Ethics – with a nod to Paul S. … (11/20/2005)


Ethics is one of the broadest, and most elusive, areas to try to work with, IMHO. The reason is that ethics is what YOU do to keep YOURSELF right. It matters not whether we’re talking about being right on the inside, or right in your dealings with others, ethics is still WHAT YOU DO about yourself.

That is not to be confused with JUSTICE, which would be what society exercises when you fail to practice good ethics. For example – good ethics would keep you from stealing a car, in most circumstances at least. However, if you did steal one without an accepted justification (and those are few indeed), society would exercise JUSTICE to remove you as a danger to it’s survival – or more simply put, society would put you in jail.

So, how does one learn ethics? Well, there are the tried-and-true methods, which work for most people. Things like mom & dad telling you it’s not OK to steal, or streak in public, or commit murder. However, that wouldn’t work for everyone, because some people’s parents actually do some of those things, which might teach the child that it’s OK, even if society doesn’t agree.

Another way we can learn ethics is by looking at a bigger picture. One approach to this is to ask the question “What would do the most good for the most people this will affect?” Of course, I do realize that if time-travel were possible, the answer to this question would save more than 12 MILLION lives if we could travel to where Adolf Hitler was standing in 1920. But, on the flip side, in 1920, he was not yet recognised as a threat to anyone, so killing him would probably not be accepted as an ethical action. Catch 22 – would you be willing to spend the rest of your life in an Austrian (or German) prison to prevent 6 million Jews, 6 million Christians, and an uncounted number of military personnel, from dying on the alter of his personal demons?

Still, that is rather extreme. A more practical application might be weighing the benefits of working late against going to your kid’s school play. The project at work is only good for about 15 minutes worth of success, but letting your kid know he/she is important to you will ripple down through the years, and have an impact on how he/she relates to everyone they know or will meet.

Hmmmm……. how much different would the world be if Hitler’s father had been able & willing to spend time in the park with young Adolf? What if he had seen his son’s interest in art, and gently, actively encouraged it? What if the elder Hitler had arranged for his son to intern in Vienne, or Salzburg, or Paris, or some other hot-spot for training painters?

What difference would it make for you to be 15 minutes late to work, if you stopped to help a motorist change a flat tire? What if that motorist turned out to be a heart surgeon who was on their way to a hospital to perform emergency surgery?

I recently read in one of Dan Millman’s books (and I appologize if I mess this up, since I’m recounting it from memory) the account of a farmer, who paused in his chores one day, and heard the cries of a boy who had become trapped in a bog not far away. Rushing over, he helped the boy out, and thought no more of it. The next day, a big fancy carriage pulled up in front of the farmer’s home, and a nobleman got out. He thanked the farmer for saving his boy the day before, and offered to reward him. The farmer declined the reward. So, looking around, the nobleman saw the farmer’s son, and offered to fund the child’s education. He reasoned that, if the boy was anything like his father, he would be well worth the investment, as the child was likely to grow into a man of great integrity. The father agreed to accept that reward. Sure enough – the child completed his studies with high marks, and went on to create a cure for polio – which ultimately again saved the life of the nobleman’s son, with whom he (the son of the farmer) had become good friends. The nobleman’s son? Winston Churchill.

Just suppose what might have happened, for the whole world, if that farmer had decided he was too busy to stop what he was doing to investigate the noise he heard that day. How many chances have you passed up to extend a helping hand to others, because you were too busy to take a minute out of your schedule?

So, how does one learn the answer to the question of what is the greatest good for the most people? One approach is to weigh your options against the question of how your favorite diety would view them. Do you think they would prefer to reward you quest for material gain, or your sacrifice to benefit another? Is success at work worth becoming a failure as a parent and spouse?

Or, is your need for a new $35K car greater than the needs of the women & children living in a local shelter for abused families? Could you perhaps get a $20K car, and donate the other $15K to the shelter, to provide them with safety and food while they are trying to rebuild their lives?

Or, is the building of a new hi-rise office building, in a town that has a 20% vacancy rate of similar buildings, worth the loss of 20 acres of public park land used to facilitate family bonding and fostering better community relationships? On a similar note, is preserving a historic building to use it as a museum, in a town with 200 (or more) similar museums, worth keeping it from being available as a home to a family?

Or, is it worth it to design a new car, in the name of environmental friendliness (or corporate profit, or public safety, or name your pet project), that is so complicated it totally destroys the shade-tree mechanic industry? Wouldn’t it be better to raise the protections to the environment while keeping the vehicles simple enough that anyone with the interest could learn a few rudimentary skills and take care of the maintenance on their own vehicles?

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