2014-11-23

This Is How I Know Whether You Are A Good Person


Ethics is a fundamentally human question. At some point in the evolution of our species, it became important to us to temper our behavior with principles. It was an existential question: we could indeed survive on our own, but we're better satisfied by the kind of survival that includes treating our fellows decently. A mere chemical impulse? An innate instinct to adhere to a social order, as all social animals do? Perhaps. But only humankind thought settle these questions with theories and ideas, paradigms by which to maximize the well-being of everyone "like us." Some of us even dare to extend these paradigms to other species. And to our knowledge, we're the only ones who do this. To behave ethically is, quite simply, to be human.

Once we acknowledge that fact, many of the interesting questions involve where people draw the boundaries of their own ethics. Why white lies rather than no lies at all? Why alcohol, but not marijuana? Why heterosexual marriage, but not gay marriage? Why abortion, but not euthanasia? Why nationalism and not internationalism? Why is drawing a fence around a patch of land theft if you don't get a stamp from a notary public, but not if you do? Why do we think poorly of prostitutes? Why do we think poorly of foreigners? Why is getting tattoos a violation of religions that originated in areas that were unaware of the practice? Why do mormons consume ginseng, but not caffeine? Why is taxation a moral issue? 

If your response to any of these questions involves frustration about the fact that the questions were asked in the first place, then I don't actually believe that you have a code of ethics. Otherwise, I think you do. And this is the point: You're an ethical person if you don't mind attempting to answer these questions

If you can tirelessly discuss and respond to these ethical questions without growing exasperated, throwing up your hands, and declaring that there is no point to asking why, then I think you're an ethical person.

If you can hear someone else's response to the same questions, understand that the person disagrees with your ethical position, and discuss the matter in as much detail as possible, without growing angry or indignant, then I think you're an ethical person.

If you can accept that some ethical questions simply don't have answers, but that they are still worth asking, then I think you're an ethical person.

If you can come to understand - especially if told by someone else - that you yourself have violated a valid moral code, and ultimately realize that the ethical violation pains you more than the fact that someone called you unethical, then I think you are an ethical person. That is, if the possibility of being morally wrong matters more to you than the possibility of being thought of as being morally wrong, then yes, you're an ethical person.

If you can hear someone articulate a moral opinion without feeling that he or she is criticizing you as a person - if you can separate who you are from a discussion of ethics - then I think you are an ethical person.

If you can recognize that ethical problems are human problems, that learning to be a good person is hard work that we must spend a part of every single day tackling, then I think you are an ethical person.

Being an ethical person is being human; being an ethical person is being a good person. The good is the human, and the human is ethical. That is simply the nature of ethics. If you don't care, don't want to think about it, find it offensive or unpleasant that someone would want to talk to you about it, or feel that it's more important to smooth things over than to be morally inquisitive, then I know you are the other kind of person.