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Reflections on Ethics 16
Ethics is Subjective

by: J. Maus

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What is ethics? Ethics is an extremely vague word. It’s like the word beautiful. Anyone can say that something is either beautiful or not, no matter what it is they are adjudicating. In other words, beauty is infinitely subjective. Ethics works the same way.

What about rape and or greed? OK, let’s say that there is a man named Roberto. On the surface Roberto is just an average guy who came from a blue collar middle class town. At the very onset of puberty, Roberto had thoughts about forcing women to have sex with him even though he knew it was wrong. These impulsive thoughts got worse and worse until one day, Roberto snapped and raped a classmate in college. Roberto was caught and arrested.

Now let’s take Jimbo for example. Jimbo came from the same background as Roberto. As far as Jimbo could remember he always dreamed about being powerful and affluent. He spent long nights and many years in school to become a lawyer. Jimbo is open about defending the guilty and getting rich because of it. Jimbo got Roberto’s rape case thrown out on a technicality.

Roberto would argue that he is more ethical than Jimbo because he was born with a sickness. According to Roberto, he is no more guilty of a crime than a person who is born schizophrenic. He didn’t choose, nor does he want to have an abnormal mentality about sex. Jimbo would argue that he is more ethical than Roberto because he stays within the system and laws of the capitalist democratic system of government that he was born into. He works hard, is honest about his career and earns his money in strict accordance of the law.

I think that Roberto and Jimbo are both unethical, yet neither sees himself that way. Perhaps they both think I’m unethical because I'm agnostic. Ethics, it seems, is closely linked with perception. It also seems that being unethical has something to do with pointing fingers. (would the reader like to challenge this and claim to be a generally unethical person?) Like my old geography teacher would say, “All’s strange in this world except you and me and sometimes I wonder about you.”

Let‘s look at this in another way, take a guy named Mitchell. Mitchell is a middle class father of two. He takes care of his wife and children and leads a full and productive life. About once every two months, when he has some extra cash, Mitchell will buy some cocaine. The drug never interferes with his marriage, his kids or his work. Mitchell gets pulled over one night, (long story short), Mitchell gets caught with the drugs, convicted and sentenced to X years in jail. There goes a wonderful family synergy, a loving marriage and a great dad. Because of “society's ethics”, four lives, two of which are children, are dramatically changed for the worse.

The point is that there are always exceptions to the rule and one persons ethics can be radically different then another's yet both are good people. In Mitchell’s case, it wasn’t the drugs that tore his family apart, it was the government. I know what you are probably thinking and yes, I agree, cocaine causes far too much harm on society to be legal. That’s not the point. The point is that ethics, or to rephrase it, what is right and wrong is subjective. To put it even another way, just because something is illegal doesn’t make it wrong in every case. Was it wrong for Anne Frank and her family to hide in an attic to escape death? No, but it was illegal.

I would also like to take some time to address an issue that seems synonymous with ethics, and that is killing. Call it what you want, murder, killing, or homicide. If I were to come home and find some lunatic in my house hurting members of my family, he is jeopardizing his own life. Depending on what he is doing he might live, he might not. To kill is justifiable in some situations. (ever see the movie A Time To Kill?) You can argue that two wrongs don’t make a right. Agreed. But what if he escapes and severely hurts more people inflicting more physical and or psychological damage on society? Sometimes, to make what’s wrong is right, you have to do something wrong to make it so. Then when it’s over, it's over.

Christians will argue that the Bible and more specifically the ten commandments are the ultimate source of practical ethics. Deuteronomy, the Book of Joshua and most of the entire Old Testament are so severely unethical that the Bible as a whole is in no way a good source of ethics. If anything, the Old Testament is a good example of unethical behavior. I can’t discredit the New Testament in it’s entirety as I am not very familiar with it. I can only speculate that it has its good points and its bad points just as with any philosophy. As for the ten commandments, I don’t think that a person can live by ten concrete maxims. My ethics are capable of changing and being refined. I feel the same way about lying as I do murder, sometimes it’s better to do than not to do.

What is ethics? Ethics is an ever-changing series of personal decisions based on a seemingly infinite mixture of, (but certainly not limited to), conscience, internalized beliefs, particular society, religious affiliation, genetics, family values, peer influence, culture, gender, conformity, groupthink, personal prejudice, autonomy, period of time, friendships and intimate relationships. I try to use a tripartite system of ethics that consists of common sense, love and wisdom to guide me to be the best person I can. Ethics at its climax is a person who is trying to be superlative. Ethics at its worst is ignorance and an excuse to behave badly. In closing, ethics is, at all times, amorphous, impalpable and subjective.

Please pray for me,

Jamie