Posts tagged Individuality

Revisiting A Fruitful Idea in Ethics

Revisiting A Fruitful Idea about Morality

Tibor R. Machan

As someone who often teaches the topic of ethics or morality in colleges and universities, I have noticed that most of my beginning students entertain conflicting positions about the subject. They see it either as a one-size-fits-all system of guidelines, wherein everyone has to act the same way or they are bad people, or as purely subjective, wherein nothing is either right or wrong and it’s all a matter of one’s opinion.

And this is understandable. If there are right answers to questions about how we should conduct ourselves, it seems to many those answers must apply to us all, equally. Otherwise how could they be right? So they are pulled toward what is often called moral absolutism. But it also seems quite reasonable that certain answers as to how one ought to act do not apply to all people the same way since they differ in significant ways from one another. That suggests subjectivism.

How can both of these valid insights be satisfied?

One possibility is that a sound, correct ethics offers perhaps just one set of very basic principles that are broad enough to apply to everyone simply in virtue of us all being human. But this morality would also recognize that different individuals need different guidelines, given their special situations, including their unique individuality, culture, even the climate in which they live.

We have this, for example, in medicine and nutrition. There are basic principles in these areas but when they are applied to different people, accommodations must be made to the individuals in question–are they men or women, young or old, tall or short, of a certain metabolism or another, allergic to this or that? So, while the basics of medicine and nutrition are taught pretty much the same everywhere, when they are applied, things begin to vary quite a bit.

In morality or ethics, also, we may well have certain very basic principles that we all need to heed and practice–such as “Think things through before you act,” or “Be honest with yourself” or “Don’t deceive anyone,” “Do onto others as you have would have them do onto you,” or “Pursue excellence in life.” (I leave aside now which might actually be those few sound and universal guiding principles–that takes a lot of figuring out.) But as applied to particular, individual persons, what specific guidance would emerge from such basic principles will not be the same from one person to the next.

Yet something very important about both the concerns expressed by my students and many others would be satisfied in so understanding morality: there would indeed be something absolute or invariant about how we ought to act; yet this wouldn’t amount to an artificially detailed one-size-fits-all code.

Indeed, the idea would help with many things that concern us all: a just legal system would not have many general laws, only a few, because citizens are quite different from one another and have just a few things in common as citizens. The market place would make sense, what with all its highly varied goods and services aiming to fit different customers and using the varied talents of producers. Even art might benefit from this outlook: We all tend to think, I believe, that some things really are artistically excellent while others lack this quality; yet we also realize that different people, with various special attributes, backgrounds, and so forth, will appreciate different excellent works of art. Instead of thinking that everyone is artistically blind who fails to respond to some work favorably that one admires, a great variety of works will be seen as having artistic merit to different sorts of people, varied talents will produce varied yet still artistically excellent works. Yet, there will still remain plenty of room for concluding that some artists’ creations do not cut it at all.

Anyway, there isn’t much hope of settling big issues like this in a brief discussion but perhaps some hints toward a sound approach could at least be established. Very formidable thinkers throughout human history have grappled with these matters and studying their reflections would be a prerequisite for making headway. What I’ve tried here is no more than sketch out some promising initial ideas.

Column on Tempted by One Size Fits All

Tempted by One Size Fits All

Tibor R. Machan

For most of human history it used to be standard practice for parents to insist that their children not only live by principles the parents have found to be sound but also to adopt all sorts of practices of dress, play, work, taste and so forth that they approve of. Father was a barber so son, too, had to be; mother raised four children, so daughter, too, must bear the same number. Parents liked living by the sea, so the kids too must follow suite. Indeed, if a child had another idea, all hell tended to break loose. And those around the family who didn’t conform were deemed to be weird or inferior or just plain different in that sort of way that ‘s quite intolerant of such a thing.

In some cases this was a useful practice but more often it was a matter of habit, nothing much else. And since there are some matters concerning which one size does indeed fit all–such as certain ways of dealing with other people, certain ways to governing one’s life, and certain ways of setting up a human community, e.g., honestly, prudently, and justly, respectively–the idea has always been somewhat palatable. In nutrition, medicine, engineering, farming and so on some ways clearly are better than others no matter who is doing it.

Yet, it dawned on many folks in time that not everyone should act the same way, work on the same tasks, or wear the same kind of clothes or haircut, if for no other reason than because people faced significantly different situations in their lives. And, most evidently, they were themselves rather different, even unique. So a tall son would not fit well in the kind of clothes worn by a diminutive father. Hat and shoe and glove sizes aren’t the same for all. And once these and other differences got noticed and taken more and more seriously–as individuals were being paid more attention to as individuals–others managed to surface. In time the notion emerged that individuality is itself something important in our lives, that one isn’t replaceable by someone else except in special circumstances–say if one weighs the same as someone else where weight is what counts for most. So while in team sports substitutions are routine, they cannot easily be replicated elsewhere, such as in romantic love or friendship. Once it is clear that it isn’t just what one is but who one is that matters a lot, the one size fits all mentality comes under serious challenge.

But not everyone likes it and bad habits die hard. Even in markets it is very tempting to treat all potential customers as if the same goods and services were proper for them all. Thus we have mass marketing of stuff that really can only benefit some people–a certain type of exercise, a back ache cure, or a headache remedy. The more this is understood, the more the notion starts to make sense that one person’s way of life could well be perfectly well suited for that person without this being an offense to others for whom it is not suitable.

Yet the idea persists that everyone ought to worship alike or admire the same artists or fashion designer’s work. Here the temptation isn’t just a mistake but also a desperate hope since if one size does fit all, those who make that size will be able to cash in on this big time. Everyone should love Pepsi, Coca Cola, a Chevy, a Volkswagen, or a Bentley or take a vow of poverty or love the outdoors. Of course in some cases qualitative considerations do recommend conforming to what others prefer and do but more often what is best for Jerry could well not be best for Harry or, especially, for Sue.

Figuring out when one size does versus does not fit all–or most–isn’t that easy but it is usually worth the trouble, at least if it matters how happy one will be with what one pursues, has, or does in one’s life. For wearing the hat that doesn’t fit one is clearly uncomfortable, to say the least; and pursuing a career that will not be fulfilling can be a major hindrance to living happily.