By Roland Watson

In the last article, I described how we have a need for ethics, to live our life well, and to be fair to other people and species. Unfortunately, we are failing at this, and society - its various institutions - have therefore concluded that we need to be controlled. Said another way, if we won't willingly do what the institutions say, then they will force us to.

The ethical role of society

I want to emphasize that this is in many ways a modern development. Human societies throughout the ages have always originated, arbitrated, and enforced different ethics, morals and values. And, they will always do this. It is actually their most fundamental role.

The key to the difference between traditional and modern is in the interpretation, meaning that people can be viewed positively or negatively. Traditional societies usually took the former view. They rarely tried to control or even contain us, just manage us so that we functioned more effectively as a group. Modern society, on the other hand, definitely leans towards the negative view, and the control and containment.

We should not overstate the distinction between traditional and modern, though. In many cases traditional societies were - some still are - worse than their modern counterparts. They are still openly governed by natural law.

The source of blood feuds

For example, in many developing countries, particularly if you live in a village or town in a rural area, if a crime is perpetrated against you or your family - or even if you just become aware of some other crime - you cannot go to the police. The police will not arrest and imprison the criminal.

Instead, they will find this person, and then extract a bribe from them, and also quite possibly inform on you. The last means there is a high probability that the criminal will come after you, and try to kill you. In this system you have no legal recourse, and there is no justice.

Your only option is the option that exists under natural law, or the domination of the strong over the weak. You can try to kill the criminal yourself, or hire someone else to do it. But, if you do this you will probably have to kill their entire family as well, to forestall the possibility of revenge.

For most people this is not an option, either ethically - they won't kill another person, or practically - they can't get access to a gun, or they don't have the funds to pay an assassin. So, again, there is no recourse at all.

Of course, even if you could get "justice," this would likely plant the seed for a long-term conflict such as a blood feud. It is therefore no wonder that there are still so many such conflicts in progress around the world.

Also, and as an aside, it is interesting that in some traditional societies everyone is on their own level. Anytime two people meet they appraise each other: who is superior and who is inferior.

This is the same type of thing that dogs do, and many other animals as well. It is in fact as far from a system of equality as it is possible to get.

The evolution of social ethics

Within a society, ethical promulgation is the responsibility of its social institutions. And, as we have seen, we have moved from a world of traditional communities, where such institutions - sometimes - conveyed positive messages in support of the social group, to the modern world, where they regularly ignore the welfare of the general public and concentrate instead only on themselves.

Also, different institutions have always generated different values, but particularly in the modern world these often conflict, and they are frequently unethical. Through this we can see that social ethics have evolved.

The dominant ethics of society nowadays are the ethics of the leaders of our social institutions, of politicians, business executives, press barons, evangelists and, of course, the values of Hollywood. All of these are clearly designed to serve their interests, to the detriment of ours.

One other consequence of this general state of affairs is the prevalence of ethical confusion. With so many different, and competing, and conflicting values out there, it is difficult to know what, or whom, to believe.

Your own ethic

You may not think that you, personally, have an ethic, but you do, even though it likely has many contradictory elements. Your ethic is based on your own reasoned moral development, as furthered by your education. It is the set of principles that you have adopted by choice, coupled with the values - the good form - that you have learned from your family and society.

However, all of this has also been combined with, and subverted by, the values that are inherent in the sources of bad behavioral form to which you have been exposed.

For most people, what results is an ethical hodgepodge or mishmash. And, this is what causes the confusion, such as over how to act in a given situation. In addition, this confusion causes us to feel as if life itself is in some way contradictory. All of this affects our behavior - it makes it less than rational - and also our self-view. It assaults our self-esteem.

Everyone needs an ethical system that they can call their own: one that is reasonable, which is based on education and experience, and which is internally consistent and applicable in all situations. But, in the modern world, few of us have one.

Also, in this way we can see that an ethic is more than just rules of behavior. It actually constitutes a philosophy of life. We need ethics, this philosophy, to make sense of life, and to make the best of our life; and also for our role as part of society, to guide us to make the best tradeoffs and compromises between the competing needs of different individuals.

In summary, society can no longer be trusted for moral guidance. We therefore need a new ethical basis. And, it turns out that this basis is the same as the solution to the failure of our social checks and balances. It is us. We must now find our ethics, somehow, on our own, as individuals. The question is: How can we possibly do this without falling prey to subjectivism and selfishness?

As difficult as this might seem, I guarantee that it is possible. I said earlier that one of the implications of the principle of human equality is that we can all be heros. If this is the case, and it certainly is, it means we can all be ethical as well.

In the next article, I will discuss human ethics.

© Roland Watson 2014