Two questions: can you discuss ethics without taking sides? and can you explore ethics without anger?

So far I have received some good feedback on this blog, but one question keeps coming up: when are you going to take sides? When I look around the ethics community, I see how we think this way. It seems that to be ethical one has to take a firm position on what is right and what is wrong.

I’m not sure if it is because I am reluctant to commit to a position, or because I sense another way of looking at ethics; it just doesn’t seem to be the kind of ethical debate I am looking for.

I have been following the #ethics stream on twitter and have been struck by the anger that seems to drive the discussion and contribution there. Aside from the occasional inspirational quote, it seems like the majority of ‘ethical’ thought in the twitter stream is driven by anger, judgement and condemnation. I have witnessed this offline also. In the mainstream media and social world, it is commonplace to judge the ethics of corporations and governments with loathing and vitriol. One may say that the actions of corporations and government can at times make these responses warranted. I am not going to dispute that.

My wondering is whether anger is a useful space from which to explore ethics. I know for myself that when I am angry my brain seems to contract into a withering and ineffective tool. I somehow close myself off from alternate perspectives, and the anger fuels an outcome that it wants but is not necessarily in the best interests of all concerned.

Even when labeling an individual, corporation or situation as ‘unethical’, this is a judgement. No matter how well founded, justified or evidence-based, it is still nothing more than placing a judgement on another. Some may say that this is fine. That said, is it useful? Does placing labels and judgements on people or situations lead to better thinking or outcomes?

When evidence exists that a corporation or individual has acted in a way that causes harm, how could or should we respond to that? Is there a way where we can suspend judgement in order to explore how that situation came about. There may well be more layers to the situation than we previously were conscious of.

I have been fortunate to participate in generative and respectful explorations of ethical dilemmas and issues. How is it that this approach can be mainstreamed, taught or encouraged? Hang on, did I just take a side?

One thought on “Ethics without anger or taking sides

  1. It seems to me that acknowledging that ethics are both subjective and contextual is the first step to being free of this anger. The second is to recognise the habit of conflating one’s behaviour with one’s self. The third is to acknowledge the stupidity of assigning human characteristics to non-human entities.

    A corporation can no more be unethical than an amoeba. The study of ethics is a purely human endeavour.

    To seek to impose one’s norms on another is, perhaps, the most fundamentally unethical thing we can do. It’s an imposition of bias – individual or cultural – that, while perhaps holding a positive intent, fails to acknowledge individual sovereignty. It presumes that, without socially imposed norms we would all be raping each other and eating our young. This is anthropologically unsupported, biologically unsound and patently ridiculous.

    There are endless examples of exceptions to accepted forms of ethical behaviour.

    Cannibalism in a modern society is presumably unethical, yet was it considered so when a football team crashed in the Andes and ate the bodies of their team mates in order to survive? In some indigenous cultures, it is still normalised. Does that make it unethical?

    Having sex with a minor is considered to be unethical (and also illegal), yet what constitutes a minor? In some western countries the age of consent is as low as 14. Not so long ago it was considered to be morally repugnant (and presumably unethical) for men to engage in sexual intercourse with other men.

    I fully appreciate that classical ethicists will take me to task (if they ever read my comments!) as being out of line with a formal approach to ethics. Yet to those who would do so, I would simply posit the question ‘how has your study of ethics contributed both to your own happiness and the happiness of others?’

    What other reason could there possibly be for the study of ethics?

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