"Let your hook always be cast. In the stream where you least expect it there will be a fish." - Ovid
What are ethics? Why do we pay so much attention to them? Why do we need to know what we are doing is ethical - or not?
Here is a short interesting video from YouTube outlining what various people think ethics are:
Just doing a search on the internet using one of the major search engines reveals that this topic is hugely important to many people. There are websites and articles available that have ethical guidelines for almost every profession. All proffer advice on how to behave "properly" in a given circumstance. There are even ethical stores such as the Ethical Superstore, where those so inclined can make ethical purchases.
However, the point of this website, and thus this article, is not to examine the range of topics available, but to find commonality. In this case, why are humans so interested in morality, ethics and ideology? Why are there so many websites and organizations devoted to these topics? Why are we in fact so concerned with transgressing these guidelines?
Morals, ethics and ideology overlap to a considerable degree, so this article is about the relationship between all three. This page takes a broader sweep, or an overarching look at the topic, and misses out the minutiae which are freely available on the internet for anyone to find. The BBC for example has an admirably comprehensive guide called “Introduction To Ethics”. It contains a general introduction, and guidelines on almost everything from abortion to zoology.
Before starting, it might be helpful to define how we are using the terms morals, ethics and ideology in this article. These terms were taken from the internet and are also freely available:
Morals can be defined as:
1. A lesson, esp. one concerning what is right or prudent, that can be derived from a story, a piece of information, or an experience.
2. A person's standards of behavior or beliefs concerning what is and is not acceptable for them to do.
While a definition of ethics is:
1. The body of moral principles or values governing or distinctive of a particular culture or group: the Christian ethic; the tribal ethic of the Zuni.
2. a complex of moral precepts held or rules of conduct followed by an individual: a personal ethic.
And ideology can be defined as:
1. The body of ideas reflecting the social needs and aspirations of an individual, group, class, or culture.
2. A set of doctrines or beliefs that form the basis of a political, economic, or other system.
If we look at them in the order presented, then it is clear that morals form an individuals concept of what they believe is "right", or acceptable behavior, and what is considered "wrong", or unacceptable behavior. Morals thus create the basis of ethics in an individual, which are then magnified up to create the ethics of a particular group or culture. I.e. what was writ small, is now writ large. Ethics are the body of moral principles of that group or culture, which are also frequently enshrined in law.
Ideology is more ethereal in that it is a body of ideas - not necessarily moral or ethical, that pertain to the needs or aspirations of the group or culture etc to which they relate. Thus for example, it could be said that the Klu Klux Klan in the US, or the Nazis in Germany each had a certain ideology (or way of perceiving the world), but these were not necessarily regarded as moral or ethical by others, or the majority.
Now this is all very interesting, because it essentially assumes that somewhere there are absolutes, and indeed, this is supposedly where our laws come from. Our sense of ethics condone or disapprove of actions, and what is considered highly inappropriate behavior in society is frequently translated into law, often with grades of punishments if the law is transgressed. But where do our ethics and morality actually come from? Why do we have a sort of innate sense of "rightness" or "wrongness"?
Take a look at this short video. This fellow is allowing us to see his own moral standards, and thus his ethical stance on the subject of stealing bikes:
Is the view of the guy above correct? Of course, to some, he's stealing a bike and that's that. It transgresses the law, and indeed if a policeman saw him, he would no doubt be arrested for theft on the spot. To others, the bike is no longer owned by anyone, and thus fair game, and he's entitled to recycle it (no pun intended).
The law in most countries provides rigid guidelines, and it is indeed theft according to those guidelines. However, does the law apply in this case, where the bike he takes is obviously abandoned and can be reused, or used for parts?
Everyone it seems has an opinion of what ethical behavior is, and what it is not. So is it taught, or is there a natural sense of morality or ethics? Do we have an innate sense of morality and standards of ethics that could be called "natural" ethics?
We all have views on what appears to be right or wrong, which can vary from person to person, and certainly culture to culture. Much of it is of course, inculcated into us, but there may be some natural "no-go" areas too. Giving someone unnecessary pain for example, is generally regarded as morally wrong, or unethical - even to animals.
If there is such a thing, how do "natural" ethics come about? I think it has much to do with being able to mirror someone else's feelings - to put oneself in the place of another. It is easy to imagine someone else's pain, it is easy to think how awful it must be to not be able to get out to do your own shopping. It is easy to imagine being totally bedridden. It is easy to imagine another's fear faced with a large hungry tiger with no protection. This sort of imagining enables us act in an appropriate way towards others.
However, city life today means we are increasingly more isolated in what we experience. Our personal worlds are getting smaller all the time and encompass less and less of the reality outside. Though we see more on television, the internet etc, we don't experience life in the same way as past generations did. However, travel into differing cultures is still an especially good corrective in this respect.
Thus today, it becomes more difficult to imagine scenarios where we can think of ethical solutions to problems, because we can mirror less situations in our heads. In other words, we have less experience of the world than people in past times had - despite our technology. This in part is why ethical guidelines are now so prevalent.
Many of us find it difficult to construct a personal ideology, and need help. The vast amounts of conflicting information see to that. Not only that, but our social worlds are also much more complicated than in the past. Many people now have online relationships, ranging from casual aquaintances, to work colleagues, right on up to forming a basis for semi-permanent relationships such as marriage. Some people now also have exclusively online relationships. These can include the disabled, who previously might never have had any sort of worthwhile relationships. People also even put their pets online in places such as Facebook. The result is that people can easily come into contact with others that have vastly differing standards in both directions, and it is easy to get sucked into something that in hindsight might not have been the best thing to have done.
There are of course other contributory causes, such as being dumbed down, or becoming numbed to others distress by over exposure in the media to violence etc, and an education system that doesn't teach people life skills, but these will be dealt with elsewhere.
Is there a solution to this? I think there is. We can no longer rely on ancient guidelines such as the Ten Commandments (which don't exist in the Bible in that form anyhow) to assist us in our daily lives. However, much research has been done over the last few decades in the areas of psychology and psychotherapy which have offered insights into current human problems and the human condition. These findings have now been synthesized into various bodies of information on what human beings need to feel in control of their lives, and to lead a healthy normal productive life.
Given physical needs: As animals we are born into a material world where we need air to breathe, water, nutritious food and sufficient sleep. These are the paramount physical needs. Without them, we quickly die. In addition we also need the freedom to stimulate our senses and exercise our muscles. We instinctively seek sufficient and secure shelter where we can grow and reproduce ourselves and bring up our young. These physical needs are intimately bound up with our emotional needs — the main focus of human givens psychology.
Given emotional needs: Emotions create distinctive psychobiological states in us and drive us to take action. The emotional needs nature has programmed us with are there to connect us to the external world, particularly to other people, and survive in it. They seek their fulfillment through the way we interact with the environment. Consequently, when these needs are not met in the world, nature ensures we suffer considerable distress — anxiety, anger, depression etc. — and our expression of distress, in whatever form it takes, impacts on those around us.
Our natural sense of rightness or wrongness, in whatever guise you want to call it, should be based on enabling individuals also to see the same issues in others as for themselves, by having broad access to the above information, and this should be taught at a young age - possibly by using the mirroring technique described. The two statements above should form the baseline for the morals and ethics of the whole of the human race in the future - not just individuals or even countries. In fact, they don't contradict any known religion, so can be incorporated into existing beliefs.
It is up to the legislators to consider how to apply these guidelines into law, if indeed they could or should, but more importantly, it is now up to the individual to think them through, to form a basis for finding an ethical path through one's own life, and in one's own dealings with others. This would lead to ethical individuals forming an ethical culture, leading eventually to a new ideology.
Using one's innate mirroring ability (in other words to put yourself in their shoes - or walk a mile in their shoes) should guide the individual to sense the right or wrong of almost any cause or action. If not, referring to guidelines such as the Human Givens as food for thought should make choices clearer. In days past, religion offered guidelines, but much of religion is now regarded by many people as of little use in our modern culture, so we must think anew.
However, neuroscience comes to the rescue here. Vilayanur Ramachandran is a neuroscientist known for his work in the fields of behavioral neurology and visual psychophysics, who is the Director of the Center for Brain and Cognition, and is currently a Professor in the Department of Psychology and the Neurosciences Graduate Program at the University of California, San Diego, USA. He discovered that our brains from approximately 100,000 years ago have contained "mirror neurons". These neurons have the ability to mimic the actions of others in all sorts of situations - including empathy.
His findings ought then to be but another step to designing courses etc to help teach people to realize their innate abilities by mirroring others activities, and also to develop their imagining skills so as to develop a better sense of ethics.
Mirroring in another guise was of course part of the basis for apprenticeships of old. The apprentice first of all watched his/her teacher or master, then was allowed to carry out the same tasks under supervision, then finally, once of sufficient aptitude after a period of time, was free to go on his/her way in the world to practice the same profession or art. What is not frequently taken notice of today, was that the apprentice picked up a whole load of other things, including ethics as a part of the package. In large part, this was due to the generations being in closer contact than frequently is the case today. The young apprentice "picked up" their older masters wisdom, experience and ethics, as well as learning the trade. Luckily, there has been some small return to apprenticeships, but to date, not enough to make much difference.
I would suggest that mirroring forms a natural large part of our learning skills - far more so than rote learning (learning parrot fashion); but society today does not capitalize on peoples natural learning abilities sufficiently, because they do not fit the current M.O. (modus operandi).
Here's Ramachandran on TED explaining in under ten minutes what mirror neurons mean:
Unfortunately, having one's own ethics could lead to conflict with existing rules and regulations, because we can all think of cases where the "law is an ass" and actions have been carried out that most people would consider wrong. For example, not being able to defend oneself against an intruder in one's own home. Police have been known to prosecute the resident or owner for causing harm to the intruder. Another recent example from the UK is where firemen that could swim, were unable to save the life of someone drowning in a pond of just three feet of water (just under 1 metre) or wading depth, because they didn't have the right certificates. In the former case, it can be said that the resident or owner had a strong personal ethic, and in the latter, the firemen had weak personal ethics.
In cases of a serious conflict of ethics or ideologies, it should be obvious that the law of the land must take precedence, and no-one should consider taking the law into one's own hands. However, if it can be seen that the law is indeed an ass, then it behoves everyone to strive to get it changed for something more appropriate or humane.
Initiating the Human Givens or some other similar form in ethics will take some considerable time, because it requires people to actually think, rather than just applying laws blindly, and of course it will also take time to institute new organizations based on the new way of thinking, and time for these to overpower the old guard.
It will also require a reversal of current trends towards simplification, predominantly through the use of computers and standardization, that currently allows people to do jobs for which they might not otherwise be qualified, to again relying on people's experience and expertise.
Higher up at the level of the status of interpreting rules and laws of all kinds, it would entail using individuals with a very extensive knowledge of life, and who are able to apply what we might now call wisdom, instead of those with a vast knowledge of methodology, and little else.
In the end, it relies on an individual making some sort of stand - at home, in the workplace, and in their interactions with others to adopt an ethical stance. It relies on an individual forming some sort of internal ethical framework against which external events can be measured. And it also relies on building for oneself an environment in which one can comfortably operate that can embody those ethics.
Since I wrote the above, I came across this short extract from the Dalai Lamas Book "Beyond Religion: Ethics for a Whole World" on Huffington Post. Now I'm no Buddhist, nor anything else for that matter, but what the Dalai Lama says in this short extract makes a lot of sense, and agrees with the objectives of this site in almost every way.
Here also is the talk by His Holiness at Delhi University on this very topic in 2012. He's a little difficult to understand at some points, but once you get into the stride of it, you adapt to his style. It's long at an hour and fifty minutes, but worth the time:
Here is a three minute video from CIMA - (Chartered Institute of Management Accountants) offering advice to those in this field who may feel compromised. It is good advice in other areas too:
And here is another asking why there are no ethical guidelines for CEO's - which of course ought to be rectified. Do you think CEO's would agree?