I have been reading quite a lot on what Ethics is or how it should be explained/taught to non-philosophers. My intention was to find some arguments for a question I receive regularly, which is “why Ethics matter?”. Not that I do not have my own arguments or that I cannot relate to the personal experience of the people I talk with, but I was hoping for more powerful arguments.
Some of you may think this is an easy question, that there is no deeper meaning or whatever, but the truth is that this is the most fundamental question: why in the world should I give a damn about your moral norms or about the character? Why should I care if I offend or discriminate someone? Why should I treat people with respect or observe all the legislation concerning animal protection? At the end of the day, we are humans and animals are animals. Or why should it matter that someone wrote notes about his sister-in-law for a national security service during a dictatorial regime? In other words, why Ethics matter to us?
Probably, those that hold strong Christian beliefs will answer saying this is what it is expected from us by our Creator. The unethical behavior, in this case, will bring us eternal torment. Think about what your grandmother used to tell you before going to bed, if she was a Christian.
Those that place their 2 cents on the communitarian aspect of our being, again generalizing, will point out that communities cannot exist if we start hating each other, killing our offsprings or terrorizing our weaker members. For example, if a community accepts that a very young child with impairment, disability or handicap can be killed because he cannot perform his human functions, then we cannot see a future for that community.
Others, more inclined to accept a relativistic approach to morality, will say that the risk posed by unethical behavior is very high and this will lead to higher transactional costs between two individuals, so those that share different ethical backgrounds will prefer to act in accordance with a generally accepted manner just to avoid unpleasant consequences. Let’s think about the situation of a few explorers visiting a crack-heads tribe in the Amazonian forest: the explorers will try to avoid any behavior they think it is inappropriate so the tribe-chief does not go and crack their heads off. If the offend the tribe-chief in any way, their mission will terminate immediately.
But these seem unconvincing for most Romanians. Why should a Romanian PR or Marketing student think that Ethics matter when he sees everyday that Romanian society can work with a high corruption index, when babies die in hospitals due to the general attitude of doctors and nurses, when incompetent people have good jobs, when stupid people spend a lot of money on bodily pleasures? For them, acting in a morally correct way represents a cost, because being moral doesn’t help their mothers or sisters’ health, because being moral doesn’t bring them good jobs or a lot of money. This is the regular perception of people I see everyday on TV, on the street or in pubs, at the zebra waiting to cross the street or before the priest when they need a service that doesn’t come cheap.
In my opinion, arguments doesn’t work in this case. You cannot convince an irrational person with the authority of your arguments. In this case, you need the force of laws and constrains. This is why a compliance culture is more appealing to Romanian managers and authorities, but also to the general public. This is why people are more afraid of the long arm of the law and totally disregard moral sanctions. Take for example the common idea that people that committed suicide after killing a child in a stupid accident, one that wasn’t their fault, were weak people. The public and many ‘psychologists’, those that are omnipresent in newsrooms, think their character was flawed not that there the moral internal sanction function there perfectly and that person could not live with the guilt sentiment.
This irrational behavior we see everyday in Romania is in fact a symptom of what I call moral relaxation. We tend to care less about moral values and norms, less about the value of each individual, we reject fairness and relate everything to our stomach, to our bodily pleasures. All we need and seek is to have a comfortable existence, full of good food, a lot of free days from our miserable jobs, less taxes and limitless freedom. For instance, 99.99% of Romanian journalists argue that no one should limit in any way the freedom of the press; in other words, the press should be able to show the dirty laundry of a musician because this is what it sells, the press should be able to say anything about a politician just because he is a politician etc.
Ethics does not matter when we take a break from our rational faculties, when we hope for effortless lives and jobs, when we expect everything and give little, when we do not respect ourselves before showing respect to others, when we reject the right of the other to express his/her opinion and the only element that supports our arguments is the high volume of our voice, when what we think is much more important then anything else.