country. From these astronomical observations, Kepler eventually deduced his famous laws of planetary motion and changed the course of human perception regarding the heavens.
The basic tenet of the moral code broken by Kepler is obviously that theft is wrong--a wrong compounded in this case by the fact that the books represented Brahe's patrimony to his children. According to the body of naturally derived ethics, Kepler had no right to take the life work of a supposed friend and colleague. Arguably, Brahe wasn't a kind host to the mathematician, but to confiscate Brahe's work was immoral and offensive. Yet it is undeniable that the subsequent laws discovered by Kepler were arrived at legitimately. Kepler was able to take the many tomes of data and convert their contents into three laconic laws that would set the stage for Isaac Newton and his insights into the physical world. So there is no doubt that Kepler's calculations were indeed his own.
What we must ask is: was the deliberate transgression worth the results and implications yielded by the stolen data? Most probably, the answer is yes. By stealing the books, Kepler was able to bring their contents to life by explaining them through his three laws of planetary motion. It can be said in Kepler's defense that his theft wasn't selfish because the results were of benefit to all humanity and represented a genuine contribution to the evolution of knowledge. If this is the case, does this added dimension make any difference? Or is the transgression indelible? The principle at the focus of this inquiry introduces another issue: who is the authority behind ethical law?
By themselves, ethics have no meaning. They become valid only when applied to improve the conditions in which both humanity and society function by providing a paradigm for conduct. They gain credence only when addressed to the human condition. Therefore, it is humanity and not ethics that gives a moral code its authority. Humans are the goal and the reason for which ethics exist. Humans are also the vehicle by which ethics are infused into the customs of society. Thus, the exceptions that must be made in order to rescue humankind from the special circumstances with which it is faced take precedence over the laws that generally stand to benefit it. We must remember that the body of moral law, no matter how detailed, is only a blueprint for how humanity would behave and cannot take into account every circumstance with which it is applied. We must not make the mistake of losing sight of the goal --the betterment of humanity--as we uphold moral law, which crumbles when taken out of human context.
In Cheaters, a film based on the true story of an academic decathlon team that procured a copy of the official test and managed to cheat its way into the Illinois state championship, we find an excellent example of how moral transgressions must sometimes be made in order to achieve human justice. The students of Steinmetz High School came from impoverished neighborhoods and immigrant families. They were the unlikely heroes who, by cheating, effected change and launched a powerful civil disobedience protest. If humanism stands for "the maximization of individual liberty" and "advocates the extension of participatory democracy and the expansion of the open society ... and social justice," what could be a better manifestation of the humanist struggle than the story of the Steinmetz cheating scandal?
The Steinmetz students knew that cheating was wrong, yet they also understood that the cycle of inequality that, without fail, produced the same decathlon winner each and every year was fundamentally unjust and undemocratic. They cheated not to win but to break that very cycle and, in cheating, took "responsibility for [their] own destiny." Their teacher, Mr. Plecki, also took responsibility for the team's transgression and sacrificed his career for the greater success of his students. Moreover, the students learned more about what it means to be rational human beings from breaking the moral code than by blindly following it. They asserted their own dignity and their personal right to be free of the wrongs that the school system perpetrated.
Several times in human history, certain individuals have acted in self-interest and in so doing have found that their actions led them to a position from which they could lend themselves to meeting the needs of others. This is the kind of circumstance that we have been discussing: the ordinary and not so ordinary predicaments in which people find themselves and in which ethics stand in the way of humanity.
One famous example is Oskar Schindler, a German factory owner who supplied munitions to the German army during World War II. Today, many people consider him a humanitarian and a righteous gentile; but at least in the beginning of his plan to hire Jews otherwise bound for concentration camps, he had a purely monetary goal in mind. He saw Jews as cheap labor, as vehicles for increased production at minimum cost. He wasn't known to be a liberal and instead preferred to indulge in the amenities provided by his success. In this respect, his initial intentions were exploitative.
As the Jews arrived and Schindler's own conscience began to bother him, however--particularly in light of Hitler's "final solution"--he began to see his program as a potentially different vehicle: one of salvation rather than exploitation. He began to ask for more and more Jewish workers, drawing suspicion from the Nazi party. He also began to lose massive amounts of money, since little was really being produced. Instead, Schindler relied upon the immense amounts of money he had already made to sustain both him and his workers until the war ended or some other means of rescue presented itself. His zeal had become focused upon the maximization of Jews saved from the ovens rather than the maximization of profit. What began as a purely financial venture became a conscious obsession motivated by compassion--a key principle of humanism.
What had occurred was that a successful entrepreneur, pursuing the maximization of his success, became sick of the atrocities carried out by his compatriots and, using his power, actually came to do more for humanity than did many of this fellow citizens who preached justice and morality but remained shamefully uninvolved. Thus, through his transgression (the initial disrespect for human life and its exploitation), Schindler came to the aid of humanity, saving unknown hundreds of Jews and, inherently, their descendants. In this case it is undeniable that Schindler's final contribution to humanity far outweighed his initial indifference toward the plight of his fellow human beings.
From these historical examples we have seen that at times we must use our human instincts--what some would call the pangs of conscience--to make decisions that seem to go against the grain of society or that threaten to violate an ethical rule. But if we agree that at times our body of ethics must come second to the urgency of certain situations, how do we answer a second question: after the change has been made, what keeps our moral law valid?
My answer to this is that the transgression itself keeps the body of ethics applicable and valid. The very fact that something like Kepler's theft would be deemed a transgression states that moral law is still moral law and that the effects of the transgression don't have any bearing on the ethics of our society. As long as it is understood that what occurred was an exception, moral law remains credible. The law has been broken but ultimately enhanced by the touch of reality--humanity and compassion brought to it by the trials of real life. Only if society begins to view the transgression as normal and doesn't see it as an exception can doubt be cast upon the validity of our ethical system. We must remember that what we call the body of ethics is not an unchanging, abstract invention but, rather, a living reality. Moral law doesn't need humans, but humans do need moral law, for without it "all is permitted," as Fyodor Dostoevsky wrote.
There does exist, however, in the ethical spectrum a tacit law that declares that balanced human reason based on humanity and compassion takes precedence over any of the enumerated laws. Killing in self-defense is allowed if one's life is directly threatened. Surely one wouldn't let the prohibition of murder keep one from defending oneself from an assailant? A system based on the inherent needs of humanity certainly rests on a foundation of common sense and must not remain so rigid that it neglects the very beings it was created to protect.
To act and progress as a responsible society, we must adhere to the sapient moral principle humanity has come to agree upon--the principle derived from the inherent needs and aspirations of human beings. As Kahlil Gibran reminds us in his 1923 narrative poem, "The Prophet," our duty to morality must ultimately yield to our sense of humanity:
All your hours are wings that beat through space from self to self. He who wears his morality but as his best garment were better naked. The wind and the sun will tear no holes in his skin. And he who defines his conduct by ethics imprisons his song-bird in a cage.
Our ethics must not define us nor imprison us but, rather, make level the playing field whereupon all can succeed by volition alone.
Daniel Elkind of Mount Laurel, New Jersey, is now eighteen years old. This essay placed second in the thirteen-to-seventeen-year-old age category of the 2001 Humanist Essay Contest for Young Women and Men of North America.
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|Date:||Jul 1, 2002|
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