Thursday, June 14, 2018


            When I was teaching I often ended the year with a 3-week seminar on ethics. I used moral or ethical dilemmas as starting points, and my emphasis was not on the “solution” to each dilemma, but rather on how that solution was reached. Was it from an authority, perhaps directly from God, or indirectly through what God said to trusted sources, such as we find in the Bibleor the Koran? If it’s directly from God, there might be a problem if God tells someone to shoot up an elementary school. How do we know that God didn’t, in fact, tell the shooter to do that? How can we rely on anyone’s version of what God said to them?
            Do we determine what is ethical based on how our actions would make us feel? Is it all subjective? Evil makes you feel bad – unless you are a sociopath.
            Are ethics simply the customs and norms of a society? If so, then the Nazis were ethical, as were slaveholders.
            We also looked at Utilitarianism, which holds that the most ethical choice is the one that will produce the greatest good, or in some versions, the greatest happiness, for the greatest number.Jeremy Bentham, the founder of utilitarianism, described utility as the sum of all pleasure that results from an action, minus the suffering of anyone involved in the action.Do the math. But what if it makes thousands of people VERY happy to kill one innocent child? Or in one of my dilemmas: Imagine that a terrorist has planted a bomb in a packed Michigan Stadium. It’s due to go off in 10 minutes, and you have captured him and are trying to get him to talk. Your team of psychologists tells you that the only way to get him to reveal the location of the bomb is to torture his wife and child in front of him. Setting aside questions about the efficacy of torture, is it ethical to do so? Weigh those tortures against, say, 50,000 lives and countless injuries, plus the suffering of friends and families of the victims. It is not, I submit, an easy call. Do the math. Students were creative in coming up with ways to fake or simulate the torture to accomplish the goal. I suggested getting someone else to do the torturing and leaving the room.
            I don’t think my Ethics mini-course made my students more ethical, but I do hope it made them humbly uncertain when confronting situations where ethics comes into play.
            And now, as an antidote to uncertainty, let me simplify things by telling you what is ethical and what is not:
·     Be kind to one another. bEllen DeGeneres has popularized this by saying it at the end of every show. Anyone have a better suggestion?
·     Don’t use people.  Emmanuel Kant wrote about the Categorical Imperative, a way of evaluating our actions, not in terms of their consequences (as Utilitarianism does), but on the basis of what reason tells us (tells Kant, actually) is ethical. I don’t understand most of it, but I do understand the word “imperative”: Our ethical sense nudges us to act– we feel that nudge. Kant went on to say, “Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end.” 
·     Don’t be an asshole.
·     Be the person your dog thinks you are. This might be OK if you don’t mind bumper-sticker ethics, but do you really know what your dog thinks of you. Kim and I were watching a guy throw his frisbee to his dog, who would repeatedly bring it back to him. After the last throw, however, the dog took a dump in the frisbee while staring at his master.
·     Do unto others as you would have others do onto you.  In practice, this does not seem to mean allothers, because that would make war immoral.
·     Floss.
·     Don’t fuck up the planet. Ethics does not only deal with our actions toward other people. Or you can think of our ecosystem as a person – after all, if a corporation is a person . . .. (I saw a bumper-sticker that said, “I’ll believe a corporation is a person when Texas executes one.”)
·     Do a good deed every day.  I learned this one in the Boy Scouts before my struggles with the Morse Code forced me to leave. I try to get my good deed out of the way early in the day.
·     Don’t let anyone take your guns away.
·     Try, however briefly, to see the world from someone else’s point of view. Kim taught me this: Nobody gets up in the morning intending to be an asshole. 
·     Walk in a good way. We learned this at a talk by a Native American tribal elder here in northern Michigan. He emphasized looking back each day to evaluate how well you lived it. I like his word “walk” – its slowness, its deliberation.
·     Remember your anniversary.
·     Encourage people around you to be ethical.  Doing so will most likely benefit you.

            The trick is to pull all of this together into a coherent philosophical position that helps you know what to do. Maybe Ellen got it right: Be kind to one another. I’m not sure how kindness helps resolve the torture/mass killing dilemma – that’s why it’s a dilemma – but it’s a starting point.

NOTE: All of Kim’s tests, scans, X-rays, etc. were good. Injury time continues . . ..

Doug Reilly wrote:

Reading Ethics reminded me of something I wrote for myself decades ago and have always kept somewhere on my desk. The rainbow photo is added because one of my hobbies is chasing Rainbows, Halos, and Glories. I’ve taken slide shows of these phenomena to our local schools and even showed them to attendees at some of our international safeguards courses. This has given me the nickname, Rainbow Man.

You mention the Golden Rule in your essay; I’d add that every faith or philosophy I know has its own version. Sure, the words may be different, but the meaning is the same.

Nice work, as usual, doug


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