Rational Religion

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On Ethics and Morals


They aren’t the same thing, though there is a lot of confusion about the distinctions.


Both require strength of character, but ethics are more work


Morals are most often absolutes:  “thou shalts” and “thou shalt not’s." Once they are defined and understood, they are pretty much set in stone -- providing the individual moralist has the stones to stand up for them.


But morals, by their very nature, aren’t very flexible. 


In a rapidly changing world, flexibility is often desirable.  That’s where ethics come in.  They take into account the probability that what is good for one time and place may be entirely out of place in another setting. 


Morals are rules; easily memorized; often simplistic; very often difficult to keep, because so many of them run counter to individual desires and even our deepest instinctual drives.  (Any taboo on sex, for example, is messing with our psyches right where we live.  Which is precisely why we need taboos on sex -- though not necessarily the ones most people are familiar with.)


Ethics are a blueprint for rational, humane behavior; toward other human beings; other living things; natural resources; the whole corner of the Universe where our actions have effect.  They come from a larger perspective than morals, and they are far less well-defined.  They must be re-defined, as a matter of fact, for each situation which requires an individual decision.


As I said, this is work. 


And since we are so uncommonly adept at kidding ourselves, there is a tremendous margin for error. 


“It seemed the right thing to do at the time!”


The strict moralist never has recourse to this plaint.  He knows what the right thing to do is at any time.  He either does it, or he commits a sin.  With sin comes guilt, and guilt can be uncomfortable enough to live with that he may not commit at least that particular sin, again. 


The ethicist is subject to a lot of second-guessing.  For one thing, it is often impossible to get enough good data to make a wise ethical decision.  Therefore it is pretty easy to make an unwise (but still ethical) one.  Therefore, the quotation two paragraphs above.


Do not assume that ethics are floating in space without any points of reference at all.  Like morals, they spring from some pretty immutable rules, but the rules underlying ethics are both more general and more specific.  They have to do with universal reality and fundamental cause-and-effect.  They require the individual ethicist to know a great deal about as much as possible, and particularly about his or her own self -- in order to keep self-interest in check. 


Ethics are not larger than morals, but they come from a larger concept of the world and one’s place in it. 


Whereas a moralist may feel constrained to tell the truth in every situation, an ethicist may feel comfortable telling the truth only when it doesn’t hurt anybody’s feelings.


This isn’t wimpy; it is compassionate.  


While a steadfast moralist may be glad to die for his principles, an ethicist may find it more admirable to live up to his.  In an extreme situation they might both be martyred, but one can assume that the ethicist will have avoided his fate until the last possible moment.  The moralist may perish in a flourish of heroism.  The ethicist will go grudgingly, playing out the game until the last card falls.


Ethicists don’t win many medals.  Even if their actions turn out to have been heroic it is too hard for the honors board to reconstruct the sequence of rational decisions which led to the admirable end result.  They might have taken a lifetime.


Morality is a rather blunt instrument, but given the current level of perfectibility of the species, it is undoubtedly necessary.   Most people aren’t equipped for ethics. We don’t have enough time or the right information or we’re frankly too dumb.  And an ethicist with poor information is likely to do more damage than a moralist with good principles.


This applies in spite of the fact that it’s possible to be a strict moralist and a perfectly good Nazi.


The best policy is to maintain a healthy set of morals on a broad ethical base.  In most situations you will run into you can behave according to the rules and both you and your society will be better off for it.  But understand that conditions may change; for example, you may find it necessary to make decisions outside of your own society, and your rules may need adjustment; even revision.


Consider a moral young person drafted into the military and placed in armed conflict.  She or he may have been indoctrinated with the commandment “Thou Shalt Not Kill,” but the environment has changed.  Killing may be necessary.  Refusing to kill may no longer be moral, or even ethical, depending upon the nature of the enemy.


The military, itself, has a rigid moral structure, and usually the best military personnel are young people, easily indoctrinated, who have had a good deal of practice at being indoctrinated; i.e., moralists.  It really doesn’t matter much what their civilian morals are.  If they are used to obeying the rules of society, they will easily adjust to obeying the rules of their new society, even if (as is more often the case than not) they run directly counter to the rules they learned from their civilian instructors; family, clergy, school teachers.


The military doesn’t function very well if it is full of ethicists.  It takes too long to decide to kill somebody and an ethicist is likely to get killed while he is deciding. 


In a military situation the ethicist must voluntarily permit herself to be indoctrinated; must work assiduously, in fact, to develop the habits she needs to function automatically, without excessive thought, in a military society.   This is not surrender.  It is survival; and not just for oneself; for everyone in one’s immediate unit.  In an extreme situation, too much cerebration on one person’s part can get everybody killed. 


But this does not mean that the ethicist must abandon his ethics, or wall himself off from them completely.   Nor should he.  There are too many military situations outside the “heat of battle” which demand an ethical approach.


Adolf Hitler is supposed to have repeatedly demanded, “Is Paris burning?”   And the withdrawing German general charged with lighting the fires knew no military purpose could be served by torching one of the great centers of Western Civilization; only resentment and petty revenge for an inevitable defeat.   Even with the memory of Dresden fresh in his mind, he disobeyed the order. 


This is ethics.