From my parents and church I acquired an early sense of the importance of doing what is right and good. Under the names ethics and moral philosophy it pervaded my university studies of theology, philosophy of religion and comparative religion, till it became the main, continuing focus of my work about 20 years ago. The result is a very privileged picture of this crucial facet of human life. Privilege involves responsibility. In my case it is the duty to share what I have been given as widely as possible. This article brings together what I see as some of the most important insights about ethics.
Key words in ethics
The main word in ethics is goodness, standing for the cherishing, fostering and preserving of all that is caring, beautiful and true. Directly related to it is the evil of all that damages and even destroys goodness. Ethics shares with law the words right and wrong, but it must not be confused with law. Law works with what can be enforced whereas ethics cannot. We cannot force anybody to respect others or to cherish truth, for example.
Seen in historical perspective, ethics or morality appears to be older than religion, for no human community could survive and thrive lastingly without practising ethical values. That makes ethical practice the only way to achieve what we all need and want most, which is lasting, inclusive wellbeing. It also explains why grossly unethical organisations and whole societies, like Nazi Germany and apartheid South Africa, end up collapsing.
Ethics can affect everything, as our moral sense evaluates all that it encounters, identifying everything that is harmful, hateful, ugly and unjust, and working for the triumph of their opposites.
The history of ethics reveals three great types of moral community, the second and third of which have immensely enlarged many people’s moral horizons. The earliest type was that of the individual ethnic communities that were once the global norm. Their influence still survives, especially in Africa.
Then, around 2 500 years ago, came a massively important turning point, or axis, in ethics. There emerged in about a century a series of ethical and spiritual teachers who launched the great ethical systems of China, India, the Middle East and Europe, along with the immensely powerful moral teachings of Jesus and the Qur’an that came much later.
These new moralities, often called axial or trans-ethnic moralities, have spread to much of the world, drawing into them and at times eclipsing the older moralities. Mostly these were strongly patriarchal cultures, so that women’s ethical voices were not heard in their formation, at least not directly.
From about 300 years ago, as information about these moralities and our shared human biology and brain structures became available, a third great stage of ethical development emerged in the work, initially, of philosophers like Immanuel Kant and David Hume, and, in due course, from the movements for gender justice and environmental care, and from biology. This third type of ethic is the search for a global ethic that has found expression in developments like the commitment to universal human rights, and against wars and environmental damage.
Importantly, ethnic, trans-ethnic and global ethics can be present in anybody’s values. While the ideal is where these values agree, there is also the disturbing fact that they can clash. An example today is where commitment to gender justice is resisted by some on the basis of patriarchal, cultural and religious values.
Are ethical values absolute or relative?
A recent notion holds that there are no universal or absolute ethical values. In the name of respect and tolerance, its supporters say that morality is relative to cultures.
Some cultures prize polygamy, others don’t; some value the death penalty, others don’t; and so on. While that is true, it doesn’t follow that what they value is equally good. So some of us, myself included, reject ethical relativism. Who still believes that treating women, black people or gay people as inferior is ever a good thing? And can there ever be a situation in which we would accept that hurting people to enjoy hearing them scream, or rape, can be right and good?
It is a mistake to think of ethics just as a matter of individuals doing the right thing. While that is certainly vital, all our institutions and structures, from the family to the biggest international organisations, must also practise ethical values. Ethics, in other words, always applies to both character and context.
Character, context and global ethics
Personal moral character has stages of development, though not all are achieved by everybody. After the natural self-centredness of our infancy comes our inculcation into the values of our communities and their religions or philosophies, until a concern for the good of the whole earth may shape our moral sense, though that seems to be quite rare.
As for the ethical shaping of the world’s institutions, my colleague Deon Rossouw has helpfully pointed out that these operate at increasing levels of scope and impact. He identifies three such levels: the micro level of treating others in your institution respectfully and honestly; middle-level or meso-ethics, involving the relationships between whole institutions; and macro-ethics, which is about the way national and international structures operate. The global ethics movement can be seen as especially relevant to macro-ethics.
At this time of global peril from environmental damage, it is very good news that, despite many differences, the world’s moral systems nonetheless have a set of shared ethical values on which we could build a better, safer and more caring global future.
They are generosity of spirit and action as opposed to selfishness, peace over violence, truth over falsehood, inclusivity over exclusion, courage over cowardice, love over hatred or indifference, freedom over captivity, and justice over all that oppresses and discriminates unfairly.
Prozesky is an emeritus professor of religion and ethics and his new book, Honest to Goodness, published in the US, is available as an e-book from Amazon
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