Reinventing Ethics

Professor Howard Gardner wrote a vitally important piece in the New York Times Opinionator, entitled Reinventing Ethics. He questions the adequacy of existing models of ethics based on ancient teachings in a radically changed digital environment. Our contacts, both professional and personal, are no longer restricted by physical proximity, he argues, and so how can an injunction like Love your neighbor as yourself  still be relevant in a digital age? He writes:
The problem with a belief in the immutability of morality is the same as the problem with a belief that the American Constitution contains the answers to all legal disputes.  Like the Ten Commandments (or the code of Hammurabi or the Analects of Confucius), the Constitution is a remarkable document for its time. But it's absurd to believe that the text magically contains the answers to complex modern issues:  the definition of what it means to be alive, or how the commerce clause or the right to bear arms amendment should be interpreted; or whether a corporation is a person. By the same token, while we can draw inspiration from the classical texts and teachings of neighborly morality, we cannot expect that dilemmas of professional life will be settled by recourse to these sources.
Professor Gardner's error in my opinion stems from his seeing the Bible and the American Constitution as finite sources of linear directives intended to solve our every ethical or legal problem. Both documents are far too brief and much too brilliant to attempt something so finite. Rather they are documents that provide people, humankind in the case of the Bible and Americans in the case of our Constitution, with guiding moral principles. These principles inform people's moral-compasses with the values that each culture holds sacred: The Judeo-Christian culture holds sacred the sanctity of human life, reverence for all people, dignity and empathy, all embodied on phrases like Love your neighbor as yourself. American culture holds individual freedom, the blessings of liberty, sacred. Their respective intentions are to insure that in making ethical and legal choices we do so against the backdrop of these immutable values. Clearly the word neighbor is not meant to have geographical limitations even in the time of the Bible when people traveled and traded across the world. If anything the use of the word neighbor shows a remarkable modernity in a vision of all of mankind as neighbors in a world whose size is shrinking daily as technology connects us across oceans of distance and cultural divides. There is no reason to reinvent ethics. Ethics by their nature are universal. We need to expand our understanding of our ethics and apply them to modernity with wisdom rather than dogmatism. It is the belief that ethics have changed, that allows people to sit in a meeting with one eye on their smartphones, sometimes even tapping answers while they are talking to you. This is something we would never have countenanced before. Would you, then or now, be comfortable with people reading the newspaper, a magazine, replying to their snail mail, or looking at their (or their friend's) photographs while meeting with you? Would you have tolerated a friend you met for lunch interrupting your conversation constantly to take calls or reply to mails? Treat your neighbor as you would want to be treated applies today no less than ever, and it applies to digital neighbors no less than to your next door neighbor. It applies to a phone or Skype conversation as it does when you talk to your neighbor across the fence. Treat people with dignity -- and that means giving them your full attention while you engage with them. Professor Gardner gives some potent examples of modern ethical dilemmas and of course there are countless others:
At which point should the journalist protect an anonymous source?  Should a lawyer continue to defend a client whom she believes to be lying?  Ought a medical scientist  take research support when the funds come from a convicted felon or when subjects cannot give informed consent?
These are indeed modern dilemmas, but they are not only modern dilemmas. The question of conflict between a professional's source of confidential information and his or her responsibility to a wider community is as old as professions such as teachers, spiritual counsellors, rabbis and priests. The responsibility of a lawyer to defend a client's right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty irrespective of the individual's knowledge of "the truth" is discussed at length in Talmudic passages that are nearly 2000 years old!  The same applies to worthy charities accepting financial support from villains. I don't for one moment suggest that we should solve modern dilemmas by mindlessly peering into ancient sources. These dilemmas demand the wise and creative application of old values to new situations, not the creation of new ethics. We could get onto a terribly slippery slope if we talk or think of reinventing ethics.   Professor Gardner is absolutely right when he calls on members of the professional community:
...to create common spaces in which they can reflect on ethical conundra of our era...
And when he says:
... we can draw inspiration from the classical texts and teachings of neighborly morality, we cannot expect that dilemmas of professional life will be settled by recourse to these sources.  But we need not tackle these alone.  If we can draw on wise people across the age spectrum, and enable virtual as well as face-to-face discussion,  we are most likely to arrive at an ethical landscape adequate for our time.
--------------------- "Ethics" image via http://www.un.org/en/ethics/

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