William Blake’s Ancient of Days
A young friend of the family recently started the first day of a freshman ethics class. The teacher’s first question, requesting a show of hands, asked how many of the students believed ethics are a social and cultural construct. All but one hand went up. And how many thought ethics are a universal given. My young friend’s hand went up. At that point, the teacher told him that he was wrong, and he later dropped the class.
This appears to be a doctrine of our times, at least in the academic world: that everything is a cultural construct, from morality to sexuality to the principles of science itself. Of course, if everything is a construct, then one might question if the construct might somehow, somewhere be constructed differently. The old values that you learned “at your mother’s knee,” or in your church or synagogue, or as the bedrock of your native civilization can then be characterized as local, parochial, and false. And new values—values more suited to the questioner’s purpose—might be substituted in their place. But I digress …
My first quarrel with this teacher—whom I never met, except in the abstract of the story—is that this definition of “ethics” is too broad. Yes, some questions of ethics and morality are culturally based, like not pointing the sole of your shoe at a person in some Eastern cultures. Even some principles that we in the West hold to be universal, like intentional killing, can be culturally and situationally approved. Every war is based on provisionally ignoring that commandment.
Early in my studies about Zen, I learned that the response to certain types of questions should properly be mu, or “no thing.” When a question is too broad, or poses an assumed but unproven dichotomy, or creates a logical fallacy, then the answer cannot be either “yes” or “no.” So the only right answer is “no thing,” meaning “the question does not apply.” And that would be my answer to this ethics teacher’s question.
Yes, certain ethical practices that shade between etiquette and morality—like pointing with your shoe—are purely cultural. Not all of them are minor and involve petty insults. In other Eastern cultures, for example, a father may kill his children if they dishonor the family, and religious persons are called upon to deceive, beset, and even sometimes kill idolaters and nonbelievers who remain steadfast and unrepentant in their error. In other cultures and contexts, however, these practices are simply wrong, wrong, wrong.
But I would argue that there is a universality to certain basic ethical questions. The transmission of the principle may be cultural, as told in religious stories, fables, children’s fairytales—or simply passed on from parent to child—but the principle remains solidly based in the dynamics of human interaction.
For example, I would challenge the ethics teacher to name one society that would condone, approve, or recommend coming up behind a stranger, bashing his head with a rock, and then picking through his pockets for his wallet and other valuables. The victim is not known to be a nonbeliever or idolater or belonging to any other class worthy of killing. The act is not motivated by mercy killing or implemented as part of wartime tactics. It is purely intended for personal gain.
Name a society that condones telling lies to someone who has reason to trust you—friend, family member, or other responsible person in your community—again for the purposes of personal gain. These are not the “white lies” of commission or omission on the order of answering the question “Do I look fat in these jeans?” This is lying in order to swindle someone out of land, money, or some valued possession that the liar wants to obtain for him- or herself.
Name a society that recommends or supports the genocide of a people who have previously been accepted and valued in the community, people who were once friends and neighbors but have suddenly become “the other” and outsiders for the political, economic, or religious purposes of some subset of the community.
The list could go on indefinitely. And it’s not that people don’t do these things, or that they sometimes get away with them during the upheavals of war, economic disintegration, or natural disaster. But find me a society or culture that would point to these ethical challenges and say that this is right and proper behavior.
I am not arguing that these actions are wrong because a god or a religious book somewhere said thou shalt not kill, lie, cheat, steal, or murder your enemies once you get the upper hand. Many religious traditions do transmit these and other cultural values and still prohibit such foul deeds. My argument is that these ethical principles are like the adaptations of biological evolution. They are so, not just because your tribe or culture says so, not because your god or your priest invokes them, but because these are the only ways in which human civilization can reliably function.
If a person cannot walk the streets without fear of becoming the victim of imminent and unrestrained murder for profit, then you don’t have a society but a jungle. If you cannot trust your friends, family, and respected members of your community to have your best interests at heart and seek to protect your life and rights to property and security, then you don’t have a family or a friend—or a community. And if your extension of good will and fair dealing to others in your society can sour to the point of murder over matters of race, religion, politics, or other noncritical and immaterial differences, then again you don’t have a society but a state of undeclared war.
Every species on Earth represents a hard-fought and -won adaptation to a particular environmental niche. The bodily configuration, reactions, capabilities, energy levels, and metabolism of any one species are not designed by an intelligence or selected according to some ideal pattern. Instead, they developed and became perfected over time because these features worked best in that place. And the fact that we see some of these species as precious and beautiful—think of songbirds and butterflies—is a fact of our own evolution. While the fact that we see others as creepy and scary—think spiders and alligators—is also evolutionary. We humans are evolved to find both beauty and terror in this world. We are adapted to this environment. If we had adapted to metabolizing sulfur compounds in the dark and boiling water of an undersea volcanic vent, we would find that kind of life beautiful, too.
In the same way, our nature—human nature—has evolved over time. While some of this evolution is adaptive to the physical environment—such as our peripheral vision, allowing us to perceive subtle movements in the bushes beside us, which might be a leopard waiting to pounce—much of our nature evolved in relation to our mental environment. Like many other mammals and some insects, we are social creatures. Our life exists in both the physical world and in the mental world of dealing with others of our kind, predicting their actions and reactions, and keeping ourselves and our loved ones safe.
In this sense, yes, much of our ethical teaching is a social construct. But it is not cultural in the sense of being limited to one cultural interpretation—say, Western Civilization—and either useless or irrelevant, and perhaps harmful, in terms of other cultures around the world, like being careless about where you point your shoe.
The core issues of ethics and morality are human issues, which means they bridge cultural affectations. They are so universal that they might as well have been pronounced by a god and preserved in a religious book. Because the image of that god is always created from some aspect of human nature and our species’ collective wisdom.