Sunday, September 14, 2008

DIATRIBE: ethics vs. morals and why it matters.

This debate has been central to my philosophical career, and is something I'd like to see a lot more steam out of.

Most people use the terms ethics and morals interchangeably. They are, by no means, rigorously, interchangeable concepts. Ethics is the study and science of "right living," or so defined by Aristotle. An ethical person lives their life according to definable and intellectually defensible principles. A "moral" person, on the other hand, lives their life by moral precepts. These moral precepts are interpretations, often, of certain principles, some of which may be definable and defensible, and some of which may not--as is often the case with peculiar articles of faith. Both moral and ethical people may strive to be "good," by some definition(their own, usually) but the way they go about it is very different.

An "ethical" person by definition is "good" if/and only if their behavior conforms to the ideal of the principle they attempt to uphold. A "moral" person, on the other hand, is usually accounted good if they do not VIOLATE the "moral" principles or mores dictated to them from their tradition or society. As such, "moral" people often get very good at cheating the rules. If you don't do X and so, you're still a good person. It's very different for an "ethical" person, who lives by principle, as it's damn hard to fake living by a principle. Unless you actively demonstrate you uphold the principle, you fail. The bar is much much higher.

Whether one lives an ethical life or a moral one seems to me to be mostly a matter of temperament, and inherent courage. There are people in this world who want to prove something to themselves, and want to be seen by themselves in a certain manner. Otherwise, there are people in the world who want to prove something to others and be seen by others in a certain manner. The former are often driven to ethical perspectives, the later towards moral. In times of luxury and affluence there is little to discern the two camps from each other. In times of crisis, the difference is marked.

We are heading into a period of crisis. Make no mistake about that. Who you can trust and who you can't will become very obvious very soon. I recommend, and my purpose here is to build a community of those who are trustworthy. I can't go alone in this, that much is obvious. Neither can you.

So, in terms of sustainability: I am an ethical person. When I use the term "sustainable" it means one and only one thing--that if EVERYONE lived the way I do, we as a world would not further deplete resources, nor the the ecology, nor enslave or deprive each other. It is hard to cheat that principle, and the net result and metric is an empirical and undebatable one. Sustainability is just that, and nothing else. Moral people may well disagree. It's vastly more comfortable to be able to claim "I'm not hurting anyone" or "I don't drive an SUV" or "I don't support the war in Iraq" or whatever. So what? The question remains, if you want to see yourself as "good," for whatever that is worth, what is the standard that needs to be met? Is it one of "not" doing certain things, or is it one of "yes" doing others? As far as I'm concerned, only the latter is worth much at this late date.

Other thoughts on similar topics: Here.

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