Three Pillars of Ethical Choice

CREDIT: Evan Holt ( CREDIT: Evan Holt (CC).

How do we judge the behavior of states and people? While most people believe they are acting correctly, at the same time they often act expediently out of pure self-interest. They delude themselves. Does this, then, require an external standard? Must you adhere to a religious faith to become ethical, or must you ground your behavior in a system of belief?

Four systems are often presented as bases for judgment:

  • Adhering to a set of rules or duties
  • Focusing on the consequences of your actions
  • Emphasizing the intrinsic character of actors
  • Faith, accepting a higher power

All of these imply conscious attempts to lead an ethical life, to act well. All can apply to states.

But do they have to be thought out? Can't we just live one step at a time with a see-what-tomorrow-brings attitude? Aren't we often better off being spontaneous, just do it? Perhaps! After all, states and individuals are encased by upbringing, culture, heritage, and institutions which provide implicit systems guiding behavior.

Do states or people need to embrace a system? Do we need to make conscious choices? How do we know when we've been bad? If you agree that choice should be explicit, three pillars can provide a basis, a means for deciding.

1) Pluralism

Do all roads lead to Rome? Is there only one path? Or, more difficult, how do I respect alternatives and choose my own direction? Pluralism respects the diversity of human experience. Across time and geography, the variety in people's lives is limited only by imagination.

But how do we celebrate differences without falling into the trap of cultural relativism? Relativism says that what you do is okay, because you have a rationale for your choice. Do we then accept polygamy, indentured labor, or ethnic cleansing?

In contrast, is there some universality, some commonality among all people, for instance the basic human rights of the UN Declarations? Are things always just? Here the trap is absolutism, asserting that there is only one true way, condemning other cultures, values, or behaviors.

How do we negotiate these twin traps?

Accepting the need to draw a line is one condition. Accepting that others have the same right is another. This requires dialogue, not avoidance or assertion. Hence, respect for diversity itself becomes a universal condition, acknowledging multiple views without succumbing to them.

2) Rights and Responsibilities

How do we balance what we give and get? How responsible am I to others and society? How far do my rights extend?

Everyone has rights, things they are entitled to. Do responsibilities diminish our entitlements? Balancing rights and responsibilities, this is one of the pillars supporting ethical choice.

Rights are easier to define: from the 1689 English Bill of Rights, to the 1789 U.S. Bill of Rights and the 1789 French Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, to the post-WWII International Bill of Human Rights, and to the two 1966 International Covenants [International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights].

Early understanding of rights emphasizes political and civil rights, such as freedom of speech and the rule of law, today's first International Covenant. The second International Covenant focuses on newer ideas, on economic, social, and cultural rights, such as an adequate standard of living, an education, and family life. The Covenants are sometimes viewed as Freedoms From and Freedoms To.

We assert that these human rights apply to all.

But we live in communities, and having rights implies implementing policies and judging disputes. Equally important, rights imply reciprocity. If you assert rights, you also concede rights to others. Rights require order in our social interactions and institutions to govern them.

Hence, responsibilities come from community, governance, and reciprocity.

3) Fairness

The second pillar is rights and responsibilities, and fairness is how we balance these. You are entitled to social security, but you have to pay taxes. Fairness is a universal, but the application depends on place and time. Is a huge budget deficit fair to the next generation? Would collapsed credit markets be fairer?

People have an internalized understanding of fairness, and know when they are treated unfairly. Parents explain fairness as simple sharing. Watching the concept applied in a room of preschoolers is enlightening. "James, if you play with Natasha's truck, you'll have to share your own."

However, the first pillar of ethics is pluralism, and not everyone within a society shares the same standards. The problem is magnified when multiple cultures, religions, and values intersect. Who gets the first choice: the boy, the weak, the eldest, the meek?

Hence, like a three-legged stool, the pillars must be in balance. Pluralism—rights and responsibilities—fairness, become codependent tools for determining ethical choice, and demand dialogue among people, not simple assertions.

What do you think? Should Natasha share her truck? If she does, what are James's obligations in return?

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