One of the hallmarks of Values of the Wise is that one can live a better, more fulfilling, more profitable (vaguely defined) existence if one knows how to parse right from wrong and chooses to do right. Moral dilemmas will be more easily dealt with if one has a decent understanding of what one stands for – and why. Simply, one’s values and lifestyle and goals and relationships will all be clarified and more rewarding if one isn’t constantly “stepping in it,” so to speak. The Bernie Madoffs and the Jeffrey Dahmers of the world.
Consider the pitfall Bill Clinton fell into while president. Think of the trouble Martin Skrelli experienced following his dark heart’s desires. Hillary Clinton didn’t slam-dunk that pretender Donald Trump because why – her ethics. His nickname for her – whether it is true or made-up, was “Dirty Hillary.” Coaches and priests and especially bankers and actors get stuck in quicksand that the wiser person could have easily seen and avoided. We can do better than this! This isn’t rocket science.
Unfortunately, as can be gleaned from the following quotation, just because one thinks or claims that they have a handle on moral behavior (that they do the right thing when faced with an option), it does not follow that their choice will be right. Things such as money, ignorance, puerile desires, unresolved issues, and tragic flaws (if you will) impede and mislead us. This is whatEnron broadcast its ethics code – Respect, Integrity, Community, Excellence (or RICE) – on everything from coffee mugs to T-shirts and workplace banners, while Kenneth Lay gave speeches at conferences on corporate ethics.”
Step 2: Do you know right from wrong? If yes, proceed. If no, go back.
Step 3: If you know right, then choose A) doing right or B) doing wrong
It is not in step 2 that Enron’s executives drove the huge company employing thousands off a veritable cliff, it was in step 3. Someone who is psychotic or developmentally disabled or grossly-miseducated might not know the difference between right and wrong, but “the smartest guys in the room” surely do. If they don’t choose right, it is because they were a) influenced and beckoned by some higher goal (e.g,. making higher and higher profits or gaining more status or other adolescent goal, or b) not afraid enough of regulation, discovery, prosecution, and punishment.
So let’s stay at step 1 and pull it back toward the personal and the individual: How does one know right from wrong? Essentially, one was ideally raised with proper moral indoctrination either in the family, in a religious institution, in a public institution (e.g., the Boy Scouts), or in school. Unfortunately, we have the kind of society in America now where none of those spheres of education and methods of indoctrination are fool-proof. Heck, in schools, character education is virtually absent. Many parents are either absent, wayward, or hopelessly occupied and harried and distracted by work and personal problems. Many modern parents are worried that society has been changing so rapidly lately that we are losing our “moral compass” and decaying and declining. It is not a foregone conclusion that America is the best country on the planet or that we will last forever; in fact, history and various scientific disciplines suggest that we are not and will not. Both conservatives and liberals feel that they see what is wrong with society and with the family. That is the good news. The bad is that there is disagreement – a values divide, if you will – and society at large has been eroded and cheapened. Whether this is largely due to the corrosive influence of money and power (the liberal’s point of view) or due to the wanton disregard for tradition (both religious and social) (one description of the lament of the conservative person) is only going to distract from this blog. So let me table that issue for now.
The point here is that one needs to have a decent foundation in ethics if one is going to grow up well. “‘Tis education forms the common mind/ Just as the twig is bent the tree’s inclined,” Alexander Pope wrote in 1732. If you are reading this and you have a faulty moral fiber, I would be very surprised; persons who have a “moral screw loose” would not be sitting and reading about ethics; they would be out trying to feather their own nest, having fun, or running amok. So I will take it for granted that you have some understanding that stealing is wrong, that lying is not generally acceptable, and that cheating is a bad thing.
The next step then is: How do you know that your intuition about right from wrong in a given circumstance is correct? This is a good and astute question to ask oneself. Oftentimes, we take a position – “He did wrong!” or “I know this is right!” and we don’t really go much further than to claim that “I just know” when queried by an onlooker. “I just know” or “It just feels right” is the lowest level of moral development, folks. It’s junior varsity. If you want to have a strong and defensible position, it is going to take a little work. You need to know why you feel the way you do, why you chose the way you did. Being emotional and passionate about a position is no guarantee of correctness. Second-guessing can be better described as reconsideration, critical thinking, open-mindedness, and a willingness to let the data guide one’s beliefs.
We are not born knowing anything, and just because we grow to reach 30, 40 – even 70 – doesn’t make us all that much likelier to have hit upon the truth. Have you ever seen a racist old man? A stubborn and ignorant old woman? Depending on many factors, some young people develop more highly and reach a much more justifiable set of positions than their elders do. Obviously, a 20-year-old is not probably wise – their brains literally aren’t developed enough. Their heart might be in the right place, but they just don’ have the experience, education, and erudition to know much. However, as we get older, we can get into a rut, and mistake confidence and certitude for correctness and capacity.
Once one has kind of slowed down and reconsidered, ask: What other points of view could I take? This is where ethical theory comes in. Ethical theory is a theoretical framework for looking at the question: “How do I determine what is right in a given situation?” You may have heard of utilitarianism, duty-based ethics, virtue ethics, or religious ethics. These are basically ways of looking at the issue of right versus wrong. They are generally incompatible with each other. Some are better than others, though none is fool-proof or a perfect fit for any given dilemma.
I would urge you to spend a few minutes taking the free, interesting ethical inventory called The Ethical Decision-Making Guide, exclusive to Values of the Wise. You will be asked a number of questions and in the end, the computer will provide you feedback about how you tend to view ethical issues. You can then do a little research on the strengths and weaknesses of your preferred stance. Just like sports teams, one tends to have the ethics that one was raised with, but that doesn’t mean that one cannot do better. We are all striving to improve and grow and be a more fully-developed person. The EDMG will help.
Another way to determine what you tend to favor and really dig down and ask yourself if that is wise and justifiable – if it is the “best you can do – is to pour over quotations from different individuals from different eras and philosophies, and find evidence for and against. Let the quotes sink in, move you, challenge you. Your point of view may grow more determined and resolute, or you might find that you are encountering quite a bit of “counterevidence” and maybe ought to try to rethink things. It can be disconcerting to be in that position, but I promise we have all been there. The best and brightest among us occasionally receive feedback that we are “a click off” and strive to better themselves and become a person about whom they can feel good. “It is never too late to be what you might have been,” the novelist George Eliot wrote.
To that end, poke around the Wisdom Archive. I spent a huge amount of time constructing and disseminating this wonderful and free resource, so use it; that’s what it’s there for. It’s like getting a deep, self-guided tutorial in values and ethics, if I do say so myself. But you do have to put in the time. Teachers can help when it comes to ethics and character education, but if you are an adult (which I assume you are) it’s now up to you. I’m proud to say that Values of the Wise is a clean and useful resource, and I ask nothing in return. Should you choose to buy a book, I would congratulate you and I would be honored, but you could spend 100 hours studying and discovering values and ethics on this site and never have to spend a dollar. Get lost in the wonderful words of wisdom from great minds, past and present.
I would note that my former teacher Ellen A. Herda said the following: “…judgments we make have moral implications. One does not learn about morality, however, by taking a class that teaches a subject called ethics. Similar to what Aristotle pointed out in his Ethics, moral principles cannot be the object of a course or body of knowledge that can be taught.” I would say that I am in partial agreement. I mean, what is the point of having ethics classes in schools and religious institutions if nothing about right and wrong can be taught? I think what Ellen is really getting at is that one cannot learn how to be good and develop excellent character by sitting in a chair and reading a book.
Similarly, one cannot become a sportsperson by studying the plays over and over. Ya gotta go out there and get your shoes dirty, so to speak, if you want to excel. It’s more like a habit than an understanding of the planets or of how plants propagate. You can read about right and wrong, but then you have to internalize that knowledge, and make it deeper. You have to practice dealing with dilemmas. Some of your intuitive notions are going to be wrong or backfire, and then you have to go back to the drawing board and think it through. Rinse and repeat. If you want to reach the equivalent of the varsity team when it comes to being a moral individual, you have to practice, rehearse, learn, attempt, revamp, think (and rethink), interact, fail, get up and do better. Then go through it again.
“A good person is an individual grounded in wisdom and virtue. Goodness can never be fully articulated, and can never be turned into a set of rules that can be mechanically applied. Morality is a skilled behavior, a bit more like an art than a science” ~ Tom Morris (philosopher, author, ethicist).
Whether or not this is all worth it is up to you. Some people obviously settle in at a low level of moral development and never really get much of an impetus to grow. Others are spiritual and ethical legends who would rather lose, fail, or even die than harm another. I don’t know what else to say to encourage motivation if you don’t already have it in you to “do right.”
Save for this: I was about 14 or 15, and I had a pellet gun. I target shot, but I also liked to shoot at birds. I was smart enough; there is every reason to believe that I was a bright child. But I just didn’t get the kind of training and supervision and modeling that helped me to realize that shooting a bird was wrong. Centuries ago, Bion wrote: “Boys throw stones at frogs in fun, but the frogs do not die in fun, but in earnest.” It was a game to me; I was testing out my skill. I didn’t have the moral development to feel that it was wrong to hurt a living creature for no good reason. Truly, it was fun but the birds were dying in earnest. Until one day, when I shot a particular dove. It fluttered to the ground, suffering, but not dead. I was appalled, and guilty, and scared. I did make one of the most difficult ethical decisions of my days right then and there: I killed it. I put it out of its misery. The misery *I caused*. It was a definite nadir in regard to my honor – which has ranged from low to high in my many years.
I vowed then to never shoot a bird again, and so I never did. It was a hard-won lesson that one’s actions can have real consequences in the world. The way of the sociopath and the child is to fail to realize that the other has feelings and that their desire to have a happy, healthy, free and unimpeded life is worthy of respect. Similarly, when a powerful person holds a slave (which, I’m afraid, is far from over in modern existence), they utterly fail to empathize with what it would be like to be on the receiving end of their behavior. I could never have read in a book that shooting birds was wrong; it took the deep grief and shame of killing an innocent and beautiful bird to cause me to realize that I was a moral actor and that I needed to get it straight STAT.
I like to think that I have made major improvements morally since that fateful day. Life is a journey, I suppose. Ethics is about making a habit out of taking pains to determine what is right in a particular situation using general rules one has thought about ahead of time, and then doing that act faithfully. Every time. Slowly at first, and then it becomes second-nature. One day, you will have earned the right to call yourself good.
“No longer talk at all about the kind of man that a good man ought to be, but be such.”