A good friend of mine has gone back to school to get her masters. She’s taking a class and debating ethics. She posted something up on Facebook, saying the ethics can’t be defined. She postulated that integrity and trust are ethics, and being a person of your word made you ethical. I wasn’t going to chime in on the discussion, but it got interesting.
Someone wrote in about an ethics society parking legally on a street near their building, but by doing so, causing traffic constriction. He said it was unethical, since it went against the society’s mandate to look out for others. I disagreed. Maybe it comes across as selfish or inconsiderate, but not unethical. We entered a short debate about it. I hope I didn’t offend him. His comments and insights made me think, something I do all too rarely these days.
Still pondering it, I wanted to talk about it some more. Zac and I discussed it briefly. He didn’t find smoking when you’re underage unethical. To him, legal and ethical were very separate.
“What do you think is unethical, Zac?” I wanted to hear the fourteen-year-old’s opinion on the subject.
“Making out in the bathroom,” he replied.
Huh? How would that even work?
I questioned him on it.
“It’s inconsiderate. Other people need to use the room. You shouldn’t be sucking someone else’s face in such a place.”
Fair enough. I got a little queasy thinking of the scenario in the first place. Consulting my teenage self, I’m not sure I’d want to spend *any* time in the boys’ room, even if a cute guy invited me.
I discussed it with another friend of mine. We talked about context. Swearing in church? Always bad, whether intentional or not. Because people wouldn’t know if you were intentional. It would be blasphemous, right? Or would it prove an (emphatic) point?
Ethics, to me, are broad brushstrokes, a sort of fenced-in yard. It comes down to a few key items.
I find myself thinking about the 10 commandments: Thou shalt not covet/lust, kill, steal, lie, etc. Those things are morally reprehensible and hurt other people. You have subsumed the other person in order to fulfill your desire. So selfishness plays a part in it. We come up against that old-timey word nobody likes to talk about – sin.
I think of people I’ve bumped into over the years who try to skip out of paying taxes. I think of students caught plagiarizing. I think of the politicians, some in esteemed offices, who acquired mistresses, and pastors who have done the same. I think of pedophiles, murderers and rapists. Those, to me, are people whose ethics malfunctioned, at least for a short while. To a lesser degree, I think of parents who devour all their kids’ Halloween candy and show no remorse. Not that I would know anything about that.
Let’s check out the definition of ethics. The Free Online Dictionary says “a set of principles of right conduct” or “a theory or a system of moral values”. With these definitions in mind, it seems a lot more things can be quantified as unethical. But wait, I found this definition too – “the branch of philosophy dealing with values relating to human conduct, with respect to the rightness and wrongness of actions and the goodness and badness of motives and ends”. This spawns even more inclusiveness. Eating the last piece of pizza can be construed as unethical. Others probably wanted it. Like me.
With this in mind, perhaps we engage in unethical behavior all the time. We tell people they look great in the new sweater, even though it makes their complexion resemble gruel. Ladies, we ask our husbands if we look fat. Truly, he has no good answer, so he tells a white lie. Nobody wants to willfully hurt another person’s feelings. Are these ever justified? We mean well. Is this all a part of living in a polite society, everyone trying to get along?
I think at the heart of it, I don’t want to consider people’s behaviors as unethical. It seems to be a form of quasi-judgment. The Bible is pretty clear about not judging others. “Do not judge others, and you will not be judged. For you will be treated as you treat others. The standard you use in judging is the standard by which you will be judged” (Matthew 7:1-2). For the record, Jesus said it. He was teaching the disciples about behavior and motives. We certainly detest the idea of others judging us. But where is the line? When do we find our conscience, something all of us possess, violated by our actions? It occurs to me that this is the ultimate boundary of unethical behavior.