Ego and other possibilities

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The term “ego” is an ancient one, with Latin roots. It simply means “I” or “Self.” Its first known use in English was in the late 1700s. Psychologists love to argue about whether there actually is an “I” in the sense of predictable personality traits, or whether at any given time, our behaviors and moods are the result of ingesting food, drugs, and alcohol, exercise, responding to the expectations of others, the amount of sunlight in a given day, how much love we’ve soaked in, the amount of sleep we’ve managed to get, and maybe the cosmic forces at work on us.

Of course, a related meaning of ego has to do with our personal valuation of this “I” that may or may not define us. Sometimes, we are more certain of ourselves, our internal integrity, our worth, and our motivations than other times. And of course, for reasons still being debated, some of us vastly, vastly, vastly over-estimate our worth to the world and believe we are entitled to unlimited resources and praise. Why are some people far too humble and others sickeningly prideful?

Though Dr. Bossypants is not Buddhist, she believes Buddhists possess significant wisdom. As she understands it, the Buddhists believe that this “ego” or sense of separate individuality gets in our way of recognizing how artificial the boundaries between apparent “individuals” are. If we had less attachment to ego, we could more clearly see the unity, the connection, the oneness of all the pieces and parts of ourselves and our fellow beings, our earth, our galaxy, and even the time-space continuum.

It is indeed jarring to consider ourselves as one with all living beings, because this would include our current leadership, those aspiring to leadership, our alcoholic uncle, and even terrorists who blow themselves and others to smithereens. Most of us consider it creepy or stupid to seek even a tiny corner of common ground with these fellow human beings who act so abhorrently.

At this juncture, Dr. Bossypants must confess she is about to make claims that can’t be fully substantiated. But as far as it can be studied, it does not appear that the infliction of pain, hatred, deprivation, or even death is effective in changing human behavior for the better. Oh yes, we can change human behavior with such actions, but the change is, at best, temporary compliance, with enhanced motivation for later revenge.

It requires intelligence, tenacity, self-control, creativity, and great strength of character to find common ground with people we refer to as evil. These same attributes, plus wisely-used resources, are necessary to contain, reroute, and/or defeat the spread of destructive behavior. Research suggests that violence begets violence. Dr. Bossypants readily admits that this totally sucks because revenge feels good whereas the application of containment and compassion are tedious, slow, and even dangerous (in the short run).

But the real, long-term dangers are far worse: Ever-deadlier weapons, shriveled empathy, us/them dehumanizing rationalizations, bigger prisons, less education, hungry, abused, or unwanted children, and the increasingly shrill declarations of US FIRST. It just doesn’t work that way, dear readers. The ways we treat each other—including every single “other”—are the building blocks of the future. Just as violence will engender more violence, ultimately, kindness will bring forth more kindness. Humans appear to be uniquely able to make corrective choices. Dr. Bossypants is rooting for us all. With courage, we can choose some better paths.

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.

Ethics of Care

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Dr. Bossypants wrote much of this blog some years ago. Clearly, it has not changed the course of history yet. But onward, dear readers. Ever onward. Western ethical theories have been said to be driven by concern for individual rights, rather than informed by the intricacies of human relationships. Originally dubbed “feminist ethics,” the addition of a relationally-oriented moral viewpoint was ushered into Western view primarily by the work of Carol Gilligan. Gilligan worked with Lawrence Kohlberg, famous for his hypothesized six stages of moral development. Subjects in Kohlberg’s research had most often been boys.

In early studies that included girls, Kohlberg and associates found that girls were scoring statistically lower than boys in terms of moral development on their measures. This intrigued Carol Gilligan, and thus her groundbreaking research began. She and her research team conducted interviews with young women to better understand the moral substance of their reasoning and choices. She reported this research in her bestselling book, In a different voice.  Although her work opened new avenues in ethical reasoning and research, ironically, the original assumption of a difference between boys and girls, like many such assumptions, turned out to be false! Males and females attend to justice concerns at roughly equal levels in most research projects. Further, more current research shows that all adults make moral choices inconsistently, depending on the dilemma, and each person’s social and personal goals in that moment.

Care ethics argues that moral decision-making should directly include concern for others and their well-being. Emotions of love, compassion, and empathy motivate us toward the care of others, thereby enhancing the relationships around us, and Dr. Bossypants would argue, the general condition of humankind. Those who advocate care ethics draw sharp distinctions between care reasoning and the approach reflected in Kohlberg’s work, called justice reasoning.  Propensities toward one or the other orientation were initially purported to fall along gender lines, but in fact, males can be morally guided by concern for relationships and the welfare of others, and females by concepts of justice.

Joan Tronto  wrote, “Care itself is not gendered.  Care is a species activity that includes everything we do to maintain, continue, and repair our world, so that we can live in it as well as possible.”

Care ethics place relationship in the center of the moral vision. Ecofeminist theorist, Karen Warren, stated:

If we dare to care, if we dare to enter into community with others through an honest recognition of our commonalities and differences, we will be poised to create generally respectful, nonviolent, care-based, intentional communities where commonalities and differences are just that . . . Such intentional communities are a creative alternative to violence-prone communities where order is imposed from outside through unjustified domination.

Western philosophical orientations are generally far more individualistic than Asian, African, and American Indian orientations.  Dr. Bossypants is worried that Western dominant culture is continuing on paths toward greater individualism, isolation, and commodified, single-purpose relationships, rather than communally-oriented and traditional, complex relationships.  Writer Jeremy Rifkin reflects on the moral power of traditional communities:

Membership in traditional communities also brings with it restraints on personal action.  Obligations to others take precedence over personal whims, and security flows from being embedded in a larger social organism. Commodified relationships, on the other hand, are instrumental in nature.  The only glue that holds them together is the transaction price.

Care ethics offers a moral alternative to an over-emphasis on individual notions of fairness and justice. It is centered both on immediate relationships and on the tapestry of relationships that extends to people of other races, creeds, and nations–and further, to all living things.

To understand how the tension between responsibilities and rights sustains the dialectic of human development is to see the integrity of two disparate modes of experience that are in the end connected.

While an ethic of justice proceeds from the premise of equality—that everyone should be treated the same, an ethic of care rests on the premise of nonviolence—that no one’s rights should be trampled, no one should be hurt. In the morally mature adult, both perspectives converge in the realization that just as inequality adversely affects both parties in an unequal relationship, acts of violence harm everyone involved. Mercy and justice are not mutually exclusive, people. We can do this. We can.

 

The Feminist Critique

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As faithful readers of Dr. Bossypant’s blogs, you may not realize how much restraint she has used writing about the moral/ethical information she has posted thus far. Regardless of the disparate views on ethics and morality summarized to this point, most originally shared a glaring omission. With the exception of the writings of John Stuart Mill, females were ignored, maligned, or “feminine virtue” was defined as women performing well in assigned positions of less influence and authority than their male counterparts. Aristotle believed that females were defective males, and punishment for doing badly as a man might be to come back as a female next time.

Taking his cue from Aristotle, St. Thomas of Aquinas wrote that in women, “reason flourishes very little because of the imperfect nature of their body.”  Freud believed that women lacked superego development, and were therefore morally inferior. Oh, sadly, there’s no shortage of such examples from religious and philosophical writings. For thousands of years with few exceptions, it has been morally permissible, or morally encouraged, to view and treat women as second-class, adjunct, inferior, and/or subjugated to men. As they say these days, Oh.My.God. What a load of hierarchical, wrong-headed bunk.

The truth is, since humans have been scratching ideas out on cave walls, women have been writing moral philosophy and psychology, often from a starting point very different from their male colleagues. But unless you take a course in the history of feminist ethics, the brilliant voices of these philosophers: Sappho, Hypatia, Hildegard, Heloise, Wollstonecraft, Harriet Taylor Mill, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman (to name but a few) are likely unfamiliar to you.

Of course, the current versions of the main ethical positions we’ve gone over in previous blogs have become, at least on the surface, gender-neutral. All humans are supposedly included. Further, feminist theorists and ethicists increasingly have a voice in the critique and evolution of moral philosophy.  And arising from Carol Gilligan’s pioneering research and thinking, feminists have added yet another lens through which we can explore and pursue moral lives. We’ll cover that one in the next blog, but for now, let’s consider…

The Feminist Critique

Over thirteen years ago, Harriet Woods wrote:

It is true that we still are far from fully represented in decision-making bodies and that politics remain a male game; but that’s no excuse for failing to use the power we have to make this a more livable world.

Dr. Bossypants is very disappointed to report that we still have a great deal of work to do to make this a more livable world.

In a word, the feminist critique of most traditional theories of morality is power.  Margaret Urban Walker wrote, “The most obvious way feminist ethics and politics connect morality and power is in examining the morality of specific distributions and exercises of power.”

The moral use of power is a complicated endeavor. This may come as a shock to you, but we don’t tend to select leaders based on their overall moral fiber. In an ideal world, those entrusted with power would be the more virtuous among us, and thereby freer from corruption, bias, and self-serving practices. The reality with which most of us are familiar is quite the opposite. The more power someone has to influence others and the social order, the more susceptible they become to misuse of the power.

Access to shared power is a global moral issue. In Beijing, at the UN Conference for women in 1995, Madeleine Albright stated, “Enter any community in any country, and you will find women insisting—often at great risk—on their right to an equal voice and equal access to the levers of power.” Still true. Still tragically costly. Holy ****, so very, very costly. Ok. Calm down, Dr. Bossypants. Social change take a very long time, requiring enormous sacrifice, enduring many regressions and backlashes….

So, dear reader, what is your experience with and attitude toward power? Have you seen individuals wield power in mostly positive ways or mostly negative ways? The need for power (or recognition or achievement) is a natural human need. Is it possible that racism, sexism, and all the other “isms” originate in the fear of loss of power? What is it like for you when you have power over others? What do you think is necessary so that power does not have a corrupting effect on people?

At this point in our “his” story, the earth is screaming for some answers and some new ways of being. We owe it to our species to get this figured out a bit better.