Thursday, January 17, 2019

Do Ethics Matter?

In Isaac Werner's community, neighbors often shared work.  Sometimes it was for cash.  Other times, one person would help a neighbor do a particular job, and in turn, that neighbor would help him with a different job.  Or, neighbors might work together because equipment each lacked was possessed by the other person.

Isaac described in his journal one situation that did not turn out as expected.  He had shared jobs in the past with two neighbors, so when he arranged to share labor with a younger brother and his friend, Isaac assumed the same terms that the older brother had agreed would apply.  They worked together for three days, and when it was time to settle up, there was no disagreement about the agreed price per day for labor.  When the price for the equipment the younger brother had supplied was calculated, the young man insisted the prevailing rate was $1.50 per day rather than the $1 a day his brother had agreed in the past, and Isaac reluctantly accepted the increase.  Then it was time to calculate the fee for Isaac's horse and equipment, but the young men insisted there should be no charge for them.  Because no discussion had occurred before the work began, Isaac finally settled up with the young men, but the entry in his journal that evening made it clear that he felt that he had been treated unfairly and had been made a fool.

Bertrand Russell, 1954
Bertrand Russell, a British mathematician and philosopher living from 1872 to 1970 wrote:  "Without civic morality Communities perish; without personal morality their survival has no value."

Reflecting on Russell's words, and applying them to Isaac's situation, should we place the blame on Isaac for having assumed the arrangement that had been customary when working with the older brother would apply, or should we place the blame on the younger men for having proceeded with the job without alerting Isaac that they expected a different arrangement from what had been customary in the past?

Times change.  Customs change.  Do the underlying ethics and moral conventions change, or as Bertrand Russell suggested, without personal morality does our survival lose all value?  We are seeing changes in the civic morality of our world every day, and it will probably not surprise you that I have turned to history to reflect on those changes.

James Fenimore Cooper in a Midshipman's uniform
For example, a member of the House of Representatives, Rashida Tlaib, recently called the president an obscenity.  She did not apologize, explaining instead that she was simply a very passionate person.  Looking to history, I found a quote from James Fenimore Cooper's novel, The Deer Slayer.  He wrote:  "Mendacity and vulgarity can only permanently affect those who resort to their use."  Is he right that the harm done was to Representative Tlaid herself, or did her vulgar term harm the president, or does such language harm the entire  community, as Russell suggested?

A newly elected member of the House, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, carelessly exaggerated the potential savings possible if only tighter controls were imposed on Pentagon budgets. It took me only a few minutes to look up the total Pentagon budget, and even if the entire budget were reduced to zero, her alleged savings could not be achieved longer than I can keep up with all the zeros to the compute the years!  Should that matter?  Albert Einstein thought so, for he wrote, "Whoever is careless with the truth in small matters cannot be trusted with important matters."

Sometimes words are not needed to reveal changes in civic morality, as in the President's imitating the physical difficulties of reporter, Serge Kovaleski, who has arthrogryposis, (which impacts the function and range of motion of joints).  Vice president Hubert Humphrey had an answer for that:  "The moral test of government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; and those who are in the shadows of life, the sick, the needy and the handicapped."

Mark Twain, Bronze in Fort Worth
Reconsidering Isaac's anger about the resolution of the expenses for the shared labor, perhaps we should ask a question I did not raise.  Had the customs in his community changed so that what the younger men expected was appropriate and did they simply assume Isaac would have been aware of those changes so that they did not recognize any need to discuss the compensation in advance.  Is it reasonable to accept that civic morality changes from generation to generation and communities must adapt?  Or, are there certain standards we should expect from those in our own community and the greater national community of which we are a part?

Is all of this a generational thing?  Here's what Mark Twain had to say about the subject:  "The man who is a pessimist before 48 knows too much; if he is an optimist after that, he knows too little."

1 comment:

The Blog Fodder said...

Too many people think Ethics is a county in southern England. You raise some good questions. Isaac wasn't the last person who got caught in that trap. My dad ended up on the short end of the stick and had to accept it, too.
Mythology has it that the cattle industry was more honest longer than the stubble jumpers. A man's word was his bond and a handshake was better than a contract. Of course, that didn't likely apply to cattle dealers who rank with real estate agents on the low scale of trustworthiness.