Every now and then a comment on Ethics Alarms that I have not answered personally sticks in my brain like a musical earworm, literally keeping me awake at night. This was one of those times. That proclivity is one reason I have made over 50,000 comments on my own blog among the 300,000 here in the decade Ethics Alarms has been in existence. The vast majority of bloggers don’t do that; most don’t comment at all. I do it because, in addition to the biological need for sleep, I designed this forum to be a colloquy and an ongoing ethics seminar as much as a platform for my own analysis.
This time, the comment that stuck in my brain like “Thank-You Girl,” the Beatles’ all-time earworm, began,
“How is rewarding unethical behavior ethical?”
The comment came as a response to yesterday’s post explaining why it would be best for all concerned if President Trump would stop claiming that the election was “stolen” or “rigged” (though it was both) and concede with graciousness and honor now that the chances of his prevailing in the Electoral College are vanishingly small.
I could answer that question in two sentences, or with a book. I will try mightily to come much closer to the former than the latter.
Perhaps this whole blog, all 12,125 posts (including this one), can be seen as an attempt to answer that question, which translates as “Why be ethical when everyone else isn’t? How can there be ethics in an unethical world? Why should anyone adhere to basic ethical principles if it means that the bad guys win?”
Another translation, you know, would be “No justice, no peace.”
This isn’t a justice blog or a punishment whatever those would be. It’s an ethics blog. Ethics embraces the principle of The Golden Rule,” which in Christian theology is usually stated, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” This is known the ethical system of Reciprocity, which does not hold that we should “do unto others as they did unto us,” or any of the other “Golden Rule Mutations” I list in Rationalization #59 on the rationalizations list, among them,
- Do unto others as you know others would do unto you.
- Do unto others what they did unto you.
- Do unto others as you wish others would do unto you even though you wouldn’t deserve it.
- Do unto others as those others treat others.
- Do unto others as they threatened to do unto you.
- Do unto others as others who think like you do would also do to those others.
- Do unto others according to how you feel about what they did unto you.
- Do unto others before they do it unto you.
- Do unto me as you would want to have done unto you if you were as devoid of civilized values as I am.…
- Do unto others as if the others felt like I do, even though they may not.”
In fact, a lot of the rationalizations–lies we tell ourselves to make unethical conduct seem right—on the list support the reasoning behind “How is rewarding unethical behavior ethical?” Let’s see…a rough list would include,
2 A. Sicilian Ethics, or “They had it coming”
7. The “Tit for Tat” Excuse
11. (a) “I deserve this!” or “Just this once!”
13. The Saint’s Excuse: “It’s for a good cause”
14. Self-validating Virtue
17. Ethical Vigilantism
23 A. Woody’s Excuse: “The heart wants what the heart wants”
#24. Juror 3’s Stand (“It’s My Right!”)
25A. Frederick’s Compulsion or “It’s My Duty!”
26. “The Favorite Child” Excuse
28. The Revolutionary’s Excuse: “These are not ordinary times.”
31. The Troublesome Luxury: “Ethics is a luxury we can’t afford right now”
32. The Unethical Role Model: “He/She would have done the same thing”
58. The Golden Rule Mutation, or “I’m all right with it!”
59. The Ironic Rationalization, or “It’s The Right Thing To Do”
63. Yoo’s Rationalization or “It isn’t what it is”
69. John Lyly’s Rationalization, Or “All’s fair in love and war“
As has been common this year, #63, Yoo’s Rationalization, my be the most relevant. What the rhetorical question advocates is revenge and retribution. Revenge is not ethical. Christianity adopted the “turn the other cheek” exhortation in rejection of the Old Testament’s “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” formula as primitive and brutal. Of course, the latter formula can work in single instances and in the short term, but it is an endorsement of the anti-ethical concept of “the ends justifies the means,” or, as a famous quote goes, “An eye-for-eye and tooth-for-tooth would lead to a world of the blind and toothless.”
There are other aspects of the question that undermine the purpose of this blog, prime among them being the fact that most people have no idea how to determine what is ethical and what isn’t, and tend to designate conduct that they find emotionally repugnant, contrary to their own interests. or just don’t like “unethical.” They also are hostage to confirmation bias and wilful ignorance. For example, over 70% of Democrats apparently believe that President Trump “stole” the 2016 election by colluding with the Russians. They believe it because they want to, and because “He’s the kind of person who would do that,” as a famous exile from this blog would regularly assert as his justification for the persecution of the President on this issue. The imaginary collusion, in their view, justified removing Trump “by any means necessary,” which is what “justifies” stealing back the Presidency now, and besides, is it really stealing to take back what you shouldn’t have lost in the first place?
Arrgh, this is getting long; I knew this would happen. And I haven’t scratched the surface. I have explained why I believe that the election has been stolen, but that’s my opinion, and opinion isn’t fact. Enacting vengeance because of subjective conclusions that it has been earned is irresponsible and breaches the Rule of Universality: if everybody did it, the result would be anarchy and chaos. Politics itself is an unethical or anti-ethical culture by nature. Laws are supposed to provide the uncrossable line, but laws are drafted by fallible humans and are poor substitutes for ethics. Both political parties and their supporters can credibly point to past unethical conduct by the other side to justify (aka rationalize) their own ethics breaches, and do so regularly. The so-called cancel culture and Black Lives Matter justify their actions using the logic underlying “How is rewarding unethical behavior ethical?” So do terrorists and rioters. So does the biased, activist news media.
So now, after over a thousand words, this post comes down to the short answer.
Creating a more ethical culture and encouraging people to employ more competent and rational ethical analysis in pursuit of a better world demands that we reject revenge as a means of social control, and encourage ethical behavior by 1) engaging in it ourselves in defiance of the unethical conduct of others, and 2) using established structures and institutions to enforce healthy ethical norms.
This means that the bad guys will win sometimes, indeed a lot of the time, an infuriatingly amount of the time, but the alternative is having no good guys at all.