Society's ethical dilemma — Part 1


Wednesday, June 18, 2014

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WHETHER the sense of rightness and wrongness is the result of nature (thus innate), nurture (thus indoctrinated) , or a bit of both, one thing is sure, almost everyone has this sense. When we meet someone who seems to lack this basic sense we say of that one "ratta nyam out fi im conchens" — roughly translated, "[s]he lacks a conscience".

Even though we may not be aware of it, every time we act we all do so based largely in obedience to or disregard for some principle of ethics to which we subscribe somehow. For that reason I regard ethical decision-making as a double-edged sword, a veritable dilemma. Yet no individual or society can operate without attempting to resolve that dilemma.

Let it be clear, there is really no neutral position here, because our actions and inactions betray our ethical stance. It's even rougher because in ethical analysis our intentions are also instructive.

The most troublesome aspect of ethics has to do with where the buck stops in terms of who/what determines rightness and wrongness. There is that annoying but irresistible question that haunts us all every so often when we think we have a defensible basis for our actions and inactions — what if you are wrong about your basis for deciding rightness and wrongness?

One of the best renditions of the dilemma I have encountered is the oft-quoted words of the late Duke University law professor, Authur Leff. I would call it Leff's lament. He said: "I want to believe — and so do you — in a complete, transcendent and immanent set of propositions about right and wrong, findable rules that authoritatively and unambiguously direct us how to live righteously. I also want to believe — and so do you — in no such thing, but rather that we are wholly free, not only to choose for ourselves what we ought to do, but to decide for ourselves, individually and as a species, what we ought to be. What we want — heaven help us — is simultaneously to be perfectly ruled and perfectly free, that is, at the same time to discover the right and the good and to create it." (Unspeakable Ethics, Unnatural Law, Duke Law Journal 6, December, 1979; 1229)

Leff's words adequately sum up the delight and dilemma of human existence in the area of ethics -- deciding on what is right from what is wrong. It would be delightful if we were all free, as a group or as individuals, to determine what is right or wrong without having to bother about what some God or other requires of us.

In other words, it would be delightful if we had ethical autonomy, the right and ability to determine, with finality, principles of rightness and wrongness. Just imagine the sheer joy of living as you wish without any obligation or necessity to consult Bible, Qur'an, Bhagavad Gita, Book of Mormon or any other holy book.

And yet, because of the reality of conflicting ideas and desires in life we all seem to be searching for principles of rightness and wrongness that come from a deity, from a God. The dilemma here is that if our principles of rightness and wrongness are derived from a God, then instead of having ethical autonomy we are limited, behaviourally, because of ethical accountability or 'answerableness'.

The struggle between ethical autonomy and ethical accountability is evident both in our personal lives and as well in our ethical discourse.

Hence, the Humanist Manifesto II states: "We affirm that moral values derive their source from human experience. Ethics is autonomous and situational, needing no theological or ideological sanction." (See Paul Kurtz (Ed.), 1973, p 17)

On the other hand, listen to the late evangelical philosopher, Francis Schaeffer: "If there is no absolute beyond man's ideas, then there is no final appeal to judge between individuals and groups whose moral judgments conflict. We are merely left with conflicting opinions." (How should we then live? 1976, p 145)

Though the point is somewhat overly simplified, there are two broad approaches to the determination of ethical principles. The one approach is ethical relativism and the other ethical absolutism. Though there are species of both relativism and absolutism we'll concentrate only on the approaches in general.

Ethical relativism, the more popular of the two, is the belief that, since no absolute moral code exists, the rightness or wrongness of an act or intention is relative to the situation, circumstance or context surrounding that act or intention.

What does this ethical relativism mean in practice as we try to decide on a multitude of issues?

Basically, it means that one does not begin by knowing that any act or intention to act is intrinsically right or wrong, but that it becomes so depending on the situation.

So any traditionally outlawed act or intention, be it lying, pre-marital or extra-marital sex, stealing, or whatever, could be right depending on the situation.

There is an attractive flexibility and fluidity about ethical relativism, and it appeals to the basic desire for ethical autonomy that we all register at the core of our beings.

At the level of ethical practice, ethical relativism is delightful to live on but uncomfortable to live with. If I am ethically free to indulge my desires, then every other person is entitled to that luxury, even to my detriment.




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