Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Where do Ethics come From? Part 4

Aristotle's thought ethics came from choosing to do GOOD rather than choosing to do BAD.
Rousseau thought ethics needed to be forced on you by an absolute authority or leviathan.
Hobbes thought ethics were determined by the majority and so we need a government to force that majority belief upon us to have a GOOD society.

Kant believed in a variation of the golden rule where GOOD would be achieved by everybody asking themselves BEFORE they act "would I want this done to me?"

John Stuart Mill was a utilitarian. Which means that ethics and what is GOOD is determined by whatever promotes happiness at the time you make the decision. Does this give pleasure or pain? Mill is talking about aggregate happiness of the greatest number of people though, not necessary your personal happiness. Mill had to build in some checks so that we all don't become totally hedonistic (seeking only our pleasure all the time) so he came up with certain kinds of pleasure being better than others. Listening to good music, for example, is likely a better kind of pleasure than spending the day eating Ben and Jerry's ice-cream. He explained this by calling on experience: nobody who has experienced both higher and lower pleasures would be willing to swap a life of higher pleasure for lower ones. He said "No intelligent human being would consent to be a fool though they should be persuaded that the fool, the dunce, or the rascal is better satisfied with his lot than they are with theirs."

There are, of course, many problems with this. Not the least of which is the fact that the GOOD in Mill's case would be the pleasure of the greatest amount of people. But mob rule is rarely a good thing especially when practiced at the pleasure of the KKK or Gestapo. This also leaves too much room for personal choice, I would be hurting if all there was was Starbucks since I don't like coffee or chocolate but Starbucks seems to give pleasure to a GREAT amount of people therefore I must be a BAD person.

It, again, boils down to the NECESSITY of having an outside arbitrator of what is good or bad. A rule or guide given to us by someone who knows the truth and the best and has our best interests in mind. Sounds like a Savior I know and a Word I try to follow, doesn't it?

Friday, November 12, 2010

Where do Ethics come From? Part 3

Aristotle's thought ethics came from choosing to do GOOD rather than choosing to do BAD.
Rousseau thought ethics needed to be forced on you by an absolute authority or leviathan.
Hobbes thought ethics were determined by the majority and so we need a government to force that majority belief upon us to have a GOOD society.

Kant had a slightly different take on the nature of ethics. He didn't really care if we were born bad or born good. He though that all we need to do in order to be ethical would be to impose the "golden rule" on every decision we make. Think BEFORE you choose: "would I want this done to me if I were on the other end of this?" If I borrow money from you with NO intent of ever giving it back, would I want that done to me? If I sneak into your home and steal your 64 inch flat screen TV would I want someone to do that to me?

Kant believed that if EVERYBODY thought this way BEFORE they acted then society would be an ethical one. This sounds very rational and efficient but is practically impossible. We are selfish animals and so that battle must be won first. When we win over our selfishness then we get into the rationalization problems inherent in the system. What if I steal from you to feed my family? What if I steal from you because you have so much more than I do? What if I steal from you to give to those who don't have any? Once we get past the selfishness issue and the rationalizing issue then we are left with the ability to make this simple choice of the golden rule.

I believe that Jesus, who espoused the golden rule, had an even better one that people keep forgetting. Call it the platinum rule: "Love God and Love your neighbor." If every decision you made you would not only ask yourself: "would I want this done to me?" ask Kant says; but would also ask "Does this show my love for God or my love for my neighbor?" then you would be an ethical person if you can answer yes to those questions on every decision.

Kant was right but didn't go far enough, Jesus takes us the rest of the way.

Where do Ethics come From? Part 2

So Aristotle believes you are good because you do good things, the more good things you do the better person you would be; therefore, ethics is simply choosing the good over the bad.

Hobbes and Rousseau had some VERY different ideas of where ethics come from. Hobbes said that without the civilizing effect of societal pressure we would be poor, nasty, brutish, and live in continual fear. Rousseau was a little more optimistic because he called us "noble savages" who lived only for SELF and a desire to fulfill only our immediate needs. Hobbes saw civilization as the only means to taming the savage beast and that includes handing some of our "rights" as individuals over to an absolute authority (he called leviathon). This social contract is the only thing keeping us safe and sane. Rousseau bought into the social contract idea but believed that the only way for people to overcome their savagery is for them to accept the "general will" of the public as expressed in government.

The question these two are answering is this: "Is monstrous, unethical behavior natural or is it created by society?" Is society or the will of the masses the savior or the problem as far as ethics is concerned? In order to fix us do we need to fix society first? If we have a perfect government will we have perfect people?

The Bible tells us that we are corrupted from birth and will always have that bent towards doing the wrong thing. We must constantly struggle against that bent.

Growing up on the farm I remember trying to get the pickup truck out of a rut that was hard caked into the ground. It was a constant battle to get the wheels out of the rut and onto the smoother surface. The steering wheel fought me the whole time and I really didn't need to drive if I kept in the rut since the rut steered for me. That is like us and our nature. We are in this rut that keeps pulling us back in, it's easier, and even a kind of autopilot to just do what our nature tells us to do. To be an ethical person takes hard work, fighting against the rut and never letting go of the steering wheel.

Society and government is a reflection of the individuals that make up that society. When we are good people, fighting to be even better we will have a better and better society. Society doesn't civilize us as Hobbes claims, nor does society tell us what is ethical by majority vote as Rousseau claims. WE are society and what we do is echoed and even amplified in our society/government.

So choose wisely.

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Where do Ethics come From? Part 1

Aristotle's first run for being good is that there are no rules. Being good is about developing your character, so that you are disposed to do the best thing in each situation. It is NOT about internalizing some moral manual. Human being are creatures of habit and just as a good musician becomes so by practicing, so, by doing virtuous things, we become virtuous people.

But then the question becomes, "What is virtue?" According to Aristotle it is living according to our natures as rational animals. A good dog does doggy things well. A good human does good human things. We can be guided towards the right action by NOT thinking of good and bad as opposite ends of a spectrum but we must think of good as lying on a "mean" or middle of the two BAD extremes. For instance, courage lied between the excess of rashness and the deficiency of cowardice; generosity between meanness and profligacy; kindness between the excess of ignoring others and the deficiency of indulgence.

Aristotle's ethics are about more than being good - they are about living right. So doing the right thing is not about following rules, but striking the correct balance according to the circumstances.

This seems to make sense and in a society where people actually have the urge to BE virtuous or good, it would work. Unfortunately we live in a society where people no longer believe in virtue or goodness. So we lock up our kids after school instead of letting them play in the streets, we take the keys out of our cars in our driveways and lock our houses at night.
The thinking is circular and so illogical. We know what the right thing to do is because we see it in the good people, we know they are good people because they do good things, they do good things because ... they are good people. Um, wait?

Now Aristotle was attempting to describe a perfect world but as long as selfishness, greed, and evil is present there will not be a perfect world. But that doesn't mean you should not be virtuous or good. What it means is that you must work VERY HARD at being good in a bad world. It also means that we need some OUTSIDE standard that will determine whether what we do is good or not because we cannot rely on the good we see in others.

Now, where did we put that 10 commandments again? Oh, yea, here it is!