Whenever I hear that old rock song, “What a Wonderful World It Would Be,” the one where the guy lists all the subjects he ignored in high school: “Don’t know much about history; Don’t know much biology,” it reminds me of my own failure to comprehend the curriculum in high school. One subject I didn’t even take was “Ethics” but I recently took a crash course in this topic by reading an eye-opening book, “The President of Good And Evil,” by Peter Singer.
What I found so interesting was a brief description of how we form our individual ethics. A Harvard professor demonstrated that we all pass through the same stages of moral growth. As young children, we tend to be “me first” in our ethics, while trying to avoid being yelled at for our selfish acts. By the early-teens, we start obeying rules for their own sake ” again not for any ethical reason but to keep from being grounded.
However, some people take ethics to the next level and develop their own personal morals ” not based on hard and fast rules but in accordance with their own conscience.
We also have to acknowledge those who stay selfish and never develop ethics. Plus, there’s always the rebellious type, who never met a rule they didn’t want to break.
What struck me about this model is how many of us are stuck at the first two levels, regardless of our age. We run into selfish, me-first behavior by adults on a daily basis. We also encounter those who are only motivated to follow rules to avoid being audited by the I.R.S.
I would like to add another category to the rule-followers. Those who believe they didn’t do anything wrong, because they weren’t caught. A lot of us are like that. We only really park illegally, or break traffic laws, when we have a ticket to show for it. It’s dangerous for us to believe our own lies but there are many who live by this “ethic.”
What really intrigued me about this model is it explains the thinking of what we sometimes call “small-minded” people. They stopped at the rule-following-for-its-own sake level. They are literalists when it comes to rules and laws and they often have no interest in the “spirit” of the law. We had a Supreme Court justice like that, who wouldn’t rule on busing students, because he couldn’t find the word “bus” in the Constitution.
Here in Forest Park, we face ethical decisions on a daily basis. Do we park in a handicapped space to save a few steps? Do we drop our litter on someone’s lawn, because no one’s looking? Do we sneak out-of-district students into Forest Park schools and force children to live our lie?
Or, do we develop our own set of personal morals that goes beyond the word of the law to the “spirit” of the law? That way we’d be policing ourselves and our words and actions would be public-spirited. On April 6th, one could say that we have a moral obligation to vote for those candidates that have the most highly developed ethics. If we did that, what a wonderful world it would be.