Ethics: not for the faint-hearted

by Grace Garland | Published on 25 July 2019 for The Ethics Institute monthly newsletter

There is one obvious way in which ethics is not for the faint-hearted: converting one’s ethical beliefs into actions takes guts. For example, speaking honestly when the truth will be painful, or blowing the whistle when it isn’t safe, or being vegetarian at a South African braai. These things require courage.

Hear no evil

Image by Robert Fotograf from Pixabay 

"Becoming an ethics professional, or choosing to study ethics, should come with a health warning."

But there is a second way that most of us will struggle with ethics, and so should avoid making it a subject of study or the focal point of their career. The more one learns about and engages in ethics – and its concomitant concepts like integrity, justice and fairness – the more demanding ethics becomes. There isn’t really an ‘ethics lite’ version available, where one can be ethical here, but not ethical there, unless one is willing to construct elaborate justifications to explain the inconsistency. These justifications can serve as comfortable homes for the uninformed or unreflective to live in, but the person who truly engages with ethical concepts will see through to the shoddy foundations. For example, when others may feel a vague sense of unease when a company claims insufficient funds for workers’ salary increases, while paying millions in executive bonuses, the ethics professional has the moral vocabulary to describe the hypocrisy exactly.

This is a most desolate moment. It is desolate not because the ethical person is looking out from their fortress atop the moral high ground, vibrating with righteousness. It is desolate because there is no such fortress available in reality, no such state of righteousness available. There are two reasons for this, one personal, and one systemic.

Firstly, no person can attain moral perfection. We have our follies and foibles to learn from, and this is the business of living. By studying or working in ethics, we are able to see our mistakes in high resolution, but hopefully also to realise that personal moral progress is possible. The second, systemic, reason is more upsetting. We are living in a socioeconomic and sociocultural moment that is profoundly unethical and even dystopian. The problems are far bigger and deeper than anything a single person’s actions can address. Having a moral vocabulary forces one to see unfairness, inconsistency and hypocrisy in the world, and understand why it is wrong. Now the ethics professional, or student of ethics, faces a choice. Either drop everything, give away any excess wealth, and dedicate one’s life to changing the systems that perpetuate unfairness and injustice – or carry on pursuing one’s own goals, and try to make a meaningful difference in a less radical way.

At this point, many will either give up on ethics altogether, or lose motivation to keep trying. They will regret learning about the ‘golden rule’ – treat others like you wish to be treated – and try to erase the memory of Kant’s principle of treating all people with dignity. This may be a necessary move, psychologically, just to make it through the drive home past street people and begging mothers. Ignorance may, indeed, be bliss.

Chinua Achebe wrote that “The true test of integrity is its blunt refusal to be compromised”. Yet this is an impossible standard. We compromise our integrity every day by making choices that, directly or indirectly, perpetuate an unfair and unethical system at the societal level. Ethics lite is as good as it is ever going to get for us. And it takes a deeper sort of courage to know this, to understand it, and to still carry on trying to make any positive difference available. This attitude may be better captured in the word ‘resilience’, and there is nothing glamorous about it.

Becoming an ethics professional, or choosing to study ethics, should come with a health warning. If you do it properly, you are going to be appalled – at yourself, certainly, but mostly at your society – and so a strong dose of resilience is recommended. A sense of humour will help, and so will being part of a community of others who are similarly informed, yet motivated all the same. South Africa, in particular, is a high-risk place for an ethically sensitive person to make a home. The country’s injustices can seem insurmountable, and maybe they are, but that is not a justification not to try and do something about it. Not one that stands up to informed scrutiny, anyway.

The power that comes with knowledge does not automatically translate as power of action; it can be a heavy burden to know that something is evil but be unable to stop it. But we need not sink into despair. History shows that individuals and groups do bring about change. Margaret Mead offers this consolation: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has”.


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Grace Garland is an Associate of The Ethics Institute, responsible for communications and editorial projects. She holds a Master of Business Administration from University of Stellenbosch Business School, and is currently studying towards a Master of Applied Ethics at University of the Witwatersrand.