Ethical Guidebook

A discussion of the difference between our personal values and our public ethics, how mature citizens can support both, and why our love for public ethics must trump our love for personal and group values when they conflict in the public space. Ethics offers a guidebook for evaluating public issues and finding multilateral solutions to endless cycles of values centric conflicts and unilateral violence.

Friday, September 22, 2006

The philosopher Voltaire is often quoted for his seemingly contradictory statement, "I detest what you write, but I would give my life to make it possible for you to continue to write.". This is not a contradiction, it is a statement that values - what each wrote - is different than ethics - how each accomodates the fact that their values are different. Voltair strongly believed in his own values, AND he believed equally strongly in the importance of ethical principles that enable coexistence of different values. Many will lay down their life for inward-facing values like home and family, and - if they think about it at all - many will also lay down their life for outward-facing ethics like upholding liberty for people who have different values as well as their own values, as Voltaire so eloquently stated.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

The pope recently created a furor over comments about other religions and attempted to clarify them by saying religion is more closely aligned with reason than with aggression as a solution to differences. An Ethical analysis might suggest otherwise, given that religion is essentially based on belief systems that have historically had major conflicts with reason and the evolution of science, with differences arbitrated within hierarchially defined closed group values that do not necessitate accomodation of others. This inherent difference between religion and reason has in fact historically often lead to the kind of other group demonization that winks at aggressive solutions towards those less like ourselves. To the extent the pope is saying this is not true, it suggests that Ethics - some acceptance of fair play and rights beyond the closed group - has crept into the equasion, which is good. In this case the pope should be applauded for supporting that broader enlightened vision of humanity as having both shared ethics based on reason and science with differences arbitrated by an innate human sense of individual rights and fair play, as well as strong personal values such as those based on religous faith and our born or chosen group memberships.

There's a fundamental difference between Ethics and Values that has been blurred to the advantage of fundamentalists on all sides. Ethics is about fair play, rule of law, conditional police actions, and consideration and accomodation of those less like me as well as those more like me. Values is about getting ahead for our team, rule of hierarchies, unlimited war, and demonizing the other guy. Let's make sure we include some analysis of support (or not) for Ethics in the discussion of issues, not just different Values butting heads...

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Thoughts on the importance of small crimes committed many times: how each of us deals with small ethical issues -

I find it easy to focus on ethical issues when there is a spike in behavior that is so egregious as to draw broad public attention.

But compared to the occasional major event, I am simply not very good at understanding the equally massive scope of small crimes committed many times, or at addressing them, even though they may occur in smaller, much more personally addressable instances.

This means there is some significance to how I choose to deal with the public ethics of small things as well as large. For example, winking at ethically questionable behavior is easy to do if the issue doesn't directly conflict with my personal values or disadvantage those more like me or who grew up closer to me, even when they add up to large burdens on those disadvantaged.

A common example is bullying behavior. If I perpetrate or recognize it, do I choose to consider it ok, or wink and ignore it if it is directed at those less like me or those who do not share my personal or group values? Or do I choose to not perpetrate or wink, but instead speak up for the importance of good public manners or befriend those being bullied? How we deal with bullying - whether in the context of schoolyard gangs, office politics, or racial issues - is an important ethical choice that greatly shapes the world we share, as much as how we participate in or respond to catastrophic, broadly discussed examples of unethical behavior.

Another simple example is the ethics of personally enjoyable or contextually 'necessary' personal or family self interest that affects resource consumption or pollution. Those personal value choices usually seem publicly common, innocuous, and even mundane, but scientifically have demonstrably large collective public environmental impacts that may greatly disadvantage others less like us or born into less fortunate starting circumstances, or affect all of us in the longer run.

So while I find it hard to stop and consider ethics when making personal value decisions - especially when they are in my near-term self-interest - clearly there is an ethical choice to be made when my small choices have cumulative major impacts on others.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Ethics is the secular loom that binds the warp and woof of different values.

I accept and honor strongly held personal beliefs and the supporting threads of like minded groups. This is what makes up the fabric of society, regardless of where each of us are coming from. Society tends to refer to these threads of like-minded character, faith, ethnicity, nationiality or shared culture of this or that group membership, 'values'.

However those threads of personal and group membership values alone do not necessarily knit with other threads beyond those who grew up close to you or are more like you. The ties that bind beyond the scope of localized and personal, are the warp and woof of secular society.

Some pretty eloquent folks in history, from a rainbow of different value groups, have pointed out that we are apparently all born with some innate human cognitive sense for registering and recognizing fair play, we all seem to embrace a universal desire for freedom to practice our born or chosen set of personal, localized, and shared group values, and we all respect and desire some sort of mitigation of equitable justice when values conflict beyond that scope. Society tends to refer to these shared underlying, global human desires for a level playing field, 'ethics'.

Rather than a 'moral dilemma' of values butting heads, or 'hypocracy' for not standing up for your values, what we usually have is a choice as to how to mitigate
differing personal values in the context of public ethics. Therefore I see no sense of contradiction, hypocracy, or conflict when our values conflict with our ethics, but rather a healthy maturity and enlightenment if we recognize and apply each within the appropriate scope. These mitigating ethics include simple rules about respecting and honoring differences, neither bullying nor shunning those who have different values, and - here's the real test - putting our personal commitment to ethics above our personal commitment to our closed set of values when we have opportunity for input to secular rules and decisions like electing politicians, passing laws, saving gas, and sitting on juries.

Each of us has a slider on which we adjust decisions based on how our sense of values and allegiance to family or clan balances against our sense of ethics, regardless of religion or creed. We each decide whether to ask what kind of decisions we're making that affect others, and whether those decisions are values based (benefit folks who grew up closer to me or more like me) or ethics based (honor some human sense of fairness and a framework for decisions that accomodates differences). To the extent we support a level playing field and honor differences without prosteletizing or expecting everyone else to change, I'd say we are being more ethical and less values bound.

The message of the enlightenment to me was that folks within and without religious affiliations recognized it is impossible to define acceptable society as just a larger group of shared values. It requires a will and a means to implement secular mitigation of differences to weave a fabric of life that includes folks who are different and still enjoy it. In that context it's not important to nitpick the differences because frankly they don't matter if we all accept the need for a level secular playing field. Is that good? If you think so, I think that's great.