Ethics 101

I think we need to get down to basics. We are unethical.

We try to be ethical, but we fail, over and over again. We are human.

I am two days away from teaching my Ethics class, and at this moment I don’t feel ethical at all. Recent events has exposed some ugly things about me, things I have buried for a long time.

When I was a boy, I thought myself to be good and innocent. Throughout the years, my self-view has drastically changed. I talk a good game sometimes. I do believe what I believe, but am I ethical?

Denial is the worst thing to do, so my honesty and acceptance is the best medicine for me.

No I’m not going to reveal what I discovered. I’m still working through it, and I may never reveal it anyway. Some things are just for me.

It does reinforce however, how ill equipped I am to judge others, even though in my human-ness I will do so anyway.

For example, it’s easy to point to Donald Trump and pontificate about how evil, toxic, and disgusting he is. How can anyone with a modicum of empathy and decency say what he said about John McCain? And that is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg – immigrants, blacks – and the list goes on like a ticker tape.

But I call our practice of pointing out the extremes the Phil Donahue syndrome, named after the first recognizable national talk show host whose Phil Donahue Show ran from 1967 to 1996. Over its span, the show tackled serious issues with a wide variety of guest panelists.

Donahue would also invite controversial figures such as Ku Klux Klan members on his panel, and they and the audience would exchange insults, and everyone watching would feel better about themselves because THEY weren’t like THEM. So, the syndrome was not about Donahue himself; it was about the audience who suffered with self-righteous indignation.

Just because we refrain from saying or doing violent or brutal such as murder, rape, or armed robbery does not mean we are ethical. There are plenty of things we do that contribute to an unethical environment, by not talking with each other, listening instead of waiting to speak, being reactionary, having selective memory and hearing, and character assassinating each other.

Invariably we tout ourselves as being moral and ethical, because of our family and religious upbringing, political affiliation, class status, and other means. We believe it is someone else, not us, that is contributing to the ethical muck in which we are living within this society.

The best thing we can do is be honest, so we can work on the dark unethical things within us, the skeletons in our closet, the stuff that we hide away in the basement or in the attic of which we are ashamed. I’m not talking about the hidden jewels that make our identity that society projects is wrong; I’m talking about the stuff we know is wrong.

When I tell people I teach Ethics, they often chuckle and signify that we need that subject taught more than ever. I wonder how many of them point to themselves before they wave at society?

Then again, Ethics has become so subjective that it is impossible for all of society to be on the same page. We are in constant flux between Duty Ethics, Utilitarianism, Egoism, Virtue Ethics, Relativism and Subjectivism to name a few. For every theory there is a counter theory, and for every position there is a counter position. What could we sincerely agree upon at a massive level?

It does boil down to the individual. The problem is, being an individual cannot make a society cohesive if the majority is not on the same page.

And it’s the individual that makes ethics impossible.

So my students are going to write about how ethical they are for their first assignment, and I will challenge them to examine themselves throughout the semester via the material we will cover to see if that self-portrait really holds water. It has been my experience for the last couple of years that many will brush a slightly to a substantially different painting by the end.

We can run from politics. We can run from society’s ills. We cannot run from ourselves. We cannot run from our ethics. It’s time to face our mirror and stare.

I am not cynical. Though I talk in absolutes and impossibilities, I know that there numerous folks who are abundantly ethical; their moral fiber housed firmly in their being. Perhaps I am feeling cold stone sober at this moment, looking at myself in the mirror, making sure I am seeing what I am supposed to see, before I contemplate swiveling it toward anyone else.



Ron Kipling Williams