Ethics and Goodness
Book VIII. Ethics and Goodness
1. Kirists, who want to be good and who want to do good, learn that they must become full-fledged ethicists. To accomplish their heroic feats, they are obliged to look beyond black and white and make personal sense of complexity and ambiguity.
2. A kirist comes to recognize how her cherished values compete. She comprehends the nuanced differences between this current situation and a very similar past one. She sees the multiple sides of every moral argument. None of this is easy.
3. She sees that she must do the deciding. Absolute zero may be absolute but there are no absolute moral principles. She can’t turn to a list or a rule book. She must turn matters over, even as life relentlessly rushes by, demanding that she decide.
4. Nor is her society likely to support her in her efforts. Society lays down strict, simple-to-say and simple-to-remember rules for its own convenience. No kirist will find these self-serving, authoritarian rules very satisfactory or compelling.
5. A kirist will necessarily butt heads with these strict rules at every turn. Corporations have their rules. Schools have their rules. Families have their rules. Police departments have their rules. Even four women lunching together have their rules.
6. Every culture is rule-bound. These rules will tax her. If the rule is to never report bullying at work, how well will that sit? If the rule is to not talk back to authority, no matter how brutal authority acts, will she just nod? She will be a troubled ethicist.
7. If she loves fairness, justice, freedom and the other ideals of goodness, she will not fit comfortably into society. She may say nothing, she may hold her peace, but she won’t be smiling. And won’t the blues begin to haunt her?
8. Even a young kirist finds herself confronted by these challenges and confounded by this knowledge. Why should it be against the rules to talk back to her mean third grade teacher? But it is. What can she do except keep silent or speak and be punished?
9. In the fairy tales she reads, good triumphs. Life does not look like that. She wonders about that, she is confused by that, and she is hurt by that. And she can’t help but notice her own dark shadows, those pockets of spite, those edges of intolerance.
10. Despite all this and more, kirists have no doubt where they stand. They stand with goodness. They intend to be good and to do good and they demand goodness from their society. As challenged as they feel, they are clear and adamant.
11. Kirists come to realize that while consciousness allows for apprehension of the good, it hardly guarantees that a person will do good. They see too much “not goodness” all around them, from bullying parents to punishing politicians.
12. They recognize that as a species, we are stuck with the reality of evil, both in ourselves and in others. They don’t need to run through a litany of holocausts to be convinced. They see it every day, in the small interactions between human beings.
13. Maybe a future human being will evolve who is more ethical than us. While we wait on evolution, we must deal with who we precisely are. To begin with, we start out in a quagmire, because who is to adjudicate what is “right” and “wrong”?
14. Which is more ethically suspect, to patriotically fight in an immoral war, to support that war but to make sure that your son is exempt from duty, to flee the country so as not to have to fight in that war, or to blithely ignore that the war is going on?
15. Is it immoral to eat a cow? Is it immoral to write poetry while people starve? Is it immoral to choose a prestige profession that subtracts from our quality of life? These matters can’t be adjudicated from on high, as there are no cosmic courts.
16. With your feet firmly mired in complexity and ambiguity, you must judge and you must decide. Words like “right” and “wrong” and “good” and “evil” drop us into a quagmire where kirists dwell. There is no way out for you and for me.
17. How can there be a way out when there is no earthly way to rank competing values? Which is the higher value, compassion or self-protection? Which is the higher value, your life or my life? Which is the higher value, truth-telling or loyalty?
18. There is so much grayness. Why engage in whistle-blowing if that threatens your family? Why do another right thing when you’ve done several already? Haven’t you been good enough today? What’s to stop you from just watching a little television?
19. How are you to decide about anything? You love 25% of a candidate’s views, you can tolerate 50% of his views, and you find 25% of his views intolerable. But he is better than any of the other candidates. Do you vote or sit out the election?
20. You are working on a new piece of technology. You can see its benefits and its drawbacks. You find yourself leaning toward not believing that it is a good thing for the world. But this is how you earn your living. Should you quit or keep at it?
21. There are many easy ways out of these moral dilemmas and they are all contemptible. One is to ruthlessly simplify. You turn the complexity of competing values into the simplicity of commandments. This is the authoritarian weapon of choice.
22. Authoritarians love the language of absolutes, which makes them more powerful than kirists. They can keep shouting “Love thy neighbor!” or some other slogan without meaning a word of it. Kirists do not allow themselves this hypocritical way out.
23. A kirist is obliged to be a full-fledged ethicist, which means that he is obliged to weigh and measure conflicting values as they play themselves out in real life situations. This is absurd, taxing, and ultimately saddening. How could it not make one sad?
24. We accept the likelihood that our ethical decisions will come tinged with sadness. If you decide that you must never see a friend again, because his actions are reprehensible, are you also supposed to feel happy? Deciding is not some gleeful activity.
25. No doubt the thing called “depression” is supported by the difficulties we face in dealing with life’s moral complexities and ambiguities. Those difficulties make us sad. We would like to be good and we are made sad by how competing values stymie us.
26. Is it good to provide your child with so many activities that he becomes very accomplished but has no childhood? What are the ramifications of that? Are you after a little Mozart or a little Einstein or a child who doesn’t retch at the thought of school?
27. Is it good to accept all medical advice without question, to question every bit of it, or to somehow choose which to accept and which to reject? If the latter, how could you possibly go about such everlasting and inconclusive investigations?
28. You have an apprehension of the good, you want to be good, but which is the right way? Can there be a right way, given that values compete and that none are absolute? Or must we settle for our best efforts, aware that we are juggling imponderables?
29. And what about the pressure put on you by the powers that be, who are busy manipulating your views about right and wrong? If you need good information in order to make an informed decision and the information you receive is false, what then?
30. Say that the consensus view, manipulated into existence, is that your child’s fidgeting qualifies as a mental disorder. You are told that he ought to be drugged. Aren’t you at real risk of believing that’s the right path, since everyone is in agreement?
31. You are. Not only are ethical decisions made difficult because values compete and because real-life situations are complex and ambiguous, they are made even more difficult because the information we receive may not prove the least bit reliable.
32. All this makes us want to throw up our hands and shout, “The heck with goodness!” But we know that we mustn’t. We know that would amount to a capitulation to darkness. We have plenty of reasons to throw in the ethical towel but we mustn’t.
33. So, you try. But, harboring the wishful hope that trying is going to feel good, when it doesn’t you may feel disappointed and that much less interested in ethical action. Kirists know to watch out for this trap, of needing ethical action to feel good.
34. Kirists strive not to be seduced by the notion that an ethical action ought to feel good. In fact, it may feel horrible and like the last thing on earth you want to do. Kirists are obliged to let go of craving that ethical actions will produce happy feelings.
35. Why might an ethical action feel horrible? Because ethical action can prove dangerous. Ethical action can prove confrontational. Ethical action can prove embarrassing. And ethical action is always consequential. Ethical action is like that.
36. Maybe the rule in your community is to never speak up. But you see an injustice. Goodness requires that you break the community rule. You are not thrilled to break it or eager to break it. In fact, you may feel terrified. But your break it.
37. Maybe the law says that you’re liable for the injuries you cause when you come to the aid of an accident victim. But, arriving at the scene of an accident, you decide to help. Goodness requires that you act, the law be damned. Reluctantly, you help.
38. Maybe it is a custom in your community not to work on Thursday. You find that custom arbitrary and unjustified and your family needs the income. So, you open your store on Thursday, certain that there will be massive repercussions.
39. Maybe you’re positive that you ought to take your daughter to the upcoming father-daughter dance. But you know that dancing is going to embarrass you. Unhappy about looking foolish but determined to do the right thing, you go.
40. Maybe you’ve spent twenty years moving up the ladder in a prestigious profession. But over those years you’ve begin to discern that its practices are ethically shady. Although it is dramatically life-altering to leave that profession, you leave it.
41. In none of these scenarios is doing what you believe is right bringing you any joy whatsoever. Ethical action does not come with cartwheels. Nor is a single ethical action likely the end of the story. Isn’t it just as likely a link in a chain of ethical actions?
42. Very often a series of ethical actions is required, one leading to the next and each bringing its own pain and drama. At some point, a particular action may feel too difficult, too dangerous, or too unwise to pursue. And so, the process gets derailed.
43. I remember a moment in the Army. I was stationed in Korea and had been promoted to acting platoon sergeant. I began to feel strongly that accepting that rank made me more complicit in the raging Vietnam War than had my lower rank.
44. The action I took was to march into the company commander’s office and demand that I be made a private again. I thought I was serious but the company commander took my demand to be a quixotic gesture, which perhaps it was. He laughed.
45. He said that he could certainly accommodate me but that it would require a court martial and some stockade time. I thought about that for a long moment and replied, “No thank you, sir.” I remained a platoon sergeant for the rest of my tour.
46. These are the chimerical, weird, half-baked exercises in ethical acting that come with living. You take a stand—but you find that you can only take that stand for so long. You bravely put yourself out there—but only up to a point. Resolve melts away.
47. Doing the next right thing is one difficult thing and doing the right thing after that is another difficult thing. You may feel equal to the first but not equal to the second or the third. You were brave and then you no longer felt so brave.
48. Maybe pushback from the first made the second that much harder. Maybe the effort involved in stepping to the plate that first time exhausted you. Maybe paltry results from the first made it more difficult to find motivation for the second.
49. A kirist recognizes this. He realizes that “doing the next right thing” may often amount to a never-ending string of actions and not to one stand-alone act of heroism. Standing up for civil rights, for instance, is not an event or a moment. It is forever.
50. There is a sighing that accompanies ethical action, a sighing that signifies that ethical action is difficult, complicated, opaque, and exhausting. It also signals that sometimes our actions result in tragic unintended consequences.
51. There is a terrible moment during World War II when the British navy sinks the fleet of their French ally. They do this to ensure that the French fleet will not fall into the hands of the Nazis. In the process, they kill thousands of French sailors.
52. Kirists think about this and sigh. They see what went into this. Hubris. Fear. Brinksmanship. Miscommunications. The fog of war. Rivalries. Chaos. Uncertainty. And they see what comes out of this, including, in this case, lifelong French enmity.
53. A kirist prepares herself for the ardors of ethical action. She discerns that she must be an historian, a language philosopher, a social scientist, and more. Since, in her peculiar way, she is responsible for the world, she needs to understand the world.
54. She trains herself to understand how language works. She comes to understand the linguistic power of a sentence like “God is good,” why it can hold sway over billions of people, and how to defend herself and others against seductive grammar.
55. She comes to understand that just because something is a certain way, that isn’t proof that it ought to be that way. She knows that “We do it this way” isn’t legitimate justification for announcing, “Therefore it ought to be done this way.”
56. She may not know that its technical name in formal philosophy is the “naturalistic fallacy,” but she knows perfectly well not to make the leap from “what is” to “what ought to be.” She can’t be fooled in that way or persuaded in that way.
57. The main thing she learns is something she is already practicing as a kirist, namely that vital step to one side. In order to create the space necessary in which to reflect, calculate, and come to her wisest ethical conclusions, she steps to one side of the fray.
58. She may only spend a moment there, as her truest answer may arrive instantly. Or she may have to walk by the lake for an hour. Or she may have to sleep on the matter for several nights running. Or it may take her months of frustrating uncertainty.
59. Each ethical decision will come with its own time frame, its own rhythm, and its own difficulties. Why should it take a mere split second to know what to do if your teenage son decides to convert, enlist in the Marines, or marry his teenage girlfriend?
60. You step to one side, sigh, and ponder. You are stuck knowing that there can’t be a rule or principle to apply, as that would amount to believing that one particular value was primary. Rather, you know that ethics are situational and contextual.
61. A kirist doesn’t hunt for some simple rule to apply. When it comes to ethical action, no rule is a replacement for reasoning. Rather, you step to one side, no matter how badly you are pressured to act, and thoughtfully turn the matter around.
62. Consider. You are the eldest daughter of a tyrannical mother who has gotten old but who is no less mean than she’s always been. She is still demanding, blaming, shaming, and violent. And now she’s also decrepit and in need of fulltime care.
63. The ironclad rule in your culture is that the eldest daughter takes care of the mother. The other siblings have no such obligations and can do as they please. You know that this is the rule and you know that this is what everyone expects of you.
64. What is the right thing to do in this situation? For a kirist, it can’t be a mindless acceptance of a rule which just amounts to “Since this is what we do, it is the right thing to do.” Blindly following such a cultural rule would amount to an abdication.
65. Instead of accepting the rule, you step to one side and think. You ask yourself, “Why shouldn’t my brothers and sisters share in this load?” You ask yourself, “What is my exact obligation to a person who has always terrorized me?”
66. You ask yourself, “How guilty would I feel if I decide not to take care of my mother?” You ask yourself, “Might breaking this authoritarian rule help some other women in my culture?” You step to one side, keep a mindful distance, and think.
67. You factor in reality. Would violating this rule prove easy? No. Might violating this rule prove very dangerous? Yes. Your bullying brother might beat you. The women in your culture might shun you. The men in your culture might curse you.
68. You factor in as much as you can. Might some of your siblings prove allies? Might some other relatives align with you? Has this rule ever been successfully broken? Is leaving your culture an option, and maybe even a necessity? You ponder.
69. After a minute, a day, or a month, you come to a conclusion. And when you decide, are you likely to feel sanguine about your decision? Of course not. How could you feel sanguine? There is so much difficult reality on either side of the equation!
70. Given the dangers involved, why would anyone ever violate such an iron-clad rule? Well, a kirist might, because she refuses to be tyrannized, because she believes her siblings ought to help, and because she is thinking about the welfare of others.
71. Thinking about the welfare of others is an aspect of kirist goodness. That goodness might sound like, “Maybe if I refuse to obey this rule, that will somehow help future generations of girls and spare them from having to follow oppressive rules.”
72. She thinks about herself, about her particular situation, and about the competing values she is weighing. At the same time, she thinks about others, about how her actions might support a better civilization, the general welfare, and goodness writ large.
73. That step to one side allows for reflection and awareness. But it is also a step for humanity. It is a vital action for the self and also a vital action for the world. It is rather more important than hopping from a landing vehicle onto the moon’s surface.
74. I can’t say what this woman ought to do. I would understand it if she decided to take care of her mother and to not endanger herself. I would understand it if she decided to take a huge risk and demand that her siblings share in that onerous duty.
75. I would understand it if on Monday she felt one way, on Tuesday another way, and on Wednesday a third way. I would understand it if she felt strong resolve to buck the system, had a short chat with her aunt, and changed her mind completely.
76. I would understand it if she refused to take care of her mother. I would understand it if she felt too guilty and acquiesced. Who can say where a given individual will arrive? But let us hope that the decision she made was preceded by a step to one side.
77. We hold the intention to act ethically and to be good. That intention does nothing to eliminate moral complexities and ambiguities. Nor does it amount to a superpower able to defeat the forces of evil. But without that intention, where are we?
78. We hold that intention and then we act in human-sized ways. Sometimes that will mean nothing more than a kind word or a friendly gesture. Other times it will embroil us in conflicts and make us enemies. At other times, it may mean revolution.
79. If goodness requires it, you may need to break a law. If goodness requires it, you may need to live dangerously. If goodness requires it, you may need to look the fool. If goodness requires it, you may need to shout. Ready or not.
80. Will you feel ready? Probably not. Nor may you feel very energetic. How can you put energy behind a choice about which you may still feel uncertain? But you must, finding or generating enough energy to honor the choice you’ve made.
81. You do this without any guarantee that you’ll like the outcome. The consequences of an action, no matter how appropriate that action may be, aren’t yours to control. You sigh, you act, and life plays itself out. We do not love this but we know this.
82. We say, “I do the next right thing.” But we do not take that to mean, “I have perfect clarity” or “I feel assured.” What it means is, “I’m trying.” We try to act ethically and we try to do good. In a vortex of competing forces, we try to stay ethically upright.
83. Your neighbors may not join you in your decision to be good.
That is terrible, but so be it. You know all about individuality, absurd rebellion, self-obligation, self-authorship, life purpose choosing, personal meaning-making, and our other kirist ideals.
84. Goodness must not be left out of the conversation. You grew up with pleasing cartoons that made everything simple. But you always knew better. Yes, it was lovely to root for this rabbit or to be schooled by that pig. Now we hold adult conversations.
85. We will always have to deal with self-interest. We will always be confronted by our safety and survival needs. We will always feel the shadows in our personality. That is, we are human. But we also know that we truly revere ethical action and goodness.