Zen Mischief

Ethics and Morals

OK, so what are ethics?

Ethics are essentially personal, and thus my personal ethics are an expression of a personal opinion. But ethics are also collective, in that society comes to some "compromise" (collective, if you prefer) ethical view. That allows, indeed some people's ethics would demand, that I dispute with others as a part of reaching that collective ethical view. Such discussion and dispute in many fields of knowledge and belief, it seems to me, is exactly what has allowed us to escape the Stone Age.

This allows me to disagree with society's collective ethical view. As with all things each of us has to come to our own conclusion, for each and every moral dilemma, on where the line should be drawn for us. But this does not allow me to apply my ethic, rather than my society's ethic, to anyone other than myself; for if I do so then I walk outside the bounds of what society's legal system will permit and will face certain punishment.

We could, thus, have an ethical argument about belief in God, hanging for murder, organ transplants, blood transfusion, operations for appendicitis, fertility treatment, playing football on Sunday, the use of cannabis or alcohol, or indeed the preferred colour for the rabbi's socks. At the end of the day they are all matters of personal choice and conscience. And there will be a variety of personal choice, which collectively will make up society's overall "compromise" view. Only by such debate do we move knowledge forward!

But it isn't quite that simple!

Ethics are also about emotions. My ethics are a reflection of my emotional reactions to, and feelings about, the particular subject. Society's ethics are the consensus, or mean, of the ethics of the individuals making up that society (or at least the way they are perceived and interpreted by those in whom the power to fix the ethics is vested). If you will, ethics is the quantization of emotions.

So why do different people have different views of the world, and thus, different ethics?

The easy answer would be to say it's because God gave us free will. But as I don't do deities, my real answer has to be that I don't know. It could be something to do with evolution: by having a variety of views the fittest (ie. those views which best suit our survival as individuals or as a species, at that time) will survive and progress will be made. This is essentially what Richard Dawkins is talking about when he talks of memes.

However the latest thinking is that we each of us (and I suspect this applies collectively to societies as well as to each of us individually) acts essentially in one of four fundamental ways: Fatalist, Individualist, Egalitarian, Hierarchist. We may move between modes at different times, but when pushed will always want to return to our underlying mode.

Let's briefly describe these four modes.

Fatalist: Why bother? Anything can happen. When they call your number that's it. So what's the point of worrying about anything?
Nature commands me. The risk owns me.

Individualist: The world is here for me to use as I need it. No risk, no reward. Each person has to decide how to act for themselves.
Nature is mine to command. I own the risk.

Egalitarian: Nature must be interfered with as little as possible. There are no safe limits so we must always show caution.
Nature is fragile. Any risk is unacceptable.

Hierarchist: All things are robust within limits, so we must understand the limits and regulate to ensure they're obeyed.
Nature is a management problem. Risk is controlled.

Confused? No-one ever pretended this was easy!


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