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September 14, 2011 / compassioninpolitics

Toward Agreement on Human Values and Ethics

Relationships and Ethics
Trust and relationships are fundamental to functioning human societies. They also form the basis of tacit bonds between humans in which they derive both emotional benefit and growth toward something potentially bigger and better and more excellent. As such, parents who neglect or harm their children are rightly deemed not responsible. Honesty, duty, responsibility, nurturing, mentoring, reciprocity, and cooperation toward higher goals are all partially founded on both this need and the inner human gut that says “this is the right thing to do.”

Ethics, Fairness, & Justice
When we are in the position of weakness or vulnerability….or worse in the position of genuine victim….we duly proclaim such violations as “injustice” “unfairness” and “unethical.” This gut feeling is fairly universal in the European, Asian, South Asian, and Latin American peoples I’ve interacted with throughout my life (I’m sure there are exceptions, but my guess is they would represent vastly less than 1% of the human population). That there is an obscure tribe which doesn’t uphold this principle seems irrelevant. This principle is so basic to human interaction and life, that we’ve encoded several of these feelings of injustice in the Universal Declaration of the Rights of Men by the United Nations. This is a document which serves as an ethical guide of sorts, which nations across the world have consent to.

The Fate of the Common Good & the Polis
A life without ethics and normative values leaves us without a vocabulary for political reform. We can’t call on our brothers, sisters, politicians, and corporations to help shape a better world–which allows the achievement of greater human potential. Martin Luther King Jr. knew that values, commitments, and ultimately humans had value–which transcended the appearances might say, convention might say, or what authorities might dictate from on high. His dream was the driving force behind what was one of the greatest reforms of political change in American history. His dream echoed through the hearts and minds of those who listened on August 28, in 1963 in Washington DC and it continues to echo today. King declared:

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”
I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.
I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.
I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.
I have a dream today!
I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of “interposition” and “nullification” — one day right there in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.

King concluded his speech with deep conviction, purpose, and gravitas:

And this will be the day — this will be the day when all of God’s children will be able to sing with new meaning:
My country ’tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing.
Land where my fathers died, land of the Pilgrim’s pride,
From every mountainside, let freedom ring!
And if America is to be a great nation, this must become true.
And so let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire.
Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York.
Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania.
Let freedom ring from the snow-capped Rockies of Colorado.
Let freedom ring from the curvaceous slopes of California.
But not only that:
Let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia.
Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee.
Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi.
From every mountainside, let freedom ring.
And when this happens, when we allow freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual:
Free at last! Free at last!
Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!3

A world without values….without good and evil….is a world in which Kings dream remains tragically unrealized. And its a world that I and many others don’t believe has meaning or purpose. Without shared goals and mission and reciprocal commitment to cooperate to achieve those goals–our relationships, are families, our businesses, and our communities lack any grounding, any predictability, and any accountability. I’m not sure any rational human would choose to live in such a world by choice–much less wish it on their brother, sister, neighbor, or family.

Ethics, Character, & Dignity
If someone who fulfills these obligations can’t rightly be deemed as a person of character and one who utter fails, without character, our words have fundamentally lost all their character of value and meaning, and differentiation.

Humans aren’t dirt. They aren’t mere objects. They have value. Policies like slavery, abuse, domination, manipulation, and neglect are rightly deemed affronts to dignity, justice, and the humanity of the individuals it afflicts. In short, our human choices have meaning. A world without meaning and value, is far worse than a world where think we have an ethical free-for all.

What About Our Differences of Opinions?
If we take the common example of the elephant and the 3 blind men who each think they have a hold on a different animal. While gathering the data from the men is an interesting thought experiment and even education, the fact hasn’t changed that what they are holding on to is an elephant and will be an elephant until it breaths its last breath.

True, some people have disagreement about the exactness of moral principles, but that doesn’t mean we can’t aspire to live lives of great character and creating a world in human potential and excellence is a step closer for our brothers and sisters.

In fact, without ethics, enduring political conflicts between Israelis and Palestianians can continue unabated…..a hundred genocides like Rwanda and the Sudan can continue to ravage the future of the African continent…..violence in the American inner cities is just a meaningless news blurb between weather and sports. In such a world, our families and indeed our futures don’t really have much meaning outside of the flippant fun of the moment. Justice, fairness, ethics, and commitment to human dignity in the face of ravaging dehumanization our best and only check against such a world.

What are the types of ethical human obligations?

Family obligations
Relationship obligations (friends, acquiantances, and significant others)
Commitment and consensual obligations
Legal obligations
Obligations to the self
Obligations to future generations

What does a world without ethics and values look like?

A world without ethics & values destroys the meaning of character (helper vs. non-helper)
A world without ethics & values destroys the meaning of hero (courageous vs. non-courageous)
A world without ethics & values destroys the meaning of story and history (who cares?)
A world without ethics & values destroys the meaning of family (good mothers & bad mothers are just the same)
A world without ethics & values destroys the value and meaning of relationships
A world without ethics & values destroys the meaning of responsibility and duty
A world without ethics & values destroys the meaning of politics (all political courses are just the same)
A world without ethics & values destroys the purpose of truth seeking and education
A world without ethics & values denies meaning and value in life (all potential lives for you are equally valid–criminal, slouch, humanitarian)

Here are some potential maxims which could serve as the basis for creating–some may not agree, but its a starting point for dialog and conversation:

Be honest as a general rule
Honor your commitments and responsibilities (reciprocity & cooperation)
Don’t use or abuse people (the law of non interference)
Obligation to yourself to live with character, dignity, and develop your talents
Give back (use your talents to leave your community & the world a better than when you started)


You can read this essay, which is similar, but provides a logical breakdown of the the ethical relativist argument based on both its premises and conclusions Giving up on Ethics is Giving Up on Almost Everything Human Also, these ideas are mirrored in my other post on ethics as well as some other Quora answers on Ethics.

“I Have A Dream” Speech by Martin Luther King Jr.:…

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