On Ethics – Part 3 – Clashes of Giants
October 25, 2006
Your notions of Reality, Ethics and Morals define your personality. Personal Ethics derive from many influences, some good, some bad. The brain provides a biased, personal and easily fooled picture of the surroundings. Combining your Ethics with a distorted view of Reality defines your Morals. These then guide your actions.
Personal Ethics often deviate from higher level “Ivory Tower” Ethics that make up religion, laws, treaties, protocols, government policy and much else. Ivory Towers are sometimes well meaning but fail miserably on Morals. Now we have the clash of giants.
The institutional Ivory Towers mean less to most of us than the personal World directly around us. That World is uniquely “ours”. We own and are owned by our race, our culture and our religion. Those items are far more important than a UN resolution, however ethical, important and moral it may be.
“Ethics is a code of values which guide our choices and actions and determine the purpose and course of our lives.”
— Ayn Rand, Russian-American novelist and philosopher (1905-1982)
What Clashes of Giants?
The basic idea of these essays on Ethics is simple enough – examine Right versus Wrong. However, there are thousands of Ethical “standards”, based on many schools of thought. A large number of thinkers provide worthwhile, and some not so valuable, contributions. These jungles of Ethical influences impact our lives in an astonishing number of ways.
Bear in mind four key features that strongly impact our Ethics – Distortions, Individualism, Diversity and Conflicts. Our view of Reality is biased by distortions created by our senses as well as simple, external physics. Our individual Ethics are based on many diverse influences. Combine our views on Reality and Ethics into equally individual and diverse Morals. The Morals determine what we as individuals actually do.
An ideal World of clear and well defined Ethics is a mirage. We do not live in a perfect World. Ethics and Morals are often at odds. Higher level “Ivory Tower” Morals create additional conflicts because of its own conflicting set of distortions and diverse goals
The bad news is that this is not a very encouraging story. The other news is that individual Ethics are far stronger than those of most institutions. This is sometimes good, sometimes bad news.
Distortions and Conflicts
Most of my esteemed and alert readers are North Americans. You are sufficiently wealthy to own (or perhaps borrow) a computer and intelligent enough to find this blog and read it. Here’s Reality as perceived by some:
- Reality as perceived by many North Americans differ from that of most citizens of Baghdad, Beirut, Darfur, Dhaka, Tongsa, Bossangoa and some parts of Cleveland.
- A homeless person’s perception of Reality differs from that of a Washington lobbyist charging $300 per hour or those of union bosses such as Frank Massey or Jimmy Hoffa Jr.
- A person suffering from AIDS in Runudu, Namibia or Songkhia Thailand experiences a different Reality than that of most Western Government or Corporate officials.
- Our troops in Iraq, Afghanistan or Guantanamo live in a different Reality and are forced to different Morals than those of most Americans, including our Government officials such as George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and Condoleezza Rice.
- Reality as seen by criminals of all kinds differ from that of, say, Pope John Paul, Martin Luther King, Mother Teresa or Billy Graham – all giants in their time.
- Neo Nazi members of Aryan Riders, Aryan Nations, National Vanguard, National Alliance, White Revolution, National Socialist Movement and others around the Globe have a view of Reality (as well as Ethics and Morals) shared by almost no one else.
Then we have the diverse individual views of Ethics – our value system or our judgments of the World:
- Some people lack Ethics – sociopaths, psychopaths and some “insane” persons, for instance. They cannot distinguish Right from Wrong. To be avoided.
- The Ethics of terrorists, whether European, Middle Eastern, Japanese, Chetnyan, Afghan, Sri Lankan or other, are dysfunctional, yet intensely personal.
- FDR’s Ethics allowed interning 120,000 persons of Japanese heritage – mostly US citizens – in WWII, largely to reduce competition for US farmers.
- The Ethics of Joe McCarthy resulted in an absurd ghost chase of so called Communists. This bears some similarities to recent acts by the late HP board.
- The Ethics of British Queen Victoria bears little resemblance to those of Anna Nicole Smith, Paris Hilton, John Holmes, Michael Jackson or Courtney Love.
- The Ethics of the poor versus those of the rich may or may not be different, but they are based on different premises, influences and realities.
Finally, a few conflicting examples of individuals and groups whose perception of Morals – how they act – differs from most of us:
- The US Government sanctions torture and inhuman, illegal treatment of individuals, disregarding the Geneva Conventions and other laws and treaties.
- In its mythological terrorist war, The US Government sanctions illegal spying on its citizens and those of other nations.
- We live with the Religious Right, Ku Klux Klan, Congressmen such as DeLay, Foley and Hastert, priests preying on children and Enron/HP style leaders.
- Insurgents and suicide bombers in Iraq and elsewhere kill innocents. So do/did dictators ranging from Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, Idi Amin and Hussein to Pinochet.
- People, whose distorted moral convictions force them to kill, maim or endanger individuals engaged in legal abortions or the animal trade and research.
- Gang leaders recruit children into crime. Drug dealers create addicts. Sex offenders destroy children and others. Con artists impoverish the elderly.
- CEOs and other corporate officers with lots of personal power, ego and riches may view Morals (and act) differently than the guy or gal in the mail room.
- North Korea just exploded its nuclear bomb, universally condemned as an irrational, unethical and immoral act. But what is the moral justification of Iran, Israel, Pakistan, India, South Africa, China, Russia, UK, France and the US of A?
The alert reader may detect some patterns here. Some of you can see dotted lines. Almost all of the examples above are negative in nature. Many deal with institutions with a failing grade. Other examples illustrate individuals with twisted Reality, Ethics and Morals traits. Are there distortions or conflicts? Do you see diversity and individualism?
There are relationships between our perceived Reality, our Ethics and our Morals and the Ivory Tower view. What drives our most basic characteristics? How do we separate the good from the bad and act on it? Do Governments and other Ivory Tower institutions conform to Ethical and Moral standards? Do we always agree with those higher level standards?
Let’s face those questions. Read on, please.
Our Ethics and Morals Discussion
I will recap and add to some of the ideas from On Ethics – Part One. In the next two posts, I will discuss the conflicts of the Ivory Towers – why international ethical programs often fail. Then, I’ll examine the influences on our diverse personal Ethics. Later, I’ll talk about how photography plays a unique and quite interesting albeit distorted role in this discussion. This will include some ideas about the Ethics, Morals and conflicts of street photography.
As always, here are a few comments on the images used in this essay. I’ve said before it is not easy to illustrate abstract themes. There are no pictures of Ethics or Morals. Apart from a few diagrams obtained from various places, I’ve chosen to add images of people. After all, this blog is really all about people, images, art and how we all really relate.
The images are all shot by me. There is no relation between the text and the individuals in the images. The individuals shown are just people who happened to pass before my camera. That’s all. No hidden agendas.
ON ETHICS – PART 1 and 2
In Part 1, the point was that Ethics are powerful influences on society. I discussed a few aspects of that influence – such as the impact of several philosophers (Plato, Kant, Nietzsche and Hegel) on the German Nazis. That is not to say that the philosophers supported the Nazi ideology even if they had been alive. In fact, all indications are that these philosophers would have been devastated to know their thoughts were misused as some sort of security blanket by Nazi criminals.
Part 2 examined the attitude against torture of the people of various nations. A survey of 27,000 individuals around the globe discovered large differences. Many Westerners demonstrated high Ethics, based on their negative attitude towards torture. In less developed countries and those with a totalitarian past, people had a much more expedient attitude and thus rank lower on an Ethical scale. The showing of the US was poor relative to other Western democracies.
More from Philosophers and Thinkers
- Confucius – his primary thought related Ethics directly to politics, involving morality, social relations, sincerity and justice.
- Muhammad – no one can deny the power of Islam. Of course, many religious persons, such as Buddha and Jesus, have also yielded enormous power over long periods of time.
- Cicero provided a doctrine for ethics in warfare. More about that will follow. His philosophy is largely based on politics – in particular the defense of the Roman Empire about 45-75BC.
- Seneca lived about the same time as Jesus, he was a Stoic focusing on a harmonious life within an uncontrollable universe. His influence lasted a long time – Shakespeare, Racine and Corneille all were quite influenced by his writings – some 1600 years later.
- St. Augustine, about 400AD created a Christian doctrine for warfare. More will follow below. He was a follower of Cicero for some time.
- Niccolo Machiavelli provided systematic studies of several perhaps inconsistent writings – he promoted “realistic”, perhaps ruthless politics as well as “idealistic republicanism”.
- Jean-Jacques Rousseau – apart from his devotion to nature, argued in favor of an absolute democracy based on the sovereignty of all people.
- Baron de Montesquieu advocated the division of government power. The division of power in the US Constitution is partly based on the Baron’s work.
- Spinoza – individual, rational egotism guided by reason would make government obsolete.
- Adam Smith – mostly an economist of long standing influence based on his treaties of efficiency based on the self interest of artisans and traders.
- John Stuart Mills – the utilitarian idea striving to produce the greatest happiness to all people. He also argued for free economic markets.
- Carl von Clausewitz – the philosopher of War of the early 1800s. His On Kriege is said to have influenced War and Strategies ever since, including nuclear proliferation. There is more to follow.
- Karl Marx is truly remarkable in his influence on modern life as a philosopher, historian and revolutionary. Much of his thoughts from the mid-1800s were revised to fit the liking of the many “Marxist” governments. “Marxism” certainly has declined rapidly over the last decades. Still, almost half of the World’s population lived in “Marxist” countries only 20 years ago.
Our environment is shaped by many ideas, some which have survived for thousands of years. These ideas are part of our laws, our constitutions, our Ethics and, ultimately, our daily lives. Yet it is clear that different individuals absorb this alphabet soup of influences in drastically different ways. Let’s see how, starting with the fallacies of Ivory Tower Ethics and Morals.
The survey quoted in Part 2 examined ethical attitudes of people in various countries. The poor attitudes of the US in the survey did not per se apply to the US Government. However, to expand a bit, consider this:
- The US Government vigorously opposed a UN protocol against torture, claiming it could not accept inspections of US prisons by international organizations, aimed at preventing torture. The US opposition was supported by Cuba, Syria and Libya, no advocates of human rights. The rest of the World overruled the US position.
- The US Government and Bill Clinton fought hard to introduce a UN initiative that would protect US “peacekeepers” from prosecution by the International Criminal Court of the UN. Based on vague political arguments of, at the time, Bill Clinton, the US wanted special treatment relative to its expectations on other countries. George W. Bush finally killed all US support of the International Criminal Court.
- President George W. Bush asserted he will ignore the McCain anti torture bill passed by Congress whenever he so wants. The bill and the ensuing policies violate longstanding international laws, protocols and treaties. The World is truly and justly astonished at the callousness of US policy and its acts of torture.
- Amnesty International condemned US acts of torture, calling such acts “widespread” throughout Iraq, Afghanistan, Cuba and elsewhere. They also mentioned acts of torture by various US institutions, such as the police, against US citizens.
- The United Nations Committee against Torture demanded that the United States close all secret prisons, hold accountable senior military and civilian officials who authorized, acquiesced or consented to acts of torture committed by their subordinates.
The question remains. Is the US an Ethical country? So far, the evidence says no. I’ll get into more details as I go along. Keep reading.
Where are we?
This is the end of Part 3 of the Ethics series. I’ve filled in some blanks to support upcoming essays. The main point from Part 1 stands: Ethics are powerful influences on society. The impact of individual philosophers and thinkers has been and is enormous, for better or worse. I posed a number of statements about practical issues, many of which I will discuss in detail in upcoming posts.