11 March 2010

Lesson #26: Morality might be relative. Ethics are not.

Most people have their own set of beliefs that dictate some behaviors are good, some are bad, etc.  This might be influenced by religion, family, friends, or personal preferences.  But moral relativity is not what occupies my mind when I think about how I want to live my life.

Ethics is.

Are they so different?  Let's consult Wikipedia:
  • Morality -- a system of conduct and ethics that is virtuous
  • Ethics -- Ethics (also known as moral philosophy) is a branch of philosophy which seeks to address questions about morality; that is, about concepts like good and bad, right and wrong, justice, virtue, etc.

Interestingly, the Wiki entry for Morality goes on to describe three 'meanings' for morality - one that's synonymous with ethics, one that's 'descriptive' in that it delineates right and wrong in the context of human society, and 'normative', which focuses on absolute right and wrong, no matter what people think.  This three part definition is enough of a reason to stay away from a word like 'Morality'.  Based on the definitions, 'ethics' seems to be the most active - it doesn't rely on absolutes, or on the majority rule.  It also isn't quite as loaded with religious connotation.

And that might be the biggest difference for me.  It might have been the intense Catholic school education (which has served me well, don't get me wrong), but I seem to tie morals to religion in my head.  A set of rules I follow because that's the way it is.  Whereas ethics, to me, seem like a code to which you adhere because it's your choice.  It's how you have to live in order to live with yourself and others.  

These sound like the same thing, but what about when someone loses their religion?  Or their faith?  Do their morals change then?  As my religious and political views have changed, as my awareness of the world has increased, moral stances I took in my teens have changed also.  So I think about ethics, when I think about how I need to live my life.  

The rules that I try to call my 'ethics' focus more on how I treat and interact with other people.  This, I think, should not be relative.  So maybe Ethics are the constant that lies between many relative sets of morals... you know, the basic truth(s) that keep people sane and happy and not killing each other in most parts of the world.  I think some of this is instinctive, and some of it is not.  It could be what separates us from 'animals' -- an interesting conversation I had a while back that I'm not really coherent enough to repeat here.  (Long day).

Here are the ones I've been thinking of most recently.  It's a short list, and I can't even say I've always lived up to them.  But I do know that every one is there because I found myself breaking it, and realized what it was doing to me, and that I couldn't continue that way.  So... here we go.  

1.  Create happiness.
"I believe that if, at the end of it all, according to our abilities, we have done something to make others a little happier, and something to make ourselves a little happier, that is about the best we can do. To make others less happy is a crime. To make ourselves unhappy is where all crime starts. We must try to contribute joy to the world. That is true no matter what our problems, our health, our circumstances. We must try. I didn't always know this, and am happy I lived long enough to find it out." --Roger Ebert
 I love this quote, from the article linked above.  I like the idea of creating happiness where I go - whether it's giving someone a reason to smile or laugh, listening when they need it, or doing something that needs to be done.  And this works for me, based on my experience.

2.  Do no harm.

When I was a kid, I wanted to be a doctor.  The real, medical kind, not the Sciency Kind I'm trying to be now.  And I remember learning about the Hippocratic Oath.  While this phrase isn't actually part of the oath, I did read about it, and it struck a chord with me.  I still like it, because it seems to run counter to the conventional wisdom of 'there's a pill for that.'
It's important to me, to avoid doing harm to others - directly or indirectly.  There have been times when I've ignored this, and acted selfishly in a way that didn't account for others' feelings.  And I've really felt that violation of ethics acutely, enough to know I can't live my life that way.  I also know that there are plenty of opportunities for this statement to fall into contention... issues of self-defense, or war, for example.  Maybe a better way to state it is 'Protect others'.

3.  Be mindful.

Honesty with myself, awareness of my surroundings, the ability to see the actions of others, staying in the present, letting go of burdens I don't need to carry... all of these things will help enhance my life.  They'll also help me become a better person, better at interacting with others and helping those that need it.

4.  Act out of love.

This was a line from The Way of the Peaceful Warrior, by Dan Millman.  The author was talking about freedom from illusion, stepping into consciousness and awareness, and how at that point, it was only possible to act out of love.  And from love comes respect, mercy, empathy, compassion, understanding... a whole host of things that are so important to offer other people, and ourselves.
Or, as Anne Lamott says a little more directly... "Don't be an asshole."

What are the critical ethics or morals on which you base your actions?

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