Thursday, October 27, 2005

Public and Private Ethics

There has been some confusion in conversations with others about my distinction between rights and ethics: that I determine that, while abortion begs some ethical questions, it should be legal. What makes me say this seemingly unintuitive conclusion?

I propose that privately we behave with compassion, selflessly, helping others, etc. But that is my parochial outlook. There are many others who could believe quite differently and nonetheless not be doing anything wrong, having the right to behave as they wish. So I distinguish between a public ethic, codified in rights, and a private ethic.The two, of course, do get intermingled, as should all complex things. Murder is both unethical (in my view) and a violation of the right to life. But theft is more complex, because I personally don't feel people should take other people's things, but I can definitely see situations in which it'd be justified. A capitalist who believes in the right to property and I will sharply disagree on the public side even if we can see similar ethical facts on the private side.

Take the abortion issue. The abortion issue SHOULD be a hot topic. I think quite a few people, even the feminists towards whose side I lean very much, are very much too cavalier about the rights/ethics conflicts. That's precisely why I don't think there should be a ban. When a society, particularly one filled with elitism/statism, sexism, racism, etc. bans something, it means that that question cannot be settled publicly. The behavior goes underground, often becoming more dangerous and spawning other crime. If the matter is complex enough, having the issue in the open is vital. Just an example: Let's say that we make abortion the same as murder one. Who do you imagine will escape prosecution: Rich women with the resources to hire “discrete” doctors and to afford legal fees? Or poorer women without those abilities?

This doesn't mean that we shouldn't be having the conversation somewhere. Indeed, we should, and on physician assisted suicide and drug use and all the other controversies. I think most people can see that allowing something societally doesn't make it right, and that to pretend that a lack of societal PROSCRIPTION is a PRESCRIPTION is silly and not taking personal accountability. There must be a few playing rules for that shared space, what I call “first-order” or political rules. But then there are things we do publicly that are nonetheless not going to be policy: publicly decry abortion or physician assisted suicide. Those are “second-order” or cultural rules, defended by first-order constitutional guarantees of rights. And the last are “third-order” or private rules.

The problem with a state is that everyone feels they must rush towards it in self-defense, either to put into place a ban or to prevent it.

The public ethic should be the right to influence decisions insofar as one is impacted. That includes rights to free speech, assembly, petition (though that means something different under direct democracy), self-management of one's labor, for privacy and against certain actions by law enforcement, etc.

My private ethic is found in the Buddhst tradition, but heavily modified by the public ethic, as one can probably tell.

I have a post coming up on an overview of anarchist perspectives on a variety of topics, but the one I'll preview here is anarchist ethics. Many people view freedom and ethics as somehow in conflict: we grudgingly allow freedom, but we recognize that that will increase unethical behavior. While narrowly accurate, I think this has the situation backwards.

Freedom and ethics are not in conflict: they are two sides of the same coin. As Immanuel Kant (a 19th century German philosopher of unbelievable importance) points out, "Ought implies can". If we were rocks, our "actions" could have no ethical character. He also points out that the maturity for freedom is only arrived at by having freedom. The way we become ethical actors in a truly honest way is through freedom. If being mean to other people kills us, or if we are kind because Santa will shower us with gifts, we aren't being honestly ethical. This isn't to say that, in practice, ethical behavior carries rewards: of course it does. But that shouldn't be why someone behaves in a right way.


Anonymous Observer said...

Studies in the 60's - late 80's indicate that man is born selfish and with little empathy for victims outside the immediate family. "Socialization" is the business of parents and social groups to produce an "ethical" individual. This is usually defined as one who knows right from wrong. I totally agree that there is a major difference in personal ethics and society mandating ethics. However, no Society survives that doesn't agree on SOME form of ethical behavior and punish those who act in against that defination. One of the major problems with Capitalism is it's lack of any ethics. Profit is all, and how you got it is immaterial. Sorry, I don't have a solution.

6:45 PM  
Blogger Frederic Christie said...

I don't know which studies you're referring to, and because they occured before the Human Genome Project, I'd be loathe to buy them. More modern studies I've seen indicate the opposite, what simply makes sense on a genetic/anthropological/primatological level: People are naturally social animals capable of envisioning up to 150 people within their "tribe", far beyond their individual family.

Take the halo effect. It's simply a psychological fact that our feelings, positive or negative, cycle through people to lesser and lesser degrees.

I think that there are at least a few innate components of people, such as compassion, that lead them to tend to avoid unethical activities. Even the worst butchers often were great family men or quite honorable in some respects. I think Lee and Rommel committed some of the worst actions a military man can. But both were fantastic and honorable commanders. Loyalty to the State caused their crimes. People just don't like hurting each other very much. They can't hurt someone they recognize as fully human. That's why every army I know of includes racist comments about the enemy and insulting nicknames like "Japs", "gooks", and "camel-fuckers".

My point, Observer, is that a society need not set an ETHICAL standpoint to survive, but a RIGHTS standpoint that does the same thing that you wanted ethics to do. Of course people should hold their ethical and religious beliefs strongly. But they should be occuring as part of a framework of rights that defend people.

I have a solution to capitalism: check out or search parecon throughout this site.

1:06 PM  
Anonymous bwong said...

"I don't know which studies you're referring to, and because they occured before the Human Genome Project"

Not sure how the genome project has advanced our understanding of "human nature".

It is one thing to have a map, quite another to be able to read it.

This goes back to the problem of data mining that r4d20 refers to. It is highly non trivial to extract useful information out of a vast data set.

"I think Lee and Rommel committed some of the worst actions a military man can."

I am not sure what horrible act did Rommel commit.

I can be wrong since I am not knowledgible in WWII history.But my impression is that Rommel was a honourable man who
was highly respected even by the allies.

He defied Hitler's order to kill POWs on the ground that it was dishounourable for a soldier to kill unarmed adversaries.

I watched a documentary of Rommel. What stood out in my mind was an interview with a Rabbi who was under German occupation in North Africa.

The rabbi had nothing but praise for Rommel. He said Rommel was a gentleman. Unlike German troops elsewhere Rommel's soldiers were well behaved towards civilians and they always treated the local Jews with courtesy(It appears there was no order to exterminate the Jews in Africa as in Europe)

I do agree with your general point about the disconnection between private virtue and larger evil. Perhaps a better example would be Echmann(sp?)

9:58 AM  

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