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.

Monday, October 02, 2006

The Driving Roots of Ethics

In terms of genetic evolution and historical record, all people to some extent carry two distinct drives that often conflict. Both are important to individual and collective survival, and either one by itself lacks a full and reasonable definition of our common humanity.

The first drive is toward values and morals, defined largely in terms of 'belonging' or close identity with those similar to themselves or those who grew up nearer to them (fill in family, team, religion, race, nation or whatever group serves the same values and interests as yourself). This kind of belonging can be and often is justified based largely on faith and beliefs that are internally self-interested and consistent, but not necessarily shared outside that group.

The evolutionary roots of self-interest are pretty self-evident to most people, especially when considered in terms of limited scope and anecdotal example. Solutions to problems of self-interest are seen as 'just' when resolved in terms of internal group rules defined and justified through internally accepted dogma, and when enforced internally by those who provide leadership to the group that benefits directly from the enforcement (in the classic sense, high enough a 'moral authority' within the accepted framework to act as judge, jury and executioner). Problem resolution beyond internal disputes is typically implemented through escalation scales of devaluation and demonization of those different, and the application of unilateral and even pre-emptive force (eg armies who are meeting the group mission to go after the bad guys can do so without major regard for anyone else outside the group who is in the way). While the internal value system may include sympathy for those different, this does not necessarily include empathy for their continued right to be different without considering something 'wrong' with them. This keeps 'the family' strong and preserves 'tradition' very effectively, but only if considered from a unilateral and exclusively self-interested point of view.

The second drive is toward looking outside the individual and group centered experience toward common human principles and ethics of problem resolution with minimal violence. This drive is again generated in each of us natively to some extent, and based on the capacity to imagine the other and value our common right to each pursue our own interests. This is the basis of 'empathy' or broader identity with those who are not necessarily similar or those who grew up further away, without assuming they would be 'better off' if they were 'more like us'. This would include how we deal with strangers, sports leagues, foreigners, other races, other sexual orientations, other religions, other nations, and other group have needs or aspire to longer term common interests that may differ from or even conflict with our own group's near or long term term self-interest. This kind of empathy can be and often is justified based on larger principles like fair play and selflessness, and 'the general wellbeing including ourselves' when considered beyond the scope of short-term self-interest whether or not inherently compatible with internal dogmatic consistency.

While the evolutionary roots of empathy are not as self-evident to most people, they are born out in the often observed inherent childhood ability to sense 'unfairness', and in both history and science as testable and recognized drivers of self interest whenever considering the larger scope and longer term definitions of self-interest.

Solutions to problems of ethics are seen as 'just' when resolved in terms of generalized rules of fair play defined through consortia over time and when enforced externally by disinterested parties that do not benefit directly from the enforcement (eg dispassionate judicial infrastructure, juries of peers, legal enforcement). Problem resolution is typically implemented through escalation scales of administrative jurisdictions and diplomacy, with disinterested party or multilateral enforcement as last restorts (eg police, who even then cannot shoot into a crowd just because there's a bad guy there, or multilateral rather than unilateral international arbitration (with or without force). Even those demonized by one inward facing values group or another at a given historical moment (with or without justification), are granted due process.

Therefore two conclusions arise. We carry both an innate human drive toward self-serving values, and an innate societal drive toward frameworks for fair play on larger playing fields. This means we cannot really equate moral values with ethical principles or define ethics as just a bigger version of morals because by definition they often can and must inherently conflict in both scope and goals. They form the polar extants of many-a-supposed-dilemma.

Seen clearly as two separate and equally important human drives, it is not appropriate to call it a dilemma at all when one's personal values and one's public ethics conflict. It is instead a human condition requirement to recognize there is a difference, recognize we need both, and recognize the need to find mature means to balance both, rather than try to remake or extend one into the other. Frankly the reason both philosophers and your average pundit have historically struggled with supposed 'moral dilemmas', is often that we fail to make this simple syntactic and real world functional distinction. The solution to the supposed dillema is to recognize the importance and appropriateness for survival with minimal violence, requires supporting both internal personal and group values AND arbitration through external public ethics - fair play, principles and justice.

The latter supports a mix of different internal values, the former never can. So it can never be called ethical, if one set of moral values is defined as the only and exclusive external justice, if it reduces the ability of others to pursue their own internal personal and group moral values. Even if one set of values is 'in the majority', or the tenents overlap ethical principles, this cannot define an ethical solution because the rights of minorities are inherently part of ethics but not
necessarily part of a moral creed, and most evidently when the supposed overlap (our values define all aspects of how to relate to others) shows rough edges. The only fair balance is to make it possible for each to pursue their own values specifically to the extent they do not infringe on others, but never to dictate the values of others or how differences are arbitrated.

So to apply this reasoning to those that would somehow equate the definition of a good civic society with the tenents of a specific moral creed, the 'worship' of a Constitution is not at all like worshiping a moral creed for a larger team, or just a superset where values happen to overlap. It's basically saying 'here are the rules of football, go worship whatever team you want'.

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