Archive for June, 2013


I am a searcher and a seeker and most recently I have been seeking to understand ‘ethics.’  As a searcher and seeker I admit that I do not know; in fact, I ‘know’ very little about all that I have been searching for and seeking to understand for so many years.  My motivation for this ‘Aside’ today occurred yesterday when a person who has been following my blog for some time wrote to me that ‘you seem to know a great deal about a number of topics.’  Well, I certainly have my opinions and speculations; however, when it comes to ‘knowing’ I am one who does not ‘know’ — I am, in many ways, quite ignorant. Through my blog entries I offer both myself and you, gentle reader, some thoughts, ideas, concepts, etc. to consider, to reflect upon, to ponder about, and to question.  I hold Socrate’s admonition about ‘knowing’ and so I offer you today an extended quotation from Plato’s ‘Protagoras.’  Protagoras is a dialogue by Plato. The main argument is between the elderly Protagoras, a celebrated Sophist, and Socrates and concerns the nature of Sophists, the unity and the teachability of virtue. One topic addressed during this dialogue concerns ‘knowledge’ and ‘knowing.’  In the following quote, Socrates is speaking.

Surely, I said, knowledge is the food of the soul; and we must take care, my friend, that the Sophist does not deceive us when he praises what he sells, like the dealers wholesale or retail who sell the food of the body; for they praise indiscriminately all their goods, without knowing what are really beneficial or hurtful: neither do their customers know, with the exception of any trainer or physician who may happen to buy of them.  In like manner those who carry about the wares of knowledge and make the round of the cities, and sell or retail them to any customer who is in want of them, praise them all alike; though I should not wonder, O my friend, if many of them were really ignorant of their effect upon the soul; and their customers equally ignorant, unless he who buys of them happens to be a physician of the soul.  If, therefore, you have understanding of what is good and evil you may safely buy knowledge of Protagoras or any one; but if not, then, O my friend, pause, and do not hazard your dearest interests at a game of chance.  For there is far greater peril in buying knowledge than in buying meat and drink. . .

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Let’s consider ‘belief systems’ and their social origins.  It seems to me quite unlikely that any society has existed in which individual members have thought the murder of others to be acceptable.  There have always been rules — as far as we can determine — about when people can kill other people — usually outsiders versus insiders.  So, the killing of missionaries might have been acceptable to some tribes while it was not acceptable to kill relatives from other tribes.  Often these moral understandings are regulated by religious and ‘legal’ taboos.  Human beings seem to be hesitant to accept that morality is something invented by human beings and hence we tend to legitimize moral rules by mythologizing their origins: ‘The great bird of life says that stealing is wrong.’  To some extent the story of ethics is descriptive of our attempts like these to legitimize morality.

It seems to me that most people living in Western Christian societies would say that they base their ethical beliefs and behavior on the ten negative commandments (of these ten perhaps six are actually ethical).  Most of these folks think of ethics in this way — as a series of ‘rules’ that one attempts to keep most of the time.  Now, if one is not able to remember all ten rules, it is possible to live a moral life by embracing and following one rule — THE GOLDEN RULE: always treat others as you would like them to treat you.  This ‘reciprocity rule’ has a long and distinguished track record and is found in many different religions and philosophical traditions worldwide.  Now, this is not quite what Jesus the Christ said — his moral code is much more radical and not at all ‘reciprocal.’  Jesus said that we have to do good deeds to those who have done us no good at all.  This is one reason that ‘real’ Christianity is so very difficult to follow.

So, is religion where morality comes from?  Is being moral simply a matter of obeying the divine commands?  Independently-minded individuals, like Socrates, said that there is more to morality than religious obedience.  One reason for this is that religious commands vary from one religion to another.  For example, you can have four wives if you follow this religion and only one if you follow that religion.  Religion on its own doesn’t seem to be a complete and satisfactory foundation for human ethical beliefs.  What many philosophers search for is a way of justifying moral values which are independent of religious belief.

One alternative is to say that morality comes not from external supernatural sources but from ourselves.  This position, however, raises some of the BIG QUESTIONS of all time: ‘Are human beings inherently good or inherently evil?’   ‘What is human nature?’  ‘Is it even possible for us to define it or generalize about a species which includes firemen, gardeners, aboriginal Australians, English sopranos, Gandhi and Hitler?’  For philosophers [and for others seeking to understand ethics], thinking of ethics often begins with ASSUMPTIONS about human nature, either negative or positive.  For example, the Christian notion of ‘original sin’ takes the view that our nature is ‘fallen’ and hence is essentially bad, if not evil.  If this is the case, then it is our social environment and its legal sanctions that force us to be moral.  BUT it seems to me that the reason most of us don’t torture children is because we think it is WRONG, not because we fear punishment.

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It appears to me that there is a growing interest in ‘ethics.’  It also seems as if many of us have our own ideas about what is right and what is wrong AND in how we can really, truly tell the difference.  For example, philosophers and clerics/rabbis/imams etc are in some agreement about the following: ‘Our country is in a state of moral decline and there is no respect for authority anymore.’  ‘We must get back to basics.’  ‘Postmodern relativism has led us into a nightmare of uncertainty and moral chaos.’  In addition to these ‘agreements’ they also disagree when it comes to their understanding of ethics.  Of course, all of this is not new.  There have always been ‘moral panics’ and disagreements about what constitutes ethics and ethical behavior.  For example, Plato thought that 4th century B.C.E. Athens was doomed because of the wicked ethical skepticism of the Sophist philosophers and the gullibility of his fellow citizens.  So, journey with me a while, gentle reader, as we seek to understand ethics.

Let’s see, where to begin…well, actually…where to continue.  We are social beings.  We are ‘products’ of our particular societies.  We do not ‘make ourselves.’  We owe much of what we consider to be our ‘identity’ and ‘personal opinions’ to the community in which we lived — especially for the first decade or so of our lives.  For Aristotle, this made perfect sense for the primary function of the state was to enable human beings to have philosophical discussions and eventually come to an agreement regarding a shared code of ethics.  Now, as soon as we are ‘formed,’ many of us begin to question the society that has made us, and do so in a way that seems unique to us.  Socrates, another old Greek, stressed that it was in fact our duty and he pushed young Athenians to ask questions about accepted moral opinions and NEVER stop doing so [As one ten year old said to me: ‘Plato was an old Greek who asked lots of questions and then they killed him.’].  Now, the State has the power and authority to decide what is legally right and wrong AND yet ‘law’ and ‘morality’ are not the same thing.

Ethics is complicated and seeking to understand ethics is challenging if not daunting.  Why?  For one reason, our morality is a mixture of received and integrated tradition and personal opinion.  It is, in short, a combination of the communal and the personal.  Some philosophers (a philosopher is a seeker of wisdom) have stressed the importance of the ‘Community’ and see individual ethics as derivative.  Other philosophers stress the importance of the authentic, autonomous ‘Individual.’  Some claim, for example, that society is merely a convenient arrangement which must be subservient to the goals and ambitions of individuals.  Both communitarians and individualists want to legitimize either communal ethics or the need for an individual morality by appealing to some kind of ‘neutral’ set of ideals.  Do these ‘neutral sets of ideas’ really exist?  How do we know?

Let’s continue, as a philosopher might, by asking some questions — these questions are important even if clear and concise answers to them are few (which indeed they are).  We are reminded by the great German poet, Rilke, ‘to love the questions themselves’ and ‘to live the questions’ and someday we might live our way into the answers.  These, of course, are not the only questions, but they are questions that philosophers have been asking for more than two thousand years — Socrates, for example had ‘six questions’ he thought were key questions (this gives us some sense of their staying power and of the challenge one has in answering them).  So, gentle, reader, I invite you to spend some time holding these questions and I invite you to reflect upon them and perhaps respond to them in writing or, more powerfully, to engage another person or two in a deep searching conversation about them.


Are there differences between moral laws and society’s law?  If there are, what are they?

What are human beings really like: are they inherently selfish and greedy or generous and kind?

Are some of us ‘better’ at morality than others OR is everyone equally capable of being good?

Are there ‘good’ ways of teaching children to behave morally?

Does anyone have the right — perhaps the ‘obligation’ — to tell anyone else what goodness and wickedness are?

Are there certain kinds of acts (like torturing children) that are always wrong?  If so, what are they?

What is the best answer to this question: ‘Why should I be a good person?’

Is ethics a special kind of knowledge?  If so, what sort of knowledge is it and how do we get hold of it?

Is morality about obeying a set of rules or is it about thinking carefully about consequences?

When people say ‘I know murder is wrong,’ do they KNOW it is wrong or just believe it very strongly?

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Consider that every society tries to point to a sharp line between approved and disapproved values.  Why?  It is easier (for me certainly and I believe for most humans) to make an ‘either-or’ distinction than to recognize and engage shades of gray.  To support and reinforce the distinction, we are provided and then utilize cultural and sub-cultural stereotypes that facilitate our perception of the two opposites.  It also seems that information about evil spreads more quickly than information about good (note: the news and the weather).  We know that a person’s character can be destroyed more rapidly than it can be built up.  Punishment to Evildoers is more painful, immediately or eventually, than the rewards from good actions.

The existence of Victims is anticipated, probably universally so, partly as a result/consequence of events in a mythical or historical past.  In many societies, for example, people believe in a previous age of innocence — in a Garden, elsewhere on earth, or in the heavens or in the clouds.  Humankind was innocent, not aware of evil, in a state of ‘grace’ or ‘bliss.’  Then for some reason human beings strayed — they acted or decided; they chose — and as a result, their decendents carry within themselves the sins of their ancestors.  Their heritage: a proneness to evil and hence they are both Victims and Evildoers.  In proclaiming the universality of evil in the abstract, we are saying that we human beings are BOTH Evildoers and Victims [some are responsible, all are accountable].

Here are a few brief examples to substantiate this generalization.  First are situations:  it is INDIVIDUALS who either produce or are affected by the situations judged to be evil.  In June in Indiana late in the day we are often greeted by dark, ominous clouds — what do they foreshadow?  If it rains and the earth had been parched, the rain is deemed Good.  If it rains and there is high winds and hail and damage is done to person, property, and crops the event is deemed to be Evil.  A human being passes the judgment; without the human being there is no good or no evil.  A Judge passes judgment, in this and in all other instances, whenever the Judge finds or thinks there will be Victims.  Sometimes — and war is a great illustration — the Judge may locate not only the Victims but also the persons the Judge believes to be the Evildoers [witness our response to many who are held captive in the prison in Guantanamo Bay without being charged AND are deemed to be Evildoers or potential Evildoers].

Can we name all the Evildoers who in the past have generated hatred between to groups (clans, tribes, ethnic groups. countries), probably not.  What we do know, with some certainty, is that present generations have inherited and perpetuate what their ancestors once began either deliberately or in a sporadic fashion.  The question of whether or not what is carried out is justified is not relevant.

Finally, most of us also pass judgment on ourselves at some time or other; we, in essence, deem ourselves to be Evildoers.  Self-judgments involve a single human being who is both Judge and, depending on his judgment, a Victim or an Evildoer.  For example, a saint (St. Ignatius comes to mind) may judge himself to have been an Evildoer during one part of his life and subsequently to have become a Victim of that mode of living.  In another example, a Judge believes that the Evildoer and the Victim are the same person — a suicide can be so judged when one considers that self-destruction is a ‘sin’ and hence evil and at the same time, the suicide can be judged to be a Victim of those who ‘drove him’ to suicide.  Are there two Evildoers in this case?  Who is the ‘real’ Evildoer?  [See, ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’]

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Allow me to be clear about my current thinking: Evil is universal AND few concrete details can be supplied concerning the actions or situations that are universally judged to be evil.  Why?  For one thing, we are immediately faced with a dilemma concerning the ‘Judge,’ the person(s) who passes judgment about good and evil.  The danger of ‘we versus them’ is daunting and might well be insurmountable when it comes to the social-moral criterion of evil.  For example, in some societies the word for ‘human being’ [The Lakota Sioux for example] is the one the inhabitants use to designate themselves; by implication all outsiders are not human and, therefore, are potential evildoers [the ‘White Man’ probably confirmed this among the Lakota tribes during the late 1870s].  If the ‘Judge’ comes from the same society as the individual or situation being judged, he may indeed apply standards that would be clear and understandable to almost everyone living in that society.  If, on the other hand, he comes from another society he is likely to have a different set of values, and his judgment will be debated.  Who, I ask, should judge a mystical or religious ritual involving cannibalism [in this case, the eating of the dead elder so his/her wisdom would literally be consumed by the tribe]?  You and I might be shocked; the ‘insider’ may well believe the ceremony essential to the well-being of the tribe.  The ‘meaning’ of the action must be understood AND ‘meanings’ are not identical with ‘circumstances.’  Which ‘Judge’ should say ‘this is evil’ or ‘this is good’?  Can the insider who piously praises the rite be believed?  From what I can discern, as a group, anthropologists are, at minimum, skeptical of finding behind ‘every’ cannibal rite some moral altruism or behind every sadistic practice an offering to a demanding god or behind every war the feeling of a holy cause.  Are we, human beings, prone to paint ourselves in pleasant colors and then to be less moral than moralizing?  I find this question to be quite challenging and at times quite disturbing.

Even within a given society, the concept of good and evil shifts and ebbs and flows for all societies [that I know of anyway] are divided into social strata.  They at times function as a whole, and at other times they are broken into ‘clans,’ or social classes or sub-cultures, etc.  Each of these in turn have distinctive values that must be maintained if its identity or power or privilege is to be secure.  Those who are ‘out’ even though they are part of the larger society and who violate the standards bring pain in some form to the in-groupers and hence can easily be branded as being ‘evil.’  To further complicate all of this, the very concepts of good and evil change with the passing of time [in the brief history of the United States think of all that has moved from being ‘evil’ to being ‘good’ or from being ‘good’ to now being ‘evil’].

Intuitively, I suspect, that most thinking persons believe, in spite of cultural and sub-cultural variability, that some types of situations are judged to be evil everywhere.  Consider the sexual taboo that appears to be universal: sexual intercourse between certain specified persons is considered to be taboo — and thus evil.  This belief persists even though recognition is given to the fact that there are always so many persons and situations to be judged.

Perhaps evil exists because something always goes wrong; perpetual bliss has never characterized humankind — an obvious understatement — and that most joys are fleeting.  The philosopher William Chase Greene noted in 1944 that “disappointed hopes, the prosperity of the wicked, the suffering of the innocent, even the little ironies of circumstance invite men to question whether the ultimate power of the universe is good.”   For Christians, Romans 3:23 reminds us that “. . .all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God.”  Evaluation of what is evil always requires a judgment that differentiates between two kinds of values, one securing approval, the other disapproval.  On this basis alone it seems reasonable to assert that evil as such is universal.  On the other hand — there always seems to be ‘another hand’ — this is saying nothing more than that everywhere men judge specific persons and some situations to be evil.

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