Ethics in Context

Posted on March 27, 2011

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Ethics in Context

Once upon a time, I studied ethical philosophy. As any undergrad philosophy student should be able to tell you, there are two dominant schools of thought in ethics – utilitarianism and deontology, embodied by the philosophical giants J.S. Mill and Kant. There are of course unlimited variations on these (more or less as many as there are philosophers), as well as other schools with more or less impact, Rawls being notable among these for his seminal contribution to ethics and political philosophy “A Theory of Justice”.

But the details and meanderings of these different schools of thought are not the main subject of this transmission. My concern is more about the way in which ethics are discussed.

Classic questions in ethical discussions (at least “popular” ones) go along the lines of “would it be right to kill one man to save 100?”. They often meander into the strangest scenarios, one which stuck with me being a convoluted tale of men trapped in a cave with the exit blocked by one of their comrades who go wedged trying to get out, and the men discussing the just application of a stick of dynamite that they happen to have on them.

If this seems a bit silly, its because it is. These sorts of questions are often posed to “stress test” ethical theories. Utilitarianism for instance being accused of supporting murder, because as it insists on the greatest good for the greatest number, then the individual can be sacrificed.

But I have always felt that this kind of discussion misses the point. The fact is that we live in the real world. We take decisions in a real context. How likely is it that you find yourself trapped underground with a stick of dynamite with which you might have to blow up your friend? And even should this absurd situation occur, how applicable would the judgements of an armchair philosopher be? Because there would be a real context – a real cave with its risks, a certain relation between the people involved, the possibility of outside help, not to mention the emotional tension at the time – the list is endless.

Theoretical discussion is useful up to a point, to get a general ethical direction, to map out the broad lines. But the edge cases, which these silly scenarios are supposed to explore, are precisely those where context is most crucial, where decisions are made under real constraints of time and knowledge and emotion. Abstract discussion is useful up to a point, but it is fundamentally limited.

In a similar vein, we are often asked to decide if we are FOR or AGAINST a certain thing. This is especially true for the political/environmental activist – we are in a big bubbling stew of issues and are required (it seems) to pass judgement on every issue that floats to the surface. This action has been take, this company is doing this thing, are you for or against? FOR OR AGAINST?!

To which I say: why do I need to choose? That is not a rhetorical question, it is very genuine: I feel it is vital to sanity. I must understand why a stance on an issue is needed. What actions will be required of me in either case? Most importantly: what impact can I have upon it? You see for me, the first task is to sort out what you can do from what you cannot. There is no point attempting to untangle a dense moral web around an issue I cannot have any impact on. My responsibility is to address those things which I CAN affect – which may well relate in some way to those I can’t affect.

Put another way, one must, before anything else, accept the world as it is. By that I do not mean to somehow give it all up as inevitable and unchangeable, because if you feel that then you have not accepted the world as it is, because the world as it is, is a world with you in it. Reality fits together like a puzzle, you are a part of it, it is a part of you. Understanding how you relate to the world, how you change it, how it changes you, is vital if you don’t want to spend your life charging at windmills.

On the ethical front, I find that utilitarianism gives the most tractable and most rational approach to ethical theory, but lacks a certain something. That certain something I would take in large part from good old Aristotle and his Virtues. Skipping over the theory, the meat of the idea is this. Ethics in every day life is a skill, not an exercise in formal discourse – similar to the skill of knowing the right thing to say to the right person at the right time. An abstract discussion can never resolve future ethical dilemmas, because it can never foresee the all important context. Therefore ethics becomes the skill of feeling your way through issues, of using the theory, knowledge, and experience to strike the balance between options and opinions that is right for the situation – and that means right for yourself as well.

To tackle ethical problems on which you can have no direct impact does no more than generate often heated and largely pointless discussions. To state that you are “against” an issue up on which you have no say is to do little more than stew in your private outrage – a popular British pastime, but clearly not a productive one.

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