Sunday, September 13, 2009

Reorienting the Ethical

Ethical systems are conceived in order to protect the majority of people. In doing this, the prescribed conventions of the ethical sphere often marginalize and ignore the needs of some people. And while the ethics are often changed according to social attitudes, I wonder how actively we engage in the ethical. When I hold a person responsible for an action or act according to social convention, I am not actively thinking about what I am doing. The ethical simply provides the framework that orients the way in which I function in society. It is almost an unconscious engagement in which I am a participant but rarely evaluate or question my participation.

I wonder how changes in the ethical sphere take place. The first thing that comes to mind is the civil rights movement, where a group of marginalized people recognized an ethical problem and actively worked to remedy that problem. But how do we go about changing social attitudes? How do we change the broad and thoughtless ways in which we interact with one another? Are we compromising our singularity and the singularity of others by participating in the ethical at all?

While certain aspects of our ethical lives are conferred upon silently without evaluation, it does not seem to be essential or necessary. Perhaps if we embrace our singularity (by this, I do not mean to say that we all should try and be the Underground Man and reject the ethical for the sake of expressing our freedom) we can have more truthful and holistic conception of humanity. Engaging in this practice is hard, really hard. How am I supposed to interact with another person without first fitting that person into a series of prescribed categories that seem appropriate?

Maybe we can't completely reject the ethical (and I do not think we should), but I think that we may be able to change our attitudes and consequently reorient the ethical to those attitudes by embracing our singularity.


  1. In some ways, the changing of the ethical sphere starts with one or more individuals. However, the process of changing convention is definitely gradual, involving a group.

    In a way, the unconscious participation in the ethical is necessary to simplify human interactions. In general, it works, but maybe we should step back and think about what the effects of categorizing has on our interactions.

  2. Perhaps what we all are referring to as the ethical is the series of gut reactions we have when our ideas of empathy have been transgressed or reinforced. For Metaphysics, the second book we focused on related this explanation of the moral attitude as something natural, arising from our evolutionary progression as what has worked in the past and is necessary for survival. Empathy seems to me the only proper sort of justification for engaging in what we describe as the "ethical", at least until something more meaningful to us arises. Here I would use your "embrace of singularity" as an example, but this too could be explained away as natural empathy.

    The thought of categorizing people doesn't necessarily place someone into the demeanor of Underground Man (though it might), but Nietzsche would offer a helpful perspective on this subject. By assuming that we are free and the creators of standards of value, he holds that making promises to people should signify a mark of distinction, as honoring the person to which you made a promise. In this way do we place significance on our interactions with others. We may honor those like us, "the strong and reliable," who fulfill their promises and perhaps grow closer to us, but we are equally ready to show moral disapprobation to those who treat promises as frivolous and break them. Customarily we do hold people to be morally responsible, regardless of the basis, as sovereign individuals. This seems to me a celebration of individuality, and likewise the relation of individual to individual, as the ethical.

  3. I liked your point that the ethical is often prescribed by social attitudes. I think it is interesting how different societies place varying importance on the individual over the collective or the collective over the individual, and how two people from two very different societies might have a hard time reacting to one another as their own ethical categories and feelings are not shared or understood by the other. Could you say more about embracing singularity in order to have a more holistic view of humanity? Reading that made me think that Kierkegaard the singularity of experience with the absolute necessarily can't be involved with the ethical and the same with the aesthetic. And if embracing singularity means looking at oneself to realize the possibilities of others, then this still might not help with the ethical if others don't share that appreciation of possibilities, which I guess gets to your question about how individuals move to change the ethical. I'm sorry for rambling- I just wasn't sure what you meant and didn't want to think of it in the wrong way.

  4. The Civil Rights Movement is a great example of how a particularized, tortured group of people sought to make known the discrimination held against them. Ethics were completely neglected by white supremacists who felt that it was okay to isolate and discriminate African Americans, simply because it was universally accepted to do so. The eventual success of the African Americans during the Civil Rights movement is an example of how ethics may be altered by a group of people who have lived through entirely singularized experiences.
    The large number of people involved was able to change the “ethics” by which most people lived by at the time, but it clearly did not change everyone’s views. Too many people remain racist for no acceptable reason, and it seems to me that they deliberately act against today’s view of ethics. How could their backwards views be supported by any moral? This shows that it may be nearly impossible to make the ethical an entirely universal realm of existence.


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