Missing the Forest for the Trees

By Gibney, Mark P. | The Humanist, May 1999 | Go to article overview

Missing the Forest for the Trees


Gibney, Mark P., The Humanist


All of us would like to think that, as Americans, we are ethical people. And all of us would like to think that we work for corporations or business enterprises that are guided, in no small part, by ethical concerns. All of us would like to think that our national government acts in an ethical and moral manner. Finally, all of us think that the world would be a far, far better place than it is if only people--other people, that is--acted more ethically than they do.

Few, then, would deny the enormous importance of ethics, and fewer still, I suppose, would deny that we need more ethics of some sort in our lives. Yet, despite this apparent interest in ethics and ethical behavior, we go to enormous lengths to avoid dealing with ethical issues, and this tendency to flee from moral concerns is particularly pronounced in the United States.

Obviously the last sentence needs some further explanation. For one thing, how can the most religious people in the world--at least in terms of belief in God, church attendance, and so forth--be accused of removing themselves from a wide range of moral issues? But ethics is not religion. While there is, and should be, an overlap between the two, ethics and religion are certainly not one and the same. Religion is ultimately based on some metaphysical view of "the ultimate," and the rules and doctrines of a religion are the means of responding to that ultimate. Morality or ethics, on the other hand, is a concern with what we consider to be "right" or "just" behavior. If you still have trouble separating the two, think of all the people you know who profess to be religious (and may well be) yet whose behavior in a variety of ways borders on the unethical or even goes well beyond it.

The other kind of response I would anticipate to the assertion that we Americans flee from most of the moral issues around us is the simple answer that this isn't true. We engage in debates about ethical issues all the time--whether it be the sexual trysts of our politicians, the morality of surrogate motherhood, the ethics of affirmative action, mothers who sleep with their daughter's boyfriend, and so on. And on one level at least, this position is absolutely correct. We do talk a lot about ethical issues of one sort.

But there is an incredible range of moral issues that we simply refuse to address. What these issues are and how we go about systematically ignoring them is the subject of the present inquiry.

Think Small: Ethics As Individual Behavior

Ethics as a field of study is divided into two realms: micro-level ethics and macro-level ethics. As the names would indicate, the former deals with ethical issues individuals face in their daily lives, while the latter focuses on ethical issues of a more global concern. What interests me is the relationship between these two.

Although there is no inherent conflict between them, and, in fact, they should complement one another, what has happened is that micro-level ethics has completely crowded out the other. That is to say that when we think and talk about ethics we invariably deal with micro-level phenomena. We think small and we almost always think about the behavior of single individuals. By the same token, we almost never think about the ethics of larger groups or institutions or systems. Let me provide two examples of what I am talking about.

The first example is one of the most commonly employed tools used in teaching ethics: the so-called whistleblower. The factual situation changes slightly depending upon whether we are speaking about bioethics or business ethics and so on. But the individual is invariably placed in a situation where there is some degree of misfeasance, usually in the workplace.

This might be an employee discovering that someone else is padding the data or that the company is somehow violating the law. The question is whether or not to tell the authorities.

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