When you can’t save them all

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Earlier posts in this series have looked at two indications that the first two “vectors” of ethical models presented (both deontology and teleology), are insufficient in themselves for creating a realistic and robust system of ethics, despite having many strong advocates and long-winded defenses over many centuries, religions and cultures. On the other hand, empathy-based and relationship-based ethical models in general, and the Rawls Justice model in particular, hold a strong hand of “sufficiency cards” toward covering a lot of circumstances and traditions, religious and otherwise.

I have consistently described the ethical models presented here as “vectors” rather than “categories” because they represent more direction and magnitude rather than simple points inside a well-defined box. In this sense, it is hard to beat an ethical vector that generally points “that-a-way,” in a consistent and easily understandable direction. That direction for justice ethics is the intentional consideration of our fellow humans who are suffering, or elderly, or children, or people otherwise without power in a power-hungry world. If their “human rights” are well-covered in any moral criteria we set out, then we likely have gone a long way toward an “ethical” society.

There is one sometimes-fatal flaw in hanging your hat on justice-based and empathy-based models of morality and ethics, however. That flaw is found in the “occupational hazard” often encountered by those who devote their lives to alleviating the suffering of others. Many of the world’s problems are so big that, despite the best efforts by the most dedicated and sacrificing people, we can sometimes make only a small dent in the suffering.

In short, you can’t save them all, and neither can I. I have know some wonderful people who have burned out too early from their life’s-passion callings because the barrier of this reality whops them on the head too hard.

The over-told story of the man throwing starfish back into the ocean because “it matters to that one starfish” has doubtless brought comfort to many engaged in heroic endeavors. But even the best, at some point, need to confront the larger reality, and start working the logic back up the causal chain. Why are all these starfish dying in the first place? The last set of ethical/moral “vectors,” to be discussed in future posts, sends us looking for the “Bigger Picture” in this “cause-effect” chain.

I noted in an earlier post that the normal human brain appears to be “hard-wired” with some very strong “empathy sensors” which are critical to our survival instinct, and this “Theory of Mind” (which is my assumption that you are a feeling, thinking human being like me) was likely key to our establishment of human society in its many different forms.

The counter to this argument is that our brain’s “Others” sensors are often overpowered by the much more numerous “Me” sensors in the brain, primed by millions of years of evolution to keep Me alive and reproducing. This is not a digital, yes/no choice, but rather it appears to be more analog in nature. Many good studies demonstrate that our brains, from a very early age, are able to analyze the hundreds of factors, using all of our senses from vision to smell, that help us identify “our people,” with all of the “other people” and other living entities arrayed in a kind of personal “distance map.”

As a result, most of us can act with great empathetic sacrifice toward our own family, while, on the other end of the “distance map,” we have no problem with stepping on an ant. Where “good people disagree” is on what happens between the two extremes on the map.

English speakers have an interesting quirk of language here. If I were to fail at common decency toward another person, you might excuse me with an offhand defense of, “Well, we are only human after all.” However, if I were to visibly extend my empathy not just to far-away people unlike myself, but also to other mammals and non-mammals far across the DNA tree, you might instead call me “humane” or a “humanitarian.”

Striving to be humane in an in-humane world is perhaps what our “human” striving for understanding morality and ethics is all about.

Prior Dice  Next

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  1. Pingback: “Big picture” ethics – When God Plays Dice

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