It's Time for a National Dialogue About Ethics
Do we, as a society, care about ethics anymore? My answer is a qualified ‘no.’ Ethics has been relegated to the back of the bus and is considered today only after a wrongdoing occurs, not before as is required to have an ethical society. Being ethical means to be proactive, not reactive. Being proactive requires having a firm knowledge of what we mean by ethics and how it interacts with our daily lives.
Sexual harassment is a good case. Very few people consciously think about it. I don’t walk into a room, look at a woman, and then decide whether to harass her. I know it’s innately wrong to treat another person that way. Ethical behavior is ingrained in our character and it’s not a spigot that can be turned on and off. It’s always there and we call on it for guidance when conflicts and dilemmas arise in our lives.
It used to be our parents and religious institutions had a role to play in ethics, as did our schools and society in general. What’s happened in the past 20 years or more to change the dynamic? Lots of things but the one I deal with here is ethics is no longer taught in schools and, if it is, the teachings rely on cultural ethics, relativistic ethics, and/or situational ethics where right and wrong is determined in the way each individual (or reference group) chooses rather than based on a core set of ethical values such as honesty, caring and kindness, civility and personal responsibility.
Another problem is we no longer have role models in society as we did years ago. Ask yourself: Who do you admire? When I was growing up the answer might be my parents, a teacher, and maybe even a baseball player. Well, today all too often parents are disengaged – not wanting to be preachy to their kids. Teachers? Well, they have their hands full dealing with disruptive students and getting young people to open their minds and think, rather than play with their electronic devices. Sports figures? I don’t think so. We hear more today about drug offenses, sexual assault and other overly-aggressive behaviors that it’s tainted virtually all sports “heroes.”
So, what’s the answer? It has to start with a national dialogue about ethics. The discussion must be based on actual situations to grab the attention of young people. They deal with it every day: social media ethics, bullying and cyberbullying, unwanted sexual advances, discrimination based on race, religion, sexual orientation, and incivility. I contend that young people really are interested but don’t know how to begin the dialogue. A good starting place is to link ethical behavior to sustainability and social enterprise, two issues of importance to young adults and millennials.
Who should lead such a dialogue? This is a tough question. One thing I know for sure is it shouldn’t be anyone in government. Most of these folks have compromised their ethics at one time or another for “the greater good,” as they determine it. It shouldn’t be teachers because, ideally, they would take the lessons learned from a national dialogue and bring it into the classroom.
From time to time Congress forms a special counsel to look into an issue of national importance, such as Robert Mueller’s investigation into alleged collusion between the Russian government and President Trump’s campaign. I’m not saying appointing a special counsel in this case was a good idea. Let’s avoid a political discussion. What I am saying is if we can spend so much time and money investigating an issue with questionable legal implications, why not do the same for one with critical, ethical implications for society?
Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on January 9, 2018. Dr. Mintz is a Professor Emeritus from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. His blog was designated as one of the top 100 philosophy blogs. Visit his website to find out more about his services and sign up for his newsletter.