Archive for July, 2013

This morning I am thinking about two ethics — humanistic and authoritarian.  By definition, the criteria for each are fundamentally different.  For example, in authoritarian ethics an ‘authority’ states what is good for me-you-us and provides us the laws and norms of conduct.  In humanistic ethics humans themselves are both the norm and law giver and the subject of the norms and laws.

Pause.  It might be helpful to clarify my understanding of the concept of authority.  The challenge for me is to discern what ‘kind’ of authority exists.  Consider that there are two types of authority — rational and irrational.  ‘Rational’ authority is rooted in ‘competence.’  For example, the person whose authority is respected functions competently in the task entrusted to him/her.  This person does not need to intimidate others with his/her authority nor does this person need to seek to be admired by those affected by his/her authority [as long as and to the extent to which this person is competently helping and serving others rather than exploiting others].  Moreover, rational authority insists upon and requires constant scrutiny and criticism of those who are subjected to the authority.  This authority, by its nature, is temporary; part of its acceptance is dependent upon the ‘performance’ of the one in authority and part of it is ‘role-defined’ — it is not ‘person-defined’ [the soldier salutes the ‘role’ not the ‘person’ — some officers forget this].

The root of “Irrational’ authority always involves ‘power over others.’  This power can be physical, intellectual, emotional or spiritual in nature.  People who submit to this power experience anxiety, if not fear, and powerlessness, if not helplessness, in response to this authority.  The bookends of this type of authority are coercion and fear (actual or implied).  Scrutiny and criticism are forbidden.

Rational authority is also rooted in the equality of both the ‘authority’ and the ‘subject,’ which differ with respect to the degree of knowledge or skill in a specific field [think, ‘teacher’ and ‘student’].  On the other hand, irrational authority is rooted in inequality [physical, intellectual, emotional and/or spiritual].  [Note: given this, humanistic ethics is NOT incompatible with rational ethics]

Authoritarian ethics can be distinguished from humanistic ethics by the following criteria, one ‘formal’ and the other ‘material.’  Formally, authoritarian ethics denies one’s capacity to know what is good or bad; the authoritarian norm giver defines what is good and bad; this authority is always seen as transcending the individual.  This system is rooted no in reason and knowledge but in awe/fear of the authority; it is also rooted in the receiver’s feeling of weakness/powerlessness and dependency needs.  The authority’s decisions/actions can and must not be questioned.  Materially [i.e. according to content] authoritarian ethics answers the question of what is good or bad and does so primarily in terms of the interests of the authority; the interests of the receiver do not matter.  Even though it is exploitative, the receiver may derive considerable benefits — physical, intellectual, emotional and spiritual — from it.  If you, the receiver, are ‘good’ you will be rewarded and if you are ‘bad’ you will be punished.

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Consider that in many ways we have become the master of nature AND have also become the slave of two things we build with our own hands: the machine and technology.  With all of our knowledge of matter and machines (including technology) we seem to be ignorant with regard to the most important and fundamental questions of human existence: Who am I?  Who are you?  Who are we? Why are we here?  Where are we choosing to go?  Why are we choosing to go there?

The Enlightenment offered us two guides to help us engage these fundamental questions: Revelation and Reason.  Today we seem to be without the guidance that both provide.  We are left with a relativistic position which proposes that value judgments and moral/ethical norms are exclusively matters of taste and arbitrary preference.  Yet, we cannot live without values and norms and so our relativism makes us easy prey for irrational value systems and self-serving norms.  The demands of powerful organizations and the ‘State,’ our desire for our leaders to give us easy answers and their unwillingness to name the ‘King’s clothes’ that we are wearing [that life is truly complex and there are few problems to be solved and many, many, many more paradoxes to be embraced and dilemmas to be held], plus our slavery to machines and technology, and our lust for material success become the sources for the norms that guide us and the values that support us.

Are we — you, me, us — to leave it at that?  Are we simply to consent to relativism and turn our backs on revelation and reason?  Are we going to choose to believe that the choices between freedom and slavery, between love and hate, between truth and falsehood, between integrity and opportunism, between life and death, are simply the results of so many subjective preferences?  There are alternatives, Revelation and Reason are two.  Both are sticky wickets — Revelation continues to be the most sticky of the wickets, for me anyway, Reason, a bit less so.  So, I will focus a bit on Reason.  Given our understanding of history we ‘know’ that valid ethical and moral norms can be formed by our reason.  We humans are capable of discerning and making value judgments as valid as all other judgments rooted in reason.  All of the great humanistic traditions in the West provided us with deep tap roots for value systems that support our ‘freedom/autonomy’ and ‘reason.’  These systems tell us that in order to know what is good or bad for man one has to know the nature of man.  We cannot begin to ‘know’ ourselves as human beings unless we look at ourselves ‘wholistically’ — in toto.  This includes our need to intentionally and purposefully search to find ‘answers’ to the fundamental questions I listed earlier and it also includes our need to discern/discover the values and norms according to which we ought to live.

Consider that the values and norms that we need to guide us as human beings can be found within our human nature; that these norms are rooted in our inherent qualities and that their violation results in violence that we do to ourselves and to others.  We are, by nature, living paradoxes.  We are good and evil, we are virtue and vice, we are light and darkness AND we have choice.  But we can only choose if we ‘know’ who we are.  Consider that any organized collection of human beings is also a living paradox.  One trap we fall into is that we believe that a person, a collective, a community, a race, a nation, a religion is either inherently good or inherently evil.  The beauty of this is that it makes life simple.  If we accept that we are, in these many guises, truly paradoxes then it all becomes quite complex indeed.

Gentle reader, what are your responses to these fundamental questions: Who am I?  Who are You?  Who are We? Why are we here?  Where are we choosing to go?  Why are we choosing to go there?

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By experience, we know that a negative atmosphere (environment, climate, culture) moves an organization (family, team, department, community, congregation, etc.) toward destruction.  As we do when speaking of an individual’s character, we can also speak of the character or ethos of the ‘group’ [ethos is the characteristic spirit of a culture as revealed in its beliefs].  It is a challenge, if not outright difficult, to describe or analyze an ethos; yet most of us immediately sense its power and effect when we enter into most any group environment.  We know, many of us as a result of direct experience, that when the ethos is ‘positive’ or ‘healthy’ that wonderful things can and do happen.  Personally, we find it a joy and a privilege to come to work when the organization’s ethos is ‘positive’ or ‘healthy.’  We love rising in the morning as we look forward to ‘going to work.’  The atmosphere (climate for some) is warm, full of positive energy, and people are welcoming (hospitable) and caring.  Creativity seems to wash over folks like a positive tsunami.

On the other hand, we also know what it is like when the atmosphere (climate, environment, culture) is negative, if not outright destructive.  We dread waking up in the morning.  We seek to leave part of ourselves at home or in the car (which is why some of us keep a car window cracked open a bit so the part of us that we leave in the car can get some fresh air).  Before we enter the building we cross an imaginary threshold and our spirit wanes — some become Lazarus-like.  They are the walking dead.

Many years ago W. Edwards Deming (the grandfather of the Quality Improvement Movement) said that most organizations do not pay attention to the most important aspect of ‘quality control’ and that is the ‘culture’ of the organization.  Negative cultures sap our energy.  The leadership motivates by criticism and coercion.  People are frequently bullied or demeaned and dignities are compromised (so is integrity).
Consider that one of the reasons much of this occurs is that we give our power over to others.  When I am invited to be of service to people who are members of an organized group I frequently invite them to engage the following exercise: Quiet yourself and then ask yourself what image you have of those who have ‘power over you.’

It is my experience that when people feel powerless in the face of those who lead them one way to begin to experience their own power is by framing certain types of questions.  These questions open pathways and invite reflection.  This type of questioning is gentle and persistent [the questions come from a place of not knowing — this helps people engage the questions rather than defend against them].  People that rely on coercion and manipulation can actually be influenced, if not persuaded, by powerful questions [see the Quaker, John Woolman, who influenced the Society of Friends in the 1700s so powerfully that as an organized group that they realized that it was immoral to own another human being and so as a Society they stopped being slave-holders].

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For most of us, the search to understand ethics continues to be difficult.  This difficulty may derive partly from our nature as human beings.  At times the attempt has been to make ethics objective and universal, when, at this time in history anyway, the evidence indicates that there is a broad range of different beliefs about how we should behave toward one another.

Some moral philosophers believe that morality is about producing and distributing happiness; some believe that utilitarianism is a helpful system for analyzing and evaluating complex practical moral problems.  Still other moral philosophers believe that being moral means acting rationally and consistently.  The re-emergence of ‘virtue ethics’ may help to avoid some of the undesirable consequences of these approaches but ‘virtue ethics’ can itself be quite vague about how ‘situationally sensitive’ individuals make moral decisions which are consistent and committed.

Postmodernism has accelerated and complicated our search.  It appears more difficult today to be confident about the certainty of human knowledge, especially knowledge about human beings.  Today it seems unlikely that we will discover universal and objective moral truths.  This ‘informed scepticism’ can be quite helpful, however.  It can enable us to be suspicious of charismatic gurus, inflammatory political leaders and folks who claim to have a direct line to moral truth.  Even though we can only make small tentative steps towards some form of subjective human moral progress doesn’t mean that such steps are not important.  We often forget that in spite of our great scientific and technological advancements we are still quite primitive when it comes to our own moral development (see Reinhold Niebuhr’s ‘Moral Man and Immoral Society’).  We too often seem to forget that the ruthless pursuit of ethical, religious and political ‘certainty’ throughout the ages has destroyed millions of human lives (and in many ways continues to do so today).

We know, at least we give lip service to the idea, that the greatest threat to our survival as a species is OURSELVES.  We can, more than at any time in history, easily destroy ourselves by action and inaction.  As I sit here today, it seems to me that we will not achieve ‘ethical certainty.’  On the other hand, we can choose to become more morally aware.  Even though I may never truly understand ‘ethics’ I still believe that my search to understand ethics is worth my time, energy and effort.  As the great German poet, Rilke, advises: learn to love the questions themselves — live the questions and perhaps some day we might live into the answers.

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The remarkable author, Diana Trilling, offered us this: This is the unresolved question: ‘Where do I belong and what price do I pay for where I choose to stand?’  I think that this is a question that both a ‘Moral Relativist’ and an ‘Ethical Absolutist’ would embrace.

The recognition of a wide variety of ethical beliefs and practices is generally referred to as ‘Moral Relativism.’  We know that, differences in moral beliefs exists between different countries, societies, tribes, clans, classes, etc.  They also exist between the different sub-cultures that exist within these entities.  History also reveals to us how ‘time’ alters moral beliefs.  Most of us Westerners would be disturbed by and critical of public executions as entertainment AND most medieval Westerners would be disturbed by and critical of ‘one person, one vote.’  Today, as we well know, pro-choice and pro-life supporters hold differing moral beliefs about abortion.  If there are so many moral beliefs being embraced by so many different folks how does one determine which one is ‘right’?  How could one prove that one belief is right and the others wrong?

Many moral relativists would tell us that ‘there is no way’ and hence there is no such thing as ‘moral knowledge.’  This position has worried certain searchers and seekers who believe there must surely be a set of universal moral rules that are ‘always’ true.  These folks are referred to as: ‘Universalists’ — there are universal moral rules; or ‘Realists’ — ‘Rules’ are a ‘true’ kind of knowledge; or ‘Absolutists’ — ‘Moral Rules’ are ‘always’ compulsory.  For example, all three would say that it is ALWAYS wrong to sacrifice infants regardless of the beliefs of the culture.  The DANGER of ethical absolutism is that it can legitimize one powerful culture imposing its own local moral values on others — often this is done by claiming a monopoly on ‘moral truth.’  For example, at one time Western missionaries once rushed out into the world with Bibles and Bras in order to convert the heathen islanders.  Today, advocates of ethical relativism welcome and celebrate differences between cultures.  On the other hand, we in our culture have also been witness to — and have contributed to — the destruction of many unique ‘native’ cultures as a result of our own ethical beliefs.  Today we make adequate and inadequate attempts to protect ‘innocent’ and ‘primitive’ tribal cultures and wag our fingers when we hear of their annihilation.  We still send out missionaries with their Bibles and Bras and we also send out anthropologists who attempt to learn about and save the cultures.

In the 21st Century, most Western liberals and academics would not suggest that we interfere with the moral beliefs and customs of other cultures: ‘If the women want five husbands each — no problem.’  ‘If they go in for the compulsory burning alive of widows at their husband’s funerals — well, that’s their culture.’  The ethical absolutist would then smugly smile and get us to admit that perhaps there are, indeed, a few universal moral rules that are always true: ‘Protect the young.’  ‘Don’t murder innocent human beings.’  ‘Don’t cause sentient beings unnecessary pain.’  There seems to be a few fundamental core values like ‘murder is wrong’ that are always followed.  For example, a tribe may burn widows in the belief that this is for the ultimate long-term good but they don’t sanction the murder of widows as such.  Absolutists say that Relativists only look at what people do, not at what they actually BELIEVE.  The absolutist would also say that the existence of a wide variety of moral beliefs doesn’t prove that ALL moral beliefs are equally valid.  For example, different folks once believed that the earth was oval, round, doughnut shaped or flat; not all these beliefs were ‘valid;’ only the ’round-earthers’ actually knew the truth.  Absolutists say that human morality is like this — there is ‘real moral knowledge.’  Some moral beliefs are ‘true’ and some are not; it’s that we have not figured out how to prove which is which yet.

The differences between Relativists’ and ‘Absolutists’ are clear AND they both face certain problems.  Absolutists have to explain what the ‘core moral rules’ are, and why they have selected the ones they have.  Absolutists claim that the core moral rules are generally those ‘foundational’ ones that enable societies to exist.  But there is a problem with this: few absolutists would have supported or admired Nazi Germany with its clear, concise and cohesive social/moral rules.  AND, many Relativists would have applauded the way in which the allies interfered quite drastically with Nazi values.  Also, consider that many Relativists also believe in one absolutely moral rule: ‘Don’t interfere with other cultures.’  Doing so is immoral and unethical.  Alas, the Relativist has become the Absolutist.

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