June 4, 2012 | Posted By David Lemberg, M.S., D.C.

John 1:5 And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehendeth it not.

Ethics as a foundation of human affairs is fast disappearing from our world. The litany of human selfishness, crassness, and sheer bad behavior is unending. Whether the topic is Wall Street robber barons betting against securities they sold to clients (who naively trusted their “bankers” and purchased the recommended financial instruments in good faith) or the venality and mendacity of congressional “representatives” whose true loyalty is to those who fill their campaign war chests rather than to the citizens who elected them and foolishly count on their wisdom and judgement, the public arena and daily news cycle are replete with cautionary tales of failed trust.

Remarkably, we continue to believe the lying liars. Regardless of the bilge which continues to spew from the mouths of oracular politicos, pundits, and self-proclaimed financial wizards, polls always show a 50/50 split, pro or con. The presidential race is very close, 49% to 46% in favor of the president according to a June 1st CNN poll, despite stark differences in policies, results in the real world, and vision for the future. The recall vote in Wisconsin is similarly deadlocked. A recent Marquette Law School poll showed the governor leading the challenger, 52% to 45%, a gap that is not statistically significant. The recall is being attempted owing to the first-time governor’s successfully pushing legislation which effectively ended most public worker’s collective bargaining rights. Two Republican state senators were ousted in recall votes in August 2011.

If 50% of the people will buy what you’re selling, there’s no need to change your tune. Exxon profit was $9.4 billion in 4Q 2011. That’s almost $40 billion annually. Forty billion dollars. It’s easy to see where our gas money is going. Why are prices at the pump higher than $4 per gallon? The number one answer is gambling. Or commodity futures trading, as such shell games are politely termed by the 1%. The number two answer is corporate greed. Gas prices aren’t high owing to shortages. Gas prices are high because of price gouging. Gas prices are high owing to corporate monopolies. If this weren’t the case, Exxon and friends wouldn’t be earning billions each month on the backs of captive car owners.

If ethics were alive in the world there would be broad pushback from a government such as ours (in America) which purportedly exists “of the people, by the people, for the people”. As philosopher Hans Jonas famously said, ethics is a doctrine of action. A body of ethics is a set of guideposts which point the way to appropriate action. Choosing any random action, i.e., any action that pops into one's head, that seems good or appealing in the moment, is not an effective way forward. Per Kant, the best action is one which, if it were universally chosen, the outcome would still be good. But in the 21st century hardly anyone operates in this way, and if we critically review history in the common era, it’s possible to conclude that hardly anyone ever did.

So it can't be a surprise that our own brief period of prominence is seemingly bereft of any substantive ethical framework. But there are a number of compellingly new (not necessarily good) characteristics concerning life at present. First, the burgeoning mass of humanity. Water shortages and food shortages are provoking repeated crises. Wars are predicted owing to an ever-diminishing supply of scarce resources. Second, climate change is upon us with logarithmic force. Extreme weather events, melting glaciers, shifting habitats of agricultural pests and disease vectors, and the toxic effects of global environmental pollution have the combined potential to severely change the world as we have known it. Current local resource-driven struggles may transmute into global conflicts with devastating results. Third, we literally have the ability to destroy the ecosphere, us included, by unleashing worldwide thermonuclear war.

Ethics provides solutions to every problem humanity is facing. The problem is that ethics is in short supply. Implicitly, thinking is in very short supply. This assertion is awfully ironic, as the primary difference between humans and all other species is self-knowledge. Humans know that we know. But if we don’t know much, we’re not going to be able to help ourselves. Now more than at any time in history, our survival advantage depends on our being able to take care of each other. But we have never done a very good job of that. Not even close.

The Alden March Bioethics Institute offers graduate online masters in bioethics programs. For more information on the AMBI master of bioethics online program, please visit the AMBI site.

1 comments | Topics: Bioethics and Public Policy , Bioethics in the Media , Environmental Conservation , Ethics and Morality , Health Care Policy


Larry Conroy

Larry Conroy wrote on 06/04/12 1:07 PM

It almost seems like there are too many people who are expecting a massive, and totally destructive earthquake/tidal wave to strike at any moment, eliminating all so-called intelligent life on the earth. Their idea of ethics is to "grab as much as ye can grab while the ability to grab is good." A perfect example: the Mobil oil TV ads, extolling the great job of beautification they have completed on the Gulf Coast and how much it has cost them to do this. All spoken by a smiling announcer, strolling on a beach with off-shore oil drilling platforms lurking discretely in the background.

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BIOETHICS TODAY is the blog of the Alden March Bioethics Institute, presenting topical and timely commentary on issues, trends, and breaking news in the broad arena of bioethics. BIOETHICS TODAY presents interviews, opinion pieces, and ongoing articles on health care policy, end-of-life decision making, emerging issues in genetics and genomics, procreative liberty and reproductive health, ethics in clinical trials, medicine and the media, distributive justice and health care delivery in developing nations, and the intersection of environmental conservation and bioethics.