Ethical Codes: Moving beyond autonomy

Ethical theories can be divided in a number of ways, but one easy way is to separate the rule-based theories from theories that are not rule based. If you happen to be writing a code of ethics for your organization, you are going to drift toward rule-based theories because, in fact, you are writing a set of rules. These rules are important to ensure and protect the professionalism of your organization or profession. Ethical codes, made up of rules, establish a system of accountability for your members. Ethical codes are useful and often essential for professional organizations and vocational fields.

The rules in professional codes tend, whether stated or not, to focus on autonomy as begging devildefined by Immanuel Kant. His advice is generally interpreted somewhat loosely to say that we should only do to others what they have chosen to have done to them and use them only in ways that help them achieve their own ends. We should not use others only as a way to achieve our personal goals.

Based on this thinking, we would only provide people with treatment after receiving their fully informed consent, we would use people in our research only if they wanted to participate, and we would always be honest with clients and work in their best interest. Some would be a little shocked by the full implications of Kant’s views. For example, to have sex without the intent to procreate is to use both yourself and your partner as a mere means to pleasure. Lying to a murderer in order to save a child’s life would lead to you being charged with a crime in the event of the child’s death.

When it comes to integrating ethics into your professional practice, however, you may find rule-based systems too limiting and seek a theory that feels more inclusive of your entire professional life. It may help to look at two other groups of ethical theories: 1. Theories that focus on what kind of person to be. 2. Theories that focus on how to relate to others. This isn’t a neat division as these two types of theories overlap in significant ways, but it can be a useful starting point.

Virtue Ethics

Friedrich Nietzsche rejected rule-based systems of morality, which he referred to as forms of “slave-morality,” for morality aimed at character, which he called “master-morality.” He said, “It is obvious that moral value distinctions everywhere are first attributed to people and only later to actions.” For Nietzsche, it is the powerful who will see moral behavior as a by-product of being a great person while the weak will seek moral rules to protect their interests from others. Nietzsche suggests we should all strive to become great people rather than subjecting ourselves to the rules and will of others.

In a similar vein, Aristotle saw morality as a process of becoming a good person rather than following a set of rules, though he did say that things like theft, adultery and murder are always wrong, allowing for the existence of some moral rules. In general, though, a person becomes good, not by following rules, but by developing a virtuous disposition. This approach does emphasize activities, as it is through our actions that we develop our character. By choosing the actions a good person would choose, we become a good person, and by being a good person we tend to choose actions that are also good.

Relational Ethics

If you work with people on a regular basis, you may find a theory based on relationships conducive to moving beyond rule-based systems and ethical codes.

In the past, I didn’t really think of existentialism as a good foundation for a relational ethics as many existentialists focus on subjective experience, but Simone de Beauvoir’s “Ethics of Ambiguity” changed my mind. Beauvoir specifically tackles the problem of making ethical choices in an ambiguous world. Contrary to Immanuel Kant, she says it is not possible to arrive at certain rules to guide our behavior, but this does not mean we can shirk our obligation to act with concern for others.

Beauvoir says we experience life through our own experience by exercising our own freedom, but we do not experience it in isolation. If we do experience it in isolation, she says, “The saving of time and the conquest of leisure have no meaning if we are not moved by the laugh of a child at play. If we do not love life on our own account and through others, it is futile to seek to justify it in any way.” Our authentic self is expressed through free acts, but “[The individual] exists only by transcending himself, and his freedom can be achieved only through the freedom of others. He justifies his existence by a movement which, like freedom, springs from his heart but which leads outside of him.” Though our actions can’t be pinned down by a set of rules, we find meaning in life by seeking, willing, and nurturing the freedom of others in the world. In a sense, our affirmation of freedom is an exclamation of love.

Love may not seem an appropriate emotion to mention in a discussion of ethical relations with clients, but we don’t have to think of it in romantic or sexual terms. Love may be a matter of valuing others. Philosopher Martha Nussbaum argues that love is an essential feature of a liberal democracy. Some might quibble over how she defines love, but certainly it is a concern for others that drives both the ethics and political struggles of some of us. For example, she notes that we all live in a state of dependency at one time or another (childhood, old age if we are lucky to live long enough, and periods of impairment). Some of us live in states of dependency for our entire lives. Protecting the dignity of all requires us to recognize the value in others, and love for others is sufficient motivation to remove the shame and stigma of dependency. Our concern for others motivates our most basic moral impulses.

In this sense, both Beauvoir’s and Nussbaum’s views can be seen as forms of an ethics of care. If you are familiar with care ethics, though, you probably heard of it through the work of feminists such as Carol Gilligan and Nel Noddings. Care ethics was introduced as an alternative to theories seen to value men’s experiences over women’s. Feminists pointed out that women’s experiences have largely centered on care. Some will say caring is natural to women and others will say women have been forced into caring roles.

Over time, care ethics has become somewhat less gendered, meaning both men and women may recognize the value of care in their ethical lives. Noddings says our moral obligations arise between the “one-caring” and the “cared-for.” The response of the “cared-for” drive our actions. The most debilitating kind of existence, she says, is to care for someone who is unable or unwilling to respond to care. Controversially, she says, “We are not obliged to act as one-caring if there is no possibility of completion in the other.” This means are have no obligations to “the needy in the far regions of the earth.” Philosopher James Rachels objects, saying, “A more sensible approach might be to say that the ethical life includes both caring personal relationships and a benevolent concern for people generally.”

Some philosophers see narrative ethics as a logical extension of an ethics of care. Narrative ethics emphasizes the role of stories in our moral lives. Most of us grew up hearing “didactic stories” about foxes and wolves and so forth that left us to learn “the moral of the story.” This is an important feature of narrative ethics but stories need not be didactic to aid our moral reasoning or impulses. We may also learn from both fiction and true personal narratives.

Fiction can help us broaden our imagination of what life is like for others. It helps us to understand feelings and motivations outside our own experience. It gives us a way of testing different points of view and outlooks. Similarly, listening to or reading the accounts people give of their own lives gives us greater insight into their emotional lives and helps us to develop an empathetic response. Our moral obligations and intuitions look quite different when we are better able to “read” the minds and motivations of others. Those who work intimately with clients on a regular basis are immersed in their stories. In this sense, ethics is integral to the practice. I personally think it is helpful to think of ethics as being embedded in our work rather than a separate function that requires attention outside of our “real job.”

Again, autonomy plays an essential role in developing ethical codes of behavior. If we fail to respect the autonomy of others, we violate them in ways that are always wrong and often illegal. Still, other ethical approaches can expand the role of ethics in our practice and help us pursue ethics that really is beyond mere compliance.

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Calling out privilege and ignoring hidden identities

It is predictable. A woman or a gay person or a person of color tries to describe their own experience, and along comes a straight, white male to explain why their experience is all wrong and how the world really works. This egregious “mansplaining,” as it has come to be known is decried, and the perpetrator is publicly pilloried. Or something like that.

In one sense, I’m all for public shaming of people who are shameless. I like for people who are smug and self-satisfied to be provoked and put under the lens of public scrutiny. I agree that “mansplainers” need to learn to listen for change instead of lecturing constantly. HideHowever, I think a little caution is needed. No, I think we should all just stop and try to have respectful conversations. I think this for one simple reason: It is impossible to tell what a person’s experiences are without engaging them in conversation. Yes, being male gives a person some privileges. Yes, being white gives a person certain privileges. Yes, being heterosexual gives a person some privileges. The problem is that it is impossible to look at someone and even tell whether they are white, male, or heterosexual or whatever.

Yes, I suppose it is a privilege to be able to “pass” as someone with privilege, but many people find their own privilege limited or restricted by factors that may be invisible to you. Such as:

Race: You may also think of race as a biological fact, though there is no biological determinant for race, it is not always possible to tell someone’s race by looking as evidenced by an exchange between Jay Smooth and Nancy Giles of CBS Sunday Morning. Giles accused Jay Smooth of “talking black” to attract a black audience. Smooth let her know that he is “actually” black.

Atypical gender: You may have the idea that gender is a biological fact, and you may think you know what transgender men and women look like, but there is really no way to tell what someone’s biology is, much less what someone’s identity is. The person you are seeing may be a transgender man, a transgender woman, or a person who simply does not fit gender binaries. Some people say that people who grew us “as boys” were socialized to accept male privilege. If you believe that transgender girls, forced to live as boys, accept and benefit from male privilege, you should read accounts of what life is like for these children.

Sexual minorities: You may think your “gaydar” is excellent, but it isn’t really possible to identify sexual minorities by looking at them. Many victims of anti-gay attacks and bullying are not gay, and many people you assume to be straight may not be. Some married people are bisexual, and some people consider their sexuality to be fluid.

Religious minorities: We know that many Americans hate and fear anyone they suspect may be Muslim, regardless of what religion the person may actually practice, but all religious minorities are subject to scorn and harassment. More Americans say they would vote for a gay candidate than an atheist, and 40 percent of self-identified atheists and agnostics say they have experienced some from of prejudice or discrimination. As a result, many members of religious minorities live with secrets and not as their authentic selves. This doesn’t rob them of the privileges they have, but it does give them an understanding of oppression.

Sexual assault survivors: I once had a conversation with a therapist who said that women needed to speak up about their experiences of sexual abuse because we need to hear from the actual victims, not men. I was astonished that she actually believed that almost no sexual abuse victims are men. This was a few years ago, and I think there is more awareness of male survivors now (thanks to articles like this, but the prejudice against them remains. While talking to a man, it is not safe to assume he is not a survivor of sexual abuse or assault. It is further not safe to assume that his abuser, if he had one, was male. When you blithely declare that men have the privilege of not worrying about being raped, you may be speaking to a rape victim, and you should keep that in mind.

Victims of domestic abuse and violence: Male victims of domestic abuse and violence are put in an almost impossible position.  If they speak up, people will say they are big enough to defend themselves against a woman (despite the fact that not all men are stronger or bigger than their partners). If they do defend themselves, they are perceived as the attacker, and when violence occurs, it is usually men who are arrested. They may seek allies among female victims, but they are rarely welcomed or offered services that are available to women. Further, much domestic abuse is in the form of economic abuse, emotional abuse, and verbal abuse. Given that such abuse of men is comedic fodder in television and movies, it is next to impossible for men to gain support. One of the most difficult challenges for male victims is the denial of victimhood that results from perceived privilege that is not there.

Disease/Disability: To become ill or disabled is to lose a degree of autonomy. Loss of autonomy makes anyone susceptible to oppression. Disease and disability may be visible but may also be invisible. It is impossible to tell by looking who is suffering from either, and it is equally impossible to tell who is being oppressed as a result. When we are injured or ill, we are at greater risk for manipulation, emotional abuse, financial abuse, sexual abuse, and assault.

Poverty: Poverty is the great equalizer. I understand that poor men may have a different experience from poor women and that certain races experience poverty somewhat differently from other races, but poverty is oppression, and those who have experienced oppression have a shared vernacular and an expanded empathy.

I realize that certain kinds of privilege carry over into all aspects of life. For example, a white male victim of domestic abuse may have advantages over a non-white victim. I do not want to deny privilege in any setting or argue that it doesn’t exist. What I know, however, is that those who experience oppression have a common experience that can lead to better understanding. Rather than shutting someone down when he speaks, it may pay to assume that many men have experienced oppression and do, indeed, know something of its harmful effects. It also pays to remember that people you assume to be men may not be men (either by biology or identity) and that people you assume to be white may not consider themselves white.

One final note: Sometimes people say that people with hidden identities should disclose them upfront. People have a right to decide for themselves when, where, and how often they want to disclose personal information. You have no right to make assumptions about them or to demand disclosure. No one is required to speak as “a person with cancer” or “a transgender woman” or “victim of domestic abuse.” These facts about a person need not be that persons complete identity or defining feature. We are part of the same human community. Can we just acknowledge that?

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Four Ways to Grieve Unethically

My wife and I recently led a discussion on the ethics of grief with a group of psychotherapists. Wishing to challenge the claim that there is no wrong way to grieve, I asked the group to consider boundaries they would place on proper and improper grieving. For the most part, they were a cooperative group, but they were certainly reluctant to declare any way of grieving to be unethical or wrong. Sometimes our conditioning is strong. When the workshop was over, one of the participants asked me what sorts of grieving I think are unethical or inappropriate.

My answer is really simple. I think you are clearly grieving unethically if you let your personal pain compel you to hurt others. I also think you are grieving unethically if you let your personal pain compel you to hurt yourself, but I don’t think that claim is so obvious as the first one.

Some examples:

  1. Homicidal rage—I’m not saying this happens often, but someone overcome with grief Embodiment-of-revenge-by-Roneswho goes on a killing spree is acting unethically for sure. After Ivan López opened fire at Ft. Hood military base, killing three and wounding 16 others before killing himself, friends speculated that it was a reaction to grief over his mother’s death.
  2. Lying and cheating—In her book, Wild, Cheryl Strayed described the emotional turmoil she experienced in the wake of her mother’s death. In her agony, she turned to casual sexual relationships and substance abuse for comfort, tearing apart her marriage and leading her to lie to her husband and other family members. She eventually found better means of coping, of course, but she still regrets the pain and harm she caused those who loved her.
  3. Alcohol and other drugs— The philosopher, Bertrand Russell, took a fairly standard Stoic response to grief, saying it is acceptable to grieve so long as it is not to excess. He says we should distract ourselves from our grief with other pursuits, so long as they are not harmful to us. In his words: “I do not of course deny that a man may be broken by sorrow, but I do say that every man should do his utmost to escape this fate, and should seek any distraction, however trivial, provided it is not in itself harmful or degrading. Among those that I regard as harmful and degrading I include such things as drunkenness and drugs, of which the purpose is to destroy thought, at least for the time being.” Self-harm is harm, and we do have ethical obligations to care for ourselves.
  4. Demanding but not offering emotional support—Many people repeat an unsubstantiated claim that most parents who lose a child will divorce within a year of the child’s death. This claim is not substantiated by any sort of study and seems to be more intuition than anything else. Nonetheless, it is true that some people who are overcome by grief are unable to provide emotional support to others even though they are receiving and expecting emotional support from those same family members or friends. It is a special kind of cruelty to ask someone in the vice-grip of unimaginable grief to provide emotional comfort and support while being left to drown in sorrow alone and adrift. If you find yourself overwhelmed by grief and unable to provide support to the rest of your family, please help them or at least permit them to find other sources of support. If you can’t provide what they need, at least do not become an obstacle to their mental health and comfort.

Anyone who has grieved has probably felt judged for his or her style of grief. As a result, we rush to say that there is no wrong way to grieve, but this bold (and wrong) assertion prevents us from having discussions about the correct ways to grieve. When our grieving causes harm to others or ourselves, it is not merely unhealthy—it is unethical.

A conversation about ethical grieving is worth having, and we can have it without shaming those who are suffering from grief. We can improve our own grieving and our reactions to grief if we can establish an ethics of grief that seeks a path to greater collaboration, greater care, and greater health. Grief will never be easy, and it will always come with risks, but an open conversation can help us avoid its worst effects.

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How to Grieve for a Child: Al-Kindi’s Advice

While philosophers seem to thrive on conflict and would really have nothing to say at all without substantial disagreements, they are remarkably consistent on how to respond to death, dying, and loss. Most recently, I have turned to the work of Al-Kindi , who lived Al-kindifrom about 801 to 866 in Baghdad, for advice on how to respond to grief. Al-Kindi gives us the example of the mother of Alexander the Great.

As his death approached, Alexander wrote to his mother to prepare her for the loss of her child. As Al-Kindi tells it, Alexander said, “Do not be content with having the character of the petty mother of kings: order the construction of a magnificent city when you receive the news [of the death] of Alexander!” Everyone in Africa, Europe, and Asia should be invited to a great celebration of his life with one proviso, that anyone struck my similar misfortune should not come. After his death, his mother was mystified that no one obeyed and attended the funeral until someone pointed out to her that no one had ever escaped the type of misfortune she was experiencing and those with similar losses were told not to come.

Al-Kindi says Alexander’s mother exclaimed, “O, Alexander! How much your end resembles your beginning! You had wanted to console me in the perfect way for the misfortune of your death.” This story of consolation is similar to the Buddhist parable of Kisa-GotamiKisa Gotami who lost her young son and was advised by the Buddha to collect a mustard seed from every family that had not lost a close relative. Of course, she was unable to find any family that had not faced loss, so she realized her suffering was universal and took comfort in the teachings of Buddhism.

German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, himself influenced by Buddhist texts, also points us to the suffering of others for comfort: “The most effective consolation in every misfortune and every affliction is to observe others who are more Schopenhauerunfortunate than we, and everyone can do this. But what does that say for the condition of the whole?” Indeed, the suffering of others may make us feel petty for our complaints, but it does little to relieve our pessimism about life. But maybe we just cling to life too tenaciously.

Al-Kindi tells us that all our possessions are only on loan to us and that “the Lender has the right to take back what He loaned and to do so by the hand of whomever he wants.” He says we should not see our loss as a sign of disgrace; rather, “the shame and disgrace for us is to feel sad whenever the loans are taken back.” He is speaking of possessions in this instance, not of children, but I’ve heard many people say that our children are only “on loan” from God, who can call them home at any moment. I personally have never found any comfort in this, and I wonder whether anyone has ever felt the brunt of loss softened by the thought of a merciful God calling in His loans.

No matter what happens, Al-Kindi tells us we should never be sad, as sadness is not necessary and “whatever is not necessary, the rational person should neither think about nor act on, especially if it is harmful or painful.” Many philosophers echo this sentiment. We should trust that God has created the world that is perfect according to God’s design; therefore, we should accept the vicissitudes of life with equanimity. This advice is almost universally dispensed and almost universally not followed for a simple reason: sadness is really an involuntary reaction to loss and pain.

Al-Kindi tells us the death is not an evil, because if there were no death, there would be no people. By extension, if what is thought to be the greatest evil, death, is not evil, then anything thought to be less evil than death is also not evil. As such, we have no evil to fear in our lives. From these assertions, Al-Kindi claims that we bring sorrow to ourselves of our own will. A rational person would not choose such a form of self-harm, so depression and mourning can be controlled through the proper exercise of reason.

Most ancient philosophers, and many contemporary ones, will tell us that letting our rational nature rule our emotional nature will ease our pain in the face of loss. Certainly, a rational examination of death, life, and loss helps us to make sense of our suffering, but it does not eliminate suffering. In fact, if you see grief as a moral failing, which many thinkers have said it is, I believe your suffering is compounded. Grief, hard enough to bear on its own, becomes a catalyst for an explosion of guilt and shame.

While it is important to examine the causes of our suffering and explore what meaning loss brings to our lives, denying the necessity of grief is as useless as denying the necessity of breathing. While I can accept that Al-Kindi’s description of death is accurate, it only helps me come to terms with the prospect of losing my own life. For each of us, our own death brings a promise of relief, but the death of our loved ones only brings relief when they are so burdened by suffering that we can no longer bear to see life oppressing them.

Death is still an evil, because it robs me of the people that make my life meaningful. It threatens to rob me of the people, indeed, who may make my life bearable. It is possible to imagine that death is not an evil, but, more importantly, we must recognize that love is certainly a good, and to lose those we love is an excellent reason to mourn. Mourn freely, I say, without guilt and without shame.

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Why I Hate Valentine’s Day

Last year, I wrote a short essay on why I hate “Steak and BJ Day,” which is that it is built around sexist stereotypes and highlights relationships as transactions, consisting men giving gifts in exchange for red meat and sexual favors from women. Indeed, the idea of heartmanSteak and BJ Day (March 14) was to repay men for their generosity to women on Valentine’s Day. After being so kind to women with flowers, chocolate, and diamonds (or whatever), men deserved a day devoted to the kinds of things they like (ugh!).

Valentine’s Day is less crude and less obvious, but it still reinforces and exploits gender stereotypes. You might object that Valentine’s Day is a day for couples to express their love for one another equally, and I’m sure some see it that way, but men spend, and are expected to spend, far more money on Valentine’s Day than women. The implication is that men who buy lavish gifts will receive rewards of affection and sex. Satirist Andy Borowitz succinctly captured this relationship when he posted this:borowitz
I really object to the gender stereotypes that say women just want chocolate and flowers from men and will reward men with sex when they receive what they really want. I’ve heard of some mythological women who actually want sex for themselves, but men aren’t expected to hold their genitals for a ransom before providing sex.

I also have some suspicion that some men want more from women than a hot meal and a sexual favor, but women aren’t expected to show men affection and care just as a means to get in their pants.

Nonetheless, I do celebrate Valentine’s Day, and I think I always have. Perhaps I am just a victim of social programming, or maybe I’ve tried, with limited success, to create a holiday for a genuine and equal sharing of love, affection, and small gifts. I’m not sure whether it is possible to rise above the reductionistic stereotypes that infuse us from birth, but Valentine’s Day gives us a little more wiggle room than Steak and BJ Day. It is impossible to say the name of Steak and BJ Day without invoking crude masculine stereotypes. However, we can create our own Valentine’s Day, or at least pretend to, so let’s share equally, love equally, and make a better world.

Happy Valentine’s Day.

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Seeking God in Silence

Painter Fang Min has a series of paintings featuring Buddhist monks seeming happy enough despite an insect perched on or near their faces (you can see examples here and here). When I saw the exhibit in China, a small explanation accompanied the paintings. I Monks jdon’t remember it in detail, and I can’t seem to find it anywhere online, but the story was fairly straightforward. It was about a monk who left the hustle bustle of the city to see peace and tranquility in the country only to find that his meditations were still disturbed by the sounds of the country: farmers working, livestock making noises, and so on. He retreated further away, deep into the woods, but still found the sounds of nature disturbing. Eventually, he fled deep inside a cave to find absolute quiet—except for the sound of a single insect. Frustrated that he still was unable to secure tranquility, he sought out the Buddha for advice. The Buddha told him, of course, that he must seek tranquility inside himself, not demand it from the world around him.

This reminded me of my experiences with the Religious Society of Friends (or Quakers). The meetings I attended were unprogrammed, which means Friends sit in silent reflection receptive to spiritual prompting. Some people refer to this as “silent worship” or a “silent meeting.” This isn’t really accurate, as Friends are expected to speak when moved to do so. Nonetheless, some people would remark on how wonderful some meetings were when they remained especially quiet. On other occasions, some attendees would complain of being distracted by the sounds of people speaking, children, animals, neighbors mowing lawns, airplanes passing overhead, and on and on.

I always thought that if I were to sit in silent reflection, it meant that I would not make any noise, not that I wouldn’t hear any. If I understand correctly, Quakers have the idea that God is in everything and everyone. For me, listening for God is just to listen to whatever happens to be in the universe. I never took it that God could distract me from God. The work is in the contemplation I am doing, not in finding silence.

The composer John Cage said that music never stops, only listening does. To help people listen, he composed a piece that was four minutes and 33 seconds of silence. During that piece, the audience listened to ambient sounds in the environment (or even the sounds of their own bodies). Cage said that anyone can do this at any time. It just takes an aesthetic attitude. He wasn’t trying to create four and a half minutes of silence. He was trying to create four and a half minutes of attention. Some people did not like being forced into a meditative state, but some people don’t like anything.

I suppose some of this depends on what one seeks when one seeks God. Spinoza described God as being infinite and eternal. God occupies every point in space and every moment in time. What then, is not God? Everything in the universe must be God, and God must be everything in the universe. To believe anything else is to limit God’s presence and power. I think this is why Einstein said he believed in the God of Spinoza.

Everything you hear today is the voice of God. Everything you see is the presence of God. Keep your eyes and ears open, please.

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Slaying monsters: Ethics as a Matter of Opinion

I have the distinct pleasure of teaching ethics to many students who, frankly, do not believe the study of ethics is of any benefit to them or anyone else. From time to time, usually near the beginning of the semester, a student will express frustration that a required ethics class seems a colossal waste of time, as ethics is “just a matter of opinion.” People have to make up their own minds about what is right and wrong, and one opinion is as valid as another.

I challenge this as most ethics teachers challenge it: “So,” I say, “If someone were to kill someone, no one has any moral authority to challenge that person’s opinion that such behavior is perfectly moral.” Students will often then say, “Well, it depends.” I will then assert that whatever it depends on is the fulcrum of the student’s own moral theory—it is a creepcore moral value. With a little engagement, we usually get around to a fairly simple statement of what I do take to be a near universal moral value. It is okay for people to have their own moral opinions and to make their own decisions about their behavior so long as they are not hurting anyone.

Of course, we do hurt people. We execute people. We put people in jail. We take scissors away from running toddlers who would rather play with the scissors. We hurt people in many ways. Most students will agree that it is acceptable to hurt someone with some greater good in mind—or, for some students, it is acceptable to hurt someone as punishment. It hurts to give a child a vaccination, but the purpose is to protect the child and society from disease. It hurts to kill someone who has broken into your home to murder you, but killing the guilty to protect the innocent is considered a good by almost everyone, even as we acknowledge pacifism and non-violent resistance. This being the case, most students will agree that it is wrong to harm someone who is innocent, unless that harm is aimed at a greater good (e.g., I may violently knock someone to the ground to prevent her from falling thousands of feet to her death or give a child a vaccination to protect her from disease).

When we accept that it is wrong, generally, to hurt innocent people, we are left with two questions: 1. What constitutes harm? 2. What is a person? The first question seems easy until we try to answer it. When some information will be extremely painful to someone (say, some embarrassing photos and personal information of someone are posted in an office he is completely unaware of unlikely to ever know about), is it more harmful to tell the truth or to keep a secret? Is failing to prevent a harm the same, morally, as harming someone? Many moral dilemmas revolve around just such questions. Even with these difficulties, though, I don’t think the question of harm is what derails morality. Reasonable people with good intentions can have productive discussions about harm, even if they don’t always arrive at consensus on what harms are or are not justified.

It is the second question that effectively ends progress of moral conversation. We want to say everyone deserves equal protection from harm, but we don’t always agree on who “everyone” is. The founders of the United States purportedly believed “all men” are created equal. Women, slaves, other minorities, and children did not fall under the umbrella of “all men” in either policy or practice. Everyone should be treated equally under the law, but some of us have a fairly narrow view of who “everyone” is.

Some people want only to protect rational beings, which would seem to indicate adult humans, while others want to protect, seemingly, all living things. I spend perhaps too much time trying to understand how people who seem to want to be moral can justify slavery, torture, sexual abuse, or even genocide. In most cases, the people guilty of the horrendous crimes are not amoral; they simply have a morality that does not recognize the rights of their victims. By one way or another, they have come to view their victims as less than human.

Thus, police may view those suspected of crimes as being beneath them and undeserving of respect and thoroughly devoid of dignity. People may view those of other races as being subhuman or animalistic. In the same way, too many people compare sexual minorities with animal behavior or will even refer to “those people” as animals. Women are often viewed, depicted and described as animals or even inanimate objects. The poor, too, are often described as vermin or even rubbish. People often deny the worth and dignity of many classes of people. Though we all come from the same creator (your choice who the creator is: evolution, God, spirits, or whatever), some of us manage to ignore the worth of others in our community.

Religious Friends, Quakers, have the idea that we should always recognize “that of God in everyone.” Even if you don’t believe in God, this idea is a powerful way to examine what others deserve our respect. We all share the same ancestors. We all share the same emotions. None of us is perfect, and no one is without worth. Even for those who have done the worst, dictators, terrorist, and so on, we must remember that they, too, are made of the same flesh.

It is through empathy and compassion that we can better understand our enemies. I am not saying there can never be a justification for punishment or even some defensive acts of violence, but I am saying these acts must be carried out with the full recognition of our own flaws and the humanity of our enemies, opponents, and, yes, friends.

You are not perfect. Try to love another imperfect person today. And tomorrow.

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