Everyone thinks about ethics from time to time. Thinking About Ethics has made the point that this is a distinctively human occupation. We are concerned about engaging in life experiences in a meaningful way. The idea that we might have wasted our lives engaged in meaningless activities burdens us. Wasting our lives by missing out on opportunities, by not making the best of ourselves or not doing right by our children preoccupies most with the luxury to contemplate such things. We are generally not satisfied to have acquired wealth and notoriety if indulgence in these gains has been at the cost of our integrity, our sense of self-worth.
We have all had those existential moments of insight when suddenly overwhelmed by the compromising social parameters that define life experiences. These can be fleeting but often they come during times of personal crisis. Disruptive to the regular flow of life despair may overtake us, consume us, leaving us with the sense that something is out of sorts. Your life may be one of privilege, you may a pillar of your community, enjoy pristine health and a family that cherishes you. If so, guilt may fester with the realization that you have everything to be thankful for. Your life is the envy of most. Your unease is an appalling disregard for your good fortune. You may have no reason to despair. And yet, the socially elite are not strangers to it. It is all too apparent that a vaccine to immunize the humankind against feelings of despair is not forthcoming. Angst is the term existentialists have given to that feeling of unease one experiences when confronted by the vast openness of all possibilities. This openness is liberating but not uplifting for this is a vacuous vastness devoid of direction or any hopes of directedness or inherent purpose. The discomfort one experiences arises from the awareness that all parameters are human constructs and the power these have over fashioning lives pales before the incredulous force of human agency.
This book has been concerned with taking up the responsibility of human agency. This was an opportunity to engage in a self-reflective discourse on those seemingly innocuous ethical parameters which inform the interpretative framework of human experience. Ethical discourse is not simply about responding to ethical dilemmas. In fact, no time has been allotted to addressing the Charter of Quebec Values, Quebec’s Bill 52 (The Act Respecting the end of Life Care), the legalization of marijuana or the decimalization of prostitution. Thinking About Ethics has been an exercise in thinking about proposed ethical frameworks which have come to shape ethical parameters unbeknownst to us. A familiarization with some of the most influential normative ethical theories cultivates mindfulness with regards to the value-laden directives we are expected to adhere to and socialize our children to accept. Developing a cerebral sensitivity to different moral perspectives is vital when you want to negotiate your personalized stance to received directives and conflicting opinions. Being able to discern, for instance, that my boss negotiates with a utilitarian framework permits me the luxury and advantage to propose alternative spins on a question she might be more likely to accept. Realizing that my son’s seemingly black-and-white attitude toward issues of respect makes a Kantian ethical discourse pertinent. Noticing that disgruntled peers appeal to a hyped appreciation of selfhood can be negotiated from numerous ethical angles that can facilitate the cultivation of a more fruitful dialogue.
In other words, the ability to detect ossified patterns of thought in ourselves and others is an exercise in discursive humility. Recognizing that our moral perspectives are like a house of cards built on subtle and fragile connections can lead to open-mindedness, the rejection of archaic and damaging assumptions, the refutation of beliefs founded on faulty or invalid forms of reasoning and internal inconsistencies that arrest any hopes of personal and moral growth.
After thinking about ethics you may be overwhelmed by the many detours and details of philosophical reflection and remain ill at ease about what to think. Consider this good news. Settling into an unattested mindset is as John Locke articulates in An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (Chapter XVI – Of the Degrees of Assent) an unworthy position from which to issue judgment on oneself and others. He says, “At least, those who have not thoroughly examined to the bottom all their own tenets, must confess they are unfit to prescribe to others; and are unreasonable in imposing that as truth on other men’s beliefs, which they themselves have not searched into….”
John Stuart Mill makes a further point in On Liberty (Chapter II – On the Liberty of Thought and Discussion) where he addresses a case for submitting one’s opinion to continued (and public) scrutiny even when true. In his words, “however unwillingly a person who has a strong opinion may admit the possibility that his opinion may be false, he ought to be moved by the consideration that however true it may be, if it is not fully, frequently, and fearlessly discussed, it will be held as a dead dogma, not a living truth”.
See Thinking About Ethics, Elly Pirocacos, chapter 11.