For the next few posts, I’d like to explore this question, as it will take more than one go to discuss what type of ethics we will need for our time.
I admit, this might seem like an odd question to ask. ‘Isn’t ethics ethics?’ you ask? When we are told ‘to act ethically,’ it simply means that we should do the right thing right? Well, no and yes: for one, there are multiple ethical approaches, and what the right or ethical course of action is in any situation is not always clear. There is more going on here though: what IS our current situation?
Think of it this way: today, our money, the clothes we wear, the food we eat, our electronics tools (the computer on which you are reading this), our jobs, indeed our everyday lives, are so intertwined with a complex, globalized capitalist world system, that it is extremely difficult – if not impossible – to discern how our decisions are affecting (i.e.: exploiting or assisting) people, cultures, animals and ecosystems on the other side of the world.
In the case here, I am concerned with the larger world community. And, in the interest of clarity, I’d like to discuss the three main (and traditional) ethical responses for deciding what is right or wrong.
Virtue ethics has the individual build up a good character or moral disposition – virtue – so that when confronted with an ethical dilemma, she/he will know what to do. For example, the virtue of temperance – being moderate in desires and action – will keep you from consuming in excess.
Deontology (a fancy word for duty) has the individual following rules (such as do onto others as you’d have them do to you).
Consequentialism (looking to the consequences of our actions) will inquire whether the outcome(s) will be either good or bad for other subjects or groups. For example, utilitarianism, a form of this thinking, might want to weigh the costs and benefits to obtain the greatest good or wellbeing and for the greatest numbers.
These three main moral maps, or ethical approaches have much to offer; however, they all assume the relationship is clear and straightforward between knowledge (of what is going on) and responsibility (to do something about it). They all suggest that the action will be obvious and attractive.
While this might have been true long ago, and in small communities, it is not so today: take your morning coffee (or tea) at work:
- you bring your reusable cup instead of using a disposable one, something deontology might suggest you do. Who made that cup? A child? Perhaps an adult, but for Such a low wage that she cannot afford to feed her family? Was the cup made in a sustainable manner?
- You purchase fair-trade (an arrangement designed to help producers in developing countries achieve better trading/working conditions), at the local shop, something consequentialism might suggest. How was the coffee shipped to you? How is the person serving you the coffee being treated, does she receive benefits?
- You do not purchase the drink at the store, but make your own fair-trade drink, a just action in line with virtue ethics. Who made the coffee machine you are using? Were the minerals mined to make the coffee maker sustainably sourced?
You start to get the picture. To know and follow through with the right (just) course of action, is not always clear to us, or even possible for us. As Chris J. Cuomo puts it, our “moral imagination is woefully inadequate to address the intricate webs of relation created by global capitalism, postcolonial realities, and the fact that the environment has no borders.” She goes on to say we are “prosperous/preposterous moral beings with a litany of responsibilities that seem nearly impossible to know, let alone act.” (see http://fore.yale.edu/disciplines/ethics/essays/getting-closer-thoughts-on-the-ethics-of-knowledge-production/)
This is not the end of the story; for instance, ought we even be bothered by things beyond our control? Surely the intention is what matters. In the next post, I’d like to dig deeper into what this situation really demands.
– Simon Appolloni