First posted 5 May 2005. These days... actions, words, beliefs are all equally 'parts' of what happens. What a person says and does is what the person is. The speaking of the words is just a subset of the actions. The actions owe no consistency to one another, but rather each renders consistency with the moment in which it happens, of which it is a part.
Are a person's actions the true expression of their beliefs? Part of me thinks so. I think the existentialists have a point when they say the real votes are the ones that we make with our feet. If you say you value integrity but routinely tell white lies, then you really don't value integrity (at least as it applies to you). Our actions define us.
Yet I have a couple of doubts. The first one, you might call Catholic. The Catholics (among others) recognise our fundamental human frailty and might say that the white lies in the example above do not speak against the person's values themselves, but rather against the person's discipline and strength in attempting to live by those values. I have a little time for this angle, but not much.
The more significant doubt is based on the unconscious activities of our brains, and it really comes down to the definition of belief. If we define a belief as a wholly conscious mental product, and if we admit that many of the drivers of our actions are sub- or unconscious ones, then we would have to disagree with the existentialists. We believe one thing as conscious beings, but we are not ONLY conscious beings. It is unsurprising that our actions, which have sources outside the conscious realm, do not speak with the same voice as the conscious mind.
On the other hand, if a belief is a mental entity that includes not just conscious components but unconscious ones as well, then I guess we would say that the conscious mental formulation or utterance that we imprecisely call a belief is actually something thinner and less complete than the real belief - just a shadow of a belief. This, I guess, paves the way back to the existentialist conclusion that only the 'whole package' (both conscious and unconscious) as demonstrated through action constitutes the real belief.
'A cadet will not lie, cheat or steal, nor tolerate those who do.'
Thus spake the Honor Code at West Point. Anyone deemed to be in violation of it had to appear before an 'Honor Board' in which the alleged facts of the case and any defense were presented to a 'jury' of peers, who would decide whether the charged cadet was 'found' (guilty) or 'not found.' A cadet found on an honor violation was punished severely, most often by expulsion from the academy.
The rationale for the weight placed on the honor code lay in the absolute trust that one officer must have in another in the profession of arms. As an officer of the state's armed forces, one's character and actions had to be beyond reproach. We all took it very seriously.
The first three elements of the code were relatively simple:
Don't lie - period. Not about your age when trying to buy alcohol, not about where you were when a surprise inspection the night before had detected you were not in your own room.
Don't cheat - period. Not on your homework. Not in an exam. Not when doing your push-ups for the physical fitness test.
Don't steal - period. This one, unlike the two above, hardly ever tripped anyone up.
The fourth element of the code - called the non-toleration clause - was more personally demanding, as it required that you report any known cadet infringements of the code. It didn't matter whether the culprit was someone you didn't know or your best friend, a rival or someone you owed a favour to. If you were found to have known of a violation and to have failed to report it, then you were in violation yourself.
My sense was always that cadets accepted the first three elements without question, but that some harbored doubt about the non-toleration clause. The trouble lay in the clause's perceived undermining of the value of camaraderie - another essential glue among military professionals. You had to know that your buddy would be there for you, no matter what. You were a team, in it together. Yet the non-toleration clause could be seen as flying in the face of that tightness.
In the end, I subordinated camaraderie as a stand-alone value to the principle of non-toleration. This was, of course, in keeping with what the academy wanted us to do, and I bought the official reasoning: camaraderie, team spirit, is not commendable when it serves an ignoble end (e.g. lying, cheating, stealing). Were we to elevate camaraderie above our ethical principles, we might find ourselves supporting cover-ups of looting, massacres, rapes or genocide during war, in the interest of 'protecting buddies'. I certainly didn't think that would be right. I do think that most at the academy bought into the non-toleration clause as I did, but it wouldn't shock me to learn that a (quiet) minority prioritised camaraderie instead.
I graduated from West Point in 1988. In 2002, I received a message from another academy grad, asking me to get in touch. I must have copied the phone number incorrectly, because I was unable to reach him. He left a further message and expressed a certain urgency to speak with me. Although we knew one another pretty well as cadets, we had never been especially close friends. Without other clear ideas for why he might be phoning, I suspected he might be looking for a job with my current employer and hoping for some help.
When we finally caught up with one another by phone, we engaged in the usual talk-once-a-decade chit chat about where our lives had got to, etc. He then adopted a very sober tone and said that something had been digging at his conscience for years and that he needed to make a confession to me.
He went on to remind me (I had no recollection) that he had been charged with an honor violation during my final year at the Academy and that he had called me as a character witness. I 'testified' as to my views of his character at the time, and in the end - on the basis of all the assembled evidence - he was not found. His confession to me in this phone call, you will have guessed, was that he had committed the offence, the details of which I can't remember.
It had obviously taken some real courage for him to come out with that, and I told him that I appreciated his call and admired him for undertaking to set the record straight with me. He did the same with every person who was involved in the case, and indeed with the Academy itself. For me, that is sufficient to expunge the stains from that period of weakness at West Point, but I'm not sure what the Academy's official view is.
Can honor, once lost, be recovered? I would like to think so.
First posted 10 Nov 2003. Pretty much agree with these Doug-made proposals for ground-rules to a man-made ethics.
I sat down to hash out an ethical framework, arrogantly thinking I could generate a coherent set of thoughts on the subject. Having realised that I need to put a lot more thought into anything approaching what I might call my ethical system (and realising that I haven't posted anything in several days) I decided to share the sketchy notes I've come up with so far:
First posted 31 Oct 2003. I seem to have forgotten one of the most obvious sources - of moral behaviour if not morality itself - fear of sanction / punishment. My sense remains that right and wrong, like good and bad, are man-made and therefore only 'natural' in the sense that man is part of nature.
I said in Right and wrong that right and wrong do not exist anywhere outside of human minds, that they are created by us and grounded in a number of bases: 1) our awareness of our own mortality, 2) our empathetic feelings (outside the 'heat of the moment') toward others, 3) our ability to generalise through reason from our own specific desires and needs to those of others, 4) our recognition that the overall gains from co-operation are greater than those possible in unbridled competition, and (unfortunately) 5) the drive of some to manipulate and control others. Let me go into a bit more detail on these bases.
Knowledge of our own mortality
Although I think we need to realise much more clearly that we are animals, more like our other two, four, six, eight and thousand legged friends than we would like to admit, I'll focus for a bit on one important way in which I think we differ from them: we are able to contemplate our own death. This brings a new dimension to our life, an overlay to the strong survival instinct that we share with non-human animals. We can conceptualise a world carrying on after we are gone. We puzzle and wonder at what happens to us after earthly death. We construct elaborate plans and form long-term expectations for how to get the most of our time. In some ways, this gets in the way of just plain living. But it also makes us realise (a cognitive operation only we have) what death brings an end to.
Empathy for others
We can also empathise with the feelings of others. I'm not sure to what extent other animals share this ability, but when it is combined in us with the point above, it becomes quite powerful as an emotional barrier to taking the lives of those we are close enough with to share empathetic bonds. Empathy also makes us want to help others avoid pain (other things being equal). But empathy, unfortunately, resembles gravity in that its strength diminishes rapidly with distance. The 'further' another is from us, in terms of geography, relationship or similarity of appearance or belief, the less empathetically we feel towards them.
We tend to feel the plight of a starving child in our street more than one in Africa. We care more for members of our family than we do others. The same holds, albeit less strongly, for citizens of our country or members of our church. We empathise less with those who espouse views with which we disagree strongly. Even as regards animals, we cannot bring ourselves to kill a fluffy warm rabbit, but we squash spiders and insects without a second thought.
Call me on this if I am wrong. I don't want to ascribe to mankind that which I feel myself. As a matter of fact, that has been one of the main problems with using empathy as a foundation for ethical behaviour, as some have tried. These well-meaning, kind, generous writers assumed that everyone was as nice as they were and said, 'Can't we all just get along?' I don't want to assume that everyone is as much a bastard as I am (but I have a hard time avoiding it). This is not to say that I or others do not care for people far away or unlike us. I'm just claiming that empathy is not universal in its strength.
Generalising from our own interests to those of others (Universalisation)
Can't we appeal to our reason, as that which most separates us from other animals, as a foundation for ethics? Kant thought so, that pure reason could show us how to behave. I don't see this as possible, mainly because I see reason as morally inert. It could tell us how to best achieve a certain end, but morality largely concerns settling on what those ends should be. Reason can give a map to the objective, but it can't pick the objective on its own. But that doesn't mean we can't put it to good use.
We know that we have fundamental interests in life. Many involve keeping others, including governments, from interfering with our lives - by killing us, hurting us, stealing from us, or telling us what we can and can't think and do. Some require positive action from others - like giving us food or medical help when we can't gain access to them ourselves. If these interests are legitimate for us, then they must also be legitimate for others who, let's face it, are pretty much like us in most important aspects. We can generalise from our own interests to those of others, thereby providing a basis for respecting their needs.
Too bad, though, that our reason is at least as good at finding differences as it is at finding similarities. Having identified the differences between ourselves and others, we are then all too good at using them as justification for different moral standing, different treatment, different rights. This shows unsurprising intellectual parallels with the emotion of empathy mentioned above. 'He doesn't even pay taxes. Why should my hard-earned money go to supporting him?'
Seeing the non-zero-sum game
One reason for us to subscribe to laws that restrict our behaviour is that we see we are better off under the protection of those laws than we would be in the freer but more dangerous world that would exist without them. We pay taxes because they give us public goods and services that might not be provided under a pure profit motive. We accept income redistribution because it reduces the plight of a group of people who might otherwise feel left behind by 'the sytem' and turn to crime to get by. We lock ourselves into contracts because those legal documents provide a framework for cooperation, without which neither we nor our partners could achieve the goals toward which we strive. Perhaps I would not be reaching too far if I said that we behave ethically, at least in part, because we expect it to increase the likelihood that others will behave ethically toward us.
This works most of the time for most people. But like empathy and universalisation, it is not foolproof. The fly in the ointment is that not everyone plays by the rules. It pays to cheat if you can do so without getting caught. A fair chunk of our most advanced evolution is explained by an 'arms race' among brains (and the genes that build them) that could cheat in seemingly reciprocal altruistic exchanges and brains (often in the same head!) that could detect and punish cheaters. This may go a long way toward explaining our sense of moral outrage, our heightened senses of perception in situations with moral overtones, and our big brains in general. It also provides the most compelling justification for punishment, which has nothing to do with exacting revenge on or attempting to rehabilitate the cheater who has been caught and everything to do with publicly demonstrating what happens to cheaters so as to deter others from trying it themselves. While detection and punishment can maintain a degree of trust in the integrity of 'the system', they are imperfect. Hence cheaters are still plentiful today.
Since none of these human answers provides an air-tight ethical system, a guarantee that people will behave 'well' toward one another, leaders have often turned to manipulation. One of the simplest ways has been to piggyback on some other basic human needs (largely tied to the recognition of our own mortality mentioned above) via religion. I say piggyback because I believe that religious belief would flourish irrespective of its value to church and government leaders as an ultimate grounding for ethics and law. People want to know where they are from, how they fit into the big picture, where they will go when they die on Earth.
But what an opportunity it gave to the powerful! 'Do this.' 'Why?' 'Because God, your maker, your father, your ultimate judge and jury, says so!' Can't afford enough policemen to keep a watch on all the potential cheats and subversives? Hire God! He's watching all the time. His punishment is not confined to earthly dimensions - it is infinite and eternal! You can't beat that. Am I saying that all leaders who cite God are acting manipulatively? No. Do I suspect most? Yes.
Don't get me wrong. I'm not saying manipulation is 100% bad. For instance, if without it we would have an anarchic society with no foundations, then it might be justified. Because I don't believe in any non-human basis for morality and because I don't think everyone will ever agree to a given ethical code, I do see governments (to the extent that they are representative, and there is much we can do, even in Western democracies, to improve that) as the ultimate underwriters of right and wrong. Over time, we can hopefully see greater cooperation and convergence among state governments - and ideally (but I'm a pessimist) fusion of them into a world governing body.
Wait, I need to be careful here. I see individuals, not governments as the true creators of right and wrong. If an individual disagrees vehemently with a law under which he lives, he should 1) do everything he can to convince his countrymen and his government to change that law and, if necessary 2) act according to his conscience in disobeying that law. However, if (1) fails and an individual moves on to (2), then that person needs to accept the punishment meted out to him (by a representative government via the due process of law).
I have moved from a discussion of ethics and morality into one about law and civil disobedience. That is a direct result of my beliefs that we are the creators, definers of right and wrong and that there is no possible pure, irreducible and irrefutable ethical system. We have to work with the best we have.
First posted 26 Oct 2003. Much of this reasoning still holds for me today. The original, though, had a sniping, accusatory, condescending tone toward religion, which I've toned down even for re-posting. As a matter of fact, Mark's "...love thy neighbour as thyself." is probably the core of my ethical beliefs these days, turbocharged by seeing that your neighbour IS yourself (but that will take a bit more explaining).
There is no ethical dimension to the universe per se. Nothing, intrinsically, is right or wrong, good or evil. Everything just is. Along with any other self-conscious beings that exist out there, we humans define right and wrong, and it is all too obvious that we disagree among ourselves on many of the finer points. We must simultaneously accept that there is no irreducible moral formula and commit to continuing a pluralistic ethical dialog.
Nearly all of us have a righteous element literally bred into us, and our social conventions reinforce this. This combination of factors means we can hardly help believing that what we (each of us) defines as right is right not by virtue of our definition but as a universal fact, which we simply recognise rather than create. Nonetheless, the right and the wrong are human children, born of a combination of mental ancestors - 1) our awareness of our own mortality, 2) our empathetic feelings (outside the 'heat of the moment') toward others, 3) our ability to generalise through reason from our own specific desires and needs to those of others, 4) our recognition that the overall gains from co-operation are greater than those possible in unbridled competition, and (unfortunately) 5) the drive of some to manipulate and control others.
In one sense, our search for universal ethical truths is good. I would like to think that humanity can agree to at least a broad set of principles that all individuals should be held to in their actions and interactions. In this sense, a 'universal' system is probably attainable, although its granularity is limited.
But there is another sense of 'universal' that I don't like at all. For a great part of our history as humans, many have appealed to fixed, closed, non-debatable rules, dictated by an almighty power whom they see as the foundation, the underwriting of morality. I'll write more on religion some other time, but for now I'll just say that I find it dangerous to ascribe to a higher power (who just happens to look like you and believe the things that your culture brought you up to believe) the regulatory minutiae that should govern the world.
Since I see it as a human institution, I fear that the church often has reason number (5) at the heart of its teachings and persecutions. Let's not seek to anchor right and wrong in a universal god or any other thing outside ourselves. I'm not sure, given the world we experience, how it could exist 'out there', and if it did, I don't think that I would trust anyone else in the role of seer and interpreter of the universal truth.
In the past several centuries, many more clever than me have searched diligently for a watertight secular system of ethics, usually basing it in number (3) above, or perhaps in number (2) by way ascribing to all the feelings that they themselves have. I can't pretend to have a simple, univariate, exceptionless system, but I do think that recognising the list above might help us in our moral discourse with one another. Of course, the truth is that we will continue to come up with different detailed answers. It is equally true that we will all need to be on the lookout for those who dress up number (5) in the finery of the previous four.
But perhaps we can establish and build on a core set of principles. Candidates are all around us. Often the biggest obstacle is the 'insider-outsider' syndrome. National laws (most likely those in liberal democracies) set up quite good frameworks for how citizens should deal with one another. They all too often fail to apply the same principles to those outsiders struggling remotely, unknown and unfelt.
I've done little more than put a marker in the ground here - attempting to slay the dragon of superhuman morality with a couple quick thrusts and suggesting the real drivers behind our conceptions of right and wrong. In another post, sometime soon, I'll put forward my (hardly original) view that ethical choices should be based on their predicted consequences and that the real task before us is to move to an inclusive conception of well-being with which to measure those consequences.
I'm curious. I like looking beneath and behind the obvious, also looking for what is between me and the obvious, obscuring or distorting my view.