Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Remnants of ethics

For some, moral or ethical considerations are paramount; for others such notions are problematic hangovers from a more religious age and not really relevant to their lives. In the context of business there is a lot of talk about ethics and social responsibility but much of it can be seen as window-dressing. Are ethics and morality ultimately empty concepts?

The concept of law is sustained by a powerful set of very visible institutions: legislatures, law courts, prisons and police. By contrast the concept of morality might look a little questionable (at least to those who don't believe in supernatural rules and judgements). I think part of the problem is that the terms 'ethics' and 'morality' have been asked to bear more weight than they can in fact sustain in a secular age.

If they are taken in a pragmatic sense, however, they can still be useful and meaningful. To this end why not see morality as just (part of) the set of implicit rules of behavior which exists in any society, specifically the subset relating to not harming others, and helping others in certain circumstances? This informal system will of its very nature be difficult precisely to define and delineate - with culture-specific systems nested within other culture-specific systems and all within a broader system defined in terms of our shared genetic inheritance - but few would deny that social life is characterized by particular habits, customs, expectations, etc., some more or less universal, others very localized; and also that these behaviors may be conceptualized as implicit rules.

It is an advantage of an implicitly rule-based understanding of morality that it naturally gives rise to a viable notion of rights, in which rights go hand in hand with reciprocal obligations. Such an approach avoids the 'rights inflation' and empty rhetoric evident in much contemporary discourse.

Seeing ethical systems as rule-based may, however, strike many as somewhat heartless and cold. Is it not important to empathize with others? Is this not indeed the living core of ethics and morality?

Empathy is of course essential, and it is built into the 'rules of the game'. People who lack empathetic feelings - like those with autism spectrum disorders - are clearly handicapped in their ability to understand the rules and to participate fully in social life.

But the ambitious and demanding empathy-based ethics characteristic of religion and left-wing politics is something else again, and it raises certain problems. For example, an individual who embraces such an approach and identifies with the poor, the suffering and the oppressed might be constantly weighed down by the cares of others. Given the vast amount of human misery, this burden can easily become unbearable.

In the traditional Christian context the burden is eased somewhat by a belief in the efficacy of prayer and in divine providence; in the context of radical politics, ideology and political action may serve to fill the vacuum left by the loss of the spiritual dimension.

These are deep and difficult issues which individuals must face in the light of their own priorities and judgements. My contribution is merely to suggest that a more modest view of morality as a component of the complex and nuanced systems that create and sustain the social order may work for those whose worldview precludes belief in divine providence or a future proletarian paradise.