Monday, November 09, 2009

From Whom To Learn Ethics?

I said below that I do not look to journalists for ethical lessons. This is not a specific swipe against that profession - even though I do think that journalists, especially in the post-CNN era, have overreached in terms of their claims of knowledge and moral authority. "Ethics" is the applied field of knowing the correct thing to do. In olden days, this was considered the domain of the societal elite - clergy, nobility and the elderly. Emancipation, enlightenment, democracy etc have taken that authority away and transferred it to everybody. But instead of being a meritocracy of access - saying that anybody can be a 'sage' if they met certain universalized criteria - the democratic principle has been exaggerated, so now in 21st Century America, every individual considers him/herself to be the ultimate moral authority.

This democratization of ethics has certain pluses; it may even be an inevitable result of opening access. Moreover, in a anti-clerical, anti-noble age, moral authority doesn't go to the educated or saintly but often to the rich, popular or famous. Yet it is this democratization that makes the title question necessary.

The empirical question 'Who do people turn to for ethics?' while interesting, doesn't answer my prescriptive question of 'who *should* you turn to.' Above, I ruled out journalists as a class (more to why in a moment), but a natural next answer would be professional ethicists.

Ethics as a Profession

Theoretically, that is a field I could go into. But I hope I won't; because it's my experience that the people who go into the field are often clueless, hopeless, and/or unfit for other duties. Note, there are a number of professions like this and it changes through time (e.g. I believe that for decades in the early 20th Century, the men who became Orthodox pulpit rabbis, were just unfit for anything else). I have had scary encounters with these pros... so, no, professional ethicists are not the target.

Note, for example on both categories, probably the worst person to ask ethical questions is a professional ethicist journalist. Best proof: Randy "The NYTimes Ethicist" Cohen. Why is this guy considered an authority on anything? He's a freakin' comedy writer!! (Letterman, OK, props for that, but...)

Criteria for Ethics Mastery

In fact, I believe that there is no class of people who can be given this type of moral authority. Heck, not even my favorite go-to group, rabbis. Sorry to say, not every rabbi - not even every posek - can be counted on to know correct ethics. So no class category. What does that leave us? Well, we need to judge case-by-case and use empirical qualities.

Some could say specific training in ethics is key. Hence Randy Cohen is disqualified because - I mean c'mon. But, what is this training? Reading philosophers? Or would law be better? Rather, I have a more functional formula for who qualifies.

Moral Authority Comes from Wisdom

The key criterion is wisdom and that is a function of perception times experience. Your ideal ethical authority should be someone who's:
  1. Benevolent (i.e. a good person) - this is determined as wanting to maximize mitzvot; and if you don't like the mitzvah system as a universal ethical matrix, tough luck - it's the best there is, on purpose, sez God. Harumph).
  2. Perceptive - this is what rules most ethicists out; cluelessness in fact leads to a high quantity of evil; more on that later.
  3. Experienced - Age is an important determining factor but it will undermined by being evil, clueless or a bigot.
  4. Educated - As the blue collar slob will attest, book learning is no substitute for life-knowledge/school-of-hard-knocks. Indeed. But they're not mutually exclusive. And book learning is an experience multiplier. How will you know what has happened in the past or all over the globe? You need to read, go to museums, travel, or just talk to many many people.
  5. Intelligent - just as being 'experienced' requires 'perceptive,' education requires intelligence. And, again, it is certainly not enough. When I was in college (Princeton), I met many smart people who were ethical dunces. In fact, I claimed that the term 'idiot' should be specifically applied to an intelligent person who lacks wisdom. And that's often how I use the term 'til this day.

  6. Diligence- this is a catch-all term for the need to be concerned with ethical questions; to have these issues constantly in one's mind. An ethicist who 'takes a break' from ethics is disqualified. The best ethicisits are the ones who dwell on these problems constantly; look for a person who is critical and unsatisfied with their own behavior, as well as the state of the world.
What does this matrix leave us with? How useful is it to just say "it's case by case" especially when most people lack the inclination or ability to come up with this conclusion on their own - which in turn means that they may be incapable of knowing who has these traits!

The Torah's Answer

All of this verbiage can actually be distilled to a simple answer (which, yeah, I should have said from the beginning): Asei lecha rav. Avot 1:6:

יהושע בן פרחיה אומר: עשה לך רב
You need to embark on a long process of testing (and I advise that these tests use the criteria above). It's an important task. Everyone needs to have a 'rav' - in this case, a moral authority - who can give them guidance.

And, as a final, crucial caveat, never ever trust a person who does not have a separate person as a moral authority. A person who is their own moral authority is amoral and often dangerous.

Who Advises the Styx?

Who's my moral authority? My mentors. Plural. I ask different mentors different questions. I made these people my mentors after a long process of determining whether they had the above criteria. But, I admit, that I also spend enormous time on these problems as well (hence why I'm both clergy with a Masters in philosophy and in a doctoral program in social science). You don't have to accept me as a moral authority - even though I believe I know every reader of the Styx personally - but I understand the criteria of wisdom because I believe that they are universally plausible standards.

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