But when they fall out of sync, again, ethical tension. If I believe that I should be able to say anything to anybody I want – about women, men, race, gender, transgender – and the community thinks there are just some things I should keep to myself, who wins? If I believe I should carry my gun any place I go, and members of the community think there really should be some gun-safe places, who wins? That is where we make our ethical decisions.
I was taught growing up if you figure out the core principles, and you think about it hard, you will come up with answers that everybody will agree with. Then I started practicing and trying and discovered that we have lots of different answers; because nobody told me the big secret: it depends. It depends on what you see, how you value things, and then it depends on how skilled you are at exercising what is called prudential judgment.
So this conversation is not new. It has been going on for some 5,000 years. In our particular tradition, we begin back with the Jewish philosophers and ethicists, the Ten Commandments, we are all familiar with those Jewish law and ethics got interpreted through Greek philosophy: Aristotle, Plato, Euripides, the Stoics. Then Saint Paul, and Augustine, and Aquinas translated all of that into Christian theology and understandings.
Then we moved into the Modern world with an emphasis on science and reason, and you and I now live in what is called the Post-modern world, a world where a personal narrative and individual choice gets to make the difference. As you can imagine, over 5,000 years, the philosophers talked a lot about how to live a good life, and have some opinions about that.
Well, actually they have four different opinions on what constitutes a good life. The first comes from a group of philosophers who say, in deontology, “duties are right” “If individuals use their head to figure out the principles of their life, they will know what to do.” “No,” others say, “what you need to do is to search your heart, to find the desires that are important to you. Then you will know how to live” “No,” another set says, “no, no, no. The individuals, as members of their community, use their reason looking around in their community to see where justice is. Where do we need to make sure that everyone is cared for?”
And the fourth school of thought said, “Virtue ethics is a gift. Members of the community searching their heart, get to see what counts as excellence, as we live in to our roles.” Well, what the person has to do? We have four different theories, four different ways of approaching. It turns out that all of them are right and all of them are wrong. And what you and I get to do is to figure out how to bring the best of these four theories into our own lives. What we also know, because we had more than 300,000 people take a little test, is that each one of you in this room has a particular theory you really like, or maybe a blend of two.
And that theory has both a good side and a shadow side. So we become ethically mature on our path, the key is to learn to ask good questions, questions that are framed by each of these theories. The first set of questions asked is to seek the truth. What do you really want? What are you trying to accomplish? Why am I making this choice? What is my motivation? What do I really want and need in order to be happy? By the way, it turns out to be a lot less than we think. How do I use my resources and power fairly? And then, what kind of character do I want to develop? So by asking these questions as we face difficult decisions, we can begin to seek the truth.
But that is only the first part. Next, we have to learn to care for others as we seek that which is good. Again, our philosopher friends give us some questions to ask. How can I treat others as they want to be treated, not the way I want to treat them? How do I treat others with respect, so they too get to choose a path of life in meaning? How do I care for those with no power, without resources, so they have opportunities for choice? And then the scary one: for whom am I a role model? Who is looking at me to see the best way to live? Well, we’ve now sought truth and goodness, and as we become ethically mature, we learn how to harmonize our values and to live with integrity. Scientists have a work for those who take very complex ideas and move them into easily understandable thoughts. It is called excellence.
So as we become ethically mature, we are able to live into ethical excellence harmonizing skillfully truth and goodness to create a life of beauty. So our philosophers give us a word of advice: be honest and responsible, even if nobody is watching. Be respectful of others as you seek the common good. Be fair in all that you do. And finally, be compassionate as you align your actions with your core values.
Now we have a path forward, now we have a better answer than “I just know what to do.” As we combine truth and goodness, we can craft a path forward. So I invite each of you to use your personal telescope, discover the values and principles that are important to you.
Looking through your personal microscope, take a look at your world, your context, your passions, your desires, as you decide how you are going to live your life. But don’t forget you are a member of the community, and make sure that you look around and see how you can support justice and fairness in all that you do. And then take a selfie. As you chose which roles you are going to embrace, make sure that you live into ethical excellence as defined by yourself and others. So now we have a way that we can move forward and make very difficult decisions, exercising prudential judgment.