Sometimes the morality-thing can seem like a game, one where everyone just follows rules because those are the rules of the game and for no other reason than that. Sure, most of us believe murdering someone is wrong, but do we know why? What about the minor stuff, the everyday acts we take for granted? Is it really important we follow these rules? What is it that anchors down a moral code (if anything does)?
Ethics is the philosophical study of conduct, and conduct taken broadly can mean pretty much all of our actions in a given day! You’ve figured out that punching random strangers is a horrible thing to do, but you’ve likely never thought about whether or not the way you staple a stack of paper is ethical or morally right, but we perform our actions in a certain way for a reason, whether that reason is conscious to us or not.
Accepting at Face Value
So many of the actions we perform or beliefs we have are analogous to the stapling of paper; Someone some time ago showed you how to staple or you witnessed someone in the act of stapling and you sort of took the experience and determined that’s how it’s done and that was that.
When we are young we are at the mercy of those charged with our care. Our teachers, parents, older siblings, etc. influence our beliefs about our actions.
These beliefs often remain unchallenged throughout life and it’s not really a big deal. You suddenly realize you’ve been setting the table the same way your mom or dad showed you years ago even though you’ve been living away from home for 10 years. You find yourself giving the same advice your dad gave to you to someone else.
Beliefs are partially shaped by our upbringing and environment. An ethical issue arises, however, when that upbringing and environment are all that shape our beliefs. When we accept at face value and fail to inquire into the “why” behind beliefs, values, or codes of conduct, we fail at developing our personal responsibility.
Developing Personal Responsibility
Why is inquiring more deeply into the things we do and why we do them so important to the concept of personal responsibility?
By taking in an idea, churning it over in our thoughts, and critically examining it in relation to the rest of our beliefs, desires, and thoughts, we shift influence of the idea from an external to an internal one. If an idea faces the rigorous trials of our critical thinking and survives, it finds a place within our mental framework, it connects to other puzzle pieces quite nicely. It finds a home in our mental life.
If, on the other hand, the idea fails to live up to our standards, we can either discard it entirely or argue that it can be altered a bit to make it work. The outcome is entirely the same; The idea finds a home in our mental life, albeit in a different form.
In either case, through critically examining the idea we have weighed and measured it and made any explanation we may offer to others as to the correctness our personal testimony.
Our personal responsibility develops as a result of this process. Since we no longer are relying upon external influences we now have to own those testimonies. They are ours, we took the time to think about it, and now we must be ready to deal with the consequences (good or bad). This is a scary thing, but it allows us to have a sense of agency and self-efficacy where we are capable of being in control of our mental and moral life.
The actions we perform are done for reasons we believe important, not because of mere upbringing or because that’s how it’s always been done. Our conduct is connected with our mental landscape and we treat it as such.
Anchoring Down Morals
Different belief systems will give different reasons for why you should follow the prescribed moral tenets.
Religious reasoning may involve following the commands sent through divine interpretation or because living such a way allows one to come closer to the respective deity or allows one to enter an afterlife and live peacefully for eternity.
Secular belief systems may try to persuade one to live a certain kind of moral life because it is the kind of life worth living, and working together with others democratically is the path best travelled.
What kind of belief system you associate with does not matter, what matters is that you have taken the time to critically examine the beliefs of that system, made them your own, and have taken personal responsibility for them. It is through this process that you take a belief floating around your head, grab hold of it, and anchor it down.
The belief that you should act a certain way in any given situation is anchored to your personal beliefs and when the time comes to perform the right action, you don’t do it out of necessity or because someone else told you, you do it because you believe it is the right thing.
So often we take many of our actions for granted, we’ve always done them that way. Being able to sift through our conduct and develop reasons for why we do what we do builds both mental and moral character.
To have the courage to test our beliefs as well as incoming information is a difficult to develop virtue. It takes self-awareness, patience, and a willingness to change.
Critically examining yourself and why you do what you do builds this virtue through drawing out your most important values and testing them.
Someone who has gone through this process is more courageous when it comes to handling new ideas. They put them through the same rigorous trials as every other idea and because they trust this process they are better able to change even a deep-seated belief when the reasoning supports it. They are not afraid to change their views if it means a more coherent mental landscape.
They are also more prepared when someone comes along with a “shiny and new” idea that seems great from the outside but falls apart when examined more closely.
A person with this virtue is like a willow tree swaying in the wind. A strong oak tree has no choice but to snap under intense pressure. A flimsy twig gets thrown about with ease. A willow however will bend enough to give the wind its due, but will move back once it has passed.
If you train yourself to treat your own beliefs as well as the beliefs of others this way, you will gain a new respect for those beliefs. They are your own, after all, and to neglect exploring why you do certain things is to neglect your personal development.
No matter what ethical school you are part of you must seek to examine your beliefs closely and make them your own. It is through doing this that you anchor down your moral code and give it efficacy, making it more about who you want to be as a person and not about what others are telling you to do.
Being this kind of person nurtures the mental virtues needed to continue growing in your personal development, giving you the tools and courage to examine new ideas and change accordingly.