A question of ethics
Today I gave a guest lecture on ethics. Contrary to what people may believe, this is not an easy topic to discuss in such a setting. The first thing I did was mention how long ethics has been under consideration (with no resolution) – for over 2500 years, since the time of Socrates and Plato (that we know of).
We all think we know what ethics are but can we define them? With the students, I decided to discuss what ethics are not. Ethics are not the same as feelings. They are not the same as religion. They are not following the law or culturally accepted norms. And they are not science. Ethics are much harder to define, though we seem to know them when we encounter them, or when someone is lacking them.
There seem to be so many examples nowadays where people are lacking them, or accused of lacking them. For example, I just did a search on Google news, for the term “ethics” for news in the past day. I have to say I was astounded at the number of “hits” I received – with a search restricted to a 24 hour period! Unfortunately, most of them seem to be centered around our lawmakers – now, what does that say about us (as the U.S.) as an example for the rest of the world to follow (which we like to hold ourselves out to be)?
When did we as a country decide that it is okay to allow such violation of basic ethics – was it back when we found out about some of our large corporations’ (rather underhanded) dealings in other countries, or in our own? Was it when we decided it was okay to allow people on Wall Street to continue to receive large salaries and bonuses because they bring “talent” – when these same “talented” people destroyed our economy? Was it when bribes, couched in the form of “perks” for our lawmakers, became accepted and indeed, the norm?
“It’s always been done this way” is a common cry when someone is accused of violating ethics. I find it difficult to believe that things were “always” this way. There was once a time when we had ethical people in charge of companies and making our laws. That time seems to have passed, in a general sense. Certainly, not all people who are lawmakers and company leaders are unethical – unfortunately, though, it seems there are more and more examples of those who are. Cutting corners, dodging rules – these seem to be common activities – and the hubris involved to think they won’t be caught is amazing (probably because they often are not, and if so, it takes years and so what if they never pay their debt?)
This leads to the bigger question – when did we get so damn greedy? Greed generally leads to a breaking down of ethics, not only for a person as an individual, but as a society, as we can see in ours. Exactly when did we, as a society, lose our ethical standards? Has it been creeping up so long that we did not notice it until now we cannot help but?
I read another person’s writing about personal integrity recently. This person put it very well in the last paragraph of the article:
Our personal integrity is tied inextricably to our ethical and moral structure, but it does not define that structure. Instead it is our commitment to our ethics and morals, whether self defined or defined by religion, society or politics, that is the driving force behind our integrity. Ethics and morals differ between individuals, but if we ignore our own ethics in favor of personal gain in some manner we have not only lost our morality to some degree but we have lost our commitment to that morality; we have lost our integrity. Without personal integrity we have no need of morals or ethics; we won’t follow the guidelines of that morality anyway, and that is what we stand to lose by letting our personal integrity fail. We know that stealing is wrong, but our commitment to that particular ethical stance, our integrity, fails us when the theft is small. Likewise, “white lies” are accepted morally, especially if for the good of someone else, but continual usage has expanded that to the point that anything we want to lie about is also accepted as necessary, or for someone else’s good. We have lost our personal integrity there almost totally. Let’s not lose the rest of it as well.
So once again I cannot claim to have anything but questions on the subject, and serious concerns. We like to think of ourselves as ethical people and as an ethical country, but perhaps we all need to re-examine ourselves and determine just where our ethics, morals, values, and priorities lie, both as individuals and as a society. Then we need to get to work in repairing them, because in my view, our society has some work to do.