Why your ethics have nothing to do with the truth


Your parents raised you right.  Maybe you went to church or a mosque.  Maybe you didn’t.  But you consider yourself a pretty decent and ethical person.  At some point on your journey, you developed a set of morals and ethics and have more or less lived by them since, right?  Wrong.  

The greatest strength of humans is actually the amazing adaptability to our environment we get from that extra big brain we have.  Broken down to the most basic level, we do what works in order to survive and thrive in our context.  If you grow up in Russia, you’re likely to speak Russian rather than trying to speak Swahili.   If you’ve grown up in Poland, you’re much more likely to be Catholic rather than say a Hindu.  If you grow up punching others, you’ll discover pretty quickly that your behaviour gets you into trouble (unless you take up boxing of course!) – so you either stop doing it, become a boxer, or you end up in jail.  

If you think about it, morality and ethics are just kind of a way of codifying rules of thumb about what our society accepts or rejects as ok behaviour.  This would have begun as simple rules designed to keep everyone in the tribe safe – rules like ‘don’t stray far from the fire after night falls’.  But over time, our rules have evolved along with us.  The recent decision of Australians to finally recognise same sex marriage is a case in point.   It’s a fascinating example because you can actually see the majority view switch its opinion to the polar opposite over just a few years.

Source: Overland.org.au

Did those Australians opposing same sex marriage back in 2001 consider themselves to be unethical?  Highly doubtful.  Was there a sudden decision by all Australians to abandon their ethics around 2004?  Also kind of unlikely.  More likely is that a sustained effort to change attitudes paid off.  

We tend to conflate ethics and truth.  We think that our own ethical framework is somehow more true than someone else’s – and that’s a dangerous place to land.  It leads to extremist ideas; ideas that give one group of people an excuse for persecuting another.  

“This is a slippery slope!” I hear you yell.  “You are saying that all views have equal validity!”  It means that every thief or liar is just as right as Mother Teresa!  Woah, calm down!  I don’t mean that at all.  Stealing is unacceptable not because God is against them, or because I’m right and those who steal are wrong.  They are unacceptable because the majority of us agree that they hurt someone – and most people can agree that hurting people is not good for us both as individuals and as a society.  We don’t actually need some kind of divine truth to be on our side to make ethical choices.  We just need effective systems for aggregating our different perspectives on what works best for the greatest number of people.  Then the power of the majority – usually called the long arm of the law – determines the rest.

For better or worse, countries have decided (with a few notable exemptions) that the majority of people in a country get to decide on laws.  What are laws? The embodiment of our values, norms and morals.  Oddly, this gives politicians, lawyers and judges the strange status of being like the Priests of the modern age – enforcing and sometimes adapting our most formal code of ethics.  We should be exalting them for helping us evolve!  Didn’t see that coming, did ya.  The only thing that makes the whole process ok is that our systems of government require both lawmakers and law interpreters to actually listen to the will of the majority.  

I would also argue that more highly-evolved societies also get the majority to consider the wellbeing of the minority as well.  Unfortunately, we can think of many societies where that’s still not the case.  Take a moment to sympathise for the plight of the many minorities around the world that are still routinely persecuted by major rule.   

So the next time you find yourself thinking “that is just so objectively wrong”, please catch yourself.  A minor tweak can convert that thought to “I disagree”. There is no such thing as moral truth.  There is only agreement and disagreement.  We must work harder to understand why others may disagree with us, then explore solutions whereby all people can thrive.

Steve runs a consultancy called Anticipate.co.nz, dedicated to helping people find a path to their favourite future.

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