The Anatomy of Ethics

We humans’ are evolved sentient beings. We have the ability to think, to foresee, and to choose a course of action amongst many. We have choices, and a will that is informed and free to exercise that right to choose. Thus, we are put in a formidable position to take ownership of our actions, as of their consequences. With the onus of one’s self placed in one’s own hands, it’s only fair to reflect on the content and conception of this concept we call fairness, or in better terms, ethics.

We will be dealing with three questions. First, given a set course of action, on what principles to base the analysis of as whether it’s ethical or otherwise. What are the components of this ethical analysis? Second, what is ethics? Is it just an innate sense that is too amorphous to be captured in words, or can we really get a grasp of its meaning in a cognizable manner? And third, where does this whole ethics thing come from? Religion, society, spiritual domains, or any else?

Let’s begin with the principles of ethics. Given a set course of action, to reach a verdict as about it being ethical, we may break it down into four components and ratify whether each in turn is ethical or not. This tones down the problem allowing us to deal with it in manageable chunks. The chunks being, one, the motive and the intent behind the act. Two, the act per se. Three, the consequences of the act. And four, the context in which the action is to be or was performed. It would be apt to dwell into each a bit more.

The motive and the intent. Both terms embody quite different a meaning. The motive is what moved one to commit the act. You helped the lady cross the road because she is old and fragile or because she is a hot lass. It’s the motivation behind why we did what we did. It’s cognitive. While the intent is more physically real. Its why we did something along the lines of ‘what did we intend to achieve by doing it’. The US invaded Middle East because they wanted to sniff out their nuclear arsenal or to buy oil cheap. The motive precedes while intent follows the act on a temporal scale. Both, the motivation that moves us to and the intent aiming which we commit the act, need be ethical.

Second, the act per se. It’s more colorfully termed as deontological ethics. That is, the ethics of the act, not considering what moved you to act. It would be akin to saying, “Robin Hood, stealing is wrong, even if you do it only from the rich and for the sake of poor.” Sucks! But that’s as it goes. It also comes to saying, ‘killing is wrong, no matter what and why’.

Third, the consequence of the act. The label for it is teleological ethics. It’s what comes about as due to the act. ‘You didn’t give a penny to that homeless man by the street corner, its ok, it was the right thing to do because all he would have done is bought some weed and smoked.’

And finally, the most tricky, contextual ethics. The context matters. Quarantining a man, thereby restricting his right to freedom is fine when he got Ebola or something deadly and infectious, because you want to protect the community.

So as when an action is to be performed, or has been done, and one needs to consider as whether its ethical, it would do well to ask oneself these four questions,

  1. Are the motives behind and the intent for the act, ethical?
  2. Is the act per se, ethical?
  3. Is the consequence of the act, expected or otherwise, ethical?
  4. And given the context, is it indeed ethical?

If all are a go, well buddy, you are on the right track. And one may note, that often times, not just an act of commission, that is doing something, rather even an action of omission, which is keeping self from doing something, for instance keeping self from voting in the coming election, is also an act and subject to the purview of ethics. An action can be an act of commission, or of omission. Hope am not being very hard!

Now the really fun part is when in a situation, a course of action is ethical say in motive, consequence and context, but otherwise on the scores of intent and act per se. What must one do then? Well, the answer is, no one knows. There is no straightforward answer to it. The thing is, often times, it’s not just the number of reasons for or against, but the weight of each reason also matters. Sometimes we stick to that one person, despite all odds, against all reasons, for one single cause, because we love that stupid fool! So, when the roads don’t all blink green, sit back, and reflect on the weight you can connote along the four components of the act, and decide as about its ethicality.

I think that much on ethical analyzing should do. Now as to what is ethics and where does it come from? Here is the viewpoint I hold.

“Ethics is a practical framework that has emerged over time which enables us to coexist, in peace.” Let me expand on it.

One can blindly tab ethics as a set of societal rules that one need follow. Or, that is a set of regulations imposed upon in religious scriptures, that we need follow to ascend to heaven or get one’s God’s approval. But it seems quite escapist an attitude. We just don’t want to face the onus of deciding what’s right from wrong. We just want to blindly follow the set convention. Live by rules. And most tragically, rules not our own.

While as I see it, ethics are not rules. We aren’t bound to them either. There was no great brainiac or the one who won the nobel of nobels’ in peace prize who one fine day codified a set rules to say whats right and whats wrong. The emerged. Just like bodily traits, they evolved over time. And today we exist, as a living being, in societies, because we happened to possess them.

We all innately seem to know when something is right from wrong. Most of the times even when we do wrong, we clearly know deep in our heart, that we are doing something wrong! Now how does that happen? How come each got a phD in Ethics without having done any course work?!

Well rather than thinking of them as something that we need follow to coexist, they can be seen as something that we followed, and thus today, we exist. As for how did they come to emerge, well, it may surprise a few, but you know, animals got concepts akin to ethics. Most gregarious animals got hierarchy, a concept of social standing, and they don’t try to meddle often with it because its more better for survival of self and the species to live along. They clearly didn’t read that off in some book, nor just did they think that out aloud. They just serendipitously happened upon it. That’s the think about ethics. It’s a survival strategy, that’s stochastically happened upon.

Now consider this, in certain monkey families (not apes), the male keeps away from the female that has mated with some other male. That’s akin to respecting sexual rights. Almost like a monogamous relationship with stress on fidelity. And am certain we all will agree that monkeys don’t have religion or religious scriptures to follow that say ‘do not covet your neighbors wives’ but still somehow they don’t. Guess its we who havnt evolved yet and thus need rules to keep ethical!

As about how did ethics magically emerge out of nothing. That’s the beauty of the natural world. Savor this. You go to a party in a blue tie. But no girl gives you as much as a look. Next you try red. Then orange. You try the entire gamut of green, violet, purple, black and yellow. But to no avail. Then one day, out of chance you try pink. And you end up having a chat with a charming diva. You didn’t know pink will work. But it was stochastic. By chance. And the next day you stocked up your wardrobe in pink. I know this is a banal mundane and not-so-representative an example. And it isn’t. Its an analogy. An analogy is intended to explain and not substantiate, as analogies are meant to be. But its conceivable to think that when men went for their neighbours’ wives, the duel proved too deadly. Its just so much better to keep to our wives’. Thus viola! We hit upon another rule to add in our book of ethics. We didn’t intend to. But those who lived were the one’s who didn’t go for their neighbour’s wife’s, thus, it emerged as a trait in the community.

Ethics wasn’t invented one fine day. It wasn’t ratified by some absolute authority. And it hasn’t foresight. But we have had a real long time of trial-and-error, till an optimum rule to live by emerged which kept the society from collapsing. And ergo, we are here today, a society that still stands. Well why? Because it followed, entirely by chance, a set of rules that kept it from collapsing. And let me tell you, its nothing great or singular. There were other’s, who followed different rules. Its just that, their’s happened to be quite not so sustainable, and over time, they collapsed. Pity they live no more to tell story of their downfall!

I would like to conclude on a sober note. Now that we can reason, after all we humans did invent syllogism, the very seeds of reason, and can foresee, its only fair that we no more keep to the stochastic rules of the innate. We think. We reason. And decide as to the ethics of something, anything that we do or keep from doing. As for the knowhow, well I gave you a version. Am certain you can conjure a better one!


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