Thursday, 16 October 2014

Comparative Ethics

OK, so you read the previous post? Good, bear that in mind.

Just lately, probably because of the older age group of most of my friends, the highbrow level of discussions we have (because it's more interesting), and the fact that I don't suffer fools gladly (and neither do they) there have been many, many discussions where we don't agree on a point of ethics. Well, there's a shock.

We have, after all, different backgrounds, different politicial perspectives, different attitudes and beliefs to religious and metaphysical topics, and quite simply, different personalities. On the other hand we are all essentially intelligent and ethical people. How do we manage to argue so vehemently on key points?

One could ask the same thing of the greatest philosophers of the age. They get along socially but can go head to head every so often, and no compromise is possible. They agree to differ, shake hands, and pour another one. But the difference remains. I am asking why.

Let's consider a totally hypothetical example. Two people agree there is a need for more help to the poor in the area of housing. But they disagree on how it should be done. One says benefits to help pay rent should be increased. The other says private landlords should be subsidized so they can lower the rents. The end result is identical. Tax money is used to cover some of the cost, but these two ideas are argued over.

This is not a logical matter, it's based on ideologies, possibly sub-conscious, and definitely emotional. Somewhere in the head of person A is the fundamental historical idea that we should give alms to the needy. He may not even be aware of that, but that's what's going on. At the same time he sees the landlord as a priviledged person and dislikes the idea of him being assisted. Person B, on the other hand sees the simplicity in the system of making the housing more affordable. He feels this gives low income families dignity, they are simply choosing the cheaper option, and don't need a "handout".

If you were to interfere in this discussion, and point out that it makes no difference when the pennies are counted, they just move around differently, you would be roundly ignored. Perhaps even rightly so, in fact, as at least both parties in the debate are trying to do the "correct" thing. They are trying to be fair, they are trying to help. The rest is details.

Another example goes back to our old discussion about women's clothing, and modesty. No reasonable person wants a woman to suffer unwanted male attention, but only a few insist that it should be possible for a woman to walk down the street naked without receiving it. At the other end of the scale are people who think the solution is for women to be de facto invisible (burqa). In between are a wide range of levels of modesty, and everyone has their own limit. You have yours. No matter what you consider to be a miniumum level of modesty, you can find, easily, others who think it's too much or too little. All of them are doing so from what they consider to be a place of ethics, and a place of what is reasonable.

But EVERYONE has a limit, in their heads. Whether they share it or not.

It may be impacted by their own personal experience, or by religious or other beliefs. It may have changed over time. It may be influenced by what they read, even something as simple as a meme on Facebook, seriously. A little lightbulb goes on that a previously-held belief was not quite right.

And they think they are being logical. And they're not.

There's nothing logical about limits. They are personal and emotional, and they can change.

How then can we decide what's wrong and right? We can't, and that's fine. We can only ever decide what's right for us. We can then use our efforts of persuasion to come to agreements on what society will tolerate. But there's no solid answer.

That's why religions and societies write this stuff into law, to end the arguments. Obviously, it doesn't work, but that's the plan. The book (holy or legal) states that the limit is X, and it is then a simple matter to chastise those who break the rules, or blame them when their rule-breaking causes them harm.

These are not the only two scenarios (two means to the same end, or movable goalposts of reasonable behaviour) that cause ethical arguments, but they are the two commonest or biggest. If you consider most arguments that crop up you'll find the vast majority fall under one or the other.

There is no solution for this, not even harsh dogma. Because harsh dogma leads to rebellion, and eventually the rebels win.

I suggest people spend more time listening, considering, and weighing things up. I also suggest they get their heads out of their arses. Finally I suggest that where possible they mind their own business and clean their own house.

OK, Melanie has put the world to rights for a Thursday morning, I'm off to prop up the Chinese economy. Now there's an argument waiting to happen.....................

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