How did it get there?

Monday, January 24, 2005

Ethics: Threat or menace?

When most people talk about ethics, they mean general guidelines like "avoid nepotism" and "don't steal office supplies". But consider lee harvey oswald, or einstein, or the guy who composed "baby elephant walk". Does anyone give a damn whether they littered or stole office supplies or defended a woman's right to choose or cheated on their sixth grade social studies homework? It's overshadowed by their major impact on the world, and rightly so.

The problem is that most people don't HAVE a major impact, and they don't try to exert one. Instead, they become microscopically focused on the moral repercussions of their tiny decisions about what brand of orange juice to buy.

Maybe it comes down to the idea that someone who lives a marginally good life goes to heaven, and someone who lives a marginally bad one goes to hell. From a consequentialist point of view, such people barely deserve moral recognition at all. The things they did with their lives just don't make any damn difference.

Then again, maybe it's the idea that the world is a delicate balance. That's very appealing to people, for some reason, but it's not really true in most contexts. In the big picture, the world is a runaway train, and making sure that your little glass of orange juice doesn't tip over in the dining car isn't going to stop it.