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Reflections on Ethics 116
I Believe - - morality (Part 2)

by: Gordon Barthel

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3. Morality is social.

We are social creatures who do virtually everything together from our first breath to our last. We eat, drink, work, play and sleep together. It is entirely possible the only time we are really alone is when we are travelling by ourselves from one social engagement to another.

Being social has many advantages because many people can share life’s burdens and challenges. Many eyes can spot danger long before it becomes a terrifying reality, and many hands can turn the tables on a predator. More important though, many people means we don’t have to know everything about everything because we can specialize. One person can bake, one can cook, one can farm, one can garden, one can raise chickens and goats, one person can build homes, one can make clothes, one can weave fabrics and one can make tools. Everybody benefits from this arrangement because nobody has to be the master of all trades. We just need to be good at one thing and then we can trade our products or services with others in the community. If each of us had to do absolutely everything for ourselves, we would probably be living like the great apes or worse.

As our world gets increasingly complex, it becomes increasingly impossible for one person to accomplish everything on their own. We become more and more dependent on each other for groceries, health care, emergency services, accounting, law enforcement, appliance repairs, education, technical support, social services, etcetera, etcetera. Fortunately, we don’t have to do everything ourselves, we don’t have to know everything about everything and we don’t have to be good at everything. We just need to be able to do at least one thing well enough that somebody will pay us for our labours and then we can pay our way through this complicated world.

We need each other, we depend on each other even for the most mundane pedestrian things. Consider my favourite morning coffee for instance. The young lady walking past the coffee shop usually serves my morning coffee but this is her day off. The architects across the street designed the bistro, my favourite place for a morning coffee, and the woman exiting the office is the interior designer who scoured the antique shops for the curios adorning the walls and shelves. The man at the counter right now drives for the delivery company that drops off the coffee beans from which the café makes my morning java. The gentleman walking the dog works for the health department which keeps an eye on coffee shops and restaurants to ensure my continued health. The woman flagging the taxi is the manager of the accounting firm that handles the café’s finances, thereby ensuring I will have my favourite morning beverage tomorrow, next week, next month and next year. The tradesman pulling his toolbox out of the van helped build this fabulous little bistro while that lady pointing at the church lights is the electrician who wired this café. The young lady with the green hair riding the bicycle is really a computer technician who works hard to keep the internet running so I can find a decent cup of java when I am a thousand miles from my favourite coffee shop. And it is the internet, technically it is the thousands upon thousands of people building and maintaining the world wide web, who helped the foreign lady at the next table find this wonderful little café. As for the gentleman pulling up in the car, he is the appliance technician who has finally arrived to fix the espresso machine. And they all need me to continue my patronage.

We need each other, whether we can trace that interdependence or not, we need each other to keep this complex world of ours running smoothly. And without the most basic moral code, people will stop working together and our complex, interdependent world will begin to crumble. And if that happens, we will no longer have these wonderful little luxuries like a morning coffee, unless we learn to grow coffee beans and process them, roast them and then brew them to perfection, a process that takes years to learn and years to master. That one little cup of coffee seems like such a simple, insignificant luxury, but it is a small part of an interconnected global community. It is a small part of the benefits of human sociability, and human sociability is impossible without rudimentary ethical conduct.

And so, I believe morality is social, behaviour that encourages peaceful living.

4. Morality is discursive.

From the streets to the symposiums, from the legislative halls to the laboratory, morality is open to discussion. We have this unique biological ability to converse, the ability to share our thoughts and feelings about anything and everything from acne to zippers, morality to immorality.

At the most fundamental level is the public discourse, the never-ending discussion about how we feel about our actions and the actions of others. We talk about our emotional response to events, the anger and disgust arising from the dubious conduct of others, and the shame and guilt arising from own questionable behaviour. We talk about how we feel when someone butts in line, how we feel when we butt in line, how we feel about politicians accepting bribes, how we feel about politicians kissing babies, how we feel when an adult kills a toddler, how we feel when a child kills another child, how we feel when a business promises divine cuisine and delivers greasy sludge. The public dialogue is our visceral response to whatever is happening in our lives, the good, the bad, the noble and the heinous.

Our tendency toward intellectual snobbery will undoubtedly try to trivialize the public dialogue, but this public debate establishes the baseline, our moral foundation. It decides what is acceptable, what is commendable, what is tolerable and what is absolutely unacceptable. The intellectuals and the politicians may host the most prominent moral debates, but it is the people and their coffee shop discussions that will ultimately decide what is acceptable and unacceptable. If the intellectuals and the politicians wish to change the moral code, they must convince the people either through good rhetoric or through coercion.

At the other end is the intellectual dialogue in which we discussion the differences between good and bad, right and wrong, helpful and harmful. It is in the intellectual dialogue that we argue controversial topics like euthanasia or doctor assisted suicides. It is in the intellectual debate that we argue the moral merits of giving spare change to indigents imploring us for the coins. It is here that we discuss issues such as unwed mothers and delinquent fathers, birth control, corporate responsibility, pornography and prostitution. It is in the intellectual discussion that we grapple with the ethical ambiguities and ambivalences.

Theologians and philosophers tend to dominate this discussion but anybody can participate if they wish, and most people do participate though they might not describe themselves as intellectuals. The primary difference between the public discourse and the intellectual discussion is the timing. The public discourse is our immediate response to an event, the furious public discussion immediate following news of a horrific rape or murder. Owing to the immediacy, the public discourse addresses a specific event rather than addressing a group of events with similar characteristics. The intellectual discussion addresses the morality of events sharing similar characteristics such as birth control and adultery.

The political debate is where we decide what morals society will impose on everybody and the penalties for violating those morals. Every society outlaws murder, and yet every society has exceptions and the political arena is where we settle that issue. It is in the political debate that we decide if we will excuse one human killing another human provided it is clearly self-defence or clearly to defend the lives of innocent bystanders. This is also where we will decide when one is clearly guilty of murder or they are not criminally responsible due to mental health. It is in the political debate that we will decide at what age a person becomes fully responsible for killing another human while children below that age are granted leniency. Whether a person who kills another human is criminally responsible or not, the political debate will decide what penalties society will impose, whether it is the death penalty, incarceration until death liberates the accused or imprisonment for ten years, twenty years, thirty, forty or fifty years. The political debate is where we decide what moral standards society will impose on everybody and what penalties will apply for any violations.

And then comes the scientific inquiry in which we categorise and quantify morality. Through scientific inquiry we can learn about universal morals, cultural morals and ethical practises in business, medicine, religion and politics. It is through science that we can learn about our moral development from birth to death, and the differences between liberal morals and conservative morals. We can learn about morality across cultures, across history and even across species, and we can even learn about the emotions that arise from different moral events.

The scientific inquiry does not tell us how we must feel about specific events but it will help us recognize those feelings and may offer insight into how different people handle their emotions. The scientific inquiry will not tell what is and is not moral, but will help us recognize what is universal around the world and throughout history. The scientific inquiry cannot tell us where the future of human morality lies, but it can give us insight into the evolution of morality from antiquity to the present, and this may help us move forward. The scientific inquiry will not tell us what to think or feel, but it will give us greater knowledge that we can use to make informed, intelligent choices regarding human morality.

And so, I believe morality is discursive, open to public discourse, intellectual discussion, political debate and scientific inquiry.

I Believe - - morality (Part 3) >

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