Wednesday, February 12, 2014

The Ethics of Feeling Good

The academic study of ethics is about as practical as you can get, unless it becomes merely academic. Ethics is the study of cultural norms, of standards of behavior, and ultimately, of right and wrong. Down through history smart folks like Aristotle, and Plato, and the guys who formed groups like the Stoics and Gnostics put together systems of thought designed to give authoritative foundation to their particular brand of ethical conduct. Once formed, these systems of thought, or better, these worldviews, became the rules by which life was best lived.

Today most of us wouldn’t recognize an academic system of ethics if asked to pick one out of a line up. That doesn’t mean, however, that we all don’t have an ethical foundation. What it does mean is that we’re probably just comfortable being somewhat inconsistent in the way we think about right and wrong.

Take, for example, what you might tell a young child about honesty. I choose to believe that, all other things being equal, we would want a parent to instill in the child the belief that lies are wrong and telling the truth is right. I still believe that most people feel that way, and do so because they have a basic conviction that truth is right and deceit is wrong, generally.

But, while we may hold to this broad conviction, there are often times when we violate our general ethical position in order to pursue what we believe is a better state. At points we come to believe that lying will bring about a better experience than will telling the truth. And, increasingly as a society, we are okay with that. We are okay holding to opposite truth claims at the same time. While believing truth is right and deceit is wrong, we can also believe that deceit can be “right for me” at certain times.

What is really going on here? Simply this. We are fast becoming a pragmatic society that grounds its ethical convictions, not on a well thought out, consistent and cohesive set of moral principles, but on how this or that makes us feel in the moment. We might call this “dynamic personalism.” That is, the dynamic that moves our attitudes and actions is nothing more than personal preference, in the moment.

It hit me as I watched 25 minutes of the Grammys several nights ago that, if art imitates life, we are in big trouble. There is no denying that what was portrayed on stage through pyrotechnics, music, lyrics, costumes, and all manner of gyrations was a bold and brash return to animalistic thinking and behavior meant to erase the line between culture and chaos. Yes, I turned it off. But even now what I witnessed continues to turn my attention to the deeper tragedy that those who designed, produced, sponsored, performed and appreciated that spectacle have intentionally thrown off ethical restraint in favor of an ethic whose only standard is that feeling good is good, and all other standards are illegitimate.

So, am I a prude? Am I way behind the times, still in bondage to an ethic composed of antiquated moral standards? Yes, I guess so. But here’s the deal. I possess a paradigm, grounded in an authority outside of my personal whims and wishes, that defines right and wrong. Consequently, I can critique other systems according to my standards. But those whose systems are grounded only on the idea that nothing is really wrong, nothing is truly immoral, cannot critique my worldview for to do so would undermine their thinking. If nothing is ethically wrong, then my views can’t be either.

Before those who enjoyed the ethos of the Grammys can point a disturbed finger at my assessment of them, they first have to define just what they think constitutes poor taste. Unfortunately for them, the show they just put on is exhibit “A” that they don’t have a clue. I only hope, in this case, that instead of art imitating life, life can intimidate art into being worthy of the artistic label once again.


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