Without ethics, man has no future. This is to say, mankind without them cannot be itself. Ethics determine choices and actions and suggest difficult priorities.
In this write up I start with describing what ethics and associated concepts such values, attitudes, characters, norms and cultures. I also briefly discuss the origin of values. I then move on to show the importance of their application on our individual and collective lives. I attempt to show that the collective values individuals hold and the actions issuing from those values play critical roles to make up the culture of a people. In other words, our collective values play a central role on our density as a nation.
Imagine a society whose members have different understanding as to what good or bad means. If what is good to you is not good to your neighbor, your relationships are not going to be cooperative. The relation gets even worse if what is good to you becomes decidedly bad to your neighbor. For instance, consider a relationship with your neighbor, who sees bribing as good and practices it regularly. If you oppose bribing, you will become antagonistic with your neighbor and that is not fun. Now, think of a larger community whose members do not agree on what good means. It would not be surprising if that community is on news frequently, for casualties and fatalities among the residents. I know my example is too extreme, but it can help to illustrate a point about the importance of ethics in society. Fortunately, this is not happening in most societies as they have come to develop agreeable meaning to what is good and what is not good through millions of trial and error over many thousands of years.
One of the reasons why humans thrived on earth is that they could build cohesive society to help each other. Cohesive society emerges, when there exists a common code of ethics. In other words, cohesive society comes to being, if all or most members of a society must have common understanding about what is good and acceptable. Ethics is that human endeavor which deals with what is good. Ethics consists of a set of moral values behaviors, norms and more. Ethics and ethical behavior play a very critical role for the existence of a democratic, stable and prosperous society.
Ethical values are not new to us Ethiopians. We are exposed to them early in our lives by way of our parents, neighbors, schools and our faith institutions. In this write up I re-visit some of those values and ask if we are practicing them as they are supposed to be practiced. We will also touch on the consequence of the malpractice of ethical value to our society. Let’s now clarify ethics and related concepts.
Ethics is wide and deep field of knowledge and practice and involve many related concepts including values, attitudes, characters, norms and cultures. In what follows we describe them in brief so that we have common understanding of the terms and concepts.
A Marriam -Webster definition of ethics is: that discipline dealing with what is good. Ethics is also defined as a set of moral principles.
In general, a discussion about moral values starts with identifying what is socially agreed upon as to what is good or bad. Without agreeing on what is good and what is bad, talk about other values say respect, integrity, patriotism etc. do not mean much. In other words, any action is guided by ethics. That is, one must decide if what one is going to do is good or bad. The next concept in the hierarchy of ethics is the value system.
Values are stable and enduring convictions-often moral principles-that people hold about what matters to them and/or what they believe to be good or bad, worthwhile or worthless. Values guide the selection or evaluation of actions, policies, events and even people. That is, values serve as standards or criteria for judgments and for actions at both individual and collective levels. People’s values are systematically connected-ordered into a system of value priorities, that reflect, both personal and social identity1 .
Below are listed few Examples of ethical values (i.e. good and acceptable values).
Note that the above is a partial list of ethical values. Note also that all values are not ethical. There are some who value, bribery, dishonesty, fame, dominance, authority which are unethical or immoral.
Moral is something concerned with principles of right or wrong behavior, holding or manifesting high principles for proper conduct (the oxford dictionary).
An attitude is a construct or virtue that expresses values and disposes a person to act or react in a certain way towards something (Adler, pp 17). As an example, one’s attitude towards peace (a value) can guide one to join a peaceful way to resolve conflicts. Or one’s attitude towards truth guides one to decipherer between real news and fake news and reject the one that is not founded on facts.
Behavior is a pattern of human action that are repeated. Character or behavior is manifestations of attitudes and attitudes are disposals of values. My action to join the peace group because of my attitude towards peace is also reflected in my other actions (such as arguing against wars) and if that is repeated in action it becomes my habit, then it becomes my behavior.
A norm is built when certain behaviors, attitudes and values are accepted and regularly repeated by most people in a society. For example, Gurage people are known for their hard work and independence by other Ethiopian communities of Ethiopia. That is, hard work is a norm in the Gurage society.
Culture is that complex whole which includes knowledge, norms (ethical value, attitudes and behaviors), language, belief, art, law, customs and any capabilities and habits acquired by a human as a member of society. A culture is shared by all or most members of a society and is passed from previous generation to the newer generations. Culture shapes behaviors of the society through values, laws, and customs etc.
We said that ethical values play an important role in a culture. Here is how. Before people develop a belief system, law, languages culture in short they first needed to live together as a group. Group members help each other to conquer the brutes of nature. But to form a group, the group members must first thrust each other, and to thrust each other, they must have mutually acceptable understanding on what is good and what is bad. It is that common agreement and understanding that builds the common bond that holds group members together and create favorable conditions so that the society evolves further to make instruments of production, develop languages, create rituals and music, make laws, construct belief systems all of which eventually transform into a culture. In short, ethics is the corner stone of human society.
A partial list of Values
Responsibility Be responsible, take initiative, do your part
Work Work hard, work smart, void what you did not work for
Truth Seek the truth, Seek the truth, reason with facts, be honest
Love your, countr, love your people, help if can
Serve justice, treat with equality, be democratic, do not corrupt
Respect Be respectful to people, their rights, and cultures and the environment.
Peace Seek peace, be tolerant, resolve conflict peacefully
Happiness Seek happiness, appreciate beauty and relationship, enjoy life, have fun, laugh
Knowledge Seek knowledge, Learn and Teach
Safety and security Seek Stability and security of society, community and your relationship.
Universalism Recognize, tolerate and protect all people and nature
The origin of Ethics and Ethical values
Having an idea as to where ethical value came from can empower us to practice them as they are supposed to. Let’s star from the earlier times of human history and see how family, the basic unite of a society, and the larger groups emerged. According to the scientists who study the human origin, what separates us humans from the other primates is, whereas, the young of most other animals develop fully in the womb and leave it ready for the outside world, human infants are incompletely formed at birth and utterly helpless. In other words, compared to other animals, human infants seem to be born prematurely. This means that the human infants need much more attention and carrying before they go on their own.
Based on this observation, the scientists hypothesize that the helplessness of the prematurely born infants may have played a crucial role in the transformation of humans. Those new babies required supportive families, which may have formed the communities, that became the foundations of human civilizations. Females selected their male partners who would take care of them while they nursed and protected their infants. Eventually, the females no longer went into heat at specific times and they could now be sexually receptive at any time, the males caring for their families may have changed their sexual habits as well, decreasing their promiscuity in favor of new social arrangement- the start of monogamy and then family.
A quarter of a million years forward, humans in bands, with their obvious needs for efficient meat distribution, had a great deal to gain by being engaged in effective, suppression of alpha-male behavior practiced today. This would also have brought with it some aggressive free-rider suppression and probably, it would have evolved not only the many individuals who have stronger alpha tendencies, but also those with other antisocial proclivities like cheating or theft, which also would have seriously interfered with effectively equalized meat-sharing. Here, the egalitarian conscience emerged as the dominators (alpha-male) became submissive in fear of receiving aggression by the punishing resentful group. The actions by angry punitive groups to subdue the free-riding bullies (alfa-males) and others resulted in conscience and fear-based, self-awareness and self-control.
The beauty of hunter-gatherer egalitarianism is that it is the outcome of the weak joining forces to control the strong, themselves became stronger. A big lesson for Ethiopians and other oppressed peoples as well.
Modern conscience includes shameful embarrassing response as well as emotionally identifying with rules. This is the beginning of moral sense. Moral sense includes thinking in terms socially attractive virtue, shameful vice, and having a sense of self-control. Self-awareness is unique to humans and involves having the sense of right and wrong, virtues good, shameful evil, altruistic generosity and the capacity to internalize rules .
Even in the early days of the hunter-gatherer time, humans have already begun developing the sense of what is good and what is bad. As mentioned above, when group members banded together to subdue the dominant alpha-males, they must have separated the good from the bad and have begun heading towards egalitarian society or toward a society guided by moral/ethical values.
Moral values emerged when members of a group realize that the best thing happens for all if each became good to the other. Everybody benefits if people were nice to each other. This is the foundation of moral values. It is rational calculation rather than top-down rule instruction that is behind social cohesion. To Adam Smith (from the evolution of everything), morality emerged by a sort of reciprocal exchange when everybody accommodates their desires to those others that a system of shared morality arises.
People are not setting out to create shared system of morality, they aim only to achieve mutual sympathy with the people they are dealing with. In other words, people decide their own moral codes by seeking mutual sympathy of sentiments in society. Moral teachers then observe and record these conventions and teach them back to people as top-down instructions. Moral teachers are like grammar teachers who does little more than codify speech patterns they see in every speech and tell them back to students as grammar rules. In other words, the priest who tells you how to behave is basing his moral code on observations of what ethical values people really do. So, no one has authored ethical codes. It emerged in an iterative, evolutionary manner much like a grammar emerges .
Applications of Ethical values
In the above paragraphs we saw what values, behaviors, norms and cultures mean and the connections between them. We also briefly touched on how they evolved. Next, let’s try to see how they are applied in society. Before we do that though, let’s touch upon egoism, nepotism and altruism. They too have connections to values by way of cooperation or the lack of it. Letter on, we will make the connection between them and ethical values.
In the structural framing of societies, the basic element is the individual human, followed by family and larger group made from many families. As the human society advances, smaller groups merge to form larger groups, many larger groups merge to form nationalities, nationalities, join to form nations, nations join to form continents and so on.
Naturally, humans are gravitated to favor themselves (egoism), followed by favoring their families (Nepotism) then possibly favoring larger groups (altruism) come last. Altruism is that behavior of a human to do good for others without expecting returns. In fact, because humans gravitate towards Egocentrism and Nepotism, individuals and families need to have some incentives to favor altruism. The main incentive for favoring altruism is that individuals and their families benefit more from the cooperation of a larger group. Groups with more cooperation outperform groups with less cooperation. Because of the effective power of cooperation and human propensity to be selfish (egocentric) or nepotistic are so strong, civilized societies should emphasize teaching in favor of wider, cooperation, generosity and Altruism .
Back to values. To be functional or applicable, values must be translated or converted in to rules of behaviors. This is to say, to practice our values, we need to translate them in to behavioral rules or commandments. For example, if one regards personal responsibility as one’s value, the translation of this to rules would look like: 1. act responsibly, 2. take initiative to do your part, 3. do not blame others for your faults etc. Translating values into rules make their implementation easier. Also, when we translate values into practicable rules, we can make emotional connections with the rules. For example, say, we pick personal responsibility as a value, and we act on the commandment “take initiative to do good in your community”. If we did something that benefits the community, then, we will feel good. The good results build emotional connection with the commandments. On the other hand, if we did nothing but blame others, we will not feel good, instead we will feel miserable. For people who do not value responsibility and practice it, blaming others is a normal way of life. Blamers are always bitter!
The value of work is another example to consider. The translation of the value of work into behavioral rules can include: 1. respect work and workers, 2. work hard, 3. work in cooperation with others, 4. live by the fruit of your own work etc. Someone who normally practice the commandment “live by the fruit of your own work” and has emotional attachment to it will feel ashamed or unhappy if she or he takes and consumes what s/he did not work for.
Values are practiced through behavioral rules. This means that, we need to generate rules for every value so that we internalize, apply and emotionally connected with it. The above list of values is only a partial list.
Values also play key roles in organizing people. Naturally, we like those who have similar values and commandments like ourselves and associate ourselves with them. On the other hand, we dislike or condemn those who hold different values and commandments. In fact, knowingly or unknowingly this is what we do as people.
Vital Ethical issues we need to address
Here we briefly visit ethics at work in Ethiopia. Let’s agree that every aspect of ethical value is vital. But, since we cannot discuss everything ethics that is out there, let’s focus on three areas, namely the aspect of ethics (or lack of it) dealing with repression of democratic and civic rights, rampant corruption (guided by egoism and nepotism) and responsibility-being accountable. As a reminder, ethics deals with what is good or a set of moral principles or values associated with what is good.
With intense and holistic repression of democratic and civil rights, rampant corruption and gross disregard for rule of laws, it is no secret, that the practice of ethical values in Ethiopia is at its lowest level. It is true, there are unethical practices being widely practiced by the general population, but, it is the leaders of the nation who are by far the least ethical (most unethical) who are leading the country to be immoral. In a way, the government leaders are behaving like the alpha male of the-hunter gather society.
The government is not the only one to blame for the poor ethics in the country. We the people have our fair share to contribute for poor ethical practice as well. In a way, it is us the majority who is allowing the small minority in government to do whatever they want. If you remember, an egalitarian social setting and ethical values began to emerge when frustrated group members of hunters-gatherers banded together and forged power to suppress the alpha-male. That is what modern Ethiopians need to do-repeat the banding of the weak to suppress the modern alpha- male-the government officials in the minority to get rid of suppression and corruption.
What do repression of democratic and civil rights, corruption and disregard for the rule of law all have in common with ethical values? Remember that value is described as stable and enduring convictions-often moral principles-that people hold about what matters to them and/or what they believe to be good or bad, worthwhile or worthless. In this sense, values guide the selection or evaluation of actions, policies, events and even people. So, had we have adopted them, values such as fairness, respect, peace and truth should have guided us to discourage, actions such as repression, corruption and lawlessness. The fact that our country is infested with repression, corruption and lawlessness show that the Ethiopian government and most of us are not guided by the values of fairness, respect, patriotism, peace and truth.
Also, we cannot undermine Egoism and Nepotism as dominant economic relationships in today’s Ethiopia. From economic perspective, they are expressed by favoritism and corruptions. Egoism and Nepotism also express themselves in political arena through the ethnic politics where blindly favoring one’s own ethnic or tribe members over others is becoming the norm. The other way that Egoism and Nepotism express themselves is through fragmented political groupings and organizations of the multi-ethnic gatherings. In other words, the existence of hundreds of ineffective small organizations that dominate the Ethiopian political arena have their roots in Egoism and Nepotism. Most of them have compatible programs but they are unwilling to unite. If not Egoism and Nepotism, what else could the reason be?
Egoism and nepotism are not the most productive relationships as they hinder wider cooperation. But if handled reasonably, can be harmless say like in keeping the family relationships together etc. But, there should be no doubt that the larger society is served better with wider cooperation and altruism. With altruism, individuals, their families and everybody else benefit more from the cooperation of a larger groups.
The connection between altruism and ethical values come through cooperation. As mentioned few times now, humans come to discover the power of cooperation when group members in hunter-gather society ganged up together to suppress the dominant alpha-males that have been subjugating them. Because of that cooperative action, an egalitarian relation emerged. As such, cooperation became the foundation egalitarian society. Altruism-doing good without expecting payback- is a strong undertaking that multiply the power of cooperation. Cooperation produces surplus (power, money, material … etc.) that can be used to bring justice and fairness to all. Altruism is a value. It is a stable and enduring convictions that matter.
Responsibility-vital value that we all need to adopt
Let’s say something about responsibility. Self-responsibility is another strong value. Being responsible means being accountable for causing something to happen. Being responsible for one’s action or accepting responsibility instead of blaming others is a desirable virtue. In Tom Lombardo’s words, “Until one accepts responsibility for one’s actions and one’s present reality, one is disempowered to change things. One becomes empowered through accepting responsibility. If a person cannot see or accept the present situation is of their own doing, they cannot see what they can do to change it. They remain victim of circumstances in their own eyes and hence disempowered” .
Even adopting ethical values and developing Character virtues take place only when we decide to assume the responsibility to do so. Adopting ethical values or building characters cannot take place on their own. They require, initiatives, commitment and work. In other words, they require taking self-responsibility. So, values such as love, truthfulness, fairness, freedom, respect, cooperation, tolerance, respect etc. etc. and their implementation can only be achieved if we are willing to take responsibility to achieve them. From this perspective, self-responsibility is a foundational value, in that, without it is hard to adopt and master the other values.
To clean all social ills, we need to take the responsibility to remove all the unethical values that breed the ills and replace them with the ethical ones. If each one of us is guided by ethical values and their virtues, there is no doubt that democracy and prosperity will come to Ethiopia and Ethiopians and quickly.
A short write-up such as this cannot do justice to the field of ethics. My goal is to remind readers that ethics has been with humanity starting from our beginning as social beings and has played crucial roles to create cohesion among us as both as small groups as well us larger groups. It is important that
• There should be ethical values which we all stand for, because it is the collective of what each of us do that forms our norms (what we call normal).
• Ethics a plays central role when we are building our cultures. As such, if we want to change old cultures (irrelevant to the new times) we need to start by changing our values, behaviors and norms.
• To create a democratic Ethiopia, each of us need to adopt the values of tolerance, respect, equality, freedom, justice, fairness and develop rules of engagement around them and practice them.
• As individuals, ethical values also help us live a happy and guilty-free personal life. Values, such as honesty, truth and equality help us earn respect and thrust from people around us.
• Adopting the values of work, wisdom, knowledge, education and integrity can help us both as individuals and groups to be skilled, factual, analytic and knowledgeable in whatever we do be it at school or work.
The key is to be willing to take the responsibility to change ourselves by adopting ethical values. Let’s change ourselves before attempting to change the world around us.