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Sunday, May 22, 2011

Ethics require a firm foundation

I had the opportunity to reflect a bit on ethics recently. For a couple of reasons.
World renowned physicist Steven Hawking has stated there is no heaven, that our brains are basically like computers and "there's no life after death for a broken computer."
Then Vincent Bugliosi, the guy who wrote a book claiming President George W. Bush should be prosecuted for war crimes has a new book out in which he makes the case for agnosticism — in other words "I don't know if there's a God or not and anyone who believes there is, is an idiot but so is anyone who believes there is no God is also an idiot."
I'm a Christian, if perhaps not the best one in the world, so I have "there is a God," as my default position.
I could, of course, be wrong. I take the existence of God on faith and move on from there. Faith necessarily means believing in something I can't prove.
I've always gone with something I read once, I can't remember who said it: "If I act as if there is a God and I'm wrong, what have I lost? But if I act as if there is no God and I'm wrong what have I gained?"
I find it difficult to believe any ethical system can arise without an underlying foundation. For me, it is my Christian faith. From a sociological standpoint it almost doesn't matter. In pretty much every society on Earth the basis of ethics has always arisen from the religious beliefs of the society in question.
If there is no power outside yourself, nothing but the law to hold you to ethical behavior then logically there is no standard of behavior — anything goes.
In many ways that's where we are as a country. We have so removed from public life the articles of faith which once guided behavior in this country that we no longer have anything by which to judge our behavior.
Ethical behavior has moved from "doing what's right," to "everything is fine so long as you're happy."
We seem to have decided, as a civilization, a black and white definition of right and wrong no longer exists, all ethics are situational.
Now it is to some degree true that ethics are situational. It's wrong to murder someone, however, should someone be trying to murder you, then it's ethical to use deadly force in self-defense. In that situation killing someone is ethical.
However, no matter what the situation, cheating on a spouse is wrong. Stealing is wrong.
But when we tell our children, indeed our entire population everything is right, so long as it gets them what they want, should we be entirely surprised when college students can't seem to figure out what's wrong with plagiarism? Or software piracy?
People like to throw away the "slippery slope" argument but it is a valid one. Once you break a small rule it becomes easier and easier to break small rules until you suddenly find yourself breaking big ones.
As journalists it is a choice we face every day. There are so many ethical constraints on what we are and are not allowed to do — and so many of them are so subjective in nature — that many of my colleagues seem to observe their ethics more in the breach than the compliance.
At the national level I'm sure that's true. Not so much at the local level.
However, walking that ethical minefield has taught me a couple of simple things.
One, there has to be some standard from which you work. Ethical behavior, while often dictated by the situation one finds oneself in, must have a clearly defined base from which to work. Whether the 10 Commandments or the American Society of Newspaper Editors ethical statement you have to start somewhere.
Second, and perhaps most importantly, the "slippery slope" argument is a valid one. The best way to stay off that slope is to never step onto it in the first place.
All IMHO, of course.

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