Science

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Today, people are marching in support of science. It is Earth Day. Being a scientist herself, Dr. Bossypants hastens to make her avid and complete support of scientific inquiry crystal clear. Of course, Dr. Bossypants’s branch of science is often called behavioral science, or more broadly, social science. There are complications to deal with in even the simplest science experiments. Was the beaker clean? Is the flame the same temperature this time? Did someone bump the petri dish? But then, step out of the nice, clean, laboratory, with conditions as controlled as possible. Step into the hustle/bustle, bazillion-facetted, multidimensional, wildly spinning natural world, and things get exponentially more difficult. Then, throw in humans, likely the most complex, loving/hating, honest/duplicitous, creative/doltish species yet known on earth, and one might be quite justified in saying, “OH MY.”

Humans fool other people every day. And admit it readers, you fool yourselves every day as well. After many years of study, Dr. Bossypants knows that humans are a posturing, phony, frightened bunch of loving, generous, often-well-intended creatures. A quick Google search tells us that science is “the intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of the structure and behavior of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment.” To date, science is one of our proudest human accomplishments. It is the endeavor we undertake to STOP FOOLING OURSELVES. While we cannot guarantee absolute objectivity, we have become smart enough to admit it, and to bracket our values and beliefs in the service of discovery–discovery of replicable facts and truth.

People, listen up. This is important. Yes, scientific findings occasionally fall prey to politically-motivated interpretations. If you suspect this is the case, you must ask yourself what the motive might be for the false or skewed interpretation. Dr. Bossypants believes that the earth (and life on earth) is in terrible trouble, primarily from human failure to keep things clean and neat—human failure to pay attention to and learn from nature’s way of doing things. Why would someone be motivated to do false science, or question basic results about coal, oil, pesticides, and so on? Humans can be quite greedy and lazy. Is it more profitable to continue extractive industries? Is it easier? Profit and ease are powerful human motivators.

Are those nut-case tree-huggers, those Greenpeace radicals, those everyday environmentalist-composter-organic-buying-solar-panel extremists being made vastly richer by their actions and beliefs? Are their lives made easier? By their actions and beliefs, are they endangering your lungs? Increasing your chances of getting cancer? True, they might be messing with your pocketbook—but they are messing with their own as well. There are prices to be paid. Ultimately, we will not avoid a steep payback to earth. We can begin the payments now, and perhaps have something nice to hand down to the kids. Or we can let our children make the excruciating payments that will, by then, be so overdue it might be tragically impossible to pay, and earth herself will reluctantly have to foreclose on the human race.

Go Earth Day. Hang in there Science. Dr. Bossypants says this: Fellow humans, contain your greed and fear as best you can. Strive to be honest with yourselves and others. If you sense you are being played, as yourselves what the hidden motives might be. Have the courage to change allegiances when the facts line up. Denial feels great. It is our deadliest drug.

 

(Thanks to the internet for the image and the definition)

Ethical Commandments

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Fans of Dr. Bossypants may remember that she blogged about ethics for a while before turning to trauma. Clever of her, because she firmly believes the infliction of trauma on others is unethical, so all her blogs are still relevant! And faithful readers also know she believes that trauma damages babies, children, and all people severely. Such damage may result in these same people then inflicting trauma on others later in life, perhaps not even realizing it as such. It is a vicious, potentially deadly cycle.

Philosopher Bernard Gert (1934-2011) created a list of ten moral commandments. Here they are:

  1. Do not kill other human beings.
  2. Do not cause unnecessary pain (this lets surgeons and dentists off the ethical hook).
  3. Do not disable another human being.
  4. Do not deprive another human being of freedom.
  5. Do not deprive another human being of pleasure.
  6. Do not deceive others.
  7. Keep your promises to others.
  8. Do not cheat.
  9. Obey the law.
  10. Do your duties—those required by social relationships, your job, your commitments, and so on.

Gert realized that there may be times when you are certain the deeply moral thing to do is to break one of the commandments. If so, he believed that you should only break it if you’d be willing to allow everyone else, in all times and in all places, to break the same commandment in the same situation.

It seems obvious that killing, hurting, disabling, or depriving people of freedom or pleasure causes some level of trauma in the hurt, disabled or deprived one. Being lied to and cheated isn’t much fun, and in some situations, can also be traumatic. And of course, at the social level, our culture would fall apart if everyone broke the law all the time, and/or failed to do their personal and civic duties. We’d have a broken culture.

But beyond this set of rather obvious conclusions, Dr. B would like readers to ponder another set of costs. We can easily see the cost of such actions on those acted against, or on society at large. But what are the costs of crossing those lines to the actor? The cost of breaking those profoundly basic moral edicts? The killer, the torturer, the liar, the cheat, the dictator–why are they willing or able to cross those lines, and what does it do to their psychological condition?

Dr. B believes in the long run, the actor is diminished in the process of acting unethically. But it is, perhaps, a habit-forming brutal cycle with enough shallow rewards to keep the unethical actor repeating the harmful actions.

Is there a way for society to help cheaters, liars, law-breakers, or brutal people to see the costs to themselves? Is there a way to peel back the “rewards” and help humans see that ill-gotten gains are ultimately malignant? Or could we at least stop tolerating or admiring such actions? Probably not, but Dr. Bossypants is going on record, with the wise Bernard Gert, as saying that killing, hurting, disabling, depriving, lying, cheating, breaking the law, and failing to do your basic duties—these are all unethical, psychological corrosive actions harming the victims, our community, and most likely harming the perpetrators as well.

Thank you for any thoughts you may wish to post. Also, someday soon, Dr. Bossypants promises to write something upbeat. And because of Number 7 above, you can bank on it.

More thoughts on trauma

045 (2)In our continued considerations of trauma and the costs of trauma to human development and functioning, Dr. Bossypants came across a horrifyingly illustrative example, recently published in the New Yorker. http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/04/03/the-trauma-of-facing-deportation. It has to do with childhood trauma and the extreme physical and psychological costs of such trauma. It also demonstrates the role culture plays how pain and terror are expressed.

The mind is a most amazing expression of life. Dr. Bossypants uses the term “mind” rather than “brain” because some consider the brain a seething mass of neurons, electrical impulses, neurotransmitters, and gray matter—a complex but eventually unravel-able mystery—whereas in Dr. Bossypants’s lexicon, the mind encompasses consciousness and something beyond the sum of the parts of the brain. The mind goes beyond nurture or nature, biology, rewards, or punishments. Victor Frankl said, “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” Dr. Bossypants might add, “In our response lies our survival.” Regardless of your own leanings, dear reader, at present what we know is that this mind/brain organ adapts, acts, and reacts. It learns and then makes changes accordingly. For the most part, it seeks to survive, but as in the article noted above, sometimes, it assess the hopelessness of a situation and begins to shut down.

The question Dr. Bossypants wants to raise is this: Why do humans hurt each other? Some argue that males hurt each other to show dominance and thus attract mating partners. Dr. Bossypants hastens to note that there is ample evidence this is not necessarily the case.

Is it fear that causes us to hurt each other? Deep down inside, are we so afraid of being hurt that we hurt others so they can’t hurt us? Or is it fear of deprivation, leading us to hurt others for the sake of accumulation, which then becomes greed?

Or expediency? The threat of pain, or pain itself, changes behavior temporarily, but it has a lot of psychological collateral damage. When big people hurt little people, or crowds of people hurt one person, we usually call that bullying. And we generally don’t approve. We’ve come to realize that such bullying causes a lot of damage to the one bullied.

Is it pleasure that causes us to hurt each other? Sadism exists; those who are sadistic enjoy causing pain. How did that twist come to be in that psyche? It doesn’t seem very adaptive, or loving, or helpful…could it have manifested due to early childhood trauma? Could it lie quietly in our cultural narrative, increasingly brought to the surface by media and war? Does it somehow come back to fear?

The sad truth is that Dr. Bossypants does not know the answer to this basic question, and believes that perhaps, no one else does either. In fact, there may be a multiplicity of answers. What is known is that inflicting pain on others, either bodily or psychologically, ultimately does not pay off very well. In the short run, bullies might get the lunch money, but in the long run, Dr. Bossypants suspects that the lunch money will not make the bully happy, and such actions cost the community and the victims a great deal more than the lunch money.

What Dr. Bossypants does know is that humans have choices. We can evolve beyond hurting each other, whether on the playground, the street corner, or the battlefield. Nonviolence takes great courage and extraordinary intelligence. It takes self-restraint and self-sacrifice. It is noble and rare. It begins at home, in the refusal to hurt each other. Potentially, it can extend to a global way of being. Yes, Dr. Bossypants may be guilty of extreme optimism, but no, she hasn’t been smoking anything. And frankly, dear readers, nonviolence will turn out to be a far better choice than the annihilation of our species.

Bossiness on Healthcare

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A roving reporter chanced upon Dr. Bossypants and did a quick interview for our edification.

Q:        For our listening audience, could you tell us by what authority does Dr. Bossypants issue her edicts?

A:       Yes. Here is an abbreviated list:

  • Some people like her.
  • She has a two masters degrees and a doctorate from an accredited institution of higher learning.
  • She was a professor for 24 years, and had the good sense to retire in a timely way.
  • She’s stayed alive and in shape for many decades, produced lovely children, marrying only twice, with the second attempt lasting over thirty years and counting.
  • She has faced a deadly disease.
  • She grows a fine garden and eats healthy food.
  • She thinks she knows what’s best, but she tries to be reasonable.
  • And, as mentioned above, some people like her.

Q:        What does Dr. Bossypants have for us to consider today?

A:        The topic for today, dear readers, is greed, government, and healthcare.

Q:        Well then, hmmm. What does Dr. Bossypants have to say about these important topics?

A:        Listen up, people. Dr. Bossypants has been a keen observer of human nature for many years. Humans are greedy. We don’t have to be, but most of us are. And corporations (posing as people, or not) are greedier. We all need some limits.

If you think, for one minute, that medical insurance companies have the health of those they cover at heart, you’re a fool. Admittedly, government is a clumsy expression of the common good. It functions only insofar as those comprising the “common” take responsibility and stay involved. Yes, Medicaid and Medicare are fraught with fraud and tomfoolery. All human institutions suffer from such. But the profit-motive in healthcare needs to be removed or minimized.

And yes, as humans, we will err. It’s better to err on the side of the collective good than on the side of making the rich richer. Eventually, things get top-heavy and dynasties topple. Dr. Bossypants hastens to assure everyone that toppling is something to avoid. Middle-class is a good, good thing. Trust us on this, dear reader.

Q:        So Dr. Bossypants thinks a single-payer medical system is the way to go?

A:        Basically, yes. Dr. Bossypants is not an economist, but she suspects in the long run, Medicare for all will cost less in taxes than random and inadequate emergency care provided to the poor and uninsured.

It is to a society’s advantage to attend to the health of its citizens. Healthy people are smarter people. They work more. They take better care of their offspring. They are happier. Of course, there are limits to what should be provided, but we can figure that out.

Q:        Where would Dr. Bossypants draw that line?

A:        Cosmetic surgeries that are for appearance only. People need to pay for their own hair implants or facelifts. Also, we need to pull back from excessive medical testing, when whatever the results are, we can’t fix it anyway. These are a couple that come to mind. Dr. Bossypants has a tiny modicum of faith in the collective wisdom of ethically-minded professionals who can develop these difficult guidelines. But the basics of health care should be provided collectively, by all of us, paying taxes. Period. First things first.

Q:        What are “first things,” Dr. B?

A:        Full availability of primary care, nutritional education, preventative care, emergency services, life-saving surgeries and treatments, every possible form of birth control, sex education, (K through graduate school), abortion for those who do not wish to bear a child, fantastic prenatal and postnatal care for all who do wish to bear a child, basic dental care, basic mental health care, and support and education for those who choose to smoke or are obese, to name a few. But I would defer to the collective wisdom of an appointed team—a team absolutely and completely stripped of any chance to benefit monetarily from the decisions the team needs to make.

Q:        My, you’re judgmental and a bit nasty.

A:        Indeed. And hopelessly optimistic. We can do this, people. We can. We do it fairly well for soldiers and those imprisoned, and my yes, for those in congress. We CAN do it for the rest of us.

Cue, here, the maniacal laughter necessary for such situations.

 

Ethics. Bioethics. Health Care. Oh My.

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Being human, we’re accustomed to eating contradictions for breakfast. Even if we eat little else. We intend to behave quite a bit better than we usually do, and we squabble over what it means to be moral, or to live a good, fulfilling, worthy life.

Even if we agree on a moral rule, or make a law, we might observe the rule or obey the law for radically different reasons, or break the law for reasons we believe to be moral. Yes, indeed, dear readers. Dr. Bossypants knows it’s difficult to sort this all out, even though she has tried mightily to blog about morality and ethics in a most intriguing and approachable manner. Now, we have one more lens through which we might view moral decision-making, and then a bit of a summary, so those of you determined to put these ethical thoughts into ethical actions might do so. Right away. Please.

In the late 1970s, bioethics became a recognized specialty as hospitals and healthcare providers grappled with ethical decision-making in the increasingly contentious, conflicted, expensive world of healthcare.

Tom Beauchamp and James Childress identified four  guiding principles in the first edition of their influential book Principles of Biomedical Ethics:

  • Autonomy (Human beings should have authority over decisions affecting their health and well-being.)
  • Beneficence (Decisions should be made on the basis of doing good and being of help to others.)
  • Nonmaleficence (People should strive to do no unjustified harm.)
  • Justice (All people should be treated equally and benefits and burdens should be distributed fairly.)

Principles don’t offer concrete answers, but provide a framework to begin the hard work of ethical decision-making in the face of competing needs and limited resources.

Robert Bellah said “Cultures are dramatic conversations about things that matter to their participants.”

Listen, dear readers. Right now, we are engaged in a monumental conversation in our culture. We’re talking health care. Is it a basic human right? If so, how much health care should we make available in a world of apparently limited resources? Who should profit in the provision of health care, and how much profit is justified? Who should pay, and how should that duty be distributed?

Should we provide abortions to those who do not wish to be pregnant? Should we provide viagra to those who wish to have a pharmaceutically-assisted erection? Should we provide a means by which someone suffering, or near death, could choose to die with medical assistance? Oh, the inflammatory and politically-loaded questions just go on and on. They require deep thought. They require wisdom. These matters are seething with ethical quandaries.

Kant reminds us we should never treat people as a means to an end, nor deny anyone rights we would wish for ourselves.

John Stuart Mill reminds us we should choose paths, practices, and laws that insure the greatest possible good (health) for the greatest number.

Aristotle urges us to find the golden mean, the balancing point between excesses. And to be generous, courageous, and prudent.

Feminists remind us of the huge, destructive problems that arise when power is used to abuse others, to deny basic rights, and to enrich the already-rich.

Those who practice relationship-inclusive ethics remind us that we must always consider the direct impact of our actions–and our goal should be to take the most compassionate action possible.

The bioethicists offer us principles to consider, though admittedly these principles might actually conflict with each other sometimes.

We do not live in a perfect world. It is our job to make it better, not to give up in anger or despair. The ability to reason, converse, and find common ground is a human attribute we should treasure. Courage, dear ones. Be good people.

The United Nations Declaration of Human Rights

In Dr. Bossypants’s recent efforts to revisit basic ethical thinking, it seems important to take a glance globally. The human community has witnessed and participated in horrific acts of cruelty towards each other that boggle the mind and breaks the heart into pieces.

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Photo from: http://www.latimes.com/world/europe/la-fg-us-refugees-asylum-20150904-story.html

The human community has witnessed and participated in horrific acts of cruelty towards each other that boggles the mind and breaks the heart into pieces. This morning, Amnesty International revealed ongoing practices in Syria that sickened me and ruined my admittedly privileged breakfast. How can we, as a species, keep forgetting? How can we take part in such violence?

After World War II, Eleanor Roosevelt and others took the lead in crafting a document to declare basic rights for all humans. It isn’t perfect, but it is an important marker.

On December 10, 1948 the General Assembly of the United Nations adopted and proclaimed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Following this historic act the Assembly called upon all Member countries to publicize the text of the Declaration and “to cause it to be disseminated, displayed, read and expounded principally in schools and other educational institutions, without distinction based on the political status of countries or territories.”  As part of this self-styled ethics series, with hopes and prayers that we move towards our positive potential as humans, I am pasting the whole darn thing right here in my blog, hoping you might use it to impress your friends and neighbors at your next dinner party. Here it is:

PREAMBLE

  • Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world
  • Whereas disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind, and the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people,
  • Whereas it is essential, if man is not to be compelled to have recourse, as a last resort, to rebellion against tyranny and oppression, that human rights should be protected by the rule of law,
  • Whereas it is essential to promote the development of friendly relations between nations,
  • Whereas the peoples of the United Nations have in the Charter reaffirmed their faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person and in the equal rights of men and women and have determined to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom,
  • Whereas Member States have pledged themselves to achieve, in co-operation with the United Nations, the promotion of universal respect for and observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms,
  • Whereas a common understanding of these rights and freedoms is of the greatest importance for the full realization of this pledge,

Now, Therefore THE GENERAL ASSEMBLY proclaims THIS UNIVERSAL DECLARATION OF HUMAN RIGHTS as a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations, to the end that every individual and every organ of society, keeping this Declaration constantly in mind, shall strive by teaching and education to promote respect for these rights and freedoms and by progressive measures, national and international, to secure their universal and effective recognition and observance, both among the peoples of Member States themselves and among the peoples of territories under their jurisdiction.

Article 1.

All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.

Article 2.

Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status. Furthermore, no distinction shall be made on the basis of the political, jurisdictional or international status of the country or territory to which a person belongs, whether it be independent, trust, non-self-governing or under any other limitation of sovereignty.

Article 3.

Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.

Article 4.

No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms.

Article 5.

No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

Article 6.

Everyone has the right to recognition everywhere as a person before the law.

Article 7.

All are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law. All are entitled to equal protection against any discrimination in violation of this Declaration and against any incitement to such discrimination.

Article 8.

Everyone has the right to an effective remedy by the competent national tribunals for acts violating the fundamental rights granted him by the constitution or by law.

Article 9.

No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile.

Article 10.

Everyone is entitled in full equality to a fair and public hearing by an independent and impartial tribunal, in the determination of his rights and obligations and of any criminal charge against him.

Article 11.

(1) Everyone charged with a penal offence has the right to be presumed innocent until proved guilty according to law in a public trial at which he has had all the guarantees necessary for his defence.

(2) No one shall be held guilty of any penal offence on account of any act or omission which did not constitute a penal offence, under national or international law, at the time when it was committed. Nor shall a heavier penalty be imposed than the one that was applicable at the time the penal offence was committed.

Article 12.

No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honour and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.

Article 13.

(1) Everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each state.

(2) Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.

Article 14.

(1) Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.

(2) This right may not be invoked in the case of prosecutions genuinely arising from non-political crimes or from acts contrary to the purposes and principles of the United Nations.

Article 15.

(1) Everyone has the right to a nationality.

(2) No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his nationality nor denied the right to change his nationality.

Article 16.

(1) Men and women of full age, without any limitation due to race, nationality or religion, have the right to marry and to found a family. They are entitled to equal rights as to marriage, during marriage and at its dissolution.

(2) Marriage shall be entered into only with the free and full consent of the intending spouses.

(3) The family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State.

Article 17.

(1) Everyone has the right to own property alone as well as in association with others.

(2) No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his property.

Article 18.

Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.

Article 19.

Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.

Article 20.

(1) Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association.

(2) No one may be compelled to belong to an association.

Article 21.

(1) Everyone has the right to take part in the government of his country, directly or through freely chosen representatives.

(2) Everyone has the right of equal access to public service in his country.

(3) The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government; this will shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret vote or by equivalent free voting procedures.

Article 22.

Everyone, as a member of society, has the right to social security and is entitled to realization, through national effort and international co-operation and in accordance with the organization and resources of each State, of the economic, social and cultural rights indispensable for his dignity and the free development of his personality.

Article 23.

(1) Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment.

(2) Everyone, without any discrimination, has the right to equal pay for equal work.

(3) Everyone who works has the right to just and favourable remuneration ensuring for himself and his family an existence worthy of human dignity, and supplemented, if necessary, by other means of social protection.

(4) Everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests.

Article 24.

Everyone has the right to rest and leisure, including reasonable limitation of working hours and periodic holidays with pay.

Article 25.

(1) Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.

(2) Motherhood and childhood are entitled to special care and assistance. All children, whether born in or out of wedlock, shall enjoy the same social protection.

Article 26.

(1) Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages. Elementary education shall be compulsory. Technical and professional education shall be made generally available and higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit.

(2) Education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. It shall promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations, racial or religious groups, and shall further the activities of the United Nations for the maintenance of peace.

(3) Parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children.

Article 27.

(1) Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits.

(2) Everyone has the right to the protection of the moral and material interests resulting from any scientific, literary or artistic production of which he is the author.

Article 28.

Everyone is entitled to a social and international order in which the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration can be fully realized.

Article 29.

(1) Everyone has duties to the community in which alone the free and full development of his personality is possible.

(2) In the exercise of his rights and freedoms, everyone shall be subject only to such limitations as are determined by law solely for the purpose of securing due recognition and respect for the rights and freedoms of others and of meeting the just requirements of morality, public order and the general welfare in a democratic society.

(3) These rights and freedoms may in no case be exercised contrary to the purposes and principles of the United Nations.

Article 30.

Nothing in this Declaration may be interpreted as implying for any State, group or person any right to engage in any activity or to perform any act aimed at the destruction of any of the rights and freedoms set forth herein.

Dr. Bossypants wishes everyone the wisdom, love, deep peace, and ferocious courage needed to stand against all forms of torture, violence, genocide, and hatred.

Ethics 101

“Democracy cannot succeed unless those who express their choice are prepared to choose wisely. The real safeguard of democracy, therefore, is education.”          Franklin D. Roosevelt

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My favorite course as a professor was my Professional Ethics course—not necessarily an opinion shared by my students, at least initially. But many warmed up to it as the weeks went by. I’ve always been drawn to trying to understand right, wrong, and shades of gray. So, I’ve decided to blog about morals and ethics for a while because our current social order seems perilously bereft of basic moral or ethical understandings. I’ll be drawing from my ethics text, and though I doubt our publisher (Wiley) actually minds, I mention this so I won’t be accused of plagiarizing myself or John, my humble, handsome co-author.

The struggle to define the rightly lived life and the best ways to live together as a human community is an ancient one. The Rig Veda, the Torah, the Greeks and Romans, the writings of Plato, Aristotle, Confucius—some of these dating many centuries B.C.—are examples of thoughtful people wrestling with how to be good, fulfilled human beings, functioning within a healthy community. As Robert Wright notes in his book, The Moral Animal, we are social beings. Psychologically, spiritually, and physically, our survival depends on getting along with other humans to some extent. Customs or rules for how to best treat each other are evident in even the most loosely defined communities.

In case you were wondering, the terms morals and ethics have similar origins; the word “morals” is derived from the Latin word, mores, which means manners, morals, or character.  The word “ethics” comes from the Greek word, ethos, which means character, or custom.

Although there is overlap in meaning, in general, morals and morality have become more closely associated with values and matters of conscience, while ethics has come to be more linked to the professional world. For example, professions have codes of ethics, but not codes of morals. Also, academically, ethics is the study of morality, much like political science is the study of politics, or theology is the study of religion. Thus, college courses in ethics are common, but you might do a double-take if you were required to take Morals 101—or even worse, Morals for Dummies. Then again, this might not be a bad idea.

Morality is the story of what it means to be fully human, realizing all that is good and true in human potential. Moral knowledge is essential for the healthy functioning of any community.

When you study to become a professional, you learn the skills of the trade. Dentists study medicine and then learn all about teeth. Teachers study their subject area and specific skills for teaching others. (Wouldn’t it be nice if political leaders were required to learn all about effective governance?) But beyond the skills, professionals also learn the ethics of their profession. That is, what is the best, highest, most effective way to use the knowledge that defines the profession? Usually, these ethical rules are determined by the professionals themselves, and express the heart of the professional endeavor and identity. There are codes of ethics for attorneys, architects, chemists, counselors, dentists, nurses, scientists, zoologists, engineers, and many more. Some argue that without a code of ethics, a profession has not yet fully come into being.

If professionals decide to ignore or violate their particular ethics code, they run the risk of being shunned, sanctioned, or removed from their profession. And I would argue that when basic morality is ignored or violated, a human has lost an essential aspect of what it means to be human.

Ah, but here’s the rub: How do we define what’s moral? What rules, guidelines, codes, or ways of being do we collectively endorse for the good of the community, and for the good of each individual?

Well, tune in next time. I’ll offer my own Bossypants-style summaries of how some very smart people have approached those questions. And in the meantime, feel free to consider how you, your very own self, might have come to believe whatever it is YOU believe about right, wrong, fulfillment, happiness, and the best ways to get along with each other.

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“I am an example of what is possible when girls from the very beginning of their lives are loved and nurtured by people around them. I was surrounded by extraordinary women in my life who taught me about quiet strength and dignity. “        Michelle Obama