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October 1991 - Wisdom of the West


By Travis Hardin

(The columnist is busy preparing future gems on Conservatism and its Imitations and Liberalism and its Imitations. He tossed the editor only this bone.)

Isn't ethics--the nature of good--simply how people treat one another?

Isn't Good, to individual A, treatment by others that fulfills its needs and advances its well-being, from the point of view of individual A? If A is a bacterium, to do good toward it would be to provide it with a nutritious fluid of comfortable temperature and pH, say a dog's intestine. If A is a dog, we can see from its reactions that speaking kindly toward it advances its well-being (good), while speaking harshly to it decreases its well-being (evil).

Dogs aside, when we speak of ethics, we speak of human relations. We know this is true because ethics would not exist were it not for the existence of human beings.

If A is a standard person*, then doing it good means recognizing its higher needs--which according to the Maslow model include belongingness, love, esteem, and the like--in addition to safety and physical needs appropriate for, say, a dog.

With people, both standard and non-standard, the emotional realm is where good and evil actions are felt, preserved, and often transmuted into psychic and somatic health or illness.

Emotional maltreatment from others is more destructive to the spirit than mere physical discomfort divorced from human cause. The suffering is magnitudes greater for a child who has been locked in a closet and starved for a week by her cursing father than for the same child, in the same house, snowed-in for a week without food, but now with a caring father who is disabled. The evil done by the former experience is magnitudes greater because of its emotional effect. The act decreases the child's well-being not for a week, but for her lifetime. The evil also gets telegraphed to her children.

If you ask me if I believe I have an ethical duty, the answer is, of course, yes. Without mutual ethical treatment, it is of no advantage to be human. But one's first ethical duty is to oneself: To try not to be a burden on others.

Summary: Human intent and human action toward other people, and their effects on other people, are the substance of ethics--the only reference points of good and evil.

A subheading, treatment of animals, deserves our consideration mainly (but not solely) because of what the transferences reveal about the psyche of the person.

* Ah, you say, what if dismembering other people is what brings me pleasure? Is it good for me to do this? Of course not. The variations among real people are so vast that to discuss ethics we must invoke a Standard Person: A mature adult of perfect mental health, perfect socialization, and intelligence capable of insight into human motivation, including introspection. By defining a standard person, the abnormalities are taken out of ethics and are delivered to psychiatry, whose purpose is analyzing abnormalities and delivering coping skills and healing to the less seriously wounded.