Southend Philosophy Group
Ethics and humanity – April 2013 meeting
This is a record of some of the things said at our most recent meeting. We explored whether humans are intrinsically good or evil – or whether such concepts are purely relational constructs – and how we decide what constitutes ‘correct’ behaviour. There was much discussion about how people behave in groups; particularly when those groups are inflicting great harm on others.
Views expressed aren’t held by everyone and are open to exploration! I’ve numbered each item so you can refer to it if you wish to comment.
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1. Humans behave in an ethical way in relation to one another. Therefore the concept of ‘ethical’ might change depending on with whom the person is relating. For example, is it ethical to conform to the norms/rules of the group you are a part of – therefore ensuring the continued happiness or success of the group – even if that means inflicting harm on an ‘outsider’?
2. If good equates to co-operation and mutual support, and evil means to do harm; what if we are doing harm as part of our ‘good’ obligation to support our peers?
3. If harming or killing others is evil, then there can be no ‘good’ side in any conflict.
4. Religion gives us the rules to be good. Human nature is to be bad and to act selfishly. If a person believes they are a creation of God, they have an inner voice that tells them when they are doing something right or wrong. You are rewarded when you do good, and will feel bad if you do something bad.
5. Did religion give structure to how people were already behaving – perhaps to standardise a moral code, or (more cynically) to perpetuate its desire for power and control people?
6. Ethical behaviour is a social construct and dependent on the culture we’re raised in. We are taught the rules.
7. Altruism and mutual support have evolutionary benefit; social animals are more likely to survive if they behave in accordance with group norms. Non-conformists are ostracised and may not survive alone.
8. If it’s in our nature to cooperate and be altruistic – and if there is evolutionary benefit to such behaviour – then is selfishness and psychopathic/sociopathic behaviour the result of a neurological defect?
9. People are capable of being judged as having behaved ‘evilly’ because they are responsible for, and understand the consequences of, their actions. Each individual is culpable. Animals are not culpable because they are unable to make a moral choice.
10. Milgram experiment of obedience and personal responsibility: http://www.simplypsychology.org/milgram.html
11. Singer, utilitarianism (the greatest happiness for the greatest number) animal rights, applied ethics and controversial application of logical reasoning: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peter_Singer
12. We are the same species and physiologically mostly the same as one another. Therefore it cannot follow that some humans are ‘good’ and others are ‘evil’. All have equal capacity to behave ethically or unethically. Behaviour is situational and/or determined by a number of complex factors.
13. It is the individuals that maintain an independent ethical stance – against the behaviour of the group – that inspire us and remind us of our humanity.
14. Fanny & Stella – cross dressing in Victorian England (Neil Mckenna) http://www.neilmckennawriter.com/ I believe this one came up whilst we were considering acceptance regarding sexuality. It looks like a good read!
15. People are better equipped to make an ethical/morally correct choice when they have access to a range of useful information. The more we know, the better choices we make.
16. Not everyone is capable of making their own ethical decisions. For example, a teenager may behave “unethically” – perhaps rebelling against authority, institutions and family. Is maturity, experience and learning required to help us form independent concepts of morality?
17. Through education, people learn critical thinking and practice scrutinising their beliefs. They gain access to new and diverse information that may give rise to new ideas and perceptions and equip them to behave independently of others.
18. What prompts us to harm others? Does there need to be a real threat – or does the perception of a threat suffice? Eg racial or religious prejudice and hate crime – the harmed person/group is perceived as a threat to established cultural norms. It would seem that the ideology is the threat – not the people themselves. Can we separate the two? How do we find ways for different cultures to live harmoniously? Where does this happen successfully?
19. Is it useful for societies to perpetuate myths about ‘threatening’ cultures? eg in order to justify large defence budgets and commitments to wars? Perhaps it doesn’t pay to get to know the enemy – and to discover that they are not so dissimilar, and possibly even likeable!
20. Could the Holocaust happen in the contemporary world – given how well connected we are globally; and how readily available alternative sources of information are? Is it more likely to happen in a ‘closed’ society – where those in power have more control over the information their citizens receive and therefore more influence over belief and behaviour?
21. How does ethical behaviour change in the different strata of a hierarchical, or class system, society? Do different levels have different ‘codes’ – and does moral behaviour cross boundaries? Ie do people behave in the same ethical way towards people outside their group as to those within? When there are revolutions, does the ‘underclass’ behave more compassionately to all when in power?
22. “It’s not who I am underneath, but what I do that defines me” – Batman. Being philosophical.
23. It’s unnatural for us to live amongst so many other people, and the expansion to living in large urban settings is relatively recent – during/following the industrial revolution. Are we still adapting? Is the urge to fight to maintain resources for our “tribe” still a fundamental part of society? Dunbar’s number, groups and tribes: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dunbar’s_number
24. Ideologies come and go in waves. They rise in popularity, but eventually collapse. Ethical dissenters are often responsible for triggering the collapse. Just as people will follow authority, people will also follow those deemed courageous and ‘right’. (How do we know that someone is showing courage and/or ‘doing the right thing’)?
25. Dominance via fear and oppression can only control people for so long. It isn’t a sustainable way to wield power or lead a nation.
26. Can good only ever exist in relation to evil?
27. We can only act for ourselves and make our own ethical, responsible, choices. We cannot speak or act for our society or nation.
28. Meditation helps to produce non-violence and tempers judgements that may lead to the harm of others. Being comfortable with yourself helps in being comfortable with others.
29. Is morality the preserve of the ‘civilised’ world? Ie can we only think about it, and alter it, because we have the luxury of time and space to think about our behaviour? (ie survival is unlikely to be an everyday concern.)
30. Philosophy is essential – it helps us to become aware of, and remove, the ‘wool over our eyes’.
What do you think..?