Social ethics

Sometimes, the morality of certain people or societies perplexes or troubles me. This is because I honestly believe that social ethics are codes of behaviour which have been created by people to make life simpler for themselves. If we actually think about social ‘rules’, they don’t all make sense and they largely promote ideas of ownership (people in power protecting their possessions). Some of these codes translate into individualistic notions like, ‘keep out of my space’, ‘this is mine and you can’t touch it’ etc. We get married and think of our other half as another possession, which is why it’s so important for us to make sure s/he does not care for anyone but us. We see how damaging this ego-centric system is only when it’s too late: when people get old and they have no one to care for them because they kept everyone at a distance, or when a person dies and no one realises they’ve gone.

I have just had a debate with a friend about social ethics versus ‘natural morality’. I think that natural morality is doing unto others as you would have them do unto you, because basically, whatever you give out will return to you in some way. But my friend believes that the little codes of behaviour are really important, like the code of privacy which means you should never pry into another’s affairs (harmless curiosity can become harmful sometimes, I guess), or the code of etiquette which means you should always ask the person ‘in charge’ before you do something, even if you know what their answer would be. These are certainly cultural codes, but they have become so ingrained that in our society we are outraged if someone reads our personal e-mails; we have so many secrets and we think they could be used against us. All of this despite the fact that many of our e-mails are checked by certain organisations, without us knowing. They do it because they don’t trust us, and we despise such voyeurism because we don’t trust them. So, really, some social ethics are necessary because we live in a society without trust. That’s why morality is so complicated. How do you know if something you did is REALLY wrong, or if it’s just a little bit wrong? I think it comes down to the ‘Harm Factor’: could the action harm someone? If the answer is no, then it is likely to be, at the most, a bit wrong. If you INTENTIONALLY harm someone then it’s very wrong.

Sometimes, you are not the best person to judge the harm factor…

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