Whether gods exist or not, there is no way to get absolute certainty about ethics. Without absolute certainty, what do we do? We do the best we can.
Ethics is not a system of beliefs, rules, regulations or commandments; ethics is a condition of action arising as an objection to systems of beliefs, rules, regulations and commandments of others. Ethical behavior is more than knowing how to distinguish between right and wrong, more than incorporating knowing into decision-making and more than a simple-minded reliance on the demands others place upon us. Ethical behavior does not rely on being certain of the outcome of one’s behavior not does it rely on a set of rules of which one may with certainty adopt as a code of living. The problem turns on the simple idea that anything that is pressed upon us from an external source is certain to be an attempt to reduce the self into the same thereby condemning humanity to a bland, homogenous existence. As a human being existing in the material world, as a totally unique self, I have but one obligation, one that may only be generated from my own unique interiority that guides my connections, my relationships, in the material world with absolutely unique others yet one that, with absolute certainty, does not guarantee any specific outcome.
My fundamental ethical obligation, one that is generated from within and is pushed outward toward the exteriority of the material world, is to be responsible for the welfare of the other, the other who is as unique as I am unique, without any reservations, even when my own existence is in jeopardy, and without expectation of reciprocation. But being responsible does not mean that I must act first, that I must reach out a hand when there is no call from the other. I am first required to make my-self available, to announce my presence, by shouting “Here I Am!” And then I must wait until I hear the call of the other.
In a real sense, responsibility can be understood using the neologism response-ability. The two words are indistinguishable when spoken, the only distinction being made visible in writing but the essential feature of the latter is to convey the meaning that one is able to respond to the call of the other. Response-ability is, in fact, a state of proximity (of space and time not of distance) to the other and it implies that the self must wait until it hears the call of the other clearly and distinctly; at that point, however, the self must jump into action, to respond to the call that the self was in proximate waiting to hear.
In the extreme, one may see a drowning person screaming for help. If one has chosen the fundamental ethical obligation of response-ability as a guiding ethical principle, one is obligated to do everything possible to save the life of the other who is drowning…even at the peril of one’s own life. To save a life, in this sense, is ethical behavior. Most aspects of becoming response-able are not so dramatic. Each and every day, unless one is a hermit or locked in a dungeon without any human contact, experience the potential for proximate response-ability in our daily contact with other people. Not every encounter is an ethical one. If I am shopping for supplies at my local drug store I am likely to have an encounter with another human being if I need to ask where something is kept on the shelves or when I check out and pay. These are not ethical encounters, rather they are chance meetings that are polite, perhaps even friendly, but there is no call from the other to be heard, no intimacy. It is only when the call to the proximate self is a call of intimacy, one in which close personal contact is made between two unique individuals that an ethical connection is made. Close friendships that develop over time where the self listens to the other, embraces the other’s uniqueness and, thereby, more clearly understands one’s own uniqueness, may be seen as response-able ethical encounters.
When the other is viewed as a stranger lumped into a well-defined group there is little possibility for ethical encounters for it is when strangers are reduced to the same that the fact of uniqueness disappears into the violence of the defined group. Permission is granted to isolate the group, to avoid contact with the group, to hate the group without knowing individuals within the group. The triumphalism of the dominant group potentially leads to the elimination of the othered, marginalized group from normative society.
Ethical encounters have the opposite impact on society. Rather than relying on a governing authority (including governmental agencies, religious organizations, quasi-governmental institutions such as corporate bureaucracies, organized criminal groups and the like), the ethical encounter is generated from the interiority of the self as a self-imposed obligation for proximate action. They are not governed by the pronouncements of others; rather they are governed by the announcement by the self that “Here I Am!” and the proximity that is generated by that announcement. The goal of this post-modern approach to ethical behavior is to eschew certainty by embracing difference and to do so with the goal of being of service for others. In short, it is the ability to do the best we can with the tools we have, to do no harm to others, and to do the next right thing.
- Modernity and Ethical Engagement (rogerpassman.wordpress.com)
- Making the Ethical Choice: It’s a Matter of Human Dignity (rogerpassman.wordpress.com)
- Modern Democracy and Bare Life (rogerpassman.wordpress.com)