Why is it important to analyze the basis of ethical principles?
Simply because, our ethical principles determine how we deal with others, what we conclude, how we judge, what we speak, what we do, and what we become. Each word we speak and act we commit is an exercise in ethics.
There is a lot of worthy debate as to what is the source of ethics? Is it some authority (religious, philosophical, elders of the family and society) or is it the individual? Are the terms of ethics modifiable with time and circumstance? I’ve opined in one of my previous blogs that ethics should not base itself in authority.
One of the strongest (and most worthiest of consideration) objections expressed against this position is the opportunistic use of such ethics, more specifically, not following it or modifying its terms when it comes in way of satisfying one’s self centered desires even by harming others in the process.
I would be stupid if I disregard this contention for I’ve seen such opportunistic application of ethics too many times.
I’ve always possessed a strong sense (as in without too many predicaments) decisiveness in matters of ethical principles. I’ll restrict the scope of this post only to bases of my ethics for I too was curious about them! But to discover them, it did require some mental excavation–it was buried real deep!
A simple example: I’d be ashamed of stealing something even if no one would notice me doing that. The simple reason for this? I dislike anyone who steals something (undeserved, obviously!) from others. So, would I like to hate myself? If I steal, the only obvious consequence is hating myself, provided I keep my honesty and objectivity intact. Same holds true for all other virtues–being truthful, helpful to those deserving, courteous, courageous, etc. Every instance I depart from any of above virtues would leave me with contempt for myself. I could of course, somehow rationalize my act or take solace in the fact that no one noticed it, but what would happen to my peace of mind? If I lie to myself, think of the consequences. I’m lying (I’m a liar); I’m believing that lie in spite of having best knowledge of the truth (I’m stupid!), and the one lying and one believing that blatant lie is the same person–so I’m both a liar and am stupid!
Well unfortunately, I know issue does not resolve there itself! One could very appropriately ask, what would make me detest an act of stealing? The fact that I won’t like being robbed. If I’ve to judge an act with utmost fairness, it’s solely the act that has to be judged irrespective of the ‘commit-er’ and the subject of that act. Meaning, stealing is equally bad even if one stealing is my family member/friend/myself(!), and even when the one robbed off is some else(!), and not necessarily me! It indeed is a very useful maxim that what I’d not like done to me is bad, irrespective of who it is done by and on whom. Of course, this could beget further question (do questions not believe in family planning!)–why do I not like being robbed? Well, I give up! I don’t have all the answers! If I dig deeper in the valleys of my mind, I think I’d find that elusive answer, but this much exercise is enough for one day. Already my mental muscles are feeling sore.
This all seems very straightforward, but an honest introspection would tell how frequently we depart from this maxim. It’s not very rare to find a hurt friend ruing, “He’d always been so nice. I don’t know how he suddenly turned such a rascal!” Do I need to add that that’s just the “subjective” assessment. The objective assessment would be, “All this while, I’d ignored his misdeeds. I’d enjoyed how he used to insult others. And then he hadn’t insulted me ever. I thought I was special, ‘cuz I wanted to think I was special. Today, just suddenly I was no more important to him, and hence the treatment I got.” How often have we been this objective in our analyses of events and people?
I’ve up till now stressed only on acts of omission (how “not to” commit bad acts). I’ve not talked about the acts of commission (committing noble deeds). Just like in the above example of despising one committing a bad act, I’d respect one committing acts that impressed me. I’d like to be associated with those acts. That would be my driving force to emulate them.
Lo and behold! What a cute little baby-question we have! What makes an act noble?
This one is indeed difficult to answer. Any act has certain driving forces and certain deterring forces. What forces does one give into and what deterring forces one overcomes, while deciding to commit and act determine its nobility. If I’m overcoming fear (a weakness), then the act has something admirable. If I’m overcoming my guilt of inflicting pain (without giving anything desired by the subject), in well, inflicting pain, then my act is ignoble. If jealousy is the driving force of my act, it’s inclining towards unethcical. If empathy or compassion drives me to help someone, then my act could be justified. (I know I’m accumulating grand-grand-grand baby questions).
What makes jealousy and inflicting pain bad? And what makes compassion and overcoming fear admirable?
The answer is I’m unlikely to like dealings with me that are driven by jealousy, and of course I won’t like pain (masochi…you immoral morality-grass hopper; jumping to conclusions?) inflicted upon me. I’d really appreciate when helped in time of need, and the fact that not all can overcome fears of all types at all times, makes it admirable (maybe).
The bottom line is if after this much elaborate (by my standards, of course) exposition of my basis of ethics, if someone is not ready to trust me with my decision-making based on this system of ethics, I really can’t help it. I can’t answer why others don’t follow this system of ethics, seriously. I wish I could, but then the unfortunate fact is I can’t. I do have more answers to more potential questions. They may have some philosophic glitches, too, and some ambiguity about when best to apply a certain ethical principle, but I still find this system of well scrutinized ethics more reassuring than “‘cuz someone said so”.