Someone requested a piece on morals and ethics, and I have had my eye peeled for an entry point. I just got it. Standing in line at the local Family Dollar on the eve of Easter Sunday clutching my 4 gallons of spring water, I listened to the cashier talking briefly to the woman in front of me. It was the usual small town “How are you?” thing, and the cashier, a big cheerful mustachioed fellow, said, “I’m fine, but I kind of wish people would stop coming in and telling me how super great the weather is, while I am stuck in here!!”
Now this Saturday is the very day that has finally broken the seeming curse of an honest to god truly tough winter here in the U. P. So, I kinda feel for this guy, of course; I wouldn’t want his job in the lousiest of weather. When I stepped up to the cash exchange plate I said, “Well, it’s actually kinda crappy out. Don’t believe all those people. You’re better off in here, really.”
We joked and jived for a split second until the guy behind me handed over his 5 cents; “Hey man, really; it’s super nice out. I don’t want to lie to you.” I was like, for reals? Did anyone actually think the truth was on the line here? He seems to be missing the point. In my mind. What I said was, “I was just trying to cheer the guy up, ya know?” And Mr. Veracity said with all the confident buoyancy of a superhero that has just met an opportunity to help the proverbial old lady across the street, “Well I have a policy to always tell the truth. I will never lie to you.” He said something about his car, like maybe he has a vanity plate on the subject or something. He obviously styles himself the Angel of Truth. Which is cool.
So I ask you, what is wrong with that picture? More specifically, was his behavior moral, or ethical? How about mine? It’s not at all unusual to be caught between morality and ethics, and it’s true that it’s an exceedingly dynamic subject, one which I will address here quite briefly. I am nothing but an amateur, surely. My formal ethics education consists of one very, very good graduate school class, in the counseling vein, taught by a lawyer. The take home bottom line in my ethics class was this: First, do no harm. After that we get into lots of ins and outs, such as defining harm.
For starters, I will point this out, and maybe you agree; we don’t think of morality as graduate level course material.
Yeah, there’s tons of ethics education in the healing industries, in law, and in religion, for good reason. But education is very often experientially based, in everyday personal ethics. Our life experiences shape our ethics, in other words. As I define it, Mr. Truth is morally correct. However, my response to the situation was an ethical response. I overrode the common moral of “always telling the truth” for the sake of ethics, mostly because the cashier guy told me the fact-based truth was hurting him, and my untruth hurt nobody at all. We all knew what the weather was like.
Quotation marks embrace “always telling the truth” because ALWAYS telling the truth is impossible; spoken truth is actually too conditional for “always”. Don’t worry, I’m not going to get into that. Many greater minds and souls than mine throughout the ages have wrestled the definition of truth, for one example of ethical complication. Mr. Fact (for that’s probably what he thinks truth is) is a young man, full of bounce and energy, and the subjective nature of truth has not entered his field of experience yet to the level of delaying his enthusiasm.
One reason it’s pretty difficult to parse morality from ethics is that they can often dovetail; what is moral is often what is ethical. However, the ethics game is a much more intelligent one, in the sense that it requires the ability to (sometimes very quickly) assess a situation and act according to morals- or not. This overriding of morals happens a lot, because morals are rules, usually social or otherwise cultural. As shown us by the Angel of Truth in the Family Dollar, morals are by definition (mine, obviously) inflexible. They are idealistic.
Ideals are just hugeass ideas, though they are based in values, adopted or otherwise. They are perfectionist ideas we may very well be willing to die for. That works in a violent revolt against the king, but what happens if the Dollar Store Angel of Truth witnesses a mob murder, and rats on the criminal (not likely, but Iron River has its criminal element)? Is he willing to lose family members in order to always tell the truth? Will he reveal a sexual infidelity to his wife and children? What if someone donates a million dollars to his church if he lies? What if he tells the truth and they kill his family?
I hope and pray he may never come to the above, but my point is, telling the truth can actually be a deadly business for some, and that’s the sort of dire consideration that comes up in ethical professions. A far cry, of course, from blocking a playful conversation in the cashier line at a podunk, chronically disorganized, perennially understaffed dollar store in Iron County, MI. Folks who make a blatant public fuss about an ideal may be challenged to see if they can live up to them. Or not. In the process, if they are lucky, they will wise up and discover that ideals are, ideally, flexible. Though ethics are based on ideals, ideals are not always the ethical choice.
A medical doctor in my society ideally keeps human bodies functioning with heroic efforts; ethically, many will realize that following the ideal unswervingly can actually cause harm, or, perhaps a better term, prolong suffering. Living the moral life means sometimes prioritizing an idea above compassion; as in, keeping someone alive despite the suffering that action engenders for any or all concerned. Sometimes morality means resistance to walking the proverbial mile in another’s shoes. More on that later, but here’s Everlast to point out the two categories, in his big hit from back in the day:
“Then you might really know what it’s like to have to choose.”
Another morality experience of mine was noting, for the umpteenth time, a billboard on the highway into Crystal Falls, where I used to live. It admonishes, in updated mega-ornate Gothic script now, to encourage authority I assume, “The Ten Commandments Are Not Just Suggestions. God.” Just lettin’ the populace know in simple terms, since they appear to be ignorant on the fact; God does not make suggestions, y’all. God is the boss and we are taking orders; do not deviate, do not question. Bow down before the ruler.
Or else…. hm. Interesting that when one is issued an order from on high or even low, we listen for what punishment lurks, eh? And if it’s GOD doing the punishment, well, it can come from anywhere! You can’t possibly protect yourself from God’s punishment, right?
This psychological effect of subtly looking for the outcome reveals the parental paradigm writ large. Ethics removes itself from this childlike maelstrom of parental reward and punishment, because ethics stands on its own, regardless of consequences. Ethics is recognized in the state of no longer prioritizing consequences (reward or punishment, whether or not I kept my promises, etc.) FOR MYSELF. As long as we are living on the roller coaster of reward and punishment, we can’t consistently value ourselves; here, self love is only permitted when we are “good”. And I propose that until we learn to value ourselves, we can’t truly value other beings. We are casting the same eye of judgment upon them which we have internalized, because what we value is not the complexity of human experience, but the staging, the performance, the dancing monkey game.
Personal ethics are exercised from the position of some personal authority, the position of one at least a bit confident of their discernment, as opposed to relying on what others have told them, including thousands-of-years-old icons like Moses. Interestingly, we can only expand our life beyond following rules when we are willing to make choices with the awareness that they may indeed be incorrect. We enter the true humility zone that concedes to the perfection of imperfection, and that is what we may then bow down to. We humans, and the rest of creation, are not really designed for the kind of perfection that the idealistic mind loves. Truth is a moveable feast.
Now if you want a great example of a quick and dirty moralistic treatise, the Ten Commandments are perfect. Though Wikipedia cites them as ethics, I say no, though a few of them simper and slither their snakey way into the category. How in the world does “Thou shalt not kill” translate as ethical? Are we addressing very, very stupid and messed up people here? People who can’t figure out on their own that it’s not a good survival tactic to go around blithely killing each other? People who are so disconnected from the love of their human tribe, of their families, of their own lives, that they need to be ORDERED not to kill people? Were the people Moses led like one big nasty Jewish Mob or something? Why was this necessary at all?
Assuming it’s people we are not to kill. Have the people who supposedly nod their heads at this “ethic” ever consistently followed it? No, because it’s just a patriarchal (i.e. parental) rule. It’s also an ideal. Fact of the matter is, that if somebody comes and kills your family, Braveheart style, your morals and ethics may very well shift to accommodate the situation. That’s what intelligent people do, and I suppose so do the less intellectually astute. Rules were made to be broken, as the old saying goes. Are the Jews averse to killing these days? Or the Christians, for that matter? Easy answer…:) Folks who make a big old billboard deal of a simple thousands-of-years-old order that people have historically declined to follow are surely getting the morality persistence prize from me.
Look at the rest of the commandments; rules and regs that compose social conditioning, including the command to “have no other gods before me.” Is this god insecure? Can’t broach some competition? Moses threw a fit and broke the tablets when his following reverted to their old addiction to golden cows. How very immature of him, but we should assume such behavior was, and still is, considered part and parcel of being a godly man. But really, Moses was just channeling Yahweh, in contemporary terms, so no need to assess his character. Obviously, people who share the same one god, are a conveniently packed social unit, sardines in a religious can, if you will, oiled by the same often unexamined beliefs (which are ideas, of course) and… morals. The more philosophical of them will contemplate ethics, some of them will argue said ethics amongst themselves, and that’s what constitutes a religion, a society.
As far as commands go, when we say, “Thou shalt not”, like an inflexible order from on high (NOT a suggestion, remember), any waffling amounts to failure, the child who has screwed up. And then we are back to beating ourselves (and others, of course) up for their immorality. How about the commands not to covet things, like wives, and property? There are three about not coveting, a triple tag at the end. How does a person stop that? It happens unbidden in your head, and even the most rigorous of religious practitioners don’t always remove desire from their mindstream!
Either we are the covetous sort, or not, Moses, old building and loan pal. He seems a bit obsessed with the coveting subject, if you ask me. Wink wink, nudge nudge. The general twisted zeitgeist of these commands brings to mind conversion therapy; your innate human behaviors are to be purged. Old school!!!!!! All that sort of idealistic command accomplishes is create a perennially guilty, and therefore judgmental and personally disempowered, social group. Some personal power is transferred to the group, in the form of solidarity with its morals.
If you believe that a behavior is categorically reprehensible, no matter the circumstance, you are treading moral ground. Abortion and euthanasia are two very dramatic ethical cases in point for our contemporary Westernized society, that folks would like to think are actually moral issues. Perhaps death, in both cases, falls under the heading of morality in my society because of that rusty old list of outdated commandments that nobody really believes, but just makes believe they do, because it’s actually categorically OK to kill in the name of war. Especially when you are winning.
Now there are certainly many examples where sticking to one’s moral high road is indeed the way to go. However, as in my example of the dollar store dude, the moral ideal is often a behavior that is all about me; look how good I am, Daddy! Hey everyone, feel my truth telling biceps! I am GOING to HEAVEN, people!!! The Angel of Truth was still explaining himself behind me as I lugged my bottles to the door, as though he was about to propose marriage to the cashier guy, “Yeah man, I am not ever going to tell you a lie. You can count on me. If it’s bad weather, I swear I’ll be the first to tell you.” This truth of his was always a head-shaking moot point because CASHIER GUY KNEW WHAT THE WEATHER WAS LIKE ANYWAY!!!! THE WINDOW WAS RIGHT BEHIND HIM!!!!!
Truth Man must have continued his rap because he was expecting us all to 1. be awed by his superpowers and/or 2. realize that we really need to take a good hard look at our prevaricating souls. He had caught a few people out, lying liars lying about the weather! and he wanted to let us know that there is a better way, a higher moral ground.
Ethics does not lend itself to any such definitive judgment; it does not assume an endgame, but rather looks for motivations and interactions within situations. Indeed many times ethical choices are just an intuition, a feeling, that prompts behavior. Ethics operates beyond rules, keeping up with the creative nature of Reality, in all its quantum perplexity. Morality, in contrast, has no sense of humor and no flexibility. Frankly, the truth evangelist just made himself look silly, bless your heart for trying, Captain Bringdown, and may the gods of truth smile upon you whatever the weather.
Ethics, though in principle infinitely complex, is a much more elegant way to live. We are not only freed from the constant guilt-inducing requirements of behavioral morality, we are free to adjust our behavior in the moment, and therefore grow psychologically and spiritually. We are not trying to be an icon of any concept; no angel, no statue, no stone tablet, no god or saint or perfect example of anything at all. We are just one of the moving parts in an infinite universe. Because it’s not what you do, it’s who you are when you do it.
One of my favorite films that discusses this ethics vs. morality issue is Tim Burton’s Edward Scissorhands (1990). Briefly, the whole film can be seen from the perspective of morality vs. ethics. Edward, a sort of unfinished human with scissors instead of hands, is living alone in a castle-like mansion on a hill.
He has been there all his life, and so has little social conditioning. Peg (Dianne Weist), a desperate Avon lady, drives up the hill one day to the mansion and finds Edward, cowering in a desolate, roofless tower. She feels intense compassion for this young man and takes him into her home. Thus begins a series of events that find neighborhood citizens acting out the moralistic mindset, while Peg is challenged to maintain her position as the ethical queen of the white, middle class, morally self righteous neighborhood. There’s a scene I wish I could find a clip of, but no such luck, in which Edward is posed a theoretically ethical question by Bill, the father of the household.
Edward (played by Johnny Depp) looks pretty depressed in this scene; he is increasingly discovering that he’s failing at being a member of this middle class, materialistic society. He is a heart-centered character, the quintessential sensitive artist type. The dad, played by Alan Arkin, does his teaching-of-materialistic-patriarchy thing at the dinner table, in hopes of bringing Edward around to a morally correct and socially competent way of behaving. He poses the old what-if-you-found-money-that-isn’t-yours riddle;
“You’re walkin down the street, find a suitcase full of money, there’s nobody around…what’re you gonna do? A. you keep the money. B. you use it to buy gifts for your friends and loved ones. C. You give it to the poor. D. You turn it in to the police.” Edward raises his head hopefully, offering, “Give it to my loved ones?”(Note this is not one of the father’s options.) Peg, ever helpful and supportive of all and sundry, says “Oh Edward, it seems like that’s what you should do, but it’s not.” She is the voice of ethics; things are not always simple. She is also the voice of the heart. The heart has trouble with Dad’s materialistic ideals and morals, which are fabricated in the mind.
The son, Kevin, adds the shaming voice of the indoctrinated moralist; “You dope, everybody knows, you’re supposed to give it to the police.” Morality is the choice that is sure it’s correct; the choice that orders reality around its ideal, rather than assessing reality and then choosing the best option. It’s the option taken easily by the one who has nothing to lose, as Everlast pointed out in his song. Simplistic ideas about who should hold all the material cards in our society is currently moving beyond old school ten commandment valuations, because, people are sick of this s**t.
Kim (Winona Ryder) is falling in love with Edward. She supports his heart-centered choice; “Well think about it, you guys. That’s the nicer thing to do. That’s what I would do.” However, Dad is not going for thinking about things, or the world being centered around the value of “nice”; “We’re not trying to confuse him. We’re trying to make things a little easier for him. So let’s cut the comedy for a little while, alright?” This bit of dialogue points out that social morals are indeed simplistic, oriented towards the immature (“making it easier”).
Dad’s also denigrating the heart-centered value as “comedy”, in part because the black and white moral mentality doesn’t understand the cosmic nature of humor. We learn early that joking when our parents are angry with us will result in more punishment (Wipe that smile off your face, young lady!!), so we learn to “get serious” about our conditioning. How very like my Family Dollar Angel of Truth, imposing his bull-in-the-china-closet, fact-based morality on my humorous exchange with the cashier!
Kim responds that she is being serious, in the sense that she is stating her intuitive belief and valuation. For her, being “nice”, or heart-centered, is not a joke. “…it’s a much nicer thing to do!” But Dad corrects her with the incidentally astute observation that morality and ethics are, at least conversationally, apples and oranges; “We’re not talking nice here, we’re talking right and wrong.” His ethical puzzle was designed to devalue sharing, the nature of the middle two options he presented. It was looking to support ownership, the first and last options, as in the “Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not covet” commandments. There are no Mosaic commandments that encourage sharing.
In short, morals can be crucial to forming society, but ethics are the big picture that fosters connection beyond the human tribal mentality, the sardine-can way of feeling connected through following rules- or faking said obedience. But that is, again, another subject.
In closing, the famous Taoist, Lao Tzu:
Give up sainthood, renounce wisdom,
And it will be a hundred times better for everyone.
Give up kindness, renounce morality,
And men will discover filial piety and love.
Give up ingenuity, renounce profit,
And thieves and bandits will disappear.
These three are outward forms alone; they are not sufficient in
It is more important
To see the simplicity,
To realize one's true nature,
To cast off selfishness
And temper desire.
Translation by Gia-fu Feng and Jane English
I would use the word ‘knowledge’ instead of ‘wisdom’, since Lao Tzu’s advice is what I define as wisdom. Notice these are suggestions, not commandments. And desire is tempered, not prohibited. Renouncing profit is, in my society, an unthinkable heart-centered ideal; and so it is. Edward Scissorhands makes a stab (haha) at addressing the difference between living in Lao Tzu’s profit zone, and in the “filial piety and love” connection zone. The two are so divergent in their values as to be two different dimensions; the suburban land of boxes made of ticky-tacky Malvina Reynolds wrote about, and Edward’s lone but also creatively lovely mansion on the hill.
P.S.: a kind reader found the film clip for me. Here is the ethical-moral Venn diagram exposed, in all its dramatic glory: