By Roland Watson

In the last article, I described how society cannot be trusted for ethical leadership, and that because of this we will have to make our own way. Now I want to explore how we might do this: how we can find a good set of ethics without recourse to society, or for than matter god.

Innate ethics

One view on this is that we are born with an innate set of ethics, based on our instincts and the pure personal focus, the pure personal selfishness, that we have as a child. Further, it is these instincts, the instincts that we have from being animals - mammals - that inevitably lead to natural law.

This view has some merit, but it is worth mentioning that it is deterministic. It says: We are born animals, and we will always be animals, and in a negative way. Indeed, this is the core belief that is used to justify many different forms of social control.

What this view leaves out, though, is our ability to understand, and to change. Because of our advanced consciousness, we are in some ways special. We can survey our impact, and change our behavior. We don't even have to depend on the idea of an innate conscience - of which we have no real proof that it even exists - to do it.

What this perspective implies is that in reality, at birth, we inhabit an ethical vacuum. Other than crawling to our mother for food and warmth, and perhaps jostling with our brothers and sisters in the process, we have no sense whatsoever of how to behave.

We have only a fundamental motivation to live, and the rest of our behavior is necessarily shaped by environmental and genetic influences, and which can easily lead it to go off in unethical directions. To counter this, we need to develop or learn some basis as individuals for making our behavioral choices.

Reason or emotion

The basic options that are available to us are reason and emotion. In other words, we can do what we think we should do, or what we want to do.

In considering these, I will start with emotion since it has two fundamental flaws. The first is that it is too closely aligned with our self-interest. It makes us prey to our innate selfishness, and causes us to devalue the interests of others. Also, it is by definition out of our rational control, and is therefore subject to great volatility.

For example, love is probably the best and the highest of our emotions. But, when it is not reciprocated this causes discomfort. Discomfort in turn causes dissatisfaction, which itself readily leads to discontent, and then resentment, and anger, and hate.

Without reason to temper our emotion, it can easily lead to extremes, particularly divisive and destructive extremes. Put in another context, in the series of talks on development I touted the benefits of impulsiveness as a means to effect personal change. But, without reason as a guide we would be equally prone to follow our unethical impulses as well as our good ones.

Also, there are problems with reason as well. Relying on reason to too great an extent tends to lead one towards asceticism, and away from satisfying, and ethical, passions. Life is passionate, and this should not be renounced.

The art of life

The art of life is to use your reason to shape it, to construct an ethical guide for it, but to use your emotion - your spontaneity - to live it. Viewed another way, you want to temper your reason with your emotion. Sometimes you should follow your mind, but other times you should follow your heart.

Moreover, you also want to temper both with the benefits of your experience. By doing this you will make use of all of your strengths, abilities and resources, as you pursue the greatest opportunity of all, which is life.

To expand this description, you should use your reason to further your formal education, for spiritual or philosophical speculation, to preserve the planet, and to live in peace. You should use your emotion to have fun, to enjoy the most simple satisfactions of life all the way through to its most exhilarating and outrageous moments. Also, you should use both as guides in your relationships with other people. Finally, you should use your experience to oversee this entire process: as time goes by to get better and better at the art of living your life.

In this way, it is possible to make value judgments without recourse to god, and in the face of the subjectivism that is implied by our existential ignorance. This type of ethical system is conscience. It is not innate; rather, it is something that you create, starting as a child. Of course, developing and applying it will be a great challenge, and many people, at least in some circumstances, will fail. They will act unethically.

The circumstantial context

The problem is, human nature, or human behavior, depends on the circumstances. In good circumstances it is easy to be ethical, and to have great humanity. In bad circumstances, and today's world in general - dominated by institutions and ridden as it is with their form - is bad, it is much more difficult. People are compelled to self-protection, to do whatever they must to survive.

The greatest challenge of all, again, the real test of humanity, is to retain our ethics in such circumstances. Of course, many, many individuals have already proven through their actions that this is possible.

Only time will tell if we can prove it as a species, if using our reason, emotion and experience, but mainly our reason tempered with experience, we can learn that this option is available, and adopt it species-wide.

Relativistic ethics

There are many other ethical challenges as well, which I will review in the balance of this series and in the final two parts of the website. One of them, though, which is dealing with anger, both your own and the anger of others, is worth some consideration here. This is because anger underlies and perpetuates so many of our seemingly unresolvable problems.

As Graham Greene wrote in his book The Quiet American: "We all get involved in a moment of emotion, and then we cannot get out."

For most people, ethics depend on the situation. In other words, they practice what are known as relativistic ethics. They make up ethics on the spot, to fit the situation, to satisfy their personal selfishness. However, we are seeking ethics that are firm, that are general principles, based on reason, and which guard against our selfishness.

In another, deeper sense, though, ethics are situation-dependent. This is because all situations are different, even unique. You will have to decide for yourself how to apply your ethics, in many different situations.

For instance, it is easy to accept the golden rule, to do unto others as you would have them do unto you. But, does its converse also apply: do unto others as they have already done unto you?

If someone takes advantage of you, are you justified in seeking revenge? Do two wrongs make a right? There is often a fine line between justice and revenge, and how you respond should always depend on the specific circumstances.

The challenge of anger

To return to anger, this is an extremely complex subject. This is because it can be both legitimate, and not. If someone causes you harm, you are completely justified in being angry about it. Indeed, you would be a fool not to be.

In such cases anger is an expression of reason. And, this anger should be resolved. You should obtain justice for your injury.

On the other hand, such anger can easily get out of control. The emotion may take over with the consequence that reason is left behind. In most cases this would be wrong. It would lead not to justice, but to revenge.

However, this is not true in all cases. Even irrational, uncontrollable anger, and anger leading to violence, is justified in a few circumstances, such as when you are defending yourself or your family from attack. Indeed, it is in these circumstances that anger has proven its evolutionary merit.

Furthermore, because anger is such a volatile emotion, and also because it gives you such a sense of power, it is easily abused. For example, appeals to anger, like the creation of fear, are a regular tactic of behavioral form. Sources of form manipulate us to be angry about something, using rhetoric and not logic, and then get us to act, so as to suit their purposes.

And, there are risks even in the application of legitimate anger. For instance, this is seen clearly in the world of activism. Social and environmental activists are legitimately angry about the world's problems, and they want to do something about them. In general, they have three choices.

The first is to use reason to educate people, particularly the people who create the problems, to alter their behavior.

Secondly, they can convey this anger, and use it to energize an opposition.

This is to use anger as a good form, since it is reasonable, and not directed to achieving a personally selfish end. Such a use is commonly seen at demonstrations, in the leading of group chants, and also in activist literature.

However, it is form, and the recipients of it, lacking the tempering reason of the advocates, may easily be inclined to express their anger without limit. And, through this even good anger can end up having the same effects as bad anger - which is the last option but really not an option at all, anger that is motivated wholly by selfish ends, and used to inspire mobs to form and to riot and wreak havoc.

Put simply, when you are emotionally involved your reason is clouded. And, it is easy to make mistakes. Also, even if your reason stays intact, other people may be swayed. This is why reason is far preferable as a motivator to good form, including legitimate anger.

But, in any case, you cannot outlaw anger. What I am trying to show is that it represents one of the clearest and most tangible examples of the real world problems that our ethics must overcome, and also that any attempts to use it in solving these problems are highly risky and may easily go astray.

The next article will focus on personal and social ethics.

© Roland Watson 2014