The preceding posts show that current approaches to ethics are proving ineffective in addressing the deepening poverty of countless human beings, the destruction of distant communities, the extinction of countless species, the acidification of our oceans, and the warming of our atmosphere. Why? Because these problems represent complex and difficult to-resolve circumstances that emerge at both the global and local levels, arising from a number of factors. Put another way, if the problems are messy, shouldn’t the approach fit accordingly?
Consider the picture of the train station I have been using for these posts. If any of you commute on a daily basis like I do, you will know what this picture represents: people having different locations to go to, each with varying abilities and different schedules and urgencies; some are returning home, others going to work. They are transferring to/from commuter trains to either walkways or local transit entrances. Some are trying to go left to go buy some coffee, while others have to defy the current flow to buy tickets or upload money onto their transit cards. This assumes all people are travelling at the same speed. What about the poor woman with a cane? Inevitably, there is always one poor chap (me, many times!) that needs to cut a path perpendicular to the main flow just to go to the washroom! Messy!
In my experience, even when commuter stations are very well designed (that is, where entrances, exits and locations of facilities are well placed to maximize the smooth flow of traffic) – and I find few are – there are always times when a worker needs to step in to clean spilt coffee, or when someone receives a phone call from home and suddenly needs to reverse direction.
Hopefully, you see what I mean: ethics should be messy because life today is messy. Sure, you can maximize the greatest flow of people for the greatest good (utilitarianism) through design, but there will be those whose life-needs represent the minority needs. You can legislate definite justices (wheel chair accessible routes) or paths to ease flow, but life happens. Ideally, we would like to find a larger portion of people engaged in self-improvement (trying to do the virtuous thing, like being courteous and patient), and this helps. But on a global scale, this is not (yet?) feasible.
So, much like the metaphor above, I am proposing a messy ethics, one that has no ‘how-to’ manual. I do not apply this term in a derogatory sense to imply careless reasoning, though. Nor do I suggest that “messy” conveys a system that is chaotic, where “anything goes.” Yet, if messy is understood with its other meanings to convey a process that is complicated and difficult to work with, and lacking in precision, in many ways this characterization is not entirely inaccurate.
Ethics today will necessarily have to be is complicated, difficult to work with, far more humble in what we can presume to know about the world, and lacking in precision. It will have to be relational and based on the lived realities of the local in communion with the global. IN other words, it is viable not in spite of the “messy” character to it, but because of it.
What more precisely will a messy ethic look like? This is more complicated to say; and I do not propose to have any one full answer, at least yet. I do know that it involves focusing on liberation rather than justice.