Ethics Is For Everyone

July 3, 2011

Humanism offers an entirely naturalistic ethics, an ethics based on responsibility and reason, open to all. Its principles seem worthy to many. Yet anyone might ask, Why is ethics ever really useful in the real world?

Any ethical theory has two related aspects to deal with: how people should relate to each other, and how people can live meaningful lives.

It should be difficult to entirely separate the social ethics of relationships from the personal ethics of meaningful lives. The expression of a person’s ethos in the social world can be called one’s personal “character.” People can share a common ethos; for example, humanism is an ethos highly suitable for many people living together. Humanists to some extent will express a core character, while remaining quite distinct persons. It is just as natural for people to share a way of life as it is for them to be unique. Balancing community with individuality is a distinctly human problem, a problem that one’s ethos is designed to resolve as best it can.

Among one’s fundamental values are the priorities assigned to one’s self and to others. These set priorities steady us as we navigate the pull of many duties we have to others because of our social relationships. Balancing obligations to others with obligations to ourselves is a primary job of one’s ethos. How we maintain our balance is an expression of our own character. Character is personal in one sense since each person has their own character, but character is more essentially social because our character controls our social lives. We are naturally social beings, so our character is naturally who we are. It is no paradox to correctly say that peoples’ unique personal characters are the most important social thing about them.

Although everyone must have some sort of steadying general ethos and specific character, no two people could be identical, since no two people would have identical social relationships. But no one needs to feel completely on their own, as if they had to reinvent ethics all over again. After all, we are all human. There is common ground for most everyone’s ethos, since we will get into typical social relationships in the course of a lifetime. As we enter into social relationships, we accordingly fulfill the obligations inherent in those roles. When we are in a particular social relationship, we somehow prioritize our duty to meet those obligations. We might not prioritize our duty well, and we may occasionally forget to do our duty, but we do have it nonetheless for as long as we are in that social relationship. It is impossible to sustain a social relationship without somehow prioritizing its inherent duty – relationships and their duties are two sides of the same coin, so to speak. Put another way, if you dismiss a relationship’s duty entirely, you are effectively abandoning that social relationship, and others will soon notice this new change. Playing a social role is not unlike playing a theatrical role in a play – if you want to play the role of Hamlet, you can creatively pace the stage but you must at least speak Hamlet’s lines. If you speak other lines instead, you are not Hamlet anymore. If you can’t handle the basic obligations of a social relationship, you abandon your duty and abandon that relationship entirely.

There are some universal social roles: being a child of a parent and a parent of a child; being a friend and a neighbor; being a student and a teacher; being a member of a team; being a follower and being a leader. Everyone will play most of these social roles again and again. Since these social roles are universal for the human species, the responsibilities inherent in those roles are universal too. Every human culture uses these basic social relationships (and maybe a few more, but you get the idea). The primary obligations of each of these social roles are likewise universal across cultures, and so the duties inherent to these roles are universal too. Once you understand what it means to be a parent, you could serve as a parent in any human culture. If you were abruptly transported through space or time and thrown into the role of a parent, you already basically know what to do, even if linguistic or cultural differences present big obstacles. Suppose you woke up and found yourself in a Mongolian tribe about 15,000 BCE. You would pick up a little language and engage in some social roles (very poorly at first, of course) and you would manage to get along. It’s no surprise – you are human. You know how basic social roles work, and you can arrange your own prioritization of your duties. With much effort, you would eventually fit into the community.

We all use an ethos, and we develop a character. While developing a character seems easy because we all must do it, maintaining and growing our character is the humanly hard part. There are so many social relationships to manage, all at the same time. Even though we may be comfortable with our prioritization of current relationships, each day brings fresh challenges. Fulfilling our duties to many people in the course of a day requires constant negotiation and renegotiation. We are called to our obligations (for example) as a parent, as a friend, as an employee, and as a citizen more or less simultaneously. Do I exceed the driving speed limit so that I can make an appointment with my friend for lunch before I have to return to work so that I can complete my work assignment in time for then going home to pick up my child in time to see the promised movie at the theater? Is there some alternative way to satisfy all these obligations? And what happens if I add new relationships?

No general philosophy, not even humanism, can answer such specific questions. Fortunately, we don’t have to resort to high-level philosophical reflection here at the mundane level. Managing daily obligations is assisted by the moral rules and virtues taught by society; these practical tools can helpfully guide our daily decisions. Indeed, for most of us, our habitual morality and virtue does most of the work dealing with social relationships without too many acute crises of indecisive paralysis. That’s the purpose of moralities: practical guidance for managing social obligations. Some moral rules and virtues negatively tell us what not to do; others positively recommend what we should be doing. All that morality and virtue is a kind of practice, developed in the long human experience of sustaining communities.  

Our habitual fulfillment of social morality and the social virtues are a major part of our character, what we can call our “moral character.” Children develop a capacity for moral character soon after they acquire facility with social relationships. Guidance from adults about applying morality to specific daily activities and interactions develops this moral character in youth. The social fact that almost all adults in a society are capable of moral conduct (even though some willfully choose otherwise) yield our general observation that a culture exemplifies basic moral expectations. Morality is an essential aspect of culture, and variations in morality across cultures are naturally to be expected. The reason why it is not difficult to discern a common core of basic morality across nearly all cultures is because societies must supply practical guidance for sustaining the social relationships that together compose communities.

Endless variations on lists of basic moral rules and virtues can be generated. An admirable example, just for illustration, is Paul Kurtz’s composition of what he calls the “Common Moral Decencies.”

Personal Integrity: telling the truth, being sincere, keeping promises, being honest.

Trustworthiness: loyal, dependable, reliable, responsible.

Benevolence: goodwill, lack of malice (do not harm other persons; do not kill or rob, inflict injury, be cruel or vengeful); in sexual relations: mutual consent (between adults only); beneficent: sympathetic and compassionate, lend a helping hand, contribute positively to the welfare of others.

Fairness: accountability, gratitude, justice (equality), tolerance of others, cooperation, negotiate differences peacefully, without hatred or violence.

It is unnecessary to wonder what important moral rules or virtues are omitted from such a list. With only a little imagination we could quickly double this enumeration. We might even imagine a more statistically impressive effort to gather thousands of lists, of twenty or so most important rules and virtues, those taught to children and expected from adults, from one hundred cultures spread around the world.

After due adjustment for translating all these lists into the same language, merging close synonyms, and eliminating obvious duplication, isn't it probable that a core of common morals, not unlike Kurtz’s list, will emerge? Cross-cultural studies have confirmed this moral convergence over and over again. Extreme relativism about common morals around the world is factually false. We are all human and live in human communities, after all.

Morality is thoroughly human, and we are made human by morality. When humanism does its ethical work of distilling out the finer virtues and rights from world cultures, it isn't creating some whole new morality, but only wisely choosing what can serve all humanity. Morality isn't just "relative" and arbitrary, and neither is humanism. Ethics isn't the privilege of aristocratic thinkers, but rather the common heritage of all humanity. If humanism's selection of ethical principles is truly wise, it would work for all. And so we are in the middle of a global experiment in ethics. We hope we have chosen wisely.