Ethics and Principles

I was involved in a conversation yesterday on a subject that has come up a few times over the last few months: the idea of crafting a statement of ethics or list of ethical principles.

I have fairly consistently opposed such initiatives in the past because I do not thing they are effective or worthwhile. I have commented, for example, that statements of such principles don't offer any useful advice to people who are already ethical, while offering the unethical a set of loopholes to hide behind.

The reason for this, I argue, is that ethical principles are not so clearly defined as you would see in a statement of principles, that the issues are not so black and while as the set of precepts would suggest.

The discussion last night turned in a slightly different direction as a participant comment that she was Christian, and so, for her, ethics are black and white. There is a clear distinction between right and wrong, and that is underlined by her faith.

I suggested that she might want to rethink her position - not her Christianity (I don't care whether or not people are Christian; people can choose to be whatever they want) but rather her idea that ethics are so black and white.

This is important. Because while on the one hand the provision of a set of principles - like the Ten Commandments, say - makes it seem like ethics have been clearly defined, the fact of the matter is that they are actually less well defined. Our use of language fools us, by creating the appearance of precision where there is none.

Take, for example, the principle "Thou shalt nGolden Ruleot kill." Christians accept this as one of the Ten Commandments, but many such Christians endorse capital punishment, support the exercise of war, and agree that a person has the right to defend himself. The principle, if uncharitably expressed, could have the force of meaning of "Thou shalt not kill without proper paperwork."

But even notwithstanding these relatively unambiguous considerations, even the slightest examination of the meaning of the words reveals even more lack of clarity. What, for example, is the meaning of 'thou'? If I order the hit, but don't pull the trigger, do I count as a 'thou' in this instance? If I see a set of events about to unfold where I could easily prevent a death, but do nothing, is this a type of killing?

Or consider the scope of the prohibition. It is likely that the original formulation, among Jewish tribes wandering the Negev desert, applied to members of the same tribe only. Otherwise it's hard to reconcile the slaughters that take place later (eg. Numbers 21:24) with the declaration of principles that appears earlier. Humanity has a long tradition of treating people outside one's tribe or nation as barbarians, as non-human. But this tradition has been challenged in recent years, and some - such as Peter Singer - question whether the edict should not apply to the killing of animals as well.

This is not merely a problem for the Ten Commandments; it generalizes to the rest of religion. The Golden Rule, for example, was probably not intended by its authors to apply to masochists and the psychotic, tho whom the infliction of pain is welcomed, not feared. But when we start narrowing the domain of applicability, how do we determine what is reasonable. Should the Golder Rule apply to people who like to be ordered around by others, or should it be a rule that preserves one's freedoms?

Indeed, for pretty much any rule you can think of - religious or otherwise - the same sort of considerations apply. Think of the speeding sign you see at the side of the highway advising that the limit here is 55 (in Canada, this means kilometers per hour). Nobody really believes that the sign is intended to prohibit anyone from going 56.

Certainly, people are not arrested for this. And exceptions for various vehicles apply, along with various circumstances. We know this, which is why the penalty for speeding is not automatically applied, but is rather subject to interpretation. This process is so routine it is often overlooked, but a traffic ticket is a summons to appear in court, where a judge will determine whether the speeding was warranted (we, being reasonable people, know that it usually wasn't warranted, and so simply plead guilty by signing the document and paying the fine).

The difficulty with principles does not lie in religion, nor does it lie in the statement of the law. It is not as though we could somehow get our religious edits more correct, our commandments more precisely worded, our laws clearer and less ambiguous. Indeed, the more we try to make our laws more precise, the more the opposite seems to happen - they become so complex as to lose all meaning whatsoever, and it takes an expert to know whether a "speed limit" means anything of the kind.

No, the problem, rather, lies with language itself.

Language is a great imposter. Language fools us. It allows us to draw out these grand abstractions - everything from "red" to "brick" to "freedom" to "good" - and to treat them as crystalline-sharp concepts, the world clearly delineated, the 'red' separated from the 'non-red', the 'good' separated from the 'non-good'.

The words, however, are coarse blunt instruments. Far from being precise, by their very abstraction they seek to denote sets or classes of objects, and through their opacity, they leave undefined all manner of cases.

When is an entity red or not red? When is an action good or not good?

Crucially: the words themselves do not tell us.

By contrast, consider mathematics, where it is part of the meaning of '4' that '4+4=8'. No such structure applies to words. A word, without a definition derived by means of entities external; to the word, is merely a puff of empty air, a scrawl of meaningless symbols. Something must show us what counts as 'red', what counts as 'good'. For merely telling replaces one set of empty symbols with another, one vague meaning for another.

This is why, in my opinion, you cannot define ethics, nor adduce ethical behaviour in students, by postulating a statement of ethics or principles. Because without immediate and detailed interpretation, such principles are meaningless abstractions, undefined and confounding in their contradictions. Though a statement appears to be clear, it is not clear, and indeed, the more widely subscribed a statement of belief, the less clear it is.
So how, then, do we teach ethics?

Rather than to tell students how to behave, we should show them how to behave, by ourselves acting in an ethical manner, and by placing in their view other examples of ethical behaviour. Thus they will be able to observe, in as complete clarity as the totality of their senses can provide, ethical behaviour, and will learn what this means in the most full and complete sense, and not as abridged and abstracted by words.

For example, to return to "Thou shalt not kill," I suggested in the discussion that a more accurate formulation might be something like "respect for life." Now what constitutes "respect for life" is a multi-faceted and complex affair, which may involve eating other life forms in one instance while acting to spare their lives and alleviate their suffering in another. We can have a sense of what constitutes "respect for life" without being able to state exactly what it means.

That said, we can point to, and highlight, respect for life through numerous examples and experiences. We can - through our actions and behaviours (expressions of revulsion, say) and not just our words, convey what we feel to be instances of respect (or non-respect) for life. The people we highlight and adulate - people like Nightingale and Schweitzer and Bethune - will convey (in part) what we mean by "respect for life".

The reason we approach the teaching of ethics in this way is that it provides concrete examples a student can use to identify similar cases in the future. Instead of attempting to associate a future behaviour with a bare word, the behaviour is associated with a wide variety of cues, an entire matrix of factors, the bulk of which are not describable (or even conceived) in language.

None of this should be taken to mean that we do not talk about what we believe to be ethical behaviour, nor should it be taken to mean that we should cast students out on the world with no guidance in the matter. We need, minimally, to point approvingly to cases we believe are positive instances. Our words, our conversations, can aid students in watching what to look for in such cases.

It is only when we mistakenly say that the words are the ethical principles themselves that we run into trouble. So long as the words are like signposts or nudges in the right direction, we are fine. But the right direction is not defined by the words - it is defined strictly and solely by the examples themselves, by the paradigm cases of ethical behaviour.

This is important to understand when considering the most common sort of objection to this proposal.

How, some people ask, will we ensure that students actually do learn the ethical principle from the examples? How can they get from the examples to the statement that "Thou shalt not kill" unless we actually give them the statement?

And my answer is: they won't. But also, that it doesn't matter, because the statement wasn't ever the ethical principle in the first place.

We do not really believe "thou shalt not kill". Not because it's wrong, but because the statement offers no concrete proposition to believe in; it is just a vague fuzzy generality that means nothing.

Rather, what we believe - individually and even more so collectively - is much more complex, much more finely nuanced, much more ineffable - something that is (more or less) like 'respect for life', something that we (as intuitive processors of complex information) can recognize as ethical behaviour, something that we can know that we are emulating, even without being able to say how we are emulating it.

My proposition, in short, is that knowledge of ethics is what Polanyi would call tacit knowledge, that it is (like other knowledge) more like a skill than it is the possession of some set of facts or creed.

It is not based on some sort of inference from foundational principles (such as utilitarianism or the categorical imperative), it is not calculated or worked out (such as game theory) but is rather felt as an instance of previous experiences of behaviours characterized as ethical. It is, as Hume said, as though we have a sense of right and wrong. We know that something is ethical in the same way we know that something is a tree.

This is important, because it tells us that even if we decide to embrace the other approach, and to formulate some statement of ethics or principles, this is not in fact what the students are learning when they are learning what constitutes ethical behaviour.

They are still looking at the examples around them - they are looking at the behaviour of the people defined as 'good' in their society, (presumably) their parents, their teachers, and their leaders. They are observing what sort of behaviours are celebrated, what sort of behaviours are rewarded, what sort of behaviours are thought of as normal, not just in their classroom, but at home and in the community, on television, in the newspapers, and increasingly, on the internet.

If they are learning the sort of thing that I am learning, they are learning that the law is something to hide behind, that the drafting of ethical principles is a means of distracting attention from bad behaviour.

But they are also, I think, learning something like a genuine morality, a global ethic - as expressed in Michael Wesch's video, a desire for global community and harmony, for the idea that we are one, that we have to care about our planet and each other. Because it is becoming increasingly difficult to shelter students from instants of this global ethic; even in a world where mass media permeates a parochial ethic of self-interest, destruction and waste, people are (now) able to see beyond that, to the much more common and much more compelling examples of ethical behaviour in society.

I think that by understanding how people learn about ethics we are in a much better position to advance that knowledge, rather than redirecting our efforts toward teaching practices that are, at best, futile, and at worst, expose our behaviour as hypocritical.


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