Ethics and All That : Does it Matter?

Ethics, like leadership, is a toe-curling subject. Just too embarrassing to discuss in public. We all think we know, deep down, what it is; and what we should do; but we might not be strong enough to do it; and we might find others have different views; or have been in awful situations; and it might lead to rows; or tears. Yikes. Better stick to the weather!

So something which is important only gets discussed (if at all) late at night in the bar after rather too much alcohol has been consumed- or perhaps not enough, if anyone can remember anything about it the following morning.

This taboo can’t be healthy for our society- any more than the taboos on breast and prostate cancer were; or those on AIDS or VD. It may be more comfortable in the short term, but long term the damage to our common well-being is immense.

I believe that a code of ethics – a shared sense of what is right – is a fundamental requirement for a peaceful and cohesive society. It is only when people are prepared to talk about their beliefs, their values, their “ethics” that a sense of common and shared values can be created.

This is the basis of a social contract, a structure for individuals to look at and judge their own behaviour and that of others. It helps in the process of forming relationships outside the immediate ones of family and close friends. These relationships are vital to any human society that is bigger than an extended family group, and depend on shared and understood values and the rules derived from them.

We know that someone finding themselves in a society with unfamiliar and different values and behaviours may well suffer from a sense of disorientation, and of “culture shock”. This can lead to feelings of inadequacy in that person, but also to a strong, even violent, rejection of the strange surroundings and culture.

What if the absence of a shared ethical code, a shared sense of what is right, has the same kind of effects? Does the absence of a “social contract” lead to a dysfunctional society? What happens when people have no agreed code within which to operate, and no sense of what is and is not acceptable, either in terms of their own behaviour or that of others? Does this help to explain the feelings of alienation and the creation of sub-cultures, with their own sometimes strict and unbending rules?

Our society in the United Kingdom, like others across the world, has taken on new ideas, many of them derived from commerce or marketing, such as the concept of teenagers as independent, functioning individuals . But have we thought through what those ideas mean for our shared code of ethics and of behaviour? Have we thought through what the concept of consumerism, with its adoration of endless consumption, implies in the long term, and in the round, with its impacts on debt and on expectations and aspirations, not just here locally, but globally?

We have, again like many other societies, “adsorbed”- that is, taken in, on the surface – thousands of people from other societies across the world. But have we really “absorbed” them; taken them in to the body of “our” society, and in mutually agreed ways, changed it to properly include us all? These are all huge issues, and difficult to tackle. But tackled they must be, and in an intelligent, civilized, and open, manner.

There are sensitivities, but unless the discussion starts, and action to address the issues is taken, we may find ourselves in a nightmare world. Already, many people feel excluded and marginalised; many feel there is no moral code, and that “anything goes”, from petty theft and fraud to random and extreme violence. In reaction, some others try to impose their own sense of order and values, and may become extreme, even violent, in pursuit of their perceived “solution”.

So, let’s start the discussion; and let’s aim for an energising process, and a feeling of “Can Do! “ I think that hasn’t been part of our culture and ethics for at least half a century; but no doubt someone will put me right.

Article by by Christine Collins

First Published by Ethics Girls 2008©

1 Comment on Ethics and All That : Does it Matter?

  1. Philip A Birch // August 8, 2012 at 8:10 am // Reply

    Good points and well made. Ethics is in dang of becoming not only a taboo, but worse, a cliche and once it gets absorbed and adopted into society in this superficial, rhetorical way then it could go the way of “environmental” and reduced to confusing or meaningless company “policy” and hippy-extremists rather than actual, tangible objectives for each and every member of a modern society. I attempt to address this in Ethiconomics – formally integrating personal and social values into business mission and strategy. Individual values aligned with universal truths.

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