From Morals to Ethics: Surviving the Current Backlash

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The Huffington Post today raised an interesting question about ethics, asking whether white supremacists should be able to practice law, or whether the profession should eliminate people “who aren’t morally fit”. I suggest that the problem is a deeper one, one that lies in the fine distinction between morals and ethics. We should have transcended moral-based judgments. Since the rise of the governance wave pretty much every professional organisation comes with a code of ethics. However, recently, a backlash emerged that put financial optimisation back on top of the agenda, along with moral-based evaluation.

(Image: Hydra. Thomas Gehrke. CC-2.0 BY-NC-ND)

Moral-based Societies

Morals distinguish between good and bad, or good and evil. If you do good, then you are good. If you do bad, then you are an evil person. There is no difference in judgment between the doer and the action. This strategy easily leads to conflicts. What about a person who formerly did bad, and now does good? We’ve seen numerous sexual predators claim that “that’s not who I am”. Apparently, judging from what they have been doing lately, they see their past as gone. They claim to be good persons now, and deduct that their current behaviour should be considered when judging them. Statutes of limitation suggest outside views to be different. It is just as easy to say, “once a bad person, always a bad person”, and put up long periods of limitation, or even define that some wrongdoings never expire. Ironically, the desire for punishment equally arises from moral assumptions, from the perspective of the victim (or victim families). Families and tribes are closely related to moral thinking: moral standards evolved to regulate positions and cooperation within tribes and their modern counterparts: families. Parents even today sometimes use moral thinking to point out child lapses to their adult children, to maintain a position of authority. Judgment, in a moral-based society, is always a question of authority over people, or in-group and out-group relationships.

People who operate on morals assume if you make the top of the social hierarchy, then you automatically must be considered a good person, because good is at the top, and at the bottom is bad. Once you are elected as a president, no matter how evil your tactics were, you are cleansed and your evil past is purged. This behaviour is implicitly ratified by the fact that you can now exert power over those at the bottom of the hierarchy, i.e., over the bad. And because they are bad, you feel entitled to take away more and more of their privileges, like health insurance, access to resources, and at the same time not feel guilty. The social currency of a moral-based society is guilt. Therefore, in many organisations (and in society), people will cover up their mistakes instead of making them public, so that an organisation may react appropriately. Guilt-driven environments operate on fear. Finding actions in the past that can discredit people in the present are the most lethal weapons in moral-based societies: they enable to force people out of the upper parts of the hierarchy and catapult them to the lower end. To maintain power, people at the top implement strategies to avoid moral judgment. The Roman Emperors and Egyptian Pharaohs claimed religious authority as heads of state. A similar approach has been made by states such as Iran or Saudi Arabia that misuse Islam as a doctrine of power. Trump lowered the standards he is held against to ground zero before becoming elected. Apparently, this approach also waters down attempts to deny his “transition to good” by inauguration.

Regarding education, people of rich persons, at the top of the social hierarchy, are supposed to perform good, and people at the bottom of the hierarchy are supposed to perform bad. Therefore, moral-based regulation of the education system will attempt to produce circumstances that promote this self-serving bias of the rich: good education is available only for a lot of money, and access to universities and schools of high reputation is limited for poor people. Science itself speaks a different language, but if the scientific elite is framed, for example, by an expensive “ivy league”, it is trapped in moral bondage.

The Long Struggle Towards Ethics Based Societies

For 2500 years humanity attempted to transcend towards an approach that considers all people as equals, and judges actions in their context on whether they are ethically right or wrong, or suitable and unsuitable. This advancement in thinking is at the roots of Buddhism and Christianity. Unfortunately, Roman Emperor Constantine defined moral hierarchy back into Christian thinking, to gain normativity as head of state. The Christian codex never got rid of the Old Testament, that was supposed to be surpassed by the Gospels. Buddhism somewhat fell into the same trap as it became practised as a religion. In a similar way, ethical governance suffers when trapped by financial dominance and political power. The glue that drives an ethics based society is empathy, particularly compassion. Compassion counteracts the guilt that arises from violation of moral standards and opens the path towards rational exploration of situation and context. Its values are transparency, freedom from slavery, autocratic rule, or doctrine, education and personal development as a self-purpose, as opposed to the doctrine of financial or tribal utility. These societies tend to value and appreciate arts, philosophy, and the social sciences over religion. The decline of these departments in our educational system serves as an early indicator of moral-based backlashes.

Ethics based thinking develops along with scientific thinking, emancipating from the mythical world of good and evil beings by moral standards towards utility and appropriateness of attempts and measures: solutions are either right or wrong in each context, evaluated by logic or empiric percentages, but possess no inborn goodness or evilness. Their application is either skilful or unskilful, based on the proficiency of the acting person. In this kind of thinking, everybody can possibly do the same job, given the proper amount of practice and education. Kohlberg tries to frame ethical principles as a form of postconventional morality, in an evolutionary model of morality that has also been advocated by Jean Piaget. To understand this approach, one must emphasize that ethics and morality, here, are not two ends of a spectrum, but one is constructed on top of the other, the result of an evolution in thinking.

The Turbulent Threshold Between Morals and Ethics

Once ethics have been firmly established in thinking, individuals have this approach in their toolbox, and likely only revert to prior principles when the context requires or tempts them to do so. One frequently employed means to uphold obsolete moral principles in ethics based societies is to value religious freedom over social contracts and ethical principles. I consider the exaggerated approach at religious freedom one of the core problems in the U.S. constitution. The right to free speech also guarantees the advertisement of moral-based thinking as opposed to ethics based approaches. This becomes a problem if the advertisement is malevolent, i.e., people are only recruited into these principles so that other people can retain control and power. The problem becomes serious, if more than 50% of voting people within a majority based society can temporarily be recruited into moral-based thinking. This systemic flaw of majority based systems has been pointed out by Socrates 2500 years ago.

The main fuel for waves of backlash is bad education. The same regulation that wants to keep good education for the good at the top of the social hierarchy, also keeps a society from advancing towards an ethical majority. Some voters rooted in ethics may swing out of protest, but in the long run will stick to ethics based approaches, unless they are bribed back into moral thinking by personal success. In our interest based meritocracies, older people tend to revert to moral-based thinking (compare Confucianism, where elder people are to be cherished according to moral standards). The same trap of regression is promoted by leadership hierarchies.

Dependent on whether social elites in-group or out-group intellectuals, even the natural sciences may be subject to discrimination in moral-based backlashes, as currently happens in the U.S. In Europe, in contrast, intellectuals have become part of the conservative forces. The high number of academics in education in the German parliament has often been ridiculed, on the other hand it served as a reasonable agent to uphold ethical principles, balancing the hierarchical struggles that tend to arise in executive departments. Law practitioners, on the other hand, appear to naturally drift towards the executive and judicative branches. As most dangerous step in a moral-based backlash, the executive claims authority over judiciary and legislative forces, as can currently be witnessed in Turkey, within the E.U. to some degree in Hungary, Poland, and the nomination system for judges in the U.S.

Transcending Hierarchies

Socrates has often been accused for always asking questions instead of giving answers, questioning anybody and anything. Asking questions to avoid the normative crystallisation of one point of view may be one of the most important strategies of all times. A second means is to widen the context, so that whatever meaning prevails is no longer able to cover all the widened context, but calls for an alternative. If people suggest punishing others for retaliation, it is good practice to widen the context and ask whether that retaliation will avoid this behaviour in the future. Many measures of punishment achieve the opposite. A good sign is the presence of sincere regret, that signals empathy and compassion towards the victims, as opposed to denial along with a claim to be good now.

Executive forces consider it their duty to maintain power. Following the critical philosophers of the Enlightenment, the main job of the ethical society is to be the annoying factor that keeps moral-based thinking from usurping normative power, by civil courage, questioning beliefs and factual statements, questioning authority, and keeping the mutual exchange at life. The main purpose of this exchange is to avoid that one party gains absolute control over another, and enough ideas or parties are within the game to avoid absolute majorities. In that setting, no one party rules over the other, but consensus must be achieved about topics and contexts, not by birth or affiliation. Minority governments, in this view, are suitable solutions.

One definite sign for being on a moral-based backlash are sanctions against being the pain-in-the-ass to people who claim authority: the sanctioning of assembly and demonstrations, restriction and withdrawal of public spaces, accusing people of disruptive behaviour, and trying to turn nations into corporations. Corporations are not democracies. In most cases, they are bound by law to have one legal representative, as much of law still operates on traditioned, moral-based principles. If companies were democracies, the executive would neither make the rules of the organisation, nor rule over their compliance. There would be an absence of command-and-control, and an absence of divide-et-impera. In many organisations, hierarchical structures are ingrained in organisational thinking and management still rules by decree. Alternatives to this approach are the coaching organisation or holacracy, replacing formal hierarchy structure of wholes. Hierarchies still exist, but they form organically and situationally, they emerge and reintegrate, instead of being formally defined by decree. Meetings revolve around exchanging perspectives and finding approaches instead of negotiating pecking orders. In decisions, relevant input is gathered from all parties, instead of striving for compromise, consensus, or even consent.

Overcoming Human Biases

The main instrument to achieve this transition are defaults. The defaults of the system must point towards ethical values, instead of moral ones. Freedom, autonomy, transparency, self-organisation, and equivalency of people. Moral-based thinking has been in our history, and all human beings go through a period of moral-based thinking in their childhood, the time where myths and fairy tales are important to make sense of the world. We must appreciate, that moral-based thinking is part of our history, not something to deny. We must also appreciate the limits of moral-based approaches and the importance of the transition towards ethics based societies, the fuel for all Enlightenment. In many cases, human societies still default towards moral-based, hierarchical principles. Capitalism, with its built-in interest rates, defaults towards fostering social hierarchies. This fact has been addressed by Karl Marx as “the despotism of capital”.

Conservative forces have since attempted to demonise this critique. Societies that build around capitalism can only survive on the long term, if they organically manage to keep the gap between the rich and the poor at a reasonable level, for example, by regulation towards a social market economy. Libertarian forces, however, by their propagation of the illusion of self-regulating markets in the 1990s, ignored the underlying self-sustenance of accumulated capital. This constant call for de-regulation as the new normal fuelled the current backlash of the moral rich. Deregulation is good, if it avoids rule of one party over the other, in the greater context. Misusing the same principle of deregulation to abolish measures that counteract capital interest is an attempt to subvert democratic society by malicious, Sophist reinterpretation of its core principles.

One human alone cannot steer the drift of society, unless given hierarchical authority to do so. But even this authority is limited, and banning ideas by burning books luckily has become ever more difficult. Systemically, we need small interventions that break moral patterns and target the soft spots of society, where individuals can be efficient: create small bubbles, temples for ethics, that operate away from formal authority. Considering the extent of the current moral backlash, we need to cherish these small places and opportunities in our private and professional life. And we need to uphold the ethics that were defined as professional standards over the diktat of formal authority. In an ethical society, white supremacists, who solely rely on their narrow, ethnicity-based morals, apparently, should be limited in executing authority. An attitude of white supremacy does not comply to ethical standards, for example, as set by the American Psychological Association (APA) or British Psychological Society (BPS). However, browsing law associations in the U.S. and searching for “ethics” paints a different picture. Ethics, in law, appears to have been reframed into the discipline, for example, into an Ethics in Public Service Act, on whose violation boards rule. Apparently, regarding ethics, the legal disciplines still wave room to emancipate from moral doctrine.

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