20 March 2006

Ethics goes sci-fi

Australia's St. James Ethics Centre (SJEC) proposes a bold vision:

we seek to bring about a world in which people feel free to include the ethical dimension in their daily lives
How many ways is this statement silly? Let me count the ways:

1) When they say that they're "seeking," don't they mean "acting?" Or maybe "struggling?" Doesn't sound like they know what they're doing, does it?

2) Someday someone's going to take me to visit the "ethical dimension," and I'm sure it'll be better than Doctor Who on party pills. Until then, I’m going to insist that SJEC's use of dimensionality as a metaphor for ethics is both misleading and revealing. Misleading because it implies that ethics, as its own dimension, is skew to the rest of life, intersecting it only at one point. But ethics saturates life; every action is ethically freighted. Further, the metaphor suggests that ethics reduces to a geometricized calculus—a vector equation. The metaphor is revealing because it shows that SJEC is insensitive to the absurd connotations insinuated by their language.

Extrapolating from the latest ethical probe data, top government artists offer tantalizing glimpses of what the ethical dimension might actually be like.

3) "To bring about a world" has such a lovely, dystopian ring to it. Seriously, I thought God already took care of the whole world-bringing-about business--first two chapters of Genesis and all that. Promethean pretensions like these are vapid to the point of being dangerous—and that’s on top of being irritating.

4) When they say they want "people [to] feel free to include the ethical dimension," it sounds like they're insisting that we make the most of the all-you-can-eat salad bar. "No, really. Go ahead and take all the ethical dimension you can stomach. There's plenty more in the kitchen." The sentiment is very sweet, but can we please find a less Donna Reed way to say this?

Our new ethics bar features virtues, moral principles, and fresh tomatoes. Satiate the saint in you for only $9.95!

5) I'm sure that the SJEC boasts a membership as erudite as it is pompous, but where do they get off suggesting to the rest of us that we “feel free” to get down with our ethical selves? First off, what’s with the nudge-nudge, wink-wink? If the rest of us are bad people, just come right out and say it. We’ll have a good clean argument and see who’s right, who’s bad, and who’s eye-rollingly self-righteous. Second, ethics is one of the foundations of human life whether we like it or not. (Tom DeLay, good postmodern that he is, probably convinced himself that that irksome ethical dimension was just a figment of the ol' imagination; but surprise, surprise--it turned out to be plenty real.) "Feeling free" has nothing to do with it. And third, ethics isn't patty-cake and crumpets. It’s not about comfort, but about excellence. We're already and always eyebrow deep in the sludge of questions concerning the best way to navigate life. Ethics concerns hard-won wisdom about the human good, hard-bitten advice given in the teeth of a dilemma, and hard-core you-break-it-you-bought-it consequentialism. (Anyone who thinks forgiveness is soft needs to think harder about what his parents did to him as a child.)

6) Somebody please tap me on the shoulder and let me know when our "daily lives" start happening. You know, as opposed to our other lives--the non-daily ones. This definitely isn't the first time I've heard of this "daily" life I'm supposed to be leading; I’m always the last one to the party. To the SJEC vision committee: adjectives—such as “daily”—are supposed to descriptive, not rhetorical. And as I said before, every action already and always carries ethical significance and imposes ethical consequences. Ethic significance is omnichronic; no deed to dilute it to "daily."

7) Last, but not least: the statement cited above isn't a vision statement; it's a mission statement. A vision statement describes what you'd like to see happen in future. (Hence the use of the word, "vision.") A mission statement describes what you plan to accomplish. (Hence the use of the word, "mission.")


Adamji said...

OY! i couldn't agree more.

lets shoot them up with pentothal and put them on the holodeck!

i am jack's soggy crouton.
i would like to add to the salad bar... "you are not the noble thoughts you want to have"

ethics has a dark cousin to wrestle,
morality - in all it's flavours.
ferifis can see the grail he wants,
but looking at it and grasping it are different things.

morals, sexual morality and ethics have somehow been married, or at least covalently bonded in the media and the public eye, when they have very little connection in real life or in logical structures.

i live in india, a country where people too poor to own clothes can be jailed for nudity. where the neighbor cares more about your drinking that whether the man lying on the road outside his house starves to death. he will call the city corporation to dispose of the corpse. the self-righteousness about the large stack of beer bottles going to recycling is more serious.
the poor are transient animals, it gives him no thrill to pretend to be better than them. i won't even talk about multiple female visitors. and nasty old women who spend their lives on the porch watching, taking notes. the police here care more about shutting down dance clubs than protecting the IT castles that bring in half the money which is the lifeblood of the city. on a corporate level ethical behaviour is more of an ironic joke, a pedestal pretended to, something for six sigma to evaluate as unprofitable.

if indeed this dystopian cadre of Certified Ethical Auditors starts to march around telling some imperate disrobed executives how nice their suits are, i will summon bilbo in fore and farce to tear it all down.

and religion?

the two big cranks we all know:

is it ethical to 'send in the marines' when someone defiles ethics and morals based on christian values?

...or declare a fatwah on a smart, funny man like rushdie...

most of what we 'feel strongly' is right or wrong is simply what was hammered into us bfore the age of ten or so - when the mind had no logical structures with which to defend itself.

a very reductionist epistemology of ethics is in order before any pseudoacademic certifications take place in some ugly flatland u.

seed out the religious motive,
the psychosexual motive,
the hidden hyperthreads of power
and it's goad low self-esteem
for a humble beginning...

humble apologies for ranting on your page. i have enough white boxes of my own to fill.

A .:.