As a consultant who is frequently asked to come in to advise on specific applications of social media strategy or communication you’d think I would operate under a simple, linear dynamic that would look a little like this: Project > Cost > Timeline. After all, once a client is convinced I have the skillset they need it really is a matter of time and cost, because we all need to earn enough to live and those who have the cash we need for that, also have specific projects and needs. Makes sense. Right?
Except I am kinda choosy on who I decide work for and on what project and this complicates both my life and, I suspect, theirs. Ethics is like that and, as this introduction to it suggests, we’re not at all rational in how we apply it.
In ancient Greek culture (because, yes, we can ‘blame’ the Greeks for this too), ethical theory predated philosophical reflection which in the plainest English possible means that ancient Greek thinkers spent more time on deciding how we could practically define our moral compass than how we could understand the general and fundamental questions about existence, knowledge, values, reason, mind, and language which are the province of philosophy.
This is understandable. From their perspective, as their societies scaled up and became more nuanced the pressing issues were stark: How do we get along? How is it possible to reconcile what’s good for the individual with what’s good for the ‘greater good’? What is our moral compass and is it steadfast or does it present specific laxities? At which point can ethics be set aside (and should we ever, even be contemplating such a scenario?)
The fact that we don’t even have a decent answer for these questions now, some 2,500 years later will tell you just how complex we are (or, from a different perspective, unable to truly define our goals and morality). Aristotle, thought that ethics should be linked to the practical need for an individual’s self-realization and had to be as far removed from self-interest as possible.
Compare that with the set of answers sociologist Raymond Baumhart received when he asked business people “what does ethics mean to you?” and you begin to realize that we have some way to go before we can provide an answer that will truly satisfy us.
Psychologists think of ethics as a moral code that allows us to operate at a level of comfort to ourselves. When you consider that ethics is intrinsically linked to human values however, “comfort” may not really be a suitable guideline to associate with it. Especially today.
Yet there is no shortage of explorations in the significance of ethics in daily life, nor do we have stopped considering why ethics, as a concept, matters to us. The psychology (and motivation) of doing the right thing is, understandably, complex.
Over, on Quora, the debate rages on whether we can be ethical without being moral (and is there a difference between the two?). Ephrat Livni, in her essay, suggests that leading a truly ethical life is impossible and the Evolution Institute tells us that there is no universal morality either.
So, here we are. Ethics is hard to apply to life and morality is relative. We knew all this already. So why this soul-wringing? Because we need to do it. Bar such effort we descend, all too easily perhaps, into that zone where we just react to what is happening around us which means we become slaves to the environment we live in and the circumstance that arise in it.
We are a little more than that, even if we are somewhat less than perfect. Understanding what we have to do and how to live our life needs us to comprehend who we truly are and what is our purpose.
I promise to dive into something way lighter next week. I think we can all use a little more distraction.
Until then, enjoy the coffee, indulge in the sweet things (donuts, cookies, croissants and chocolate cake) and have an awesome Sunday, wherever you are.