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Ethics for a Complex, Dangerous World: The Moral Imperative for Thinking and Acting Systemically

Originally published February 15, 2017 on the Huffington Post

The Odious Concept of Ethical Thresholds

Unfortunately, most people don’t understand the fundamental nature of ethics. Yes, the ultimate purpose is to arrive at actions that are clearly ethical. However, the method or process by which one arrives at and justifies an ethical proposition is as important as the proposition itself. Thus, ethics is basically about the different methods that different schools of ethics use both to arrive at and to justify ethical propositions. One of the most powerful ways of doing this is by putting a proposed proposition in the form of a generalized assertion to help determine if it applies universally.

One of the most important cases is President Trump’s justification for his policy of banning Muslims from entering the U.S. Putting it in the form of a generalized ethical proposition not only shows how poor his grasp of ethics is, but more importantly, how odious it is: “Whenever the numbers of people who are detained from entering a country are small in comparison to those who are let in, then one is warranted ethically in enacting such a policy.” In other words, “Whenever the numbers of people who are harmed by a policy are small, the policy is justified.” To which a good Kantian would reply, “To harm just one person is to harm all the members of society for the principle cannot be generalized such that it leads to a just world.”

Worst of all, the proposition both promotes and dignifies the dangerous concept an ethical threshold. As long as the numbers of people who are hurt are below some magic number, then our actions are ethical. It thus raises the treacherous question, “How many would have to be hurt before one’s actions are deemed unethical?” All of this is not only morally odious to a Kantian, but extremely dangerous.

Yes, weighing benefits versus disbenefits is the hallmark of Utilitarian Ethics, and as such, always tugs at us for who can be oblivious to benefits versus costs, especially if the costs are cataclysmic? While it must always be taken seriously, Utilitarianism can never be the sole basis for acting ethically, for it invariably leads to the odious concept of ethical thresholds. Therefore, there must be other bases.

In those societies that strive to be just, they struggle to arrive at and practice a set of principles each of which is just in and of itself. Thus, a person applying for entry is to be judged primarily on his or her individual merits, not on their country of origin, race, religion, etc. Whether a person can support one’s self or requires which kinds of help, affirms primary allegiance to the country to which he or she is applying, and especially to its democratic principles, etc. are potentially legitimate criteria, depending of course on how they are actually implemented. In other words, the criteria for admittance must not be rigged against particular countries or groups unless it can be demonstrated beyond all reasonable doubt that the members of a particular group such as ISIS are irredeemably dangerous. The burden of proof is thus intentionally set high for he or she who would impose barriers.

Making Connections: The Moral Imperative of Our Times

Thinking and acting systemically is key. Indeed, it is the moral imperative of our times. At a minimum, it requires us to acknowledge that the major schools of ethics in Western societies were formulated when ethics was primarily a matter of rightful conduct between a foreseeable number of individual actors or agents with clearly foreseeable benefits versus disbenefits.

In contrast, thinking and acting systemically means asking among many things, “As best as one can determine, who are all the parties who will benefit as well as be hurt the most by any proposed action?” This in turn requires the ability to see and to acknowledge the intended and unintended consequences of one’s actions. In short, it requires the ability to make important connections before they are crystal clear, let alone certain.

In a world that is interconnected along every conceivable dimension, the ability to foresee and to make important connections is more vital than ever. Indeed, only those who have the ability to make important connections will survive, let alone prosper.

For instance, because we’d all be forced to pay higher prices, a 20 % tariff on Mexican goods is a direct tax on American consumers. The country imposing tariffs thus has as much, if not more, to lose than the country being targeted.

Slowing down and preventing Muslims from entering the country hurts the U.S. in that it alienates Muslims worldwide. Just when the cooperation of Muslims is needed more than ever, there is less incentive to help a government that is viewed as inherently hostile to them. It only furthers the fear that banning Muslims plays directly into the hands of ISIS, which it has. It also encourages long-time allies to rethink their commitments to the U.S.

As Republicans are discovering, as odious as they find the Affordable Care Act, getting rid of it poses severe problems. For one, it threatens to blow up insurance markets, for what will be the size of the remaining pool of people able to afford coverage, and who will they be, both of which are crucial in determining premiums? For another, millions who have had coverage, often for the first time, are threatened with losing it. And of course, there are no viable alternatives on the horizon. The potential political damage to Republicans is thus enormous.

Despite the fact that over 97% of reputable climate scientists worldwide believe on the basis of sound science that humans are primarily responsible for Global Warming, far too many still vehemently deny the connection, and thereby the entire phenomenon. Unfortunately, by the time they finally admit it, it’ll be too late to do anything serious about it.

With the exception of Global Warming, none of the foregoing is automatically or conclusively true. Every one of them is highly contentious, which is generally true of all issues that are important. Indeed, the matter is easily turned on its head: something is important if and only if it raises intense differences.

The Age of Uncertain, World-Changing Connections

Obviously, one’s level of education, political affiliation, ideology, raw intelligence, etc. all play critical roles in determining whether one sees potential interactions. Although it’s tempting to portray conservatives and Republicans as least likely to acknowledge interactions, especially the more complex they are, far too many academics and those with narrow world views are unable to admit them as well. For this reason, it’s false to single out any particular group.

In short, the ability to think expansively is more critical than ever. We are deeply in The Age of Uncertain, World-Changing Connections.

This does not mean that we should take seriously, let alone accept, every proposed connection, least of all those that are the result of conspiracy theorists, the purveyors of Fake News or “alternative facts.” It means that traditional forms of handling and portraying complex issues are no longer adequate. We need both new and old media outlets that can display side by side the opposing arguments and evidence for and against important connections. It’s no longer sufficient to turn to separate sources to get the arguments pro and con for important issues.

Dialectic Reasoning

It’s not that both sides of important issues necessarily need to be equally credible, but that one of the most important ways of determining what’s credible is by viewing the strongest case that can be made for and against any important proposition. The issues we face are too important not to be examined in such a manner.

In short, dialectic reasoning needs to be front and center. It’s the foundation for ethical thinking in a complex, dangerous world.


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