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Reflections on Ethics 80
Some Reflections on Ethics

by: Paul W. Sharkey

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What is ethics really about? Most people seem to think it is about what is right or wrong, good or bad. However, for my own part, and after many many years of both personal and professional reflection, I have come to the conclusion that that view misses the most central, defining and profound point about what ethics is really about: Ethics is not (except only secondarily) about right, wrong, good or bad but rather about responsibility.

The word ethics is itself derived from the Greek word ethos which means habits, customs or behaviors. Aristotle coined the term over two millennia ago in his attempt to understand and discuss the relation between our habits, customs and behaviors and their consequences for our sense of well-being and happiness. In so doing, he set forth some principles he believed to be more conducive to promoting happiness, both individually and collectively. Ever since (and even before) the emphasis has seemed to be more on arguing about such principles and various notions of what is good or bad, right or wrong than about responsibility – still less about taking responsibility for those principles or notions themselves.

What passes for ethics these days seems to me to be nothing more than competing views of what is right, wrong, good and bad, which attempt to appeal to some supposed “authority,” whether divine decree, natural propensity, or abstract ethical theory, to “justify” – rather than take responsibility for – those views themselves. In short, much of what goes by the name of “ethics” is in my view not really ethics at all but rather some attempt to avoid it.

The only one, true and unavoidable fact about ethics is that our habits, customs, and behaviors (everything we think, say, and do) have consequences and we are responsible for them all, including our views about ethics.

Are there beliefs and behaviors more conducive to our happiness and well being, both individually and collectively? Sure there are. But they are not found by blindly wedding oneself to some set of “commandments” or uncritically following any theory, system or other set of rules or principles, whether sacred or secular. All such approaches are in truth nothing more than just various and competing theories about how to go about making decisions about what to believe and how to behave, i.e, our habits, customs and behaviors. The truly free and virtuous person is one who accepts full and complete personal responsibility for those decisions, how they are made and their consequences, not one who attempts to avoid it by trying to blame or make someone or something else responsible for them – whether it be a god, some other person(s), institution, or even some abstract ethical theory.

Among the things at least some humans seem capable of is the ability to learn from their mistakes. In order to do so however, one must be able not only to see but also to take responsibility for the relation between one’s beliefs, behaviors and their consequences. It is therefore possible to fail to learn from one’s mistakes in two ways: through ignorance and/or irresponsibility. The interesting thing to me is that the way to overcome ignorance (a sometimes understandable and forgivable thing) is by taking responsibility.

Not knowing – being ignorant – of something is not in-itself a moral failing. We are all ignorant of a great deal. Being irresponsible, however, is. In fact, it is the very essence of moral failure as well as the basis for the perpetuation of ignorance.

The means for overcoming ignorance, (i.e., how we learn) is the same whether in science or in ethics. It is a matter of testing our beliefs by seeing whether they stand up to the realities of the relation between actions and their consequences irrespective of whether it be by conducting some scientific experiment or engaging in some personal behavior. Again, the very essence of ethics is the relation between our beliefs, behaviors and their consequences, and of taking responsibility for them. In either case whether in science or in ethics, it is always and only a matter of whether in-fact our beliefs about whether “By doing X, Y will occur!” are true. The refusal or failure to recognize and accept this most basic of facts is a refusal or failure to be willing to learn.