It’s important to make a distinction between personal virtue—be honest, do your work, show up on time—and social or community ethics. Personal virtue is an undisputed good in almost every society, but we would be hard-pressed to say a slave owner who paid his bills and was kind to his wife was an ethical person. We need to think about how we behave collectively, how our society behaves, how the contexts of politics and economics, for example, interact with what we hold to be good. Most of us, after all, most of the time follow the conventions of our cultures—most Spartans act like Spartans, most Athenians like Athenians, most Americans like Americans. To be a person of moral character in an unjust social order requires us to work to change society, to resist.
A young soldier is taken to a VA facility missing both of his legs and his face. Shall I make a reservation for dinner and a show? Two more prisoners commit suicide at Guantanamo. Shall I get that new phone and camera I’d been wanting? Four million people are refugees or internally displaced because of the U.S. war in Iraq. Shall I send a contribution to one of the rascals revving up their political ambitions?
Classroom ethics is a down-to-earth, practical affair worked out on the ground by ordinary people. Universals can certainly help—Love Your Neighbor; Don’t Lie or Steal—because universal principles, as Susan Sontag has noted, “invite us to clean up our act… to turn away from compromise, cowardice, blindness.” Principles might encourage us to look critically at the way things are, which is too often hypocritical, “deficient, inconsistent, inferior.” Universals can act as our sign posts, even though they can’t settle each and every particular as it emerges.
Nourishing a stronger moral imagination—How does the other person feel?—is also a good idea. But neither universal principle nor vivid imagination is sufficient to settle every possible issue for all time, for moral decision-making always involves fundamental choices in which no system or rule or guru can ever fully deliver the answer. Nothing and no one can be made into the Court of Last Resort. Because we are free, our moral reasoning requires that we at least try to see the bigger picture, that we struggle toward wide-awakeness and always new awarenesses, and still our ethical decisions are lonely, often intuitive, filled with despair and, finally, courage.
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The British film “Dirty Pretty Things” by Stephen Frears offers a compelling example of ethics-in-action. Two illegal immigrants, Okway and Shineye, try to live decent, purposeful lives while they negotiate the subterranean worlds of modern London. Like other poor immigrants, they do the dirty work for the privileged, and they remain in large part anonymous and invisible to their overlords. They carry with them the weight of dislocation, the scars of all that they have encountered and endured, and they carry, as well, the hope that their uprootedness, their exile, will bear some sweet fruit some day, perhaps in the lives of their children.
The story turns on an impossibly complex set of choices Okway and Shineye will each have to make, choices between painful alternatives without any guarantees whatsoever—the law will be broken no matter what they do, people will be wounded one way or another, and each will be changed in some fundamental ways. This is not a Column A/Column B kind of ethics: Abortion… bad. Death penalty… good. Lying… bad. Rather it is ethical choice—resistant and absorptive, anguished, unsettling, turbulent, and restless—in the swirl and chaos of real life as people must actually live it. Their eyes are open, they must choose, but for them there will be no easy retreat to the comfortable dining room to enjoy the roast beef at the end of the day.
Choices can be difficult and ethics is a daunting text any way you look at it—the principles of right and wrong, a discipline dealing with good and evil, a branch of philosophy stretching back to antiquity, a manual for right living, and on and on… Ethics intimidates.
Moreover, to presume to talk of ethics isn’t just abstract, high-minded, and dense, it also implies a rectitude nobody can sustain and very few—certainly not me—want even to aspire to. It gestures, then, toward self-righteousness. Is my life so damned exemplary? Am I in any position to pronounce moralizing judgments, to strike an authoritative pose, to condescend and to scold? Am I really so good?… Ethics terrorizes.
Ethics edges as well toward the religious and the political, where it is hotly declaimed and jealously guarded. Sermons on right living are the purview of preachers and, increasingly, of politicians, most often in the form of one-liners for easy listening. We feel our eyes getting heavy, our brains being packed up with cotton wool… Ethics anesthetizes.
But teachers must somehow move through that cotton packing, confront the intimidation and overcome it if they are to resist successfully the reduction of teaching to the instrumental, the merely serviceable, which commands so much easy attention. For at the base of teaching, at its most fundamental, profound, and primitive core, all teaching is indeed ethical work. Teachers, whether they know it or not, are moral actors, and teaching always demands moral commitment and ethical action.
The words “moral” and “ethical” both point to principles of right and wrong, to standards of good and bad behavior. Some people stipulate one as having to do with rules and duty, the other as more embedded, pointing to normative choices in practice, but I usually don’t. In everyday conversation the words are interchangeable; to the extent that I make a distinction it will be this: “moral” implies the personal, the question of reason and thought, reflection and commitment; “ethical” gestures toward action within a group or community.
Moral decisions involve choosing between alternatives, all equally possible. Jean-Paul Sartre tells the story of one of his students who had come to him for advice about a decision he was wrestling with—Should I, he asks, stay at home to care for my aged and ill mother, or should I redeem the family honor in light of my collaborationist father by joining the Resistance to Nazi occupation? He is on difficult ground here, for simply being a conventional young man will no longer do—he can no longer simply feel himself a good person; he must act for the good, whatever that might be. He is forced into an ethical choice simply because he sees the alternatives and can’t turn away. After carefully listening to the reasoning of his student, Sartre’s answer was this: You must decide for yourself. The student, then, is fully and finally responsible for his decision, without the benefit of blaming or crediting someone else. His eyes are open, and he must choose. Something will be lost, and something else gained. This, of course, feels dreadful—nothing is as clear or clean or absolutely certain as he would like. Frustrated and in urgent pursuit of higher authority, the student angrily denounces Sartre and says that if the great philosopher won’t help him, he’ll go to a priest for advice. Very well, replies Sartre, and which priest will you choose? The choice belongs to the student; he can object and insist and curse his mentor and his predicament, but in the end he will make up his own mind, and with that choice he will dive into the wreckage with all the good and terrible consequences to follow. Choosing his priest is still choosing, even if it appears noncommittal and neutral.