Ethics Lessons: Learning and Improving

October is global ethics month, at least according to the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs. The Carnegie Council has also declared the third Wednesday of October as Global Ethics Day. This October is busy for me in terms of public presentations on ethics. This month, I’ll be talking ethics with economic development professionals, folks working in healthcare, and educational leaders. I’ll also be speaking in Tennessee and Ohio on the ethics of war, and about ethical issues in political life.

As I’m reflecting on the common thread of these presentations, a few things come to mind. First, ethics matters for all human beings. It is especially important for professionals. Second, there are unavoidable moral conflicts. But there is also general consensus about what it takes to be good and to do good work. Finally, ethics can be taught and trained. We are not born knowing the difference between right and wrong. Rather, we learn this from mentors and role models. And even though we begin as novices in living well, we can improve. Let’s consider each of these points in turn.

Ethics matters for everyone including professionals

Human beings mostly want to be good, to do good, and to live good lives. There are some bad actors in the world: criminals and sociopaths exist. And some people may get a thrill out of being notorious, or have a strange admiration for bad guys (as I discussed recently). But for the most part, human beings want to be known for being good. And most people seem to understand that happiness depends in part on virtue.

This is especially true in specialized fields and in the professions. Consider sports as an obvious example. Athletic endeavors have standards of excellence and rules that must be followed. If you value the sport, you ought to want to play by the rules. A person who “wins” a 100-meter race by tripping an opponent has not really won. Cheating defeats the very idea of winning and of excellence in an endeavor.

Now consider the ethical codes, rules, and standards of excellence that govern doctors, lawyers, journalists, artists, and other professionals including soldiers. These ethical ideals define what it means to be a good doctor, lawyer, and so on. To be an excellent member of a professional community, you have to do the right thing.

This is also true in families, friendships, and in life in general. A good mother, father, brother, or friend is honest, kind, courageous, and respectful. Ethics matters in our relationships. It also helps define your identity: what you are known for, and who you are. Some of this is specific to professional roles. But much of what counts as ethical is found in widespread and common ideas about human flourishing and excellence.

Moral conflicts exist but there is also broad general consensus

This broad consensus about ethics is found in typical lists of key virtues, characteristics, and behaviors of good people. Around the world it is widely held that good people are fair, truthful, and compassionate. Different cultures and traditions may emphasize different sorts of virtues, or connect them in different ways. But there is no culture or tradition that says that murder is noble, that we should break our promises, or that cowards are admirable.

This is not to deny that there are conflicts and that some values are relative to culture and history. There are genuine dilemmas in ethics such as the conflict between justice and mercy. Proponents of retributive justice think that justice requires “eye for eye” retaliation. Others call for forgiveness, mercy, and compassion. This is a genuine conflict.

But here is also consensus in addition to conflict. The challenging nature of ethical dilemmas may be why people often spend more time talking about conflicts than about consensus. It is a bit boring to say that everyone values honesty. It is more provocative to think about cases when honesty may not be the best policy—for example, in cases involving spies or when authorities lie to people for their own good.

We can learn to be ethical

Finally, let’s note that we are not born knowing how to be good. I tend to be sympathetic to the idea that human babies are born with a tendency toward prosocial behavior, and maybe even an innate sense of compassion and fairness. But those innate tendencies must be nurtured and developed. Ethical behavior among adults is learned behavior. As Aristotle suggested character is “second nature.”

Goodness is developed by emulating role models. It is further developed by “direct instruction”: by some code or teacher literally explaining to us the difference between right and wrong. We also need coaches and mentors, who encourage us and offer criticism. It helps to have structures of accountability (including rewards and punishments). And we need positive peer pressure: good friends help us be better.

Training and mentorship are also important in professional life. Professional organizations help cultivate good behavior by instructing, coaching, and reminding. They hold individuals accountable, reward good behavior, and punish the bad. Good organizations often have codes, training programs, and systems that reinforce values and ideals. All of that is important for what is called “professionalization,” which is the process by which people come to identify with the values of professional life.

The Value of Ethics Month

With all of that on the table, let me conclude by suggesting why it is useful to have a month and a day dedicated to ethics. It is easy to get lazy and take your eye off the ball. But if you want to live well, you need reminders and admonitions. We often take virtue and character for granted and simply assume that people will figure this out for themselves. Some folks may also think that some people are just good by nature, and others are irredeemably corrupt. But the truth is that we can improve. Reminders help, as do mentors and role models. It also helps to set aside some time—a month, a day, or an hour—to think critically and explicitly about ethics.  

Moral Vision and Transcendence

Moral vision sees the suffering of others. It also requires you to extend your gaze beyond the present and into the future. To see the world morally you must look at things clearly, fairly, and compassionately. Morality also requires you to balance the needs of the near-at-hand with the demands of a distant horizon. That distant horizon offers a transcendent perspective on your life and your legacy.

Last week I wrote a column about speed, and our culture’s emphasis on quickness. Some things must be done quickly. But many good things—love, grief, and happiness—require us to slow down. The key is moderation, and knowing when to go quickly and when to go slow. Wisdom also requires us to balance short-term and long-term points of view.

It is common to distinguish between short-term and long-term thinking, goals, and ambitions. Ethical decision-making procedures typically emphasize this as part of cost-benefit analysis. This seems obvious. But what do we mean by short-term and long-term? How short is too short? And how long should long-term be? We are often confused about this. And quite a few things go wrong when we are not careful about how we judge the relative value of what’s close-at-hand and what’s far away.

We also tend to confuse long-term concerns with medium-term goals. We tend to ignore the really long-term. We can describe this as part of our general “moral myopia.” We are near-sighted about morality and the good life. This occurs most obviously, when our moral gaze does not extend beyond our own self-interest. Morality asks us to direct our attention and care to the suffering of others.

But which others should we focus on: those nearest, or those farther away? A balance is needed. This is true with regard to significant social and political issues such as climate change, or war and peace. We ought to focus on the costs and benefits in the near- and medium-term. But really long-term goals also matter. We should care about those who suffer from storms and floods today. But we should also take long-term steps to prevent catastrophic climate change. Compassion must be extended to those suffering from war today. But we must also work to create the conditions for lasting world peace.

And in our own lives, we must balance short-term and long-term needs and interests. Short-term thinking breeds corruption. It causes people to lie and cheat. It also explains why people fail to prepare for retirement, and why we struggle to correct destructive health habits. The intense pleasures of the moment can overwhelm our desire to do well in the long-run.

The utilitarian philosophers created a process called “the hedonic calculus” (sometimes called the felicific calculus) that helps balance short-term and long-term goals. The utilitarians tell us to consider the “intensity” of pleasures, their “propinquity” (nearness), their “fecundity” (the tendency of a pleasure to produce other pleasures), and the general social utility of our policies and choices.

The utilitarian calculus is useful for thinking about short- and medium-term goods. It reminds us that it is prudent to save for retirement and to eat healthily. It also shows that honesty and fidelity pay off. And the idea of general utility asks us to factor in the happiness of others both near and far.

But what about really long-term goods? We should add to the calculus the transcendent value of your entire life. Moral vision should consider the legacy you hope to leave behind. Transcendent goods extend beyond the simple trade-offs of cost-benefit analysis. When you view your life as a whole that even transcends your death, things begin to look differently. The transcendent vantage point asks you to imagine your entire biography, and the impact your life will have on your friends, family, and the world as a whole.

The transcendent long-term is important when thinking about the legacy of the present generation. We ought to ask ourselves how our lives will affect the next several generations. We ought to work to create a world for our grandchildren, and their grandchildren, that is decent, healthy, peaceful, and free.

Ours is a short- and medium-term culture. The intense concerns of the moment encourages moral myopia. We’re often so busy with a, b, and c that we forget to look toward x, y, and z. But at some point, you will reach your last moment. And when you are gone, you ought to hope that those who come after will be grateful for who you were, what you created, and what you left behind.

Shared values of dignity and human rights at the Parliament of the World’s Religions

Parliament of World Religion’s confirms every person has dignity & rights

Fresno Bee, August 20, 2023

I attended the Parliament of the World’s Religions last week in Chicago. It is the largest interfaith gathering in the world. It featured participants from 80 nations and more than 200 different religious traditions. There were also a few nonreligious people, like myself.

My interest in the Parliament is connected to its idea of a global ethic. In 1993, the parliament adopted a declaration, “Toward a Global Ethic,” stating that the world’s religious and ethical traditions agree that “every individual has intrinsic dignity and inalienable rights.” This unifying idea is found in other important international agreements. The UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted in 1948, states: “Recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.”

The good news is that there is broad consensus about human dignity and human rights. But we still face challenges. And we disagree about the particulars.

One ongoing challenge is bad actors who reject the general idea of dignity and human rights. Tyrants and psychopaths are not committed to these ideals. In religious language, we might speak here of sin and evil. The challenge of evil is real. How should those who believe in human rights respond to bad guys?

We disagree about this. The debate about retributive justice and restorative justice reflects this disagreement. Defenders of retributivism think evil-doers ought to suffer and pay for their crimes. But advocates of restorative justice think that mercy, forgiveness, and rehabilitation are more important. We also disagree about how to create resilient and humane institutions that can limit the harm done by bad actors.

This disagreement is not about the shared ideal of human dignity. Rather, it is about how we ought to apply that idea. This kind of conflict is typical of the ongoing challenge of what to do when good people disagree about the meaning and application of shared universal values.

There are many examples of this kind of challenge, seen in our disagreements about social justice and social welfare. Consider, for example, the question of abortion. The anti-abortion camp thinks that prenatal human life has dignity and value, and deserves protection. The pro-choice camp thinks that women have the right to choose to control their own reproductive lives.

In cases like these, when good people disagree, we should avoid villainizing and stigmatizing those with whom we disagree. Defenders of retributivism are not evil; nor are advocates of restorative justice. The same is true of the pro-choice vs. pro-life argument. These are not disputes involving goodness on one side and wickedness on the other. Rather, they are disputes in which good people disagree about the meaning and application of dignity and human rights.

Which brings me back to the importance of organizations like the Parliament of the World’s Religions, and documents like the UN’s Declaration of Human Rights. It is important to remind ourselves that common ground does exist. Good people can and do agree about basic principles of ethics. There is agreement about values that are important for living well. These shared values include honesty, respect, justice, fairness, integrity, compassion and love.

In our polarized era, it is easy to view others as evil, sinful or delusional. This is not to deny that there are wicked people in the world. But not every ethical dispute is a matter of good vs. evil.

Once we acknowledge that good people can disagree about the application of basic ethical principles, we have an incentive to be more humble and more hospitable. The way forward is to celebrate core values that we can all affirm. And then, with that shared foundation, we can work together to figure out why we continue to disagree, and how we might negotiate and compromise with other good people.

The good news is that there is broad consensus about basic ethical principles. But that is not the end of the story. Rather, these shared values provide a starting point for further dialogue. The remaining work is to explore what these values mean, how we apply them in specific cases, and how we can live together despite our disagreements.

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Anxiety is the spice of life

Tranquility is often viewed as the goal of spiritual training. But serenity is not the only thing that matters in life. Conflict is productive. Struggle is exciting. And anxiety is the spice of life.

Arthur Brooks wrote an essay recently pointing out that suffering, unhappiness, and anxiety are unavoidable experiences. He was responding to the apparent growth of mental health disorders, including a recent increase in depression and anxiety. This is alarming. And I don’t intend to minimize the problem.

But there is some wisdom to be learned from the world’s wisdom traditions, and from how we imagine a good life. Here’s the point: life is difficult. The key to living well is not to find a peace place and to avoid conflict and struggle. Rather, the goal is to manage conflict and create a harmonious whole.

Dialing in the virtues

In his essay, Brooks asks us to see that our emotions are not regulated by simple on-off switches. Rather, they are like dials. They can be adjusted upward or downward. The goal of living well is to adjust these dials and to balance our emotions with one another.

I would add that this is also true of the virtues. The four Platonic virtues—justice, courage, moderation, and wisdom—are not binary switches. Rather, they are like dials that are adjusted in relation to the world. The virtues must also be balanced with each other. Aristotle reminds us that the key to happiness is to find the right amount of a virtue, at the right time, and in the right way.

A familiar example involves courage. Would we say that a criminal is couragous when he robs a bank? Not really. Courage does not occur in isolation. It must be connected to the other virtues. Sometimes courage needs to be dialed up: say when you need to defend what’s good and what’s true. But at other times, it needs to be dialed down: when you are selfish, resentful, and mean.

In the Greek tradition, wisdom helps us adjust the dials. But there is no recipe or rule that helps us figure out how best to adjust these dials. This is more art than science, which leads us to a culinary and aesthetic metaphor.

Cooking up wisdom

The challenge—and the fun—of adjusting our dials is obvious for anyone who is familiar with music or with cooking. Consider the process of cooking, eating, and drinking. The pleasures of dining involve contrasts and balance. Red wine is good with pungent cheeses. Hot chilis pair well with lime and sweets. A delicious meal involves the interplay of lots of flavors, textures, and smells. And these unfold over time—from the appetizer to desert.

Life is like a complex meal. There are spicy parts, and mellow times, salt and vinegar, sweetness and light. The key is balance. But also play and innovation.

So too with music. A single note is boring, as is a simple rhythm. Symphonic music and jazz demonstrate the joy and beauty of complex harmonizing. The bass line runs in contrast to the melody. The chords change. Those changes include dissonance, odd little grace notes, and tonic resolution. There are slow movements, staccato outbursts, and groovy backbeats. Sometimes there is a key change. Other times the bridge introduces a whole new concept.

What if we viewed our lives as musical compositions? We would strive for a complex balance of fast and slow, resolution and dissonance. Sometimes life is marked by sad blue notes. Other times it rings like a bold major chord. The goal is to weave it all together with a sense of harmony.

Harmony v. tranquility

The goal of life is not, then, to rest quietly, serenely, and in peace. Some spiritual traditions do seem to point in that direction. We might imagine a monk alone on a mountaintop, sitting in quiet contemplation.

But that vision is other-worldly, and inhuman. It takes us to a summit far removed from the joys and the sorrows, the anxieties and loves of real human life. A life well-lived includes fear, sorrow, and grief. Those are necessarily components of a life that includes ambition, love, and compassion. The key is to dial these things up in the right way and in the right amounts.

If you love others and yourself, there will be anxiety and sadness. Love exposes us. When others hurt, you hurt as well. This is appropriate, and real. If you love yourself, there will also be anxiety. Our goals and ambitions matter. It is good to feel proud of what you’ve achieved and who you are. It is also right to feel resentful when the world turns against you. And it is appropriate to feel sad, when the world disappoints.

The challenge of a life well-lived is to weave anxiety and sadness into a harmonious whole. Life includes a variety of ingredients: joy and worry, sorrow and pride, love and grief. We don’t control everything that life gives us. But we can adjust the dials. Every life will include substantial amounts of bitter seasoning.  The goal is not to stop eating, or to live in quiet serenity. Rather, we ought to aim to create a symphony of the sweet and the spicy.

Beyond the Bud Light Boycott and the Great Food Divide

You are what you eat, and what you drink—and who you eat and drink with. Food and drink are indicators of identity that link us to a peer group. Our food choices connect us to other people. They can also divide us.

Waffle House vs. Trader Joes

Could it be that the polarization in our country has something to do with the proliferation of food choices, and the tribal nature of our patterns of consumption?

When I was a kid, growing up in the Midwest, Americans ate “meat and potatoes.” There were far fewer choices of restaurants and commodities. White people in middle America in the 1970’s had never heard of a burrito (as shown to comedic effect in the new film Flamin’ Hot). But these days, we’ve got lots of choices, especially in big cities.

Our food options reflect certain dividing lines. Red-state America is a place of Cracker Barrels and Waffle Houses. The blue states have Trader Joe’s. The states with the most Cracker Barrels are Florida, Texas, and Tennessee. The states with the most Waffle Houses are Georgia, Florida, and North Carolina. Meanwhile, Trader Joe’s stores are primarily concentrated in California and the Northeast.

Red state people know what it means to say you want something “scattered, smothered, and covered” (a Waffle House recipe). Meanwhile, blue state folks joke about the fact that “Two Buck Chuck” (a Trader Joes staple) now costs more than two dollars. Neither understands what the other is saying.

These markers of identity can be benign, so long as we treat our differences with a sense of toleration. It’s a big country. And it’s kind of cool that there are still regional differences. Cheers to that!

Bud Light or IPA?

But things get ugly when taste becomes tribal.

Which leads us to the Bud Light boycott. The story begins with Bud Light trying to be inclusive. The company used a trans woman as a marketing ploy, trying to lure LGBTQ folks onto the Bud Light bandwagon. This angered the anti-LGBTQ crowd, who called for a Bud Light boycott. Apparently, some angry Bud Light fans even blasted cases of the beer with guns.

Bud Light lost market share, as right-wingers stopped drinking it. Costco is indicating that it might stop carrying Bud Light.

As this story was unfolding, I found it amusing. Who cares, I thought? And who drinks Bud Light anyway? In my peer group, no one drinks light beer. So, I was surprised to learn that before the boycott, Bud Light was the most popular beer in America. Who knew?

My response shows the problem. I’m an IPA guy. I like them dank and hoppy. Most of my peers share that taste.

But apparently, there is a whole world of people out there who do not share my tastes at all. Those folks live in a different eco-system than I do. The Bud Light crowd no doubt views me and my IPA loving friends as strangers. And the feeling is mutual.

Food and Personality

I’m not sure what the solution is. It’s not really possible to convince an IPA guy to love light beer, or the other way round. But it is interesting, from a philosophical perspective, to think about the role of food and drink in our lives.

All animals eat. But we are the only animals that make a ritual out of food. We establish prohibitions, rules of etiquette, and all kinds of cultural norms around food. Most of this is entirely arbitrary. It really does not matter whether you eat with a fork or chopsticks. But our rules and practices give shape to our lives. And as we become adults, we develop certain tastes.

These tastes are mostly the contingent result of environmental and cultural factors. My friends drink IPA, and so I’ve learned to love it. Or did it go the other way round? Maybe I have a taste for dank beverages and so tend to make friends with folks who share my taste? We don’t have to solve this chicken-or-egg problem in order to see that taste, identity, and culture are deeply intertwined.

Now some psychologists suggest a deeper kind of link. Some studies purport to show that “sweet” people prefer sweet foods, and that bitter food is preferred by people with bitter personalities. The link between food and personality has been remarked throughout history. Porphyry, a philosopher of the 3rd Century, suggested that simple, light, vegetarian food helped to liberate the soul from the body. He warned that tyrants are produced by “those who feed upon flesh.” He cited the teachings of the ancient Pythagoreans, who held that a vegetarian diet tended to produce gentleness, kindness, and philanthropy.

Tolerating our Differences

But this reductive focus on cuisine is silly. Hitler was a vegetarian—as the anti-veg crowd likes to say. And meat-eaters can be kind. And it’s just dumb to claim that people who prefer sweet food are somehow sweeter than those who prefer bitter. Our personalities, cultures, and tastes are way more complicated than that.

Friedrich Nietzsche once blamed the heaviness of German culture on the overconsumption of beer. He said that beer caused the spirit to fall into “soft degeneracy.” One wonders what Nietzsche might say about the difference between Bud Light and IPA. Does light beer tend to make you politically conservative? Does IPA turn you into a liberal hipster? These questions are silly, of course. Human life cannot be reduced to any single choice or taste.

And if we realize that, maybe we can develop a bit more tolerance. The Trader Joe’s tribe is not superior to the Cracker Barrel crowd. We eat what we have learned to eat. Taste is determined to a large extent by our peers. We don’t choose our food, our politics, or our personalities out of the blue. We are influenced by culture, marketing, and economics.

So, it is wise to stop judging others. We find ourselves thrown into a world beyond our control. Our tastes differ. So what? As long as a person is kind, who cares what they eat? If a person is a jerk, it doesn’t matter what they drink. This is a big complicated country. So let’s toast our differences, with the beverage of our choice.