December Songs

"As the days dwindle down to a precious few..."

Origins of Ethics

Morality Unspoken

The words were never spoken in my house. Never once uttered. Indeed, they were assiduously avoided, as if saying them would change everything, call into question the very meaning of the words. But never, for a day, for a moment, did I ever feel unloved. They were of a different generation, my parents, a generation less psychological, one less in need of constant reassurance, one both more and less direct. I never longed for them to say it, never felt deprived, never in doubt, for even in their displeasure, censure, and anger, I knew.

There is, of course, merit in saying the words, “I love you”. Few other words have such a life-altering impact as these. But the sinews of love, the binding strength of love, is in deeds, not words. This is why, before and beyond anything we utter, our deeds go forth in the world, and why I know that I, myself, am able to love—because my parent’s deeds live on in me.

My parents love for me, and my sister and brother, did not spring from their religious beliefs, was not contingent on church affiliation, not derived from “Thou Shalt Not” imperatives. They could have left their church (they did), changed religions, or become non-believers and their nurturance, protection and care for their children would have remain unaltered. Their commitment to our welfare was deeper than religion, more primal than creed.

Ethical Indebtedness

We do not choose our children. They are born to us, miraculously, and we are entrusted with their care. Our face-to-face encounters with our children are asymmetrical; our children are completely vulnerable to our response, completely dependent on our care. They expose us to the mystery of life, and their helplessness alerts us to the ever presence of harm, injury, death. Their life depends on our simple, daily acts of feeding, giving and care. We love our children, not for what they can do, or what they provide, but because of who they are, their irreducible uniqueness; specific beings who are bound to us, who have a moral claim on our being.

This moral claim entails love. If our “care” for children is merely functional, simply dispensing nutrients, offering basic shelter, and providing the bare essentials necessary for survival—“care” without love—our offspring wither and die.1 Every culture, in every historical epoch, shares these human truths. Our love for our children, and the attendant acts of care, are hardwired.  And this must be so, if our species is to survive.

The ethical circle of regard encompasses more than our children. We are a social species and our individual and collective survival depends on our communal acts of care, cooperation and sharing. This, too, is hardwired, from the specific brain neurons dedicated to human facial recognition, to neonates’ innate ability to imitate others, to toddlers’ preverbal appreciation of fairness in exchanges, to young children’s spontaneous acts of compassion toward someone in distress.

Ethics does not appear only when creeds are uttered. Morality is not confined to those who profess certain beliefs. We are beholden to others, dependent on one another throughout our lives. We are, fundamentally, ethical beings. Our daily, in-this-moment journey is a moral one, and every action a decision about how to comport ourselves in the face of ethical demands engendered by being with others.

Ethics and Cruelty

Picasso’s Guernica
Museum Reina Sofia
Madrid, Spain

Human history, however, or even a cursory glance at the morning headlines, reveals a frightening range of human cruelty, casting a shadow over assertions about the fundamental ethical nature of human life. Our primordial ethical indebtedness does not prevent murder, rape, abuse or the many other forms of malevolence or, for that matter, the petty acts of greed, dishonesty, and selfishness that pollute our daily life. Overwhelming evidence indicates that more than ethical kindness beats in the human heart. But human cruelty does not obviate the centrality of ethics in human life. Rather, our ethical relatedness exposes human cruelty, allows us to grasp it as such.

Ethical Humanism

Ethical Society St. Louis

I am a member of the Ethical Society of St. Louis, which is a humanist, non-theist religious community. We are often queried by our more traditional religious friends of how we can be moral without a creed; how we can be ethical without a belief in a higher power. These questions are posed to us by those from a variety of different religious traditions, beliefs and practices. Our answer: The multiplicity, diversity, and sometimes contradictory ethics of the many religions spring from a common human ground of ethical regard. Or, more simply: “Deed Before Creed.”2 3

  1. The extensive research on Failure to Thrive documents this outcome.
  2. This is the “creed” of the St Louis Ethical Society.
  3. I am indebted to the philosopher, Emmanuel Levinas, whose wisdom about ethics and morality has formed my understanding of the origins and foundations of ethics . This post is derived from my article, “Levinas and the Ethical Context of Human Development”, published in Human Development, 1999, which offers a more extensive, complex, and detailed discussion of this topic. The full text of this article requires access to the archives of this journal and may not be available to most readers; I will send you a copy if you send me a request.

2 Comments

  1. Another very eloquent and relevant posting. Thanks.

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