I do not know where I was going to go with this post when I first wrote it but, here is what I have at the moment.
What if, instead of focusing on individuals, we focused on the space between them?
I mean that ethics, so far, generally focuses on individuals and their actions and virtues derive from those actions. What if, instead, virtues arise only out of relationships? I propose that one cannot be virtuous in vacuum (I’m far from the only one on that but still), only in relationships. This includes in relationship with self. Using ideas from psychology and sociology I come to an understanding of at least two forms of self within an individual and then the external relations we generally have throughout our lives.
One of the main issues in ethics is motivation. Why should we think about our actions? What about those situations that are not the extreme cases created in thought experiments? Then, when trying to define lines of where ethics stops, we come into the problem of what is sentience and who/what has it. Focusing on relationships instead of individuals and their actions avoids or answers all of these problems.
We must start with the “internal’ relationships first though and build out from there. This internal relationship is built up from the internal dialogue most individuals are thought to possess; between self-esteem the “I” and the “me” as some sociologists call it and then the society that the individual is immersed in. The “I” is the initiator (see what I did there? XD), this “I” is the animal per se, there are impulses that people have which arise from the “I” and the sense of being an individual. The “me is the consciousness mechanism which makes it so that the individual can look at its own “I,” recognize the impulses and decide whether to act upon them. The “me” is a mirror which is used to temper impulses. The relationship between these two is at the heart of the internal relationship and the possibility, chance, opportunity to have a healthy, flourishing relationship is why all human beings have rights and where ethical action begins.
The I arises from being one individuality. The “me” is more complicated in that it arises from a combination of recognizing one’s individuality as compared to society overall. The “me” internalizes this societal other and begins to apply rules and strategies to temper the impulse coming from the “I.” These rules, strategies and the general need to control the impulses comes from being in relation with others and society overall. The more people you come in contact with the more impulses the “me”learns to try to control and the more that the “I” changes and grows too. The relationship between the “I” and the “me” therefore, is a constant dialogue, one that can have various affects on the individual and how they see themselves/their self-esteem. If the “me” is weak for some reason meaning, unable to curb the impulses well, one can have a low self-esteem since what they think/want in some ways is overpowered by a more sub-conscious self leading the individual to feel like they are unable to control themselves.
An extreme to the other direction can lead to a similar problem. If the “I” is so tightly controlled that none of the impulses are ever considered the “I” can, in a way, be choked down like a fire without oxygen. In order for a human to flourish they need to find the correct balance; in order to have an impulse to act and direct those impulses towards things that they want. The potential for this flourishing is the kernel from which human rights and the impetus to treat others ethically arises. One cannot enact this potential without being in relationships. Only by finding a balance between the “I,” “me” and external relationships can a person flourish be truly happy and be trying to act ethically.
As can be noticed by my word choice: a basis for ethics for me begins with the ancient Greeks. Aristotle, specifically. It all generally starts off with, “what is good?” You cannot point at goodness, you can only say that things are in possession of qualities which make it “good.” If you consider the qualities that an object has which make it good, they are generally qualities that influence the objective of the object. A knife is good because it has a sharp edge which it holds for a long time, both qualities affecting the knife’s ability to do it’s one job – cut things.
Living things become more complicated of course but, overall, a good plant or creature is one that can successfully fulfill its niche and reproduce. Humans become a bit different though, this is because we have an ability to influence our environment in very profound ways compared to animals. We also have this “I”-“me” relationship so we have to decide what makes a good human being.
When we say that someone is a good person, what do we mean? Generally, it seems to mean that this person has qualities we value as a society: honesty, trustworthiness, helpful, etc. etc. Also, the person seems to be like that always and without need for ulterior motives. Someone can be “good” in order to gain something but once the truth is discovered, we find that we cannot call that person good anymore. The other side of a good person would be one who is content with their life. If we knew someone who had all of these desired qualities but begrudgingly, would they be “good”? I think not. As such, a good human being (person?), it appears, would be an individual that has these good qualities and works at gaining/enjoys having such qualities.
Next, these generally desired qualities–what are they? I think that virtue and care ethics are the two best places to find out what these qualities may be. In short, they are the qualities that generally show that the “me” can temper the “I” in the individual to the correct amount and supports the growth of others in creating a healthy relationship between the “I” and “me” in others an oneself. An exhaustive list is most likely impossible and even a good start is likely not recommended (and well outside of my current abilities). But the qualities I am speaking of are the same qualities that come up in religious ethical systems, virtue and care ethics systems. The one thing that has not been noted in these characteristics, especially from the side of virtue ethics, is how these characteristics help others flourish and gain a good relationship between the “I” and “me.”
The combination of these two is where an external ethics arises. In order to be a good person one must also interact with other humans and interact in such a way as to enact a healthy “I”-“me” relationship and enable others to do the same. In other words, to flourish one has to help enable others to flourish, or, in terms that are more legalistic: every human has dignity which ascribes certain rights to every individual and group.
Dignity, in the UNDHR, I think is the word used to point at the potential for every human to have this “I”-“me” relationship. The potential only. Some may not be capable of having it easily, if at all, but we do not know for sure. As such, every human being has the potential, has dignity, which requires all of us to recognize the ability for them to flourish if given the correct environment, education and relationships. Relationships are not just with other humans either, we are also in relation to other animals and, I woudl argue, our environment as well.
Although these other things may not have the same sort of dignity as other humans, humans have the ability to self-police and act in a good way with these other entities plus these entities do still help to form, reifnorce and support both the “I” and the “me” aspects of individuals; you simply cannot live in a physical vaccuum either. Finally, one’s interactions with these non-human entities also helps to show their internal “I”-“me” relationship.
Alright, a lot got said there, let me unpack what I mean. The potential that all human beings have to be in possession of this “I”-“me” dialogue, the potential only, I am calling dignity. To treat someone with dignity is to treat them in such a way as to be supportive of that other’s dignity. To act with dignity is to act in such a way as to be expressing your personal “I”-“me” relationship in a positive way or in a way to define your potential possession thereof. Treating others with dignity confers honor, the next word I intend to use often. Treating others with dignity could be called respect too but, respect as I understand it, does not go far enough. I can respect one’s dignity by not trying to negatively affect it but, I honor their dignity by respecting it and being willing to help them have/promote their own dignity. In honoring another’s dignity I see that my personal dignity is reflected in my relationship with that person and their dignity.
An interesting discussion on respecting versus honoring rights comes up at this point but, that will have to wait.
Next, of course, is respect. This is the negative action of supporting one’s dignity as compared to honor which is the positive and negative. By negative I mean the same as for liberties: to respect one’s dignity is to just not actively try to infringe upon it but not positively promoting it either, whereas honor (or grace) has that promotion aspect.
Grace and rights are the next two concepts. Grace is by far the largest term because grace is to act in such a way as to honor your own dignity and others in a coherent whole. A dancer has grace when their skill is combined with timing and an audience for it all to come together in a way that is pleasing to mind and body. Doing the same with dignity is grace. So, a graceful person in this sense, swims through their life and relationships with their own dignity and promoting everyone else’s dignity in such a way as to show a cohesion of self and make it all look easy. Socially graceful but, in a way that shows that they are truly a person and not just scheming.
For a much more compact, useful word, let’s talk about rights. Rights are those things which a group deems required for an individual to have dignity and for the society/community/group to honor individuals and other groups’ dignity. So, one can respect rights as in simply not infringing on them or honor rights as in working to promote and defend them.
So, how does one show/enact/honor dignity? This is where care ethics and the virtues arise. To care, for me, is to begin to cultivate thoughts and the ability to honor another’s dignity in specific ways to that specific other. I care is to listen to what the other considers important for their own dignity. To care is to honor in many ways. The next are virtues, these are the characteristics that one cultivates to create a healthy relationship between the”I”-“me” and that the society/group/individual has decided help to respect and/or honor their own dignity and others’. Only through caring about your personal “I”-“me” and others can you get the virtues and only with the virtues can you now your own dignity and others leading to right action and eudaimonia.
This “I” and “me” are fundamental to this ethical set up so where do they come from?
The “I” is easy, essentially it is the basic state of an individual being a living creature, there are desires/needs. The I arises through these needs and desires and, as one is exposed to more things, the “I” attempts to expand. This expansion leads to running into obstacles, some of which are environmental such as a river blocking access to food, and others are through having to interact with other individuals which also have their own “I.” These obstacles, especially those arising from other “I’s” help to create the “me.” This is because the “I” learns that in order to fulfill its desires sometimes one must work with the other “I’s” leading to a learning of how to take another’s perspective to try to work with them more effectively. But, this “me” due to its ability to take other perspectives, begins to put severe limits on the “I’ and its impulses through its continued dialogue with the I and others outside.
These limitations, though beneficial to society, end up hurting the “I’ unless the dialogue can be made healthy. The “me” and interactions can lead to all impulses by the “I” being stopped or controlled, leading to frustrations, disappointments, poor self-esteem, possibly other undesirable effects. So, the ‘me” has to be able to let the “I” work at the same time as tempering it because, someone simply satisfying their impulses leads to generally undesirable traits and could be considered to sign of immaturity. Cultures generally, have built into themselves what they would consider the best ways to keep this “I”-“me” relationship healthy in having explanations and expectations for how relationships should work: ethics.
These societal ethics, as such, are premised on what an individual ought to do in reference to different situations in that culture.