September 7, 2008

THERE ARE NO PRIVATE ACTS: Ethics Cannot Be “Personal Choice”

Private Moral Questions?

Some of us have the idea that ethical matters are personal. That it is a tenet of “freedom” and “liberty” and “democracy” that they are private and concern only us. That it is okay to continue with choices others consider unethical. This is one of the muddled illusions among us.

It is precisely, resoundingly false. Behaviors and consequences are ethical choices and moral matters simply, and only, because they matter. To us. To our collective well-being. To our survival. To an enduring ecosystem.

If you (or we) continue a behavior that others consider unethical, is it only a matter of your (or our) ethics? A personal, private moral choice?

If we haven’t stopped doing something yet, is it that it hasn’t yet become ‘wrong’ in our ethical system? Is it a private matter between we and ourselves?

We just haven’t gotten around to committing to the unethical nature of what we are doing. It’s not an ethical problem. Yet.

So. We are ethical or unethical, right only wrong, only by our own judgment and by our own lights.

This is the final, outrageous betrayal and perversion of any morality or ethics we might claim. Since we will not, who will presume to judge us?

We are not “multi-culturalists.” It is not from respect for other cultures or other mores or other organisms that we excuse ourselves from confronting the violence we do to others and the ecosystem. We silence our collective reflection and self-examination. Our all-silencing self-absorption is that of the profoundly selfish.

Violence and abuse are immoral. Willful ignorance, however, is criminal.

Hey, we are God’s People, right? We are a Democracy, a Free People, a Moral People, rational and enlightened. We are privileged and obliged to morally judge the morals and behaviors and of others.

We are the highest judges, the sole arbiters, of knowledge, wisdom and good intentions. You, and me, Americans. Me.

Isn’t it wrong for others to judge the ethic of what we do? Isn’t that Immoral, for God’s sake? Anti-democratic and ungodly and anti-American and… a violation of …ME?

How dare another presume a moral judgment beyond –above- my own? And judge ME? I will be the judge of the ethics of my choices, only me, and only when I am damn well ready. This, or that, will be an ethical problem for me only when I declare it an ethical problem.

I presume to be the only judge of whether my own distortions, rationalizations greed and self-righteousness injure others. Injure you. Or threaten planetary well-being.

How dare another judge your waste? My greed? Our selfishness? My self-righteous abuses of others? My indignance? Are not my self-serving distortions and rationalizations my affair?

There are no “private morals.” There are no “personal ethics.” These terms are perversions, meaningless self-contradictions. They erase the meaning, and the very possibility, of ethical deliberation. They do violence to our language and steal away our obligation to deliberate ethically together.

“It is time we recognized that belief is not a private matter; it has never been merely private.”

Sam Harris: The End Of Faith: Religion, Terror and the Future of Reason. w.w. Norton, New York: 2004. pp. 44.

Yes, it is matter of belief. Not just ethics, or morals, but belief.

When there were ten million people (and no internal combustion engines or nuclear weapons), taking a nice little piss in the woods was pretty much a private act. Wasting a little firewood or, say, metaphorically leaving the bathroom light on for a while may have caused just a little ethical twinge that could be practically set aside. For a while.

Now, even pissing in the woods is not a private act. You just can’t do that –ethically-anywhere. There are just so many of us that the burden of us all excreting in the woods will simply overwhelm the ecosystem with piss and poop. There are just too many of us. That leaves us crapping in industrialized “sanitary”-waste systems that use incomprehensible volumes of precious water as a mere vehicle for moving and spreading contaminants, but that’s another story. Pissing in the woods is certainly the more ethical choice.


With six billion people and headed for, say ten easy, there are no private acts.

Human population has reached and exceeded a threshold at which all of the resources of the planet are strained to serve only our material demands. The world really has changed, profoundly and permanently. We cannot think of any single act of mine that is not ethical, or unethical, in some way.

There is nothing that we do –that you do- that does not involve active choice about the use of now-critical resources. Everything we do broadcasts our clumsy, burdensome and irreversible degradation and waste of resources and spread of contaminants.

Now, our acts occasion the squandering of assets and the broadcast of poisons throughout the world and beyond.

Behaviors, choices and consequences are unethical and immoral because of their detriment to others. To us. Them. We. All.

And behaviors are ethical and moral, only insofar as they are not unethical, not immoral.

Insofar as they don’t harm others, us, them. All.

Take a crap in the woods. Build a fire. Acknowledge and do justice to the consequences of your consumption. (Fly a private jet to Aspen.) Acknowledge and do justice to your criminal abuse of us all. There is no indignity in honesty, and there is no immorality in acknowledging the harm we do.

Take back our language. Take back the honorable ethic of personal self-examination and collective self-examination. We will judge us. Speak justice.

There Are No Private Acts.

The water is running.

The lights are on.

The trees are falling.

The coal is burning.

The guns are firing.

The fish are dying.

The engine is running.

The fertilizer is leaching.

The planet is dying.

There are no longer any private acts.

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editor @ 10:04 pm

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