There's been a lot in the news lately that makes me scratch my head at how bold people are getting about their ethical system. Here are just a handful:
- A journalist writes an article about a girl who said she was raped, and when called on its falsehood, the author and editors claim what really matters really important thing is how the University responded to the charge, not the truth or faleshood of the story.
- Eco activists put a huge sign in a sacred area, violating it and possibly damaging it forever.
- A pundit claims that the approach he recommends is lying and deception but its fine because people are stupid and it will accomplish his goals.
- Multiple child molesters and rapists force their victims to get abortions yet even after having been told by children that they are being abused, the abortionists do nothing, report nothing, and return the children in the care of their predators.
There are three kinds of ethical approaches, I believe: opportunism, pragmatism, and idealism:
Ethical Opportunism is a system by which you decide right and wrong by how well it serves you at the moment. Did you succeed, did that help you? Then it must have been right. One's goals may be long term, or short, lofty or mean, but what decides right and wrong is how well each decision pleases and benefits you.
Ethical Pragmatism decides right and wrong by how well an action taken succeeds in achieving one's goals. For the Ethical Pragmatist, right and wrong are decided by the end result: did it work? Then it must have been the right thing to do. The steps taken along the path toward the fulfillment of the goal are sanctified by the end results.
Ethical Idealism decides right and wrong by an objective, absolute system of ethics. Each decision is based on how closely it adheres to this concept of right and wrong regardless of its success or personal benefit.
Each of these changes how one reacts to or chooses a course of action. Was what I did wrong or right? Is what I am planning good or ill? If you believe that the ends justify the means, that will make your actions considerably different than someone who believes they must adhere to a standard of right and wrong for each decision.
Now, people will often slip into one of these when caught up doing wrong or when accused of ill doing, to justify and defend themselves, even when they may not philosophically hold to that position. "Everyone else was doing it" is a fine Ethical Opportunist's answer - I gained peer approval and felt part of a group - and "well it got the job done" is something the Ethical Pragmatist would appreciate, but neither is necessarily what you really believe. We don't like being wrong, and we feel weak and endangered when justly accused of doing wrong, so we try to find a way to argue that it wasn't really all that bad.
And certainly none of us are perfectly consistent. We'll never be one perfectly exact way in our thinking and deeds, because we're affected by far too many outside influences and inside changes and tendencies to be the same each time.
But all of us choose one of these to follow, most of the time, even if we've not thought it through very clearly. And what we're seeing more and more in popular culture is example after example of people for whom Ethical Pragmatism is a way of life.
Sure, we may have lied, but our lie was for a good cause - a "deeper truth" as CBS claimed when confronted with the blatant falsehood of their anti-Bush memo report.
Sure, we could have destroyed something precious and ancient, but it was to get the word out, and you have to break a few eggs to make an omelet, you know?
Sure, technically rioting and burning is bad, but sometimes the only way to bring change is to shock people and get their attention!
And this isn't in any way surprising. When Nicolo Machiavelli wrote The Prince he was poking fun - carefully - at the soulless cruelty and unethical activities of the rulers he knew. It was a satirical book meant to get people to think twice, and maybe even rulers to think twice, about their governments. So he wrote a book as if it was a primer in being a horrible heartless tyrant that cared nothing but for power and control, and it was very good.
He didn't mean "the ends justify the means" as a way of life, he meant it as a criticism and a condemnation. But in that, he demonstrated the end result of someone for whom right and wrong are a matter of results and personal preference rather than objective, absolute standards. The only way someone could be so heartless, evil, and oppressive as the rulers he satirized was if they had abandoned all good and evil entirely.
And this is what we have today: people for whom the idea of right and wrong is almost alien, beyond "what hurts me directly and immediately." They have a vague concept of Republicans being evil and a list of sins like Nazis, not liking bacon, and racism but its entirely gut instinct and emotion, not rational and examined.
What else could people end up with, after jettisoning the basic ethical foundations of a society? They can't appeal to for others or check their own behavior by appealing to what we all agree to and know. There's nothing we all agree to and know any more. So all that's left is what achieves goals; what brings power.
So we ought not be surprised to see people violating their very own stated standards of right and wrong or behavior. To them it makes sense, if it achieves their goals. Because if it works, it must have been right... right?