A prolegomenon to ethics

Agatha Christie’s famous fictional detective Miss Marple once said:

“…The truth is, you see, that most people … are far too trusting for this wicked world. They believe what is told them [by other people]. I never do. I’m afraid I always like to prove a thing for myself.” — The Body in the Library by Agatha Christie

Miss Marple is not quite correct. In order to get along in the world, we simply have to trust that the way other people present themselves is basically truthful; it is too time consuming to do otherwise. Nevertheless, the world is a wicked place — there is a great deal of wickedness, from big systemic problems like the lack of morals in our financial institutions, to small personal problems like the way one individual can be hurtful to another without even thinking about it.

I don’t want to deny that there is much goodness in the world, but neither do I want to deny that wickedness is exists, and is widespread.

10 thoughts on “A prolegomenon to ethics”

  1. So what’s the evidence of a great deal of wickedness in our Financial Institutions? My wife works in a very big one, and has for over 15 years. I’ve never heard her come home and mention any as wicked.

  2. PS As a rule I never attribute to wickedness what I can attribute to stupidity.

    So if credit swaps are wicked things, devised by wicked people, try making the case. I think it’s be easier though to just suggest the notion one could strip the risk out of securities and sell it separately may be more easily attributed to smart people outsmarting themselves and equally smart people buying these things…

    ….rather than wickedness.

    On a post all about “knowing” Dan, you’re going to have to sort this one out.

    I know plenty of smart people who do very stupid things in all sorts of industries (and Churches).

    I know very few if any really wicked people. Even the hoodlums and mobsters I know have a strain of decency in them.

  3. Bill Baar wrote:

    So what’s the evidence of a great deal of wickedness in our Financial Institutions?


    In terms of wickedness or evil, I doubt that Dan is talking about personal wickedness. But there could be impersonal structural evil present.

    The following example comes from Speaking My Mind by Tony Campolo:

    A structural evil is one that exists apart from the conscious willing of specific individuals, but nevertheless exercises controlling influence on how groups of people think and act. For instance, slavery as an antebellum institution was a structural evil, in that it was a demonic means for crushing the freedom and well-being that God intended for the many people who fell under its curse. Individuals Christians who had been born into the society that sustained that horrendous institution did not consciously decide to oppress the victims of slavery, nor could it be said that they were demonically possessed. But it is unlikely that many of them suffered any guilt over their participation in maintaining this institution.

    The language may be too theistic and demon-focused for many Unitarian Universalists but it does get the point across that individual intentionality may not be required for evil to happen.

  4. Consider my wife was going through a drill should their building be surrounded at the same time as those folks in ninja outfits in Oakloand were smashing up the Chase Branch. Next time your in a bank look around at the workforce and imagine how those folks would feel surrounded like that. Take a look at the gender and ethnicities of the folks working in that bank and compare it to your typical UU Church. I’m betting the banks a far more diverse group. When we start demonizing an industry as “wicked” we had best make the case about just what we mean because there are people out there acting on it now and they are violent.

  5. Bill — You write: “So what’s the evidence of a great deal of wickedness in our Financial Institutions?”

    The same thing that’s going on in most of the business world these days: greed. There is an ethical way to be in business: you go into business to provide something that people need, and you make a profit from providing those goods or services As an example, it has been said that the Quakers aimed to do good in the world and did very well indeed: Quaker businesses had a reputation for ethical practices, and for making money.

    But in many businesses these days, ethics are subservient to meeting the quarterly projections and making a short-term profit. Financial businesses have been among the worst: selling toxic assets, for example, or the whole derivatives market. Rather than being motivated by a sense of doing good in the world, many financial institutions are motivated primarily by greed.

    Bill, you also write: “I know very few if any really wicked people.”

    You are lucky. I have known a few very wicked people: a child molester, a couple of child beaters, a mobster (who unlike your mobster had no decency) come immediately to mind.

    Steve, you write: “In terms of wickedness or evil, I doubt that Dan is talking about personal wickedness. But there could be impersonal structural evil present.”

    I’m talking about both. In one instance where I have personal knowledge of personal wickedness, I went to college with someone who’s now a major player on Wall Street; he was unscrupulous and amoral then, and by all reports he has not changed. There are persons who give themselves up to wickedness, and they can only be called wicked.

  6. Dan, you can’t cite one single instance of corporate greed you believe going on. Go to any MBA program and you can find case studies in the corporate ethics class, and probably a sounder discussion of Biz ethics than you’ll find on ethics at all in any UU Church. You just make a sweeping generalization about all business (that it itself strikes me as a we bit unethical; at least not fair).

  7. I suspect that Dan used the word “wicked” because the Agatha Christie quote referred to “this wicked world,” and he just wanted to build on that theme.

    In my experience, UU’s usually tend to shun words such as “good” and “evil” because of their black/white character. “Wicked” is one of those words. Once he used it, Dan felt obliged to defend it by referring to child molesters and mobsters, people whose behavior is so repugnant that it puts them beyond any sympathy, even the sympathy of “bleeding-heart” liberals. Every person has inherent worth and dignity, except, of course, child molesters.

    We are currently living in one of those interesting periods of history where passions are running particularly strong. After a long period of torpor, progressives — perhaps inspired by the success of the Tea Party — are enjoying the feeling of righteous indignation by protesting economic inequality in general, and big financial institutions in general.

    Of course, it is a dilemma. Most people, whether they are “good” or “wicked” work for organizations. Most organizations have to make a profit to survive. Most profit-making organizations resolve morally-questionable issues in their favor. In the U.S., at least, we have long accepted the idea that the prime goal for corporations should not be to provide jobs or to serve the public or to solve social problems, but to make money for the stockholders. The government is supposed to set and modify the rules so that — by and large — things get done for our common welfare. I need not go on to explain how the effect of money on politics has undermined this arrangement.

    I too get swept up by passionate feelings. In my case, the military-industrial complex is my prime villain. I can see wickedness everywhere I look in the defense industry, and I will confess to enjoy reading the sweeping condemnations of someone like Andrew Bacevich. These over-the-top critiques give me energy to persevere. But the engineers and scientists and technicians and manufacturing people who work for these companies are — by and large — just trying to do a good job, make enough money to raise their families and contribute to their communities. I know this first hand, because I spent years working for the military-industrial complex.

    Reinhold Niebur, the author of “Moral Man and Immoral Society” and defender of the fight against Soviet communism, once said “Evil is not to be traced back to the individual but to the collective behavior of humanity.” Or, in the spirit of “hate the sin but love the sinner,” “condemn the corrupting effects of money and power on our financial and political system, but don’t attack the people who are just trying to make a living.”

  8. Bill, about ethics and MBA programs: This is only one data point, but it happened to me first-hand last year.

    I was in a computer organization class, a very hard class with both a lecture and a lab component. One of the other students was pursuing his MBA and an undergraduate CS degree simultaneously (it’s a thing our university does). We were doing control point charts, not as a group assignment, but as individual assignments while in lab together. This guy picked up another student’s control point chart, carried it up to the teacher, and asked him if he’d take it to the departmental office and copy it so he could use it. The teacher, in a very restrained manner, explained that copying other people’s work was wrong and refused to do so. The student _shrugged_.

    What got me about it wasn’t that the guy was doing something unethical. It was that the utter wrongness of what he was doing didn’t even register. He was deaf to ethics.

  9. Dan – You shouldn’t be writing about wickedness on your BIRTHDAY! happy belated birthday dear brother. (PS check your Facebook wall)
    Love, Your sister.

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