Ethics are rules of conduct. Philosophers formulate them based on their understanding of what the world is and how they know it. If they get these right (they seldom do), it all comes together and their ethics work. People apply them in their behavior. Over time, application of ethics becomes habits. This unconscious repeat of behavior improves the odds of the desired outcome. “You shall not lie” is an ethical rule. Lies lead other people to make decisions that are not in their benefit. If lies were permitted, people couldn’t trust in what they hear until they know it is true. That wouldn’t be practical. Nothing that involves more than one person can be done in the absence of trust.
So, it is of an individual’s long-term benefit to not tell lies. On the other hand, more people follow ethical rules; it becomes a greater spontaneous gain not to follow them. Laws and law enforcement find their place in eliminating that possibility. Those who break a rule must face a consequence. But it all begins in ethics. Without them, laws would be meaningless to people, and therefore, useless.
There are few important things to be understood about ethics. First, they are invented for common use in a given group – a political party, a tribe, a nation, etc. Ethics can’t be tailored for individuals without a lot of work. That would not only be very expensive service but also finding haute couture philosophers up to the job would be a big challenge. The only known example is Alexander the Great, who had Aristotle by his side. Accordingly, applying ethics is signing up for a group.
Ethics come around in very long spans of time. They become implicit in other information. Most of the ethics you have in your behavior came from your parents’ behavior, and theirs came from their parents -without explicit teaching at any point. Picking the ethics in information takes significant training without immediate benefit.
Higher-ups in any group tend to have problems with ethical behavior. There is relevance in that with the political structure of the group. An absolutist ruler practically owns the group and uses it for own benefit. So, ethics and laws wouldn’t apply to him. Members of the group try to find some benefit for them in the ruler’s own. An elected officer, in contrast, would be appointed to the job of managing the group’s affairs temporarily. If his powers are limited to doing the job, he would be subject to the ethics and laws of the group. However, more power accumulates around the office holder over time, which causes too many frictions in his conduct. He doesn’t become an absolutist, but the job he holds loses its function. In either case, things would be what they are until someone comes up with a new set of ethics, which lay grounds for replacing the corrupted system at hand.
People who don’t have material access to a group don’t find its ethics appealing. Outcasts, immigrants without prospect, and other groups with their own set of ethics should be counted out from ethical behavior expectations. Laws of the modern state and technology in its disposal suppress this matter but do not remove it. An individual may find too many challenges to ethical behavior in a cosmopolitan life.
Finally, ethics and laws do not always match. Ethics are the theory and laws are the application. Theories are bound to be disproven later when the world changes. One should not put too much faith in ethics. Instead, seeing them by reason would be the better approach.
These all bring us to the point of how to make ethics useful for the individual and the group simultaneously. It is an impossible task if ethics are taken at face value. They are for group benefits, which would be distributed as per the group hierarchy. Standing on the wrong side of the hierarchy doesn’t help. It is possible if one looks at the definition of the ethical rules.
The example above, “you shall not tell lies,” is good to begin with. It is true telling lies harm others in the short term and the liar in the long term. It is also true a group can’t exist in the absence of trust. But lies are still there in forms of white lies, “forgetting” things, lies for greater goods, lies to people who don’t matter, and so on. There are laws to keep the big picture together, but they either don’t apply to small pictures or applying them to small pictures outweigh the benefit for the procedures it takes. Accordingly, quite a few people turn “pragmatic.” Lies catch up with them eventually, but that doesn’t remove the immediate harm done to others. Not becoming “pragmatic” in that sense is also a bad idea as telling the truth doesn’t travel far when others have their guards against hearing lies.
The solution is in the definition of truth. The whole truth is somewhere out there, but others understanding of it is limited to their experience. Telling the truth is good and necessary for a happy life. Telling the whole truth, however, becomes volunteering information, which may or may not be true from the point of others. When interacting with others, one must use essentials that mean the same to everybody around. Air is not the same thing to a pilot and a meteorologist. It can kill one while making a paycheck for the other. But they both see air as the stuff they breathe. Keeping things simple, to the essence of them, is the way through about telling the truth. It can also be a terrific lie detector if the other person starts decorating around the simple things you say. If you don’t want to go out on Saturday night, just say you don’t want to when invited. It is much more trustworthy than explaining why you don’t want to. Even if you told the whole truth about why your words would only be information for the other person. Suppose the other person insists by explaining s/he really wants to go out on Saturday because of something personally very important. Then you can ask yourself why this information didn’t come along with the invitation in the first place. Because the other person didn’t want to sound needy? If so, what kind of friend are you to the other person? To be kept an arm’s length to do things on need to know basis? You don’t have to kick people out of your life for every little nuisance, but this gives you a lot of space for managing your affairs.
Other good ethics example is in altruism. Selfishness is used as a pejorative term against benefits of considering others in one’s actions. It is indeed very beneficial to be considerate, but before being considerate, one must first take care of self to be there. Where would be the fine line?
It is easy to suggest a tit-for-tat world, but then everybody watches each other before being good. Does it begin by someone’s taking a bold altruistic step and showing how it is done?
Unlikely. Ethical rules work when everybody applies them. One person’s altruism would be limited to his resources without showing any sustainable benefit to others. Besides, everyone’s capacity and resources differ. There is no measurement of fairness in everybody’s being altruistic. Inevitably it would fall apart. And it does.
The solution is in being altruistic when appropriate. Others can’t sleep or eat for you. Accordingly, you have your personal space of selfish action in life. Others recognize the size of your selfish space based on what you do – not what you think it should be. If you want your space to be bigger, you must do more in the eyes of others. If you push your selfishness beyond your recognized personal space, problems begin.
A case as such would be the corner office of a C-level corporate manager. That person would be entitled to be more comfortable and project more power than those who work in “cubes” because he would be doing something that makes more revenues than what those in the other jobs do. If he gets the corner office by cronyism rather than by doing what the job takes, others push his actual selfish space back. He would have to be increasingly altruistic for a corporate figure to compensate.