Values, Ethics, and Society
While much has been written about so-called crises of faith in the life cycle of individuals, what is seldom recognised, and even when so recognised, usually dismissed, is that societies also undergo crises of faith.
A societal crisis of faith occurs when the values that produced a particular incarnation of a society no longer correspond to the values held by the individuals and organisations holding economic, political, and social power in that society. Paradoxically, these value changes seem to occur first on a social level. In reality the changes are already far advanced by the time they appear, because in most societies social standing and mobility lag behind economic and political power. Those with economic power seldom wish to flaunt values at variance with social norms, and those in the political arena prefer a protective coloration that in fact straddles the perceived range of values. while ostensibly preferring the most popular of values ...
Although all stable societies rest firmly on a consensus of values, invariably the individuals in those societies prefer not to discuss those values, except in glittering generalities, not because they are unimportant, but because they are so important that to discuss them seriously might open them to question and reinterpretation. Thus, the very protection of a society's values preclude any wide-scale and public reevaluation of those values and any recognition of a potential crisis of values.
Since 'morality' is the sum total of those values, the first public symptom of a crisis of values is usually a series of comments about the growing immorality of society — almost always directed at the young of a society who have absorbed what their elders are in fact doing, rather than professing ...
The Ethos Effect - page:14,15
What is 'ethical' or moral? A general definition is that actions that conform to a 'right set of principles' are ethical. Such a definition begs the question. Whose principles? On what are those principles based? Do those principles arise from reasoned development by rational scholars? Or from 'divine' inspiration? Does it matter, so long as they inspire moral and ethical behaviour?
For some, it does not matter, as it did for the ancient author who claimed that without a deity, every action is permitted. In practice, with or without a deity, every action is permitted unless human social structures permit it. Yet, on what principles are those social structures based? Ethics and morality?
Such questions can quickly run in circles, especially since most individuals wish to think well of themselves, and it is difficult to think well of oneself if one defines one's own activities as immoral or unethical. For example, genocide can be rationalised as an ethical means to racial purity, or as a means for societal survival, and both purity and survival can easily be rationalised, and have been throughout history, as ethical.
Are values and behaviours that perpetuate a given society ethical per se? Are values handed down by prophets and religious figures as the word of a deity necessarily more ethical than those developed by ethicists and scholars?
Theocracies and other societies using religious motives, or pretexts, have undertaken genocide, torture, and war. Ideologues without the backing of formal religious doctrine or established theocratic organisations have done the same.
The obvious conclusion is that 'moral' values must be ethical in and of themselves, and not through religious or secular authority or rationalised logic. This leads to the critical questions. How can one define what is ethical without resorting to authority, religious doctrine, or societal expediency? And whom will any society trust to make such a judgment, particularly one not based on authority, doctrine, or expediency?
The Ethos Effect - page:65,66
Over the past three millennia, social scientists, historians, and ethicists have all debated the history, purpose, and reason for the development and subsequent failure of ethical systems in society after society. From these endless studies, several facts appear obvious, yet ignored.
First, the ancient Judeo-Christian concept of 'original-sin' as described in basic prediaspora Catholic/Christian theology was and remains an extremely useful tool for social indoctrination, because (1) it provides a reason for evil while also allowing people to accept that evil is not the fault of the given individual; (2) supplies a rationale for why people need to be taught ethics and manners; and (3) still requires that people adhere to an acceptable moral code.
Second, genetic studies have since revealed that only a small minority of human beings have a strong genetic predilection toward either 'morality' or 'immorality'. This has historically posed a problem for any civil society based on purely secular rule because (1) society in the end is based on some form of self-restraint; and (2) the impetus to require self-discipline and to learn greater awareness of what is evil and unacceptable lacks the religious underpinnings present in a theocracy or a society with a strong theocratic presence. Likewise, history has also demonstrated most clearly that the majority of individuals are uncomfortable in accepting a moral code that is not based on the 'revelation' of a divine being, because in matters of personal ethics, each believes his or her ethics are superior to any not of 'divine' origin.
As transparently fallacious as this widely held personal belief may be, equally transparent and fallacious — and even more widely accepted — are the ethical and moral systems accepted as created by divinities — and merely revealed to the prophets of each deity for dissemination to the 'faithful'. Throughout history, this has been a useful but transparent fiction because the 'divine' origin of moral codes obviates the need for deciding between various human codes. Humans being humans, however, the conflict then escalates into a struggle over whose god or whose interpretation of god is superior, rather than focusing on the values of the codes themselves ...
The Ethos Effect - page:154,156
Traditionally, one of the fundamental questions behind every considered attempt to define ethical behaviour has been whether there is an absolute standard of morality or whether ethics can be defined only in terms of an individual and the culture in which that individual lives.
Both universal absolutism and cultural relativism are in themselves unethical. Not only is the application of universal absolutism impractical, but it can be unethical, because the universe is so complex that there are bound to be conflicts between such standards in actual application, unless, of course, the standards are so vague that they convey only general sentiments.
'Be kind to one another' is good general guidance, but it does not qualify as an ethical standard because the range of interpretation of the meaning of 'kind' is so broad as to allow individuals incredible discretion. That does not even take into account the problems when society must deal with unethical or violent individuals.
There is indeed an ethical absolute for any situation in which an individual may find himself (or herself), but each of those absolutes exists only for that individual and that time and situation. This individual 'absolutism' is not the same thing as cultural relativism, because cultures can be, and often have been, totally unethical and immoral, even by their own professed standards. That a practice or standard is culturally accepted does not make it ethical. There have been cultures that thought themselves moral that practiced slavery, undertook genocide, committed infanticide, and enforced unequal rights based on gender or sexual orientation.
The principle practical problems with individual moral absolutism are that, first, one cannot implement a workable societal moral code on that basis, and, second, that any individual can claim unethical behaviours to be more moral in a particular situation, which, given human nature, would soon result in endless self-justification for the most unethical and immoral acts. That said, the practical problems do not invalidate absolute individual morality, only its societal application ...
In practice, what is necessary for a society is a secular legal structure that affirms basic ethical principles (e.g. one should not kill, or injure others; one should not steal or deceive, etc.), and that also provides a structured forum, such as courts, in which an accused has an unbiased opportunity to show that, under the circumstances, his behaviour was as moral as the situation allowed. Such a societal structure works, however, as demonstrated by history, only when the majority of individuals in the society are willing to sacrifice potential self-interest for the value of justice, and such societies have seldom existed for long, because most individuals eventually place immediate personal gain above long-term societal preservation.
The faster and more widely this 'gospel of greed' is adopted, the more quickly a society loses any ethical foundation — and the more rapidly it sows the seeds of its own destruction ...
The Ethos Effect - page:374,376
From the beginning of written human history, there has always been a debate over the ethics of ends and the ethics of means. Can a good and ethical solution result from the use of unethical or immoral means? Does the end justify the means? Virtually all ethicists would agree that, of course, it does not, because, first, actions should be ethical in and of themselves, and, second, because corrupt means almost invariably result in corrupting the ends.
One difficulty with this position has been discussed in some detail, and that is the problem of war. War is evil, yet wars have been fought to combat and correct greater evils. If one accepts the premise of the ethicists, then greater evil will always triumph because the ethical soul will not stoop to an unethical action, even if it precludes a greater evil. The necessary evil of war against a greater evil has become accepted as the necessary compromise, in practical terms, and nation after nation, political system after political system, has gone to extreme lengths to 'prove' that each was only acting to prevent a greater evil when it has gone to war.
This conflict between practice and theory obscures a more fundamental question that both ethicists and politicians have avoided whenever possible; Are there societies and cultures that are so evil that they do not deserve to survive? Certainly, at times in human history, scholars and politicians have judged that certain societies fit that criterion, but almost always comfortably in academic retrospect or in grandiose political statements that lead nowhere except to public office.
Unfortunately, that is all too often where the public discussion ends.
What of the other problem — the case where unethical ends leads to ethical results or where truly ethical means lead to an unethical result? We see few discussions about either possibility, particularly about the idea that ethical and moral people or principles can in fact create unethical ends. Yet how much suffering has been created by truly good men pursuing ends they thought ethical and moral? Is it not possible that such pursuit could lead to true evil?
The Ethos Effect - page:434,435