The subject of ethics has always been pondered throughout the history of man. Many prominent figures throughout history have attempted to define or classify ethical behavior. Whether through belief in gods or deities, or belief in a society of another sort, man has never ultimately answered the question of what is truly ethical. The only truth is that we can never know if our behavior is justified or ethical; what we have learned and experienced from society, our ancestors and mentors is the only method through which we can attempt to measure ourselves against what is right and wrong. Culture, and by extension society, adapts to and affects all things; as we grow, so too does society, which in turn defines culture. Literally every decision that each of us make is a contribution to how our society will be remembered in history books a thousand years from now. Perhaps it is for this reason that ethics has been such an important subject to the human race; being judged as a bad, or “evil” person has always brought grave consequences, whether in this life or in an afterlife, so naturally, everyone wants to be deemed a “good” person. However, the subject of ethics has not evolved into a simple black and white discussion. Various people through the ages have, perhaps, attempted to justify their lifestyles and behaviors, and so took it upon themselves to take a stance on ethics that best makes sense to them, such as the practices of consequentialism and hedonism. The fact that two people, who appear to make completely contrasting choices morally, can both feel that their choices are justified, or “good”, illustrates the struggle of man to obtain moral righteousness as merely a matter of perspective and attitude, which is precisely the reason that this topic has, and will always be, pondered and re-imagined by generation after generation. My personal code of ethics has formed and evolved through experience and observation throughout my life, and I believe it to be crucial to who I am today.
I owe a lot to society. Without the comparison of myself to those who embody that which I consider to be good, I would not have become the person I am. In return, I believe I have served society well by having been a part of the military for fourteen years. In the Navy, we are taught that service to one’s country is the highest honor. “It is essential that all Department of the Navy personnel adhere to the highest standards of integrity and ethical conduct. The American people put their trust in us and none of us can betray that trust.” says the honorable Donald C. Winter, Secretary of the Navy. This statement embodies that which I strive to be. We are taught to be the example by which others follow through duty, hard work and whatever it takes to benefit the people of our country. In that sense, it is a deontological code of ethics behind the military that makes it what it is. They do what they are bound to do by rules, duty and good will. When people ask me if I was proud to have served my country, I know one-hundred percent that the answer is yes, because I upheld the virtues and ethics of my society in the best way possible: service. Even if some disagree with the motives of our government and by extension the military, I know that no operation or invasion is done without good will at heart. Invading Iraq may have been wrong because of humanitarian issues to some, but in my opinion it was the right thing to do. It is best to err on the side of caution, and in the case of Operation: Iraqi Freedom, the best intelligence that was available to us explained that Iraq was in the possession of illegal and dangerous weapons that very well could have posed a threat to our society and the well-being of other nations in the region. We acted as a response to the duty we are sworn to uphold to the American people, and our motives were clear and just. This fits the deontological description of ethics, which I believe to be right and true in all situations.
There are times when the line between right and wrong, moral and immoral, is blurred. As stated previously, morality is often a matter of perspective and attitude, and the belief that one’s actions are justified religiously has led to unimaginable death and suffering throughout the ages. When thinking of religion, I am often reminded of a story, first presented to me in high school, of blind men and an elephant. All of the men touch a different part of the elephant to find out what it is like. All of them touch a different part of the elephant, and in turn each has a completely different idea of what it is like. They argue, and eventually fight over, their different beliefs. Such is the struggle between different religions, and often different parts of the same religion. For example, Sunnis and Shiites both believe in the same God, and are part of the same religion. However, small differences in how they have interpreted their history and religious texts have lead to centuries of violence and struggle. The biggest problem I have with this is that their ethics and morals seem not to be present at all; they are blindly following those who came and disagreed before them, and so do not seem to have any genuine or unique codes of ethics, until you look deeper and see that the concept of transcendent, or absolute, morality pervades their lifestyles and beliefs entirely. Transcendent morality is the belief that our ethics and morals should not be unique, but absolute as a way of preserving a standard of good and evil. I believe this is a terrible way to view morality, because just as one pair of shoes will not fit the feet of everyone on earth, the same can be said of a code of ethics.
It is my belief that everything happens for a reason, and this is best presented in the views of a determinist. Determinism is the belief that nothing happens of its own cause; in order for something to happen, something else must have made it happen, which in itself was a reaction to another force, and so on. Furthering this notion that every action is a reaction to another action, it can also be concluded that, given there is a universal law governing all events taking place at any given time, there is a specific path that everything will, and must, follow. This leads many to believe that everything is pre-determined. That every action they have, and will, make has already been chosen and that free will is an illusion. Determinism is propagated from two sources: religion and natural science. On the religious side, we Christians are all taught that God is omnipotent and omniscient; that is, God all-powerful and all-knowing. However, we are also taught that God gave Man the privilege of free will. This is somewhat of a contradiction, because if God was aware of everything that has and will happen, then we are all on a set path, like a train. This is where I start to disagree with the concept. If everything were truly predetermined, then what would be the point of such an existence? If all of creation is some kind of socio-scientific experiment, why go through all of the trouble when the answer is already known? I believe parts of determinism are correct, such as everything having cause and reason, like was stated by Hume, but that is precisely what the universe is built upon: seamless interaction and perfect law. Just because everything has cause and reason does not necessarily rule out the possibility of free will. Everything that has happened in the past and will happen in the future meshes seamlessly together because the laws of the universe are absolute and perfect, no matter what I choose to do in the present. This belief also raises many moral questions for me as well. Let’s picture the following scenario: I choose to pick up a rock and throw it at my neighbor’s window. The rock shatters it and hits the cat inside, causing it to jump onto its owner’s head, which then causes the owner to fling the cat against a wall, killing it. In casual determinist belief, the cat’s death would be my fault because I threw the rock; however, I could say that it was not my fault, it was the fault of my faulty sprinkler on the lawn which caused me to go outside and see the rock, or the fault of the sprinkler company, and so on and so forth until I’ve passed the blame on the “big bang” or whatever created this universe. This is the biggest fallacy that I see with determinism, because morality can no longer be judged if such an ethics system is fully believed in. Blame for any number of crimes could be passed on to whatever events happened preceding the crime, until all guilt and fault is washed away or passed onto something else. Likewise, I believe moral issues arise when it is assumed that fate is predetermined. If I believe that God is in control of everything and that everything happens because it is meant to be, then theoretically I could do absolutely nothing and contribute nothing to society and claim that’s the way it is supposed to happen. Or, for example, let’s say I’m walking along a riverbank and I see someone drowning. If I believed in a predetermined fate, I would stand by while the person continued to drown, thinking to myself “Oh, it’s okay. If he is meant to be saved, God will save him.” For this reason, I believe that the notion of a predetermined fate is not only wrong, but immoral because of the apathy it can potentially breed.
My personal code of ethics has a lot to do with what I have accomplished. I believe that nothing but good can come of hard work and determination, and is what I have lived by for most of my life. As a rule, I do whatever it takes to insure that my family is taken care of first and foremost. If I were climbing a mountain, I would, in theory, not need to know anything about its elevation, its climate, native animals, or anything else. All I would need to know is that putting one foot in front of the other would eventually take me to the peak. In that sense, I feel that I need not ponder the subject of universal truths, or the existence of divine order or the absolute truths of morality and ethics. I know in my heart that if I feel like I am a good person and that I have accomplished what I have been tasked with, then I am truly good and have found truth and morals through my own hard work and dedication to principles. Maybe my beliefs are best tossed into the Libertarian school of thinking, because I truly believe that I am free to mold myself into whatever shape I deem appropriate. I have had the opportunity to be homeless. I have had a chance to be a drug addict. I have been tempted by the promise of freedom by removing myself from everyone I know. Every time, I have chosen not to. I could have become anything which I despise, or anything in this world for that matter. The only absolute truth I know is that I am a product of my choices and my actions, which are mine and mine alone to make. Sometimes it is a hard pill to swallow, taking this stance. It’s easy to be proud of yourself and owe your successes to no one else, but it is very difficult to tell yourself that all of your problems exist because of your own actions and choices. Some may argue that society and genetics play a larger role in the shaping of a person than self-creation, but I believe this to be wrong. Genetics may determine what I look like, what foods I like, and some personality quirks, but we as humans are constantly growing and changing. Who I have, and will, become has ever been a product of the way I handle situations and what lessons I choose to take from them. The lessons I have learned in the past have affected all of my decisions since, and thus I have become a culmination of experiences which have taught me lessons which have shaped my morality.
My beliefs in regards to ethics and morality are:
You get what you give. If I go through life being rude and mean, I will eventually get the same in return. Good will and kindness will come back to you, if not immediately.
I am always in control of my actions. I always have a choice, and there are always good and/or bad consequences for every action I make.
Never break my word. I believe that the true measure of a man is whether or not his word is reliable. Honor comes when promises are kept, respect is given and friendships are kept.
Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. If harshness or violence is met with the same, then only the same will continue. An eye for an eye makes the world blind.
Nothing but good can come of hard work and determination. I have experienced this my whole life, and it has held true no matter what. Sometimes the payoff is immediate, and sometimes I questioned whether it was worth it, but I know now that it is always worth it to sweat and bleed for what you want.
I will learn from everything, and will never pass up the opportunity to learn something new or improve an existing skill.
I will never pass up the opportunity to share my skills and experience with others.
I will never participate in or condone anything that is illegal, or that which I consider to be unethical or wrong.
In closing, I ultimately view ethics as a way for people to enact a measure of control over themselves and their environment in order to become a better person or to better cope with their lots in life. For me, my ethical code has become a product of the lessons I have learned and the hard times I have been through. It has been a beacon in dark, tough times and a guide in the good times. I do not view my ethical views as a standard by which other men should live, but merely as a rulebook for my own life. Ethics has been pondered and re-invented by many brilliant minds throughout history, but the only truth is that truth is not always absolute. It is something that can be debated, refuted and often twisted in many ways. The nature of Man has always been to shape his environment to whatever suits his needs, and the same can be said of morals and ethics. Though many different systems claim to be the truth about morality and ethics, none of them are absolutely right. Like the blind men describing the elephant, they may all be right in some sense, but none have the ability to truly see it for what it is. Thus, I think that the best way to live one’s life is simply to do what they believe is right, work hard and never give up. Immanuel Kant proposed that ethical and moral truths can be found through pure reason, and I believe this to be a much better way of viewing the conflicts that arise from different perspectives of the human spectrum as opposed to relying on mystical cosmic forces or religious doctrine. All I want out of life is to be happy and to make others happy in the process, and I believe that makes me a good person, regardless of how others may view me or the way I live. Kant stated in Critique of Practical Reason, “Morality is not properly the doctrine of how we may make ourselves happy, but how we may make ourselves worthy of happiness.” To make yourself worthy of happiness, I believe you have to strive to make others happy as well – this is what I will tell myself for the rest of my life, and I hope that when I am dead and gone I will be remembered as someone who was moral, honest and reliable and hopefully others can learn from my mistakes and accomplishments and adopt a page from my code of ethics.