CAERS SUBSTACK ARTICLE #31
CAERS SUBSTACK ARTICLE #31
If someone asked you whether you are an ‘ethical’ person, how would you answer? Do you believe that you have to be ‘ethical’ all of the time to consider yourself ethical? Or is there some wiggle room, a reasonable (or even generous?) allowance for when you stray off the moral path?
Perhaps before responding you might want to ask yourself if being ‘ethical’ is the type of question that has a yes or no answer. In the highly technologic world we have today, it is tempting to think that the binary language of our computers and cell phones must be our language, too. That like our electronic devices that utilize just ‘0’s and ‘1’s to do their magic, we need only use ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to function as well.
But how many of the problems we face in life, especially the really important ones, have a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ response, with no in-betweens and devoid of any need for context? More often than not, ethical decisions involve at least some consideration of the circumstances of the situation. Is it morally wrong to steal? What if you are stealing from someone who has an abundance to feed your starving child? Is it wrong to take another’s life? What if that person is about to murder an innocent unarmed woman who is pregnant?
One of the many things that makes doing ethics hard is that there are seldom simple yes or no answers. Most ethical problems involve a spectrum of possibilities which factor in the subtle and not so subtle nuances unique to each situation. In other words, there are degrees of ‘ethical’ decisions, from extremely difficult to justify actions, to actions with powerful justifications. One might argue that in the two situations above there are relatively strong ethical justifications for the actions, compared to very different situations where the same actions are done for selfish motives like greed (stealing when one already has enough) or pathological thrill-seeking (senseless murder), for examples.
One might ask, why we are so tempted to think binary like computers? There are likely many reasons, the first being that it is a lot easier; thinking along a spectrum takes more time and work. The second reason is that like all creatures on the planet, we have been programmed with a very powerful and near-instantaneous binary response system deep in our brains that is often rooted in emotion, especially fear. Life is a dangerous proposition because the world in which we reside can be rather unsympathetic to the survival of any one particular living organism. Consequently, the decisions necessary for survival made by each creature frequently have to be made quickly, so keeping things simple, binary fight or fight, is advantageous despite being imperfect.
You may have discovered that the more quickly you make a decision, the more often it tends to have an emotional component that utilizes binary thinking, or as I refer to it, binary reacting. Given the impressive size of our brain and resulting abilities to introspect and reflect far beyond those of any other species on the planet, humans can over-ride our binary emotional reacting to search for more complex answers to moral problems.
Which means that perhaps the most important first step in ‘being ethical’ is to nurture our ability to think along a spectrum rather than reacting in a binary fashion when faced with a moral conundrum. That entails an ability to be open-minded, which in turn requires courage, creativity and humility.
Open-minded is not empty-minded and does not mean that ‘anything goes’, as some might argue. I suspect that part of open-mindedness is an ability to walk a mile in the shoes of the other, and to do so with compassion and empathy. Doing so does not eliminate moral responsibility; in fact, it focuses on it because it forces us to reflect deeply on the moral issues from many perspectives. Together we can explore the really important ethical aspects of a situation, sorting out the wheat from the chafe, so to speak. What are our most precious moral principles? How do we resolve ethical problems when those principles collide with one another (as they so often do)? We may consider stealing to be fundamentally wrong, but how do we balance that with sparing the life of a starving child? Which act is more ethically justifiable?
So, rather than asking if we are an ethical person, the better question might be, how much do we strive to act in the most ethically justifiable way? And perhaps the most honest and humble answer would be that although we not infrequently fall short of the ideal, we challenge ourselves to explore not just the binary ends of the spectrum, but all of the in-betweens as well. If we catch ourselves reacting in a binary fashion, it might prompt us to slow down and examine our reactions more closely, and work very hard at being ‘more ethical’. And part of that might involve looking from other perspectives, the topic of my next article.
J. Barry Engelhardt MD (retired) MHSc (bioethics)
CAERS Health Intake Facilitator
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