PERSONAL AND SOCIAL ETHICS
By Roland Watson
I've discussed in this series how humans are innately selfish, and how we need to counter this. I don't want you to think, though, that this is our only personal ethic. There are many others, and which are positive, beginning with to make the most of your life.
In this article, I will review specific ethics, for yourself, for other people, and for society, including social institutions. Then, in the final article I will consider ethics regarding the planet, and other forms of life.
Ethics for yourself
For ethics for how you relate to yourself, I have already covered these extensively, under personal development, including the two fundamental goals: to learn about and to experience life, and to help other people and species. I can add that I give a number of additional guidelines in the Your Future series in Part 4 of the website.
For other people - the primacy of respect
For your relationships with other people, the basic ethic is to show respect, both of them as individuals and of their cultures. You should accept other people as they are, and not try to impose your own form on them.
However, there are two distinctions that we need to make when applying this ethic. The first of these is that you should not tolerate intolerance, or prejudice, or primitive and savage behavior. When in Rome, you are not always obliged to do as the Romans do.
In this regard, the real challenge is not to control your own behavior, but to decide what your response to the intolerance should be. In some cases passive nonacceptance, such as disinterest, will be called for, but in others outright rejection, even intervention, will be appropriate. Indeed, this is regularly the motivation for activism. You will have to use your will, your reason, but also with some allowance for your emotion - for legitimate anger - to decide.
Related to this is the idea that it is itself unethical to support others who are unethical. We have already seen an example of this, with police officers who refuse to bring bad cops to justice. In general, this ethical challenge most commonly applies to employees of institutions who discover cases of institutional wrongdoing. Such wrongdoings must be revealed, perhaps anonymously, as to the press, or at least protested.
Of course, it can get much more difficult than this, as for a family member who becomes aware of the misdeeds of another, such as by a mother of her son. The appropriate behavior in such cases will depend on the specific circumstances, on the individuals and the misdeeds involved.
But, at a minimum there should be communication within the family and, to the greatest extent possible, and using reason and perhaps even threats, the unethical individual should be persuaded to desist from his or her actions.
Also, the ethic of having respect will lead you away from causing harm. And, regarding this, you should try to live such that you do not injure anyone, in the broadest sense of the phrase. (I realize that at times, such as in love affairs, this may be impossible.)
When to forgive
This in turn, along with my previous discussion of anger, raises the question of forgiveness. When, or for what, should you forgive someone?
I would argue that anything can, and should, be forgiven, with two conditions, the first of which is absolutely essential. Justice must be served, the consequences of the action must be paid, so there must be punishment in those cases where there is a real misdeed. In addition, forgiveness should be granted when remorse for the misdeed is expressed. The question is, what if this remorse is not forthcoming?
Another way to look at this is to recognize that forgiveness is the opposite of revenge, and also that neither of them exist in natural law. They are largely the province of humans. Revenge and torture are humanity at its worst. Forgiving someone, even someone who has not expressed remorse - but who has received justice, is humanity at its best. Forgiving someone a misdeed is the most difficult thing a person can do. It is perhaps the most challenging ethical test of all.
The next ethic to consider, or reconsider, is the issue of negativity. One aspect of form, which can yield either a good or a bad result, is that you - generally - get what you ask for. What this means is that if you want people to be good, they will be. If you give them this option, they will usually take it.
But, if you do not want people to be good, or even if you just presume that they will not be, then they won't. This is bad form, and modern social institutions are guilty of it all the time. They presume that we will be bad, so we fulfill their expectations.
At a deeper level, both negativity and "positivity" function as feedback mechanisms. They are more examples of the phenomenon that as you change it, it changes you.
For positivity: If I treat you nice, you like it, and are probably nice to me in return. If I continue to treat you nice, you come to expect it, and you also form the pattern of being nice to me. Moreover, you incorporate what you have learned from your interactions with me into your behavior with other people. You tend to be positive with them, too, and they in turn are positive with you.
Therefore, to the extent that we want to construct good relationships with other people, and a better society, we have to learn to treat each other in a positive way. More than anything, you should do your best not to be negative with people who are trying to be good. You should not let any of your own selfish concerns get in the way of their trying to be ethical.
My last comment on ethics regarding other people has to do with what are known as "human rights." I believe that humans have rights, innate rights that exist or which accrue to us merely because we are alive, and that we should work to see that they are extended to everyone, everywhere. However, I now want to look at this another way. I want to question it, and even refute it.
In life, in a very important sense, there is no such thing as a right. Rights exist only insofar as they are earned. A right without this is the same as a consequence without an associated action. Indeed, not having rights, rights that you are supposed to have, makes you in some way a victim.
In concept, the rights to freedom, and equality, to food and water, appear so obvious that they can almost be taken for granted. But, in practice, it is a different story. A right that is not won, and defended, is nothing. If it does not exist now, it never will, and, if it does exist, it could easily, perhaps inevitably, be taken away.
Rights, as a concept, while self-evident, constitute a weak and even dangerous portrayal. Arguing for human rights may well not achieve the intended effect. Rather, a more accurate formulation is that such rights are goals, or needs. To the extent that we can only survive if our needs are met and our goals are fulfilled, so it is with rights. We can only survive if we have them.
Do children have rights? Only if adults fight to win them and defend them. Does the environment and do other species have rights? Again, only if we win and defend them.
Rights are not entitlements. They are goals and needs. Nothing in nature is free. Life entails no such gift, other than its creation. The United Nations Declaration of Human Rights is a statement of goals, and it should be recognized and used as such.
Your behavior towards society
For ethics for our relationships with society and social institutions, on your own, and with others, you should work to confront their modern form, and get them to refocus their efforts from satisfying their needs to once again serving ours. And, if you are employed in an institution you should consider the specific comments that I made about this in the series on Fighting Form.
To conclude the article, in order to guide our behavior towards society we will also need a clearer idea of what we would like the nature of our society to be. To this end, the following is a prospective list of what I believe our social goals should be.
The first is voluntary control of our breeding, to reduce the pressures from overpopulation.
The protection of all natural habitats, with minimal human impact thereon, and as natural resources are needed for industry and agriculture, the minimal, least impact, and sustainable extraction therefrom.
Human happiness, through the satisfaction of our needs as individuals.
An ethical society, where people care for others as well as for themselves.
The construction of a social infrastructure that guarantees all people access to quality education, health care, housing, transportation, and basic utilities.
The preservation of cultural history and traditions, including such things as languages, arts and crafts, and environmental knowledge.
Within reasonable tolerances, wealth equality.
No intolerance or discrimination. Rather, a celebration of diversity.
A level society, where the disadvantaged are given support and assistance.
A level society, which does not sink to the lowest common denominator, but rather in which individuals strive to achieve personal creativity, excellence and sophistication.
A highly productive society, with a great store of wealth, thereby minimizing work requirements and maximizing the time available for leisure and personal development.
And finally, a stable society: one at peace, in equilibrium, and with minimal disruption and unrest.
For your overall ethic towards society, you should work - in as many ways as possible - to see that these goals are fulfilled.
© Roland Watson 2014