On Ethics – Part 6 – We the People
October 30, 2006
This essay looks at individual ethics as determined by factors such as race, culture and religion. The last essays dealt with violence, in particular War and its relation to Ethics. A conclusion was simple: Ethics and Morals are totally incompatible with any aspect of War or other forms of violence. War means utter destruction in all possible ways. Another conclusion said that peaceful means of spreading “good” Ethics are not truly effective.
Down to Earth
What about us as individuals? I stated that, generally, our personal Ethics convictions are stronger than those of governments and other institutions who would like to control our thoughts. How come? What is driving this individual strength? Is it stubbornness, inflexibility, ignorance, stupidity, fear, bravery, a Higher Power, peer pressure or opportunistic plots?
It may be all of that to some degree. Ethics on a personal level do not exist in isolation from the World around us. But however these Ethics are formed in us, they stay with us while evolving over time. I’ll make a brave effort to classify and discuss some of these individual influences.
Regardless of the strength of our individual Ethical convictions, there are times when other, external factors override them. For instance, soldiers may well be ordered to commit acts that are inconsistent with their personal Ethics. This has led to numerous Court Martials in the current Iraq war. In World War I, some one thousand soldiers were executed for cowardice or desertion – largely because the conflict between personal ethics and the will of superiors became too big. Other examples of curtailed personal ethics include prisoners, POWs, slaves, refugees, hostages and other groups whose civil liberties are curtailed. But the curtailment of Ethical standards does not mean their permanent withering in the individual.
Perhaps a graph of mine (it’s got a Star wars feel, doesn’t it?) will help – hopefully it will not cloud an already difficult subject. The text at the bottom “No Start, No End” indicates that this process is as long as life. The process starts at birth and ceases at death. Some will argue this process started at the dawn of time and will continue as long as there are individuals to carry the torch. Perhaps it is so.
The process flow starts at the left, continues in a clock wise matter to the upper right, lower right and back towards the left.
The process flow starts at the left, continues in a clock wise matter to the upper right, lower right and back towards the left.Here is the idea: Mother Earth (and the Universe) provides a wealth of information of various kinds – some positive, some negative. The 1a and 1b callouts give some examples of the information our brains receive at an astonishing pace (Arrow marked 2). Our senses together with our brain process this information in real time (Callout 3).
The processing is guided by some very strange rules, only partially understood. It involves using some of the information, discarding some and adding interpretations based on experience and who knows what. The result is an interpretation of the incoming data that is safe for us and possibly utterly distorted and perhaps totally inaccurate – callout 3, again, in the graph.
The interpretation goes on to create selective, practical and actionable information. This information is judged against prior knowledge. The brain reaches a verdict as to the value, relevance and importance of the current information. The verdict, of course, varies. It might lead to an action, it might not. It may provide feedback – or not (Arrow 6). It might become part of our database for future use, or it might not. Perhaps the verdict and its data will be reprocessed. It might simply be ignored and quickly discarded – probably the vast volume of incoming data ends up discarded. Arrow 4 illustrates these phenomena in the graph.
Our judgments and possible actions depend on our three built-in yardsticks: Our interpretation of data (the perceived Reality), our tribunal judgments (the personal Ethics) and our action engine (the derived Morals). That is callout 5 in the graph. Now, the task at hand is to examine what fuel drives the three engines.
What influences do we need to consider? Well, all of them. But let’s be a bit realistic here – we don’t have all day. I’ll group this discussion into four parts: Individual, Crowd, Negative and Irrelevant influences.
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
Diversity in Action
We are all unique individuals. We’re made up of a bunch of atoms and molecules that combine into “us”. “We” have no exactly similar counterpart anywhere, even going back to the beginning of life millions of years ago. For one thing, our DNA uniquely identifies us from the rest of the World.
We do not exist in isolation. We have unique racial, cultural, generational, sexual and national backgrounds. We may be educated, or not. We have parents and relatives who we may or may not know. One or more persons raised us and spent a long time with us. We live in a suburb, a city, a hut or a cave. We live in a democracy or a dictatorship or under some other political system. We may be lucky enough to have supportive people around us, or not. Maybe we are poor, maybe not. Hopefully, we are happy but depressions are common. Circumstances such as where you live may mean you are ahead of the time curve or perhaps way behind. We may be in a relationship, or not. A list like this can go on for a long time. In fact, let’s make it a slightly reorganized and grouped list:
Race and Racism
To North Americans, “race” quickly is translated to the “racism” issues of African Americans. That leads to affirmative action controversies, civil rights and historical or current injustices. Injustices include persistent inequality, exploitation, racial profiling, open or hidden discrimination, youth unemployment, ghettos, gangs, crime, hate groups, lack of respect and self respect, discriminatory pay levels, unfairness of standardized aptitude tests, unequal access to education, inaccessible legal rights, and illegal biases of financial and insurance companies. There are many other issues. Further, many of the same issues apply to Native Americans, Hispanics and Asian individuals, to name a few.
In other words, “race” is usually confused with “racism”. These are two very different concepts.
I could cite statistical data, research papers and show images and graphs to support all of the racism in the paragraph above. You may want to check out my essay on Gordon Parks for at least some powerful images. However, I won’t dive into details when most of us know quite well the validity of racism issues. It’s impossible to deny the influence of racism in the personal Ethics and Morals of anyone in North America.
What North Americans are less aware of is the prevalence of racism issues in other parts of the World. Most are aware of the Holocaust and its devastating effect on Jews in Western Europe and adjacent areas. Fewer are aware of the thousands of years of violence against and discrimination of Jews in many parts of the World. Pogroms date back almost 2,000 years. They have occurred in Russia, England, Germany (prior to Nazi Germany), Poland, Romania, Libya, Egypt, Argentina, and elsewhere. They have killed thousands and caused massive relocations (ethnic cleansing). Ironically, Russian pogroms partly led to the establishment of Israel. It is also a major cause of the Jewish immigration to the US and the resulting strength of Jewish influence.
Pogroms and similar racial violence are not limited to Jews. The white American treatment of Native Indians falls in the same category. Gypsies and other European minorities have suffered similar fates. Armenians were exterminated or forced into exile by the Turks in the early 1900s. Kurds, caught between Saddam Hussein and Turks, suffered extreme violence but are still alive.
Then you have Sunnis versus Shi’as. Tutsis versus Hutus. Bosnian Muslims versus Serbian Christians. Mid East immigrant workers in Northern Europe. Mexicans in the US. French African immigrants versus the rest of France. British Arabs blowing up subways filled with mostly non-Arabs. Saudi and some other Arabs attacking up the Trade Towers twice. Algerians blowing up the French and vice versa. Arab insurgents attacking US and British troops. Chetnyans killing Russians and very much vice versa.
Going back in time to biblical times and beyond: you will find Egyptians slaughtering Israelites, Israelites killing Canaanites, Israelites eliminating Amalekites and Assyria and Babylon exterminating various Mid East enemies. Scythians wiped out Cimmerians. Julius Caesar killed most of the Helvetii tribe, Gauls, Vercingetorix and Avaricum. Never heard about these names? There is a very good reason – they ceased to exist.
This is just a small sample of racial genocides, wars, discriminations and terrorism. Racism results in some of the most lethal Ethical issues that have faced the World for thousands of years. These perceptions, distortions and conflicts are thoroughly burnt into our Ethical conscience.
Racial issues are so powerful, influential, politicized, misunderstood, persistent and deadly that you wonder how the World, not to mention individuals, can possibly deal with them. What will it take to reduce or eliminate racism? How many dead will it take? How many more destroyed people? How can deeply rooted prejudiced Ethics be updated? The sad answer is no one knows the solution. As “true” Ethical persons, all we can do is look inside us and practice those Ethics and act as morally as well as we can. The good news is that there are plenty of people doing just that. The bad news – those that don’t are as deadly as always.
That concludes the racism subject.
Many attempted racial solutions are part of the Ivory Tower World. That World deals with riots, terrorism and hate crimes. On an individual basis, race – as opposed to racism – may be a tremendous strength. Race is one of the most basic factors in the makeup of our Ethics and Moral, not to mention our individual view of Reality. Race defines a culture, a common heritage and a form of solidarity. That is good. Racism may spill over into this. That’s bad.
On the balance? Race versus racism? Who wins? I personally, as a Northern European, belong to a race where racial issues are traditionally almost non-existent. I’m very lucky in that respect and I wish all of you had the same fortune. If not, let’s hope some day MLK’s Dream will come true for you
Culture is many a thing. It might be a culture of bacteria. It might be the culture of Africa. It might be the culture of rap music lovers. You name it. It’s a huge subject ands we need to limit ourselves right away. All we care about here is how culture impacts our individual Ethics.
As individuals we usually think of ourselves as belonging to a main culture. We often belong to sub cultures as well. One’s main culture might be “I’m Irish”. A sub culture might be “I live in Boston”. Another might be “I’m a Beethoven lover”. We typically have a good understanding of our cultural makeup.
Any culture defines a set of values, attitudes and behaviors. Muslims pray at certain hours. Jews do not eat pork. Beethoven lovers go to the symphony, usually dressed up. The Amish do not drive cars. Employees adhere to a dress code, whatever it might be. Artists are driven to perform their art. And so on.
Let’s look at a current example of cultural clashes, remembering this is 2006, not 1956.
Many Muslim women wear full or partial veils or head scarves. It is a statement of their culture and religion, a simple matter of their ethical and moral makeup. Quite recently, a Yorkshire, UK, teaching assistant insisted on wearing her full-face veil in the presence of male teachers. She was fired and is taking the matter to court.
A major political fight resulted, going all the way up to Tony Blair. One side sees “visible statements of separation and refusal to integrate into the British society”. The other side sees discrimination and obstruction of human rights. Some proclaim wearing a veil is “impolite” just as is wearing your shoes entering a mosque. The middle ground wonders if perhaps politicians should spend their time on more important subjects.
Those more important matters might include why British Muslims turn to suicide bombings in the middle of London and others are arrested on suspicion of planning to blow up Trans Atlantic airliners. Or it might include the common and deadly riots by immigrant Muslims all over France, involving perceived suppression of cultural Muslim values.
The veil issue simply does not go away. The issue has spread to at least France and Germany, and recently, the US. It is, of course, tempting to extend the argument that “different behavior” should be outlawed. We might require Jews to eat pork at least once a week. How about requiring Quakers to serve as National Guards in Baghdad? Maybe prohibiting Hawaiian shirts? Or force Amish teenagers to take driving lessons?
Most of us would agree there are more important issues to deal with, Ethical or not. The sorry point is that the veil issue prevails. If the matter of clothing can take on these proportions, what about more important cultural differences, such as those involving life and death?
So we are influenced by this mix of cultures, some important to us, some somewhat less relevant and others totally irrelevant. We end up with a mix of values, attitudes and behaviors that we assimilate. As we do, the values become part of our Ethics. Some of these are life long. “I’ll always be Irish”. Others change over time – rap lovers might become Beethoven fans as they age. Moreover, some cultures change over time. The dress code at IBM today is drastically different that in the 1960s. So are the views of divorce or abortion.
Most of us are quite comfortable with our “cultural” Ethics. That’s not surprising since the cultural environment acts as a support group or security blanket as long as we are not torn away from it. There are issues though, such as:
- Diversity means that a culture may benefit from the contributions of other cultures. This is quite a misunderstood item, often confused with racism, inequality and discrimination. Diversity to me means an open mind to the ideas of other cultures. It is basically a personal Ethical standard, not a legal or rule bound item. That, of course, does not prevent Ivory Tower ideas such as a diverse work place or higher education (meaning quotas) or a diverse school system (meaning busing). The real problem is that many of us like being part of our culture and see no particular reason to mix with others. Some even view diversity as a threat to the purity of one’s own culture. That was the view of the Nazis.
- Equality means different cultures are viewed and treated as equally valuable. Often this involves gender and racial issues. Different cultures have different attitudes about either of the two issues. Some cultures by tradition do not, even today, view women as equal. Women are stoned to death for infractions to rules created by men. The Western culture did not even begin to consider women as equal until the early 1900s. Up till the sixties, many Westerners strongly felt women should remain at home, raising children and cooking dinners. I dealt with racial issues in the prior section.
- Protection of minorities means we have a defense mechanism against of a lack of cultural equality. Again, we have the influence of Ivory Towers. Let’s concentrate on the US: banks must be Equal Opportunity Lenders. Employers must be Equal Opportunity Employers. Sexual harassment is outlawed. Governments provide social services. We are all equal in the eyes of the justice system. The justice system defends the right of minorities. Why 90% of inmates are male? Why over 40% are black? How can 50% of all women in the work force experience sexual harassment? So in spite of the lofty laws, we might conclude men are far more criminal than women, blacks are far more criminal than whites. Men find it OK to sexually harass women (and in some famous, recent cases, other men and children). How does that impact our cultural values and the resulting Ethics? Let’s turn some of the statistics above around: 92% of blacks are not under any kind of correctional supervision, nor are 98% of whites. More than 99% of Americans are not in jail. This attitude is more positive when considering personal Ethics, but there are major problem areas as indicated above. Yet, it is hard to claim minorities are well protected by society. It comes down to personal Ethics to consider the rights of minorities.
- Rights and entitlement deal with issues such as human rights versus unfair demands for handouts. Consider welfare programs such as Social Security. Consider Affirmative action or Positive Discrimination as some call it. In the first case, some percent of recipients are committing fraud. In the second case, for every beneficiary of the rights, there is a loser. Very few oppose human rights but some violate them and other take undue advantage. There is an abundance of data indicating different cultures have vastly different attitudes to these items. How come? Some cultures are so disadvantaged they are forced to over use the “system”, legally or not. Other cultures are so used to excessive handouts that they automatically take advantage to its maximum. Since no nation can keep giving excessive handouts for ever, there will be a clash at some point in time. Many European countries and, famously, the ex Soviet Union fall in this category.
Culture is a complex issue with many implications on our values and Ethics. Culture is largely a positive in providing positive attitudes and values to our Ethics system. Still, there are numerous potential issues. Some were discussed above, such as diversity is viewed with deep suspicion by some. Equality is still lacking in the Ethics of many. Many minorities suffer from injustices. Social assistance programs are violated. While some cultures are more vulnerable to the fallacies of culture, all indications are that the vast majority of us benefits from these influences to become law abiding, socially aware individuals.
Few would argue religion is not one of the major influences on our individual lives, whether that is as Atheists, Agnostics, Catholics, Lutherans, Mormons, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists or what have you. Many agree religion can be an important ethical yard stick. Still, it is a deadly influence. Look at some examples in history:
- The Crusades: The Pope sanctioned about nine major and some minor military campaigns against “pagans, heretics and Muslims” in the name of Christianity during the 1000s to 1300s. The Crusades were, in part, an outlet for an intense religious piety which rose up in the late 11th century among the lay public. A crusader would, after pronouncing a solemn vow, receive a cross from the hands of the pope, and was thenceforth considered a “soldier of the Church”. And the crusader was off to a heroic battle. The Islamic World sees it differently.
- The Reconquista: The Christian Kingdoms of Hispania (today’s Portugal and Spain) defeated and expelled Muslims, ending more than eight centuries of Moorish rule. The Reconquista started in 722, lasting till 1492. It was a process not only of war and conquest, but mainly of “repopulation”. Christian kings took over locations abandoned by the Muslims. This is an early example of “ethnic cleansing” based on religious differences.
- French wars of religion: This is a series of armed conflicts between Huguenots (Protestants) and Catholics fought for most of the last half of the 1500s. It devastated a generation, but is an example of how the state, society, and religion were all bound up together in people’s minds resulting in a deadly experience. “One faith was essential to society holding together. Without the right faith and God upholding the natural order, disaster was certain.”
- The Thirty Year War: Fought primarily in Germany from 1618 to 1648 between Protestants and Catholics, this religious war claimed some 20% of the German population due to battles and famines. In the end, Catholic power was diminished, and the Germany was divided into many small factions. It is viewed as leading to German romantic nationalism. This, in turn, eventually led to social nationalism – Nazism.
- The troubles of Northern Ireland: Well known to most of us, this modern day religious conflict between Protestants and Catholics caused some 1800 civilian and about 1300 combatant deaths. Some 40,000 were injured. This gruesome conflict used massive amounts of torture, civil rights violations and, of course, indiscriminate bombings against civilians.
- Jihads: Although the term stands for many things, it usually refers to wars of religion. The objectives are: 1) Elimination of persecution [of Muslims], 2) Dominance of Islam, 3) To force the disbelievers to pay Jizya, 4) To help the weak and the oppressed, 5) To seek revenge for the murder of a Muslim, 6) To punish those who violate their oaths, 7) To fight to defend (Muslims or Islam) and finally (8) To recapture the occupied territory. Jihads are highly regulated and subject to clear ethical goals. They have nothing to do with terrorism as believed by many Westerners. Jihads are much more a religious doctrine than actual acts of violence. Of course, militants use this concept to justify terrorist acts.
- Milhemet Mitzvah: Sometimes viewed as the Jewish version of the jihad, it is “the war that the people of Israel were commanded by God to wage, for example, against the former peoples of the Land of Israel.” Like the jihad, this is more a concept than actual acts of violence in its intent. As with jihads, this concept is used as a false justification by radical factions that do indeed commit violence.
So what does all this tell us? For one thing, millions have died as the result of religiously inspired violence. For another, religious differences as formulated by Jihads and Milhemet Mitzvah do not necessarily mean violence but are part of a greater religious standard or expression. Either way, religion and violence, theoretical or practical, have more in common than most like.
Religion does not stand for violence on most people’s personal level. It stands for faith, goodness, comfort and spirituality. Yet, on that personal level, religion is used by some as an excuse for extremism or radicalism:
- Politics: American politics are influenced by two main religious factions: the Religious Right and the Jewish community. The Religious Right and the Jewish community both are cultural factions with strong beliefs, built from the grass roots and up. Both represent moral views of its constituents. Then the national interests of the faction rolls back to further radicalize or focus the beliefs of the members. Additionally, we have George W. Bush who believes his acts of state crimes are justified by his recently discovered religious faith.
- Creation and Evolution: This is a long fought battle between religious diehards and the rest of us. Often absurdly argued and acted on, it nevertheless represents an important aspect of the individual’s belief system, whichever side you are on. In this essay, the focus is not who is right and who is wrong. The point is simple – a great variety of factors play a role in our ethical makeup. Too, often, they lead to undesired effects. Such as, school children are force fed the opinion of others which may well penalize them in their later life.
- Abortions rights, Animal rights, Religious discrimination, Priesthood sexual abuse, Gay rights, Birth control are all issues with religious overtones. They are quite similar to the two items discussed above in our belief system.
On the one hand, religion is one of the most powerful positive parts in our ethical makeup. On the other hand, there are just so many negative aspects ranging from uncontrolled violence to human rights abuse. These negative factors trace back to individuals who typically believe they are right in their negativism.
The influences of race, culture and religion are major influences on us as individuals. Still, it only scratches the surface of what makes up our moral and ethical beings. Here are some other factors, perhaps to be covered in more details in later posts.
- Age, gender and sex
- Residence, Location, Nationality
- Education, Money, Work
- Family, Supporters versus Crowds
- Health, Mental, Physical
- Time warps
Race, Culture and Religion – speak about complex issues. Morals, Reality and Ethics – more complexity. Paired with my earlier essays, we are looking at some serious stuff. Thousands of authors have covered the same subjects. Some influential and/or credible, some not. I like to keep it simple and basic. What is the point of all of this?
Well, I took it all back to fundamental beliefs on a high level, philosophical level. Then I descended somewhat to a more practical investigation of state/national level ethical issues. Finally, I arrived at the level of individuals and what influences their ethical belief system, covering fundamentals such as race, culture and religion. What have I or we learnt?
Frankly, I’m not sure. There are just too many valid but conflicting views. And there are far too many invalid views, as judged at least by me and my standards. It seems we are all benefiting from our highly individual ethics, realities and morals. At the same time, it seems like the equivalence of jail. We are stuck with influences that do not do us – or others – any good. The mix can be deadly.
I see diversity as the major point. Like it or not, no one can sort out a universal truth or divine belief system. No one has the authority to judge personal ethics, ignoring legal aspects that may force authoritarian beliefs on another being. We truly are all different and nothing will change that.
So how do we live with such diversity? One way is simply to deny it and keep fighting the battles – the moronic approach. Or, in spite of the validity of any particular belief system, we try to overcome the differences. Many have suggested the means of that approach, whether affirmative action, education or forced activities such as bussing. I have no particular solutions, except we better work on it or else. Perhaps I can be more specific as we go along. I hope so.
It comes down to individuals making a stand for what they believe in, no matter what. It shows to the rest of us what is possible. Here are some individuals that proves the point made:
Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Betty Friedan, Dalai Lama, David Suzuki, Desmond Tutu, Aung San Suu Kyi, Rosa Park, Jane Addams, Ramsey Clark, Susan B. Anthony, Patsy Mink, Martin Luther King, Susan Sontag, Jane Fonda, Jerry Rubin, Samuel Gompers, Emma Goldman, Allen Ginsberg, John Lennon, Harry Wu, Thich Nhat Hanh, Virginia Woolf, Richard Sheppard, Oscar Romero, Mohamed Elmoutaoikil, Heberto Castillo Martínez, Leung Kwok-hung, Olof Palme, Benigno “Ninoy” Simeón Aquino, Jr. and many others.
It is tempting to do a list of the opposite type of people. If you like, simply fill in the names of recent US Presidencies, Cabinets and most of the Congress of the US of A. You may start with the Nixon era. Remember Spiro Agnew, Wilbur Mills, Gary Condit or Bob Livingstone? They’ll qualify just fine for starters. How about Jim Bakker, Jimmy Swaggart, Marv Albert, Mel Gibson, Michael Jackson or Bill O’Reilly? Then you can continue across the World. Start in the UK with John Profumo, Hugh Grant, David Blunkett or Edwina Currie. Finding ethics challenged people is easy.
You see, it all comes down to who you are and how you grow. It’s that simple. So who are you? Consider this quote from Gandhi:
“As human beings, our greatness lies not so much in being able to remake the World – that is the myth of the atomic age – as in being able to remake ourselves.“
As you may imagine, this has been a long ride, far longer than I imagined in the beginning. To me, the ride was necessary. I’m planning one more installment that deals with all the ethical standards for specific groups of people. That includes individuals from the board of HP to Enron officials to Congressmen to lawyers to doctors to just about anyone participating in real life. There are thousands of “Ethical Standards” developed, published and perhaps occasionally read. It seems no organization of significance can live without defining its own ethical view. Are they of any value?
Then I will, finally, get back to my roots in art and photography. That certainly will include the ethics and morals of various artistic endeavors.
As always, thanks to all of you,