Thursday, 24 October 2013

The Good, the Moral, and the Ethical

Technically, the words good, moral, and ethical are synonyms. I have no desire to challenge that lack of distinction, however, as a thought experiment a distinction may be drawn by looking at the modern common usage of these words.

Much of what passes for good these days has more to do with individual feelings derived from social conditioning. The good is whatever makes us feel good and the bad is whatever makes us feel bad. According to these criteria, right and wrong actions become arbitrary, whim-based, and easily justifiable or excusable.

While “the good” is feelings-based, the word morality seems to have a more authoritarian tone. In practicality, it does not matter whether this moral authority is religious or political in nature; both demand people to live according to their system of morality. So whether the moralists battle against gay marriage or against smoking cigarettes, both feel justified in their actions because they believe themselves to be aligned to their chosen moral authority.

Ethics is based on reason. It rejects good feelings as indicative of right action and dismisses moral authorities. Instead it looks at the world as it is and attempts to chart a course of action accordingly with the intent of achieving a prosperous outcome even if the road is hard.

The good are encouraged to follow their hearts and to do what feels right. The moral need only follow the rules and then rest assured in their salvation and moral superiority. The ethical must be wise; they learn through study, analysis, experimentation, failure and experience.

The distinctions presented here are of my own observations and are by no means according to Webster (or Oxford), and yet I find them very useful in understanding the world. For example, we might say that people are basically good, but being good is basically evil. Here’s how. People are basically good in that no person sets out to be evil. Some people do what feels good, but inadvertently cause long-term harm because they have not thought through the consequences of their actions.

For example, a person may feel good about themselves by giving money to a beggar completely unaware that this beggar then used the money collected to purchase heroin. This “good” person is in fact supporting the local drug trade. That may seem to be an extreme example, but it does happen on occasion. It may seem that the “good” government is one that provides for the poor, however the current system is one where politicians get elected and become rich by advocating such programs while contributing to a culture of entitlement and dependency among the poor that goes far beyond basic necessities. The long term consequences of being good often have negative outcomes.

Others use goodness justify their actions. Every villain thinks himself the hero – the good guy. Likewise, many evil actions throughout history have been justified by the moral authority that decreed it and the followers who simply obey feeling that they are doing right. The conflicts great and small throughout human history have not been between good and evil, but rather between good and good. Yes, even the Nazis thought they held the moral high-ground.

I believe that one of the great problems of our age is that the vast majority of people are good and many are moral, but relatively few are ethical. People learn to be good through social conditioning and become moral through submission to a belief system as obedient disciples, but being ethical requires reason and this means learning how to think rationally. Unfortunately, ethics education disappeared a hundred years ago with the loss of Classics and Philosophy from school curriculums. Instead, words derived from the study of Ethics such as virtue, vice, and character are now used out of context by the moralists as standards of judgement against non-believers.

In philosophy, Ethics is the study of right action. The goal, as with any study, is to determine a set of governing principles – a code of conduct if you will. So just as science has indentifies basic principles concerning the physical world, ethics seeks to do the same concerning human action. Virtues are positive habits that lead to positive outcomes and vices are negative habits that lead to negative outcomes. These habitual behaviours over time determine a person’s character as basically positive or basically negative.

Virtues, vices, and character are not immediate but incremental. Smoking is an excellent example of a vice. A single cigarette will cause no harm. Smoking over a few years will have little effect. However, a lifetime of smoking will cause serious damage. The good and the moral see the immediate positives but fail to see the long term negative effects of their actions. Likewise, virtue is often unrecognised. There may not be any immediate positives in daily oral hygiene, but a lifetime of this virtue yields great positives. From the standpoint of ethics, things that are immediately good, like a cigarette, can be negative and things that seem a chore, like dental hygiene, are good.

During the 1930’s and 40’s, Western Civilization introduced the modern welfare state. This was an immediate good. The poor were cared for, children were educated, people received healthcare, and the infrastructure was maintained and expanded. Now nearly seventy years later this is instilled into the social consciousness as a good thing, particularly among the good-hearted people of the socio-political left and to an only slightly lesser extent among the moralist right embracing “compassionate conservatisms”. The villains are the ethical people who recognise the welfare state as a vice and therefore “evil”, not because it is not immediately positive, but because the negative outcomes make it unethical. What has happened over the past seventy years has been an increase in the number of welfare beneficiaries, more bureaucracy to administer the programs, greater cost to pay for both of these, and a corrupt political class elected control it. The result is unimaginable and unmanageable national debts that threaten to topple the Western economies and potentially Western Civilization itself. All this could have been avoided because it was predicted during the Nineteenth Century by past leaders trained in Ethics.

The good follow their hearts, the moral follow their laws, the ethical follow their reason, and all three groups see the others as being evil. There is no difference in definition between the good, the moral, and the ethical, but there should be. Perhaps a division is in order so that we might better understand the current conflicts between the good, the moral, and the ethical.

1 comment:

  1. So often discussion about these 3 facets are separate.. good to see a very simple discussion on the one page. I have been teaching ethics, specifically to Sience and Health Science U/G for 12 years. To my knowledge there are very few courses like this in AUS universities, unless students seek out course in another faculty. My 'mission' has been to equip students with some sound reasoning skills, embedded with relevant experience of sympathizing and empathizing with dilemnas sceince places at our doorsteps. Virtue ethics is critical to science, I also ponder what role 'care ethics' will play out in future years... I am now digging into your archives... with great relish!