Choosing to be Ethical

The Jewish Humanist, September 1987

For Humanistic Jews morality and ethics are the heart of the good life. Being a moral person is much more important than being a religious person.

But what does it mean to be moral? How do you tell the difference between right behavior and wrong behavior? In a world in which so many people believe that ethical action is on the decline, these questions are important – so important that they will be the theme of our New Year holidays.

For many people right and wrong are very clear. The main problem is motivating people to pursue the right and avoiding the wrong. For others choosing to be ethical is not quite so simple. They believe that right and wrong are not so obvious, that specific situations do not offer easy moral answers.

Certainly, in a time of so much social change, old answers do not seem as obvious as they used to. Work, love, pleasure and marriage are not what they were. And the relationship between them and community welfare is not what it was. In fact, under new circumstances, the moral action of yesterday becomes the immoral action of today. Multiplying babies is right for an undercrowded world. It is wrong for an overcrowded one.

Choosing to be ethical today starts with many difficulties.

In an age when we feel that we have a right to personal happiness and fulfillment, it is difficult to figure out the proper moral balance between individual need and community need. When is it appropriate to be self-centered and to pursue my own agenda? And when is it appropriate to sacrifice my own pleasure and happiness for the sake of the pleasure and welfare of others? In a traditional society, which accepts the justice of human suffering, this dilemma never occurs. But, in our fulfillment-centered society this is a recurring problem.

In a world where romantic love has become supremely important, it is difficult to negotiate the claims of love and the claims of duty. In fact, the harshness of the concept of duty seems a cold contrast to the warm appeal of loving attachments. But the feeling of love is a fickle experience. If human relations depended on love alone, they would become the victims of a flaky anarchy. What I love today I may not love tomorrow. There must be some other moral value that allows for stability, continuity and commitment.

In a psychotherapeutic world which has banished the notion of guilt from respectable values, it is difficult to deal with rotten people who have rotten behavior. Guilt is a form of fear and intimidation, which has been successfully used for most of human history as a way of controlling human behavior. If inducing it is immoral, then one of the most effective techniques for persuading other people to change their actions – and for others to influence as to change our actions – is eliminated. It is almost impossible to do the business of ethics and avoid guilt.

In a time when people are very much caught up with their own subjective feelings and ideas and where the opportunities of an affluent society create so many options, it is difficult to talk about an objective ethics: which applies to everybody. Many men and women, in the name of personal equality and autonomy, deny that there is a single ethical standard for all people. What may be right for you may not be right for me. And, what may be validly moral for me may not be validly moral for you. My conscience is just as authoritative as your conscience. And where they disagree – well they just disagree. If this argument sounds familiar, it certainly is. And if it seems a bit chaotic, it certainly is too.

In, a shrinking world of international trade and technological wonders where isolated communities no longer exist, it is difficult to figure out what loyalty to the welfare of the community really means. Historically, moral behavior was action that placed group survival over individual survival. But, in a place where each individual belongs to many communities – familial, local, national and transnational – this standard is confusing. What may be good for my family may not be good for my city. What may be good for my city may not be good for my nation. And what may be good for my nation may not promote the welfare of humanity. Group loyalty now is more complex than it ever was. Chauvinists who are willing to die for their nation and their nation alone may not be as noble as they used to be.

On a planet where large urban centers bring strangers together into single communities, it is difficult to kindle moral concern for people we barely know. Giving up time, energy and wealth for members of our family we can understand. Sharing our assets with friends and fellow workers can arouse some enthusiasm. But worrying about people we do not know and whom we do not want to know is hardly natural. It takes an enormous discipline of mind and will to include distant strangers within our ethical commitments. “Foreigners” do not win our hearts in the same way as members of our own “tribe.” And we find convenient ‘moral excuses to exclude them.

As you can see, choosing to be ethical is not as easy as some make it out to be. We need to explore its difficulties and what we can do about it.