Should you lie to the Nazis knocking on your door looking for Jews? Is it okay to steal from Corporations who accepted money stolen from you? Should you assault a man if he slaps your wife?
Calvin & Hobbes is a classic, one of a kind cartoon, and in the strip above we can find an important fact about ethics, even though definitions of ethics are vastly varied, from Utilitarianism to the Categorical Imperative.
However, for the purposes of clear communication and consistent applicability, I define ethics as "An individual's opinion about what is good for everybody involved in a particular situation." Ethics always involves making decisions on behalf of other people.
So, what can we learn about ethics in the strip above? I think we can extract a couple of principles.
1. Ethics is relative to the situation & your opinion about it.
2. Ethics involves a subjective judgement of what YOU believe is fairness (what is good for everybody).
Maybe Calvin doesn't like to lie because he understands how lying is, by definition, unwanted or at least unknown to at least one of the people who are involved in the situation. However, when Calvin is confronted with lies from the monster he has two options: lie to the monsters in return, OR maintain honesty. Either way works out just fine! Ethics is your opinion on the matter. Since ethics is a concept relating an action to one's OPINION on an action, there is no grounds for ethics apart from the subject's personal interpretation. There is NO objective grounds for ethics, seeing as the concept of "ethics" itself is a relation between certain actions and one's opinion. The fact is that some people would fault him for lying and others would fault him for being honest. Who is right and who is wrong? You decide.
Above I asked, "Should you lie to the Nazis knocking on your door looking for Jews?"
Well, let's imagine that you know the Nazis would never find the Jews. And let's also assume that the Jews are good friends of yours who only want the best for you, but you are afraid that you won't have enough food and water to last both your family and theirs through the winter.
Do YOU know "the universally fair" answer to that problem? Does it even make any sense to say that the answer to one situation in particular is "universally" or "absolutely" true or fair?
Do you turn over the Jews for fear that they may starve in hiding, or do you lie to the Nazis because they are vicious criminals? Or something else entirely?
Would I be wrong for lying to the Nazis? Would I be wrong for reluctantly turning over my friends? Who knows? It's up to you. Ethics is just your opinion. Even God's opinion on the matter is just an opinion.
Another example is the question "Is it okay to steal from Corporations who accepted money stolen from you?"
It is true that corporations have accepted vast amounts of stolen and counterfeit money from the United States government, but does that mean it is okay to steal from them? If you are poor and have nowhere to turn, who's to tell you that you're wrong? On the other hand, what if you get caught and go to jail causing you, your family and friends lots of pain?
Which decision is the ethical one? The answer is all of the above. Opinions vary. This definition holds with the 3rd example provided above, "Should you assault a man if he slaps your wife?" Fairness is subjective, and dependent upon how you perceive the situation. You get to decide what is "fair".
General Rules?But what about the big no-nos? Murder? Rape? Could those ever be ethical? Sadly, yes, people find that those actions to be ethical on a daily basis. Hitler thought that his genocide of the Jews was HIGHLY ethical; some form of divine cleansing. Fortunately, the only way to maintain such a position is by committing logical fallacies such as placing Jews into a physical, objective category distinct and separate from other humans. This is a break from reality, an insanity that doesn't convince many.
However, on the flip side, it is always and forever ethical to defend the victims of such crimes, or for those victims to fight back, resist and destroy the insane oppressor. Whichever side you take is your opinion, however sane it may or may not be.
The StateThis argument also applies to the State as a whole. Some people called Statists believe that the State exists objectively, distinct and separate from other humans, and therefore they may operate as thieves, murderers, and kidnappers without recoil. To them, this is truly an ethical situation based on their irrational reification of the State, or the Government into an existing object with "a structure" and "a purpose".
All humans are bad and must be controlled and dominated by the Statesmen, or "The Will-o-the-People", which are somehow objectively different from all other individual humans. It may be insane, but to them they are perfectly ethical.
The problem is not that ethics vary, the problem is when people hold ethical points of view that are split off from reality, relying on irrational hypotheses. Gods & Governments are the two biggest examples of such. Unfortunately, I do not believe such irrationality can be "cured" in most people. For many, the irrationality infects the personality as a whole; a major part of one's identity. Those seem to be entirely lost in the fantasy world they created for themselves, like the Nazgul who wore their rings for far too long.
But there are still some who see reality as it is, without prejudice. If you are reading this today, I assume you are one of them. Thank you so much for taking the time to read.