Being ethical is being human (but that’s not as easy as it sounds)

In previous posts, I have remarked that I distinguish between a social ethic that addresses the question of what kind of society we wish to live in, and a personal ethic that determines how I live in that society.

There are a number of reasons to make this distinction, but the primary one is the complex and diversified world in which we find ourselves today. It is true we are one nation. But we are not one culture. What passes for “American culture” today amounts to television. The culture we stare at in our living rooms, is the only culture we share. In all other respects the cultural realities in which we live are fragmented and incoherent, both as to their origins and their flowerings. It is not only the ethnic diversities that bring this about, but also the wide variation in wealth, employment, education, not to mention regional differences that have been exasperated of late by artful politicians milking disunity. Our many cultures do not share interests, values, or aspirations. We don’t read the same books, don’t attend to the same arts, don’t share the same knowledge base concerning wide swaths of information – from science to foreign affairs. Even within a supposed island of developed culture, the academy, the differences between disciplines and traditions are virtually unbridgeable. In my graduate program I was trained in Continental philosophy; it is no longer simply language and metaphysics that differentiate this tradition from the Anglo-American – the two cultures may as well inhabit different planets.

I have always been something of an outsider, so it was natural that I should drift in and out of outsider cultures. At 17 I was a Yippie, at 21 a punk rocker; I spent two years hanging around Rastafarians, at 30 I was a performance artist; at 35 I was writing a dissertation on Paul de Man, for two years I studied Pragmatism and Buddhism; I taught basic composition for twelve years, practiced as a health care professional for the next 12. All this besides the religious channel surfing I undertook until 1990, which I’ve noted before.

Few people have as varied a cultural experience as this; but I tell this story because what I have learned through it is that most people think they are living in a culture that doesn’t exist beyond their immediate community.

Many educated people, like me, are shocked to discover that perhaps two fifths of the American people believe in creationism, with a sizable portion of these Young Earth creationists. The shock generally hides the real implications of this; despite sharing our technology, these people are living in a different century. Many, who cannot even place Iraq on a map (‘is it in Maine?’), are not even living in the same country.

It is not that such people are stupid; it is not even that they are uneducated. They are differently educated, educated within their local culture to dismiss the knowledge acquired empirically by trained professionals, whether this be knowledge of our biology or of our history. (And we know how well this dismissal is disseminated on the web, which orginally we thought would bring access of information to the masses! Sure; Ken Ham has a website; and alien invasion conspiracy theorists pepper Youtube with their ‘documentaries.’ Feel more informed?)

Their ‘knowledge’ is not real knowledge, but this misses the point – it is all they do know, and within their local culture, it is ‘good enough’ for purposes of communicating with others.

Gangstas in da hood live an essentially tribal existence; the well-to-do live like Romans on a circus binge; inhabitants of rural small towns seem stuck in the ’50s and can’t understand why the rest of the world isn’t happy with that. In the suburbs, mall-ization sweeps local communities aside, while cities dissipate into either gentrification or ghetto-ization. The only thing one can be sure of, is that one can’t be sure of anything anymore.

It might be said that this is merely a ‘post-modern’ point of view, and I suppose it is. But what we know as ‘post-modern theory’ is actually part of the problem. It celebrates our disunity, while denying the pain this can cause.

But the disunity exists. In fact, the ‘post-modern condition’ is very real, but it is a problem, not an achievement. And the problem is: we have lost the ability to communicate (between our fragmented cultures) on substantive issues in a way that could lead to negotiation and agreement. The pragmatic result of this is, that those who achieved power when this loss occurred, will now determine our future, since the rest of us cannot even agree what the phrase ‘our future’ could possibly mean.

In such a situation, I continue to hold onto a Hobbesean theory of social contract, explaining why we are joined here in a society of law, and onto the Deweyan hope that in sorting out this mess we can accept that we have undergone phases of experimentation that we can, hopefully soon, collectively sort through to determine failures or successes. But I admit I am not optimistic about this. Consequently, the imperative is to collapse the hope into the theory: If we are to have a shared future, we must re-affirm the rule of law. First establish that there is a nation founded on a Constitution, and then arbitrate between differing factions.

But I am not even optimistic we can accomplish this. Hence the need for a personal ethic that allows one to live the life of a decent person in the cesspool of an ever more indecent cultural reality.

There are religious ethics that can accomplish this. There are philosophic stances that accomplish this: virtue ethics (resort to character), deontological ethics (resort to logical principle), various consequentialist ethics (resort to pragmatic results). (My own preference, as I’ve noted, is secular Buddhism.)

But why should one bother? Why would anyone want to be a decent person, when the cultures that surround us offer so many thrills and so much drama, if we just chuck it all and dive into the circus (or sit back, relax, and watch television, which amounts to the same thing)?

The answer, I think is an odd one, because it doesn’t evoke ethics directly. The answer is, that we – some of us – want to be human: we want to realize within ourselves what it could possibly mean to be a human being, and not just some other kind of ape.

I don’t know, yet, why we want to do that. Yet when I listen to all the great thinkers on ethics – from Hillel, Kung Fu Tse, Lao Tse, Aristotle, the Buddha, Jesus on the Mount – to Hobbes, Kant, Hume, Mill, Heidegger, Dewey – I hear over and over again, this refrain, like a whispered reassurance in the dark:

‘You are not simply this animal who will hunger and die, you are human being; and your time among us will not have been spent in vain.’


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