Morality and Ethics
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By JordanGreenhall   |   Watch
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Published: May 24, 2012
Morality and Ethics.

1. Definitions

I will be appropriating the terms morality and ethics in this document.  I have selected these terms because they are close to the concepts that I want to address, but because of their long, complex and often contradictory histories, it is worth taking some time to refine what I mean by "morality" and "ethics" to ensure precision.

Morality is the effort to articulate rules for behaviour that are objective and external – they come from the outside.  Morality is characterized by rules and principles.  "Thou shall not kill."  Rules that apply regardless of the individual involved and rules that should be able to be acted on by anyone (in principle).  In a moral system, the rules have been defined and the challenge is to identify through interpretation which moral box a particular action fits into.  "Killing a human being is wrong" is a rule.  "Is abortion killing a human being?" would be a typical moral question.  Here the discussion would be around the notion of what it means to be a human being: at what point does an emerging person become a Person?  Morality is universal in scope and generic in application.  Morality is given to you – your job is to know the rules and to be able to apply them.  

Ethics, on the other hand, tries to evaluate actions "from the inside".  Ethics does not proceed from an already-established "table of values" but from a rule that is at once simple and unbounded: ethical is what a wise, capable, well-informed individual who is in psychological and physical equilibrium would do in good faith.  There are thus no specific rules that would enable anyone to determine how to act ethically – each decision is entirely particular.  This would seem to rob ethics of its power and ability to drive behaviour.  Moreover, one might imagine a complaint that this definition of ethics is entirely subjective – wouldn't this mean that anyone could chose what they want to do and call it "ethical"?  

But, in fact, the situation is quite the opposite.  It is morality that disempowers us: by making us subject to rules that we must simply follow (whether we understand them or not).  Morality is a force imposed from the outside that compels obedience.  Ethics has a very powerful mandate – one that can guide behaviour at the personal, interpersonal and social level: become wise, become capable, become well-informed, learn how to maintain physical and psychological equilibrium.  The ethical mandate is that of a program of production.  It implies tremendous risks: everything depends on the actual capabilities of the individuals within the society.  The advantage of morality is that it can organize even the least capable of individuals.  This is its advantage, its seduction and its perniciousness: morality tends to always make us less capable.  Rather than exposing us to the challenge of becoming capable of making wise decisions, it protects us from that challenge and gives us the answers.

Now, there are several rules that can be produced out of the ethical mandate, and these rules can give ethics a "moraline" feel.  First are the logical rules: always act with good faith; always act wisely; seek to be well informed; avoid making decisions when in a condition of physical or psychological distress, etc.  These rules are simply logical extensions of the definition of an ethical judgement.  They formally resemble the structure of moral principles, but are only secondary.  

More important and more dangerous are the myriad "rules of thumb" that any ethical individual will apply to help her make sound judgments.  The building of a capacity to be ethical, the building of wisdom and capability, involves life experience and the creation of innumerable heuristics against which any judgment will be made.  At this individual level, ethics closely resembles morality.  An ethical decision-maker will almost certainly carry the heuristic "it is wrong to kill".  But the important thing to remember is that these are rules of thumb.  They are short-cuts that are deeply embedded in an entire context.  Separating them from that context to make them generic and universal is precisely the move of morality.    

2. Contra Morality

Morality is dangerous.  It is often useful and sometimes necessary, but, like a powerful chemical, should be used only with extreme care.  The problems with morality are twofold: first, that morality infantilizes.  Morality reduces the decision-maker to a hermeneutic machine.  The challenge is not to understand how the world works and how to make wise decisions, the challenge is to understand the rules and how to apply them.  This removes a tremendous capacity – a capacity that is difficult and time-consuming to build.  One can imagine a society of the future that is served by highly sophisticated machines.  The moral man knows that in order to be fed, he must push the red button and state his request.  But he knows nothing of the underlying technology.  He can survive, indeed, he can perhaps thrive, but he is not a master of his own destiny. For lack of a better term, he is a slave.  This example highlights the second danger of morality: it is frozen.  Precisely because morality comes from the outside, it is not responsive to the changing demands of reality.  Our hypothetical moral man is extremely vulnerable to his sophisticated machinery breaking-down.  Our real moral man is equally vulnerable to any change in the world that undermines the unspoken (and often unthought) premises of his table of rules.  One imagines the priests in the temple who were shocked that the invading barbarians failed to remove their shoes - before those barbarians killed the priests and destroyed the temple.  

The primary value of morality is in the phases of human development where the capacity to act ethically is, simply, lacking.  One does not expect a small child to be able to make wise decisions: one simply tells them "don't touch things that are hot."  When a child hears that edict from her mother and does not touch something that is hot she is not acting wisely, she is acting morally.  When she does touch something that is hot (by accident or, immorally in violation of the edict) and learns the consequences, she begins to become capable of acting wisely and, by extension, ethically.  

Thus the ethical mandate on morality: morality should be used as little as possible, it should be used only to give us the best opportunity to become ethical.  If morality is dangerous, ethics is also dangerous.  Indeed, ethics rides directly on the border of danger.  You cannot become wise without taking risks.  You cannot become ethical without failure and the wisdom that it brings.  This is an irreducible, vital necessity of the ethical existence.  The question, then becomes one of practice: how does one become ethical?

3. How to become Ethical

The first rule of ethics is that there is no rule of ethics.  We must apply our wisdom the best that we can and, with luck, get better and better over the generations at becoming capable of acting ethically.  Thus the practice of ethics is like learning an art. There will be a very good and definitive body of knowledge and a well understood practice, but and the end of the day it is highly particular and experimental.  

That said, it appears that the practice of becoming ethical follows three different paths that run, roughly, in parallel.  Each starts with the earliest possible experiences and progresses until death (and, possibly, afterwards).  The first path is the path of the self.  This is the path of being healthy.  It has to do with physical and psychological well-being.  It takes on the dual character of the actual status of your self (are you healthy?) as well as your capacity to take control-of and ensure (maximize) that health.  Thus, on the one hand, do you eat nutritious foods; on the other hand, do you understand your personal nutritional needs?  On the one hand, are you happy; on the other hand, do understand what makes you happy and how to achieve happiness (when and if you choose to)?  

From the perspective of the first path, the way that we treat children in elementary school is criminal.  Not only do we increasingly fail to ensure that they are healthy (with exercise and good nutrition), we increasingly fail to teach them how to be healthy.  Because the care of the self begins well before actual birth, this path might be considered the first and foundational path.  Certainly having a stable and healthy foundation from which to explore the world around you is critical.  The greater your wisdom of the self, the greater risks you can take without undue exposure to deep harm.  At the same time, the self becomes a microcosm of all of the other paths.  As you come to understand yourself and how to explore and expand the capacities of yourself, you come to understand how to apply these capacities more broadly.  

The second path has to do with relationships.  Dealing with other people and your immediate environment (the world around you).  This path involves expression and connection and, of course, health (healthy relationships).  It also involves creation and the ability to influence the world around you.  This can be as simple as gardening: building the capacity to create your own food.  There is a feedback-loop here.  By being able to control your environment, you become more capable of developing yourself.  Simultaneously, the more capable you are of developing yourself, the more capable you are of interacting with your environment.  This can also be much more complex – including the complexity of connecting with other people.  

4. Ethical Rules of Thumb

Nutrition is paramount.
Once you have nutrition in place, you can begin to experiment aesthetically with experiences that extend or stimulate life in creative ways.

Take risks – wisely.  Accept the consequences.

Always maintain a territory.  It is from here that you can launch your explorations.

Avoid ideas and concepts that narrow you and your thinking.

Avoid playing roles.  

Recognize pain, but never become sad.

Try to remain cheerful, unless some other condition is called for.

Remain well-rounded.  Do not overly bias the body or the mind or the self or the other or the world.

Be aware of where you are.  

Create connections.

Become capable of recognizing beauty.

Create beauty when you can.

Recognize fear, but never be afraid.

Always act in good faith.

Give others as much as they can handle.

Avoid bullshit when possible, but recognize its usefulness.

There is no need to be offensive, unless there is a need to be offensive.

Eat green vegetables.

Believe in the future.
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Marki5's avatar
Very interesting take on this subject. The more I look at this, the more reasonable it seems. If i may ask do you do this as a hobby or are you payed to do this?
JordanGreenhall's avatar
I have recently made enough money to not work (at least not for the present!) and, accordingly, the difference between my hobbies and my profession is quite blurry. I would say that this takes a higher priority to me than do other, more mundane, activities (such as the aforementioned making of money). That said, the fact that I have only recently done this work in a relatively public forum opens me to the (accurate) criticism of lacking either the sharpness or urgency of a true professional. In short, I have been lazy. In fact, it is only the increasingly dire-ness of our collective straits (and the clear incapability of any of our leaders to rescue our bacon on their own) that has motivated me to be more serious about it.
Marki5's avatar
Yeah I can relate to what you mean about money. Just enough is enough eh? As mentioned before, if you ever need a critique or somthin' else just send me a note. I do a lot of roaming and gaming on the inter-webs so i almost always have an ear to lend.