A philosophy professor of mine recently summed up human nature this way:
Human beings are legitimacy seeking creatures. We want to know what the right thing to do is, and we will move heaven and earth to persuade ourselves that whatever we’ve done is somehow justifiable.
This came up after a couple of hours of our class discussing the ethics of cannibalism at sea, so you can imagine we had struggled through some weighty life and death problems in a short time span. Our heads were swimming with issues and questions, and when our prof dropped the concept above you could hear in the room’s silence each person’s recognition on some level of this reality.
It’s a fascinating idea.
We all have a need to articulate our decisions in an ethical framework, but the drama creeps — or barrels — in when our frameworks are different. Slightly different, a little bit of drama. Very different? War.
That is how we are, and it is hard to deny or ignore once it gets into your mind. I find myself thinking, “Should I do this? Should I do that?” and quite often it matters not one whit to anyone but me. There can be nearly nonexistent consequences beyond myself, and yet somehow I go through the right/wrong process whether it be an enormous decision affecting others or simply a choice affecting me.
Ethical decision-making is incredibly complex if you take it seriously. The world is full of black-and-white moralists who want us all to believe along with them that the world and people in it are simple things. Just follow this law, or that rule, or what that spiritual authority is believed to have said, and everything will be fine. What evidence there is to support this idea, especially in the context of occasionally conflicting laws/rules/texts is not clear to me, but that does not stop it from being incredibly popular.
To be quite frank I’ve dropped a lot of handwringing over the years compared to how I used to be. I once heard someone say, “Guilt is a useless emotion” and I’ve never forgotten it. It changed my life. Agonizing over things I cannot undo is pointless. But attempting to resolve the decisions I have made into an ethical framework that works for me is important and ongoing in my life. Naturally this begs the question, what the heck kind of person retrofits his or her ethics to assuage a fevered conscience?
Apparently, every kind.
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