Ethical Quandary sans Quandary

Happy October, everyone. It’s no November but I guess it’s a decent month even so.

So this week is parent conferences, big thrills. The ones I’m involved with are tomorrow, we’ll see how that goes. But then it’s October Break! Because apparently that’s a thing here. A week off. I don’t feel like I’m really in need of a vacation and I suppose that’s a good thing, but I’m definitely not complaining. I have some plans but I’ll elaborate mostly after the fact next week. Should be nice.

And here’s an update on the princess, looking very regal with her arms crossed.

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Last week, I noted that I didn’t really have any musings for you and it looks like I’m making up for that by having some substantial space dedicated to it in this post. Prepare yourselves. Or don’t, you do you.

There’s a fabulous moment in the show Psych when the main character is naming the first books of the Bible. You know: Genesis, Exorcist, Leviathan, Doo… the Right Thing. It’s relevant, I promise.

When I studied abroad in Exeter, one of the classes I took was political philosophy. It remains the only philosophy class I’ve ever taken but it was super interesting. The format of the class was this: we examined one contemporary political philosopher (John Rawls) and responses to his major works. According to the professor (who was Scottish and had a lovely accent), the primary concern of political philosophy in the contemporary era was the question of justice. What is justice and how can it happen in the world.

To start with, we read a lot about how modern philosophers conceived of the creation of the state; its purposes and how those inform its operations. We talked about socialist critiques, libertarian theories, gender, multicultural lenses– all kinds of things.

One thing that I still remember pretty clearly was talking about this main libertarian guy. I won’t explain his who conception of the state and justice and all that, but basically it boiled down to a system that was very simple but absolutely impossible to bring into reality. And the professor asked us this: is his conception of justice wrong or just hard? It couldn’t happen in the world, problems with land ownership after colonialism and stuff like that. But the question still stands. Even if it’s impossible, it can still have merit.

So often and so easily, people and ideas are dismissed for being unrealistic. Certainly, there are good reasons for that sometimes. However, if ideas that weren’t readily applicable were never heard, there would only be the status quo forever. History is a varied fabric of the unthinkable coming to pass. Sometimes in terrible, unimagined darkness. Other times bringing fantastical, innovative light.

The sermon at church this past week was on ethics, how to think about them and how to live with them. In essence: it’s hard, but do good. It does not matter how many times we drive off the ethical road; the line it traces on the map does not change just because we are no longer following it. Some–many, even– ethical choices are hard. That’s why there’s a whole branch of academia devoted to thinking about it. The underlying motives, values, and beliefs don’t have to be.

It’s one thing to think ‘It’s hard to tell what the right thing is in this situation.’ It’s entirely different to think ‘I don’t care what the right thing is.’

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One element of the sermon’s description of ethics was thinking about how our actions benefit or harm those around us. Very utilitarian, though it was only one consideration among many. But I think we can agree that lust for personal power is generally unethical. Even when those people do good things. It’s like in The Good Place, it’s not enough to do good things, you should be doing them for good reasons. And apparently, we’ve abdicated our national social responsibility to hold people to that. Which is unfortunate.

I wanted to finish with some questions, as I am often wont to do here. Struggling to think of them, since I’m pretty medium at ethics. Do you think about ‘right’ when you make important decisions? When you make decisions that don’t seem that important? What’s the difference between nice and good? What role do you play in preserving harmful status quo by the operation of your ethics or lack thereof?

The world is a complicated place for ethical thinkers. As The Good Place amusingly depicts, constantly worrying about the morality of everyday choices will make you a nervous, incoherent wreck. I know I want to be more deliberate about thinking through the implications of my decisions–not just their consequences but their meaning, if that makes sense. But I’m also lazy and don’t want to go insane.

Hmm. Work in progress.