Sunday, December 30, 2007

On Morality and Ethics

Too many people seem to be convinced that morality is about answers, that there IS an unequivocal right and a wrong that can be declared with no uncertainty. This is disturbing, because if there is one thing the 20th century has taught us, it is that what is considered right varies from place to place, culture to culture, religion to religion and individual to individual.

The difficulty is most telling when it comes to the issue of "raising children". It is widely assumed that part of a parent’s role is to "teach" children how to tell "right" from "wrong". What this means is, teach them a set of values that provides a unique set of answers.

Within the framework of my broader argument, that we as a society are moving from a world defined by its orthodoxies into a world better characterized by paradox, I believe it is appropriate to resituate questions of morality and ethics into a pluralistic framework better understood in terms of questions than answers.

What is interesting in this regard is that children, quite naturally and spontaneously, develop quite early a whole range of questions about what is "right" and what is "wrong". Treating children as "blank slates" on which must be written a "moral code" is highly disturbing in this regard. In practice, this usually means overiding a child’s natural questions about morality with unequivocal moral rules. This will leave the child initially confused and later locked into a particular way of thinking which will, over the long term, be counter productive.

I am not arguing against the discussion of values and ethics, on the contrary, I am arguing for them, but not in the sense of a single set of values. Children, like adults, need to be exposed to different sets of values, and encouraged to work out their own answers. Morality is really about asking questions that are hard to answer. Developing one’s own sense of ethics may also require taking actions and changing these actions over time, experimenting with different moral positions. In fact, morality is ultimately more about actions than about philosophy. Sometimes a moral idea that sounds right can be quickly revealed as inappropriate for oneself when one tries to put it into action.

When morality is reframed as an active response to asking hard questions, then it is seen to be never a fixed idea or behavior, but rather one that constantly evolves and changes over time. This is as it should be. Morality is the result of putting together "who one is" with "how one acts", and each is as important as the other. This is an embodied morality rather than a transcendental or metaphysical morality, and one, I suggest, that is more suited to the 21st century.