If we are free to choose, and we bear the responsibility to choose well, this implies that we need a basis on which to make decisions, day-to-day as we live our lives, above and beyond the general idea to respect, preserve and cultivate diversity. This basis is known as ethics. Viewed simply, ethics are behavioral screens. They are a set of principles to guide our behavior in all possible situations.

The starting point with ethics is to evaluate your consequences, before you act. You should always ask yourself, will your behavior harm other people in some way, or the environment, or even your culture or nation? Your first concern should not always be to satisfy yourself (although there are personal ethics as well, such as to make the most of your life). In this way ethics function as a check on, as a defense against, our innate human selfishness.

What this also illustrates is that a fundamental ethic is to not cause injury.

Political leaders regularly fail to follow this principle, and instead implement policies that lead to the injury and/or the loss of countless lives.

Ethics are grounded in reason, on our ability to survey our world, and to understand it and solve problems. This is distinct from the religious foundation of the traditional rules that we used to govern our behavior, where we were told what to do according to the Ten Commandments, or Islamic Sharia, or some other form of religious truth.

The problem with this, as discussed in the last lesson, is that such truth – the dictates of God – requires faith. In addition, religious truth is the province of religious leaders, who maintain the right to interpret it as they see fit, which is inherently undemocratic.

We are not children. We do not need to be told everything. We can figure things out – what is right and what is wrong – by ourselves.

We also have a need for ethics. There have to be tradeoffs and compromises between people. We cannot get everything that we want. We therefore need guidelines that tell us how to act when we are confronted with such tradeoffs, and more generally in all social situations.

Life without ethics is known as natural law. As mentioned earlier, this is the idea that the strong are free to dominate the weak; that “Might is Right.” Under natural law if you have power you are free to pursue your personal selfishness without restraint.

From this perspective, the basic ethic of life is to reject natural law. This can be restated as the idea that power does not infer or imply right.

In looking around the world it is easy to see that this ethic is not the norm. In country after country, and in many different ways, the powerful are free to do whatever they want. This is the most important underlying obstacle to democracy, that there are accumulations of power and that they are dedicated to maintaining their privilege.

The challenge of ethics is that it is not easy to do the right thing. Indeed, it is not always clear what’s right. You have to figure it out. And, even when it is clear, it’s often difficult to do.

There are a number of specific behavioral guides, beginning with the idea of respect. If we are equal, we are all deserving of respect, including of our cultures. This in turn is the source of the ethic not to cause injury; in other words, you would not willingly harm that which you respect.

Related to this, we should not tolerate wrongs when we see them. If other people are committing injury, we have an obligation to intervene. (This is the earlier mentioned principle of “No.”)

Another basic ethic is to be reliable. You should do what you say, and finish what you start. If you say that you will do something, barring only the most extreme and unexpected circumstances, you should get it done. In a democracy, the many politicians who make but then fail to keep election campaign promises illustrate how frequently this ethic is not followed.

From this we also can see that another core ethic is honesty, to stay true to your word.

Lastly, the ethic of respect leads to such behavior as patience, tolerance, and non-discrimination.

We learn ethics from our parents, both from what they say but more importantly from how they act. We take their behavior as a clue, to what is acceptable, and then copy it.

Throughout our lives, though, we are exposed to ethics from many other sources, including ideas that conflict with this upbringing. The main sources of these alternative ethics are social institutions. A basic problem that we face is that many institutions still follow, and preach, natural law.

This results in ethical confusion. With so many different, and competing, and conflicting values out there, it is difficult to know what, and whom, to believe. Real ethics are not that difficult to grasp, but they are continually undermined by social influences.

This can be seen more clearly using the associated idea of ends and means.

Most people would agree that we want to achieve an ethical society, where everyone is equal. On this basis, then, we can eliminate the Nazi ideal, which was intended to guarantee one group a superior position. Now, given that we are able to agree on the end, we must then decide on the means by which we will try to bring it about. And these means must also be ethical, in and of themselves.

How you do something is as important as the fact that you got it done: more important, actually. If you set a goal, if it is not possible to achieve it using ethical means, you must change your goal.

Viewed this way we can see that the means are the end. (Using an earlier framework, the means are our actions, and the end their consequences.) It is the process, not the conclusion, that’s important. Equality is not a goal, in the sense of a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, or something to be achieved in the far distant future. It is a process, a sustained condition, that we must meet every day, and beginning right now.

This axiom, that the end does not justify the means, is another basic ethical rule. However, in modern society it is often not followed. Social institutions regularly pursue ends, which they persuade us are ethical, using unethical means.

For example, institutions in general act as if they have the right to lie to us, and they base this right solely on the justification that to do so is in their best interests. There is no consideration of the means. It is only the end, their end, which counts.

In this case, both the ends and the means are unethical. Institutions exist to serve us. We do not live to serve them.

Institutions also do their best to keep information about themselves secret, information to which we, the general public, should have access. However, at the same time, we are told that we must always be open, and truthful, with them.

There are innumerable examples of institutions promoting fallacious ends and means arguments, more every day. It is up to you to evaluate your own particular society and what the leaders say they must do, because it is supposedly good for you.

© Roland O. Watson 2008