Revisiting Ethics 101

When I was in college I double-majored in neurobiology and cognitive psychology, which meant the vast majority of my classes were in or related to those areas. Berkeley required me to take a few humanities courses in the hopes that they would make me a well-rounded person, but the young, earnest me filled those breadth requirements with classes on Logic, "Eastern Philosophy," and Art (painting). I wanted all my classes to be "useful." Utilitarian, if you will. Bottom line, I did not have a liberal arts education.[1]

That is, not until many years later, after I left science and went back to school at Georgetown, and there early on took my first ethics class. If you've taken an ethics class from a Euro perspective, you probably know what we studied. It was a comparison between Kant and Mills. The categorical imperative versus utilitarianism. Coming fresh from science, my preference was strongly for utilitarianism. Reductionist. Materialist. RATIONAL. I had NO USE for this Kant dude. He seemed to me an ideologue, making unfounded claims and demanding purity.

The reason why I bring this up is because these past few days post-GA I've been saying, and agreeing with others who've been saying, that people are more important than rules. Rules are created to serve people, not the other way around. This is not a new claim. What's new to me is connecting this to the understanding that many UUs are still operating under an Enlightenment world view. They want to be able to articulate universal governing rules whereby we interact with the least harm. "Do we say Native American or American Indian?" "Do we say people with disabilities or disabled people?" Wanting to know the correct answers, and then once those answers are "known" wanting to impose them on everyone in the belief that if they are true then they are true for everyone. This approach is materialist, reductionist, rational...

The intent - wanting to do the least harm - is good, but it's this idea that people are objects (not subjects) that can be studied and then described in simple rules that is harmful. Heck, even in basic science when we are studying objects there are always outliers, always exceptions to the rule. We ignore those outliers in favor of being able to draw a line. And that is usually ok and even highly useful. But when it comes to interacting with *people*, we can't just ignore a differences and try to fit them to the line. Rules are created to serve people, not the other way around. People are Martin Buber's "thou." People are sacred.

I realized that over the subsequent years, that even though Kant didn't phrase it that way I've switched from a more utilitarian outlook to a more Kantian. And that realization was amusing. Which is NOT to say that I am now a proponent of Kantian ethics. Seriously, there are more ethical systems than just what was thought of by these two Euro men. (And yes, I would still kill one person in order to save a hundred people, if I'd exhausted all other possibilities and those were the only two open to me, Kant be damned.)  It's just to say that, without even noticing it as it happened, my shift in worldview has been profound.  Rules are created to serve people, not the other way around.

[1] To this day, if someone starts talking about Foucault or Derrida, I look at them as if they're from another planet.

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Acknowledgments is made possible in part by generous support from the Fahs Collaborative