Philosophers have debated on countless subjects, regarding all topics, from science to religion (in fact, philosophy is considered to be the antecedent of science), to political and ethical thought, to sociology and economics. One of the most relevant and debated themes by philosophers throughout history is ethics, which strives to answer questions concerning what is right and wrong, and to identify the origin of ethical principles. In this essay I will examine whether one can and has to always act according to its moral principles. First, I will give a definition of the concept of ‘ethics’, and try to identify the main factors that determine ethical values. Then, I will discuss by what means one can convince others to act morally. Finally, I will make some concluding remarks.
Ethics is the field of philosophy that attempts to determine the moral values that promote certain behaviours and actions concerning the private and public life of an individual. First, it is important to underline that there is a difference between ethics and morality. Morality is commonly defined as the set of values widely accepted and advocated by a society or culture. Morality is defined throughout history, and mutates along with culture. Usually, it is people who have a strong influence on society which contribute the most to the development of moral principles. Ethics, on the other hand, is defined by the individual for the individual, and usually regards our private life choices. Both ethics and morality are to a great extent established by an individual’s ability to reason, which observes the world and elaborates ethical values according to what it perceives. Since the beginning of human civilization until today, different ethical frameworks have regularly clashed in all regions of the world, without exceptions; as people of different backgrounds and cultures started to come into contact with one another, the different and sometimes opposite ethical system inevitably resulted in debates and, often, violent confrontations. These confrontations were a major contributing factor to the formulation of moral values shared by most people in order to live in a peaceful and permanent society. Our reason is affected by all kinds of factors: subjective factors include, for example, ones family and friends and our intimate reflections and thoughts. Objective factors consist of the society and culture one lives in and, above all, in my opinion, the egocentrism innate to the human essence. I believe that, equally to all other animal species, humans have a natural instinct for which we think about our lives before the ones of others. This instinct encourages the evolution and development of all species, since all earthlings, above everything else, strive to survive and to reproduce. This natural instinct can and must be fought, as I believe it is crucial to care for other human beings who aren’t related to us, and to feel compassion and empathy about their suffering, losses and achievements. That being said, I think this instinct cannot be completely extirpated from our nature. The intrinsic egocentrism present in human nature, apart from evolutionary advantages, can bring us to a deeper introspection and encourage us to carefully analyze ones own actions and thoughts, which I believe is the first step to change oneself, and thus change people and the world.
Going back to the clash that might arise between different ethical principles previously mentioned that helps developing moral values, one of the main problems that arises from this democratic dialogue (or, sometimes, clash) among members of a certain society is the way in which moral values can be imposed not only on the members of a particular society but on other societies as well. Ethical principles concerning only the individual in particular are often a heated topic of debate among members of society, although the extent to which some individuals’ behaviour can affect society as a whole is itself a complex topic of the debate. Of course, it is clearly inadmissible to use violence and oppression as a way of imposing ethical values on other societies, since it is not only wrong, but also simply ineffective; in fact, if we look at any Machiavellian thought behind the ruthless actions of, for example, the 2003 Iraq war, or the endless Western colonization in the 20th century to allegedly civilize the ‘barbarian’ populations of Africa and Asia, it appears clear that these resulted in political and economic chaos of the occupied regions and in the enrichment of Western countries; it is thus possible to conclude with a high degree of certainty that the imposition of moral principles by force is completely useless. As an alternative, I would propose the following approaches to accomplish the arduous task of achieving a basic, universal, shared moral framework.
First, it is crucially important to develop an open-minded attitude and the will to discuss in a civilized way, yet always critical, with other societies and individuals. It is essential that one maintains lucidity and rationality in any case, even if the actions carried out by the interlocutor are merciless and cruel. If we simply reject to debate a priori, if one just acts as if he or she is superior, it strengthens the division and social polarization that individuals or groups such as Daesh, for example, want to create, and nourishes fear and hate, which very likely results in violent conflict. The second approach that I would propose is to analyze and try to understand the situation of different individuals or societies and attempt to improve their social, political, economic situation, which often reinforces many other processes that contribute to human well being and security. For this reason, it is crucial to relate with other people and assist them, although before taking this step violence must be put aside by all sides.
To conclude and to summarize my arguments, I will draw on the work of Professor Tariq Ramadan, a Swiss scholar at Oxford University teaching Contemporary Islamic Studies. It is almost universally shared, nowadays, that it is indispensable to have moral values that celebrate actions and denounces others. Nonetheless, I believe that ethics cannot become a limit to every aspect of our private and public life, for the following reasons: first of all, not all actions can, in my opinion, be considered intrinsically right or wrong. As Prof. Ramadan rightfully says, life determines ethics, but ethics does not determine life. We must not be the victims of our own values or of the moral values of our society; we should be able to act freely, and not to be constantly judged by society and individuals according to shared values. Secondly, it is also fundamental to contextualize ethical values, meaning the recognition that these are inscribed in a specific time within a specific cultural environment, and realize that ethical values can vary to a substantial degree between different cultures and societies; the degree of this variation is usually defined through confrontation and constructive discussions among individuals, and, as I have stated in my previous paragraph, it is essential to be flexible and not fundamentalist. Finally, there are many situations in which moral and ethical values are overwhelmed by either the lack of choice confronted by a certain individual, as in the case of self-defense, or when the background of an individual is so brutal (such as, for example, an individual that has endured traumatic experiences during his childhood) that, even if it isn’t technically right to do whatever he might do, we should be empathic and sensitive towards the person.