Meditation #3: The Job of Every Human Being
Τίς σου ἡ τέχνη; ἀγαθὸν εἶναι.
“What is you craft? To be a good person.”
As Marcus Aurelius told himself, it is your job to do the right thing. This is essentially the job description for a human being. If we all tried our best to follow it, most issues could be resolved in time, without violence.
Two things prevent this utopia:
Humans don’t always do the right thing. Mistakes can be corrected but there are some who err willingly, most often for personal gain, knowingly or not, which leads to…
Disagreement over what the “right” thing to do is/means.
Modern ethics allow a more relative, and increasingly personal, definition of “right.” For instance: “It is ‘right’ for me to do whatever I have to do in order to provide for my family;” “It is ‘right’ for this person I like to benefit over this person I don’t like;” “It is ‘right’ for a sinner to suffer;” and so on…
In contrast, Classical ethics and morality might argue that there is an abstract, external “Right” and all things are judged against this standard. The more closely something matches this ideal, the more ‘Right-ness’ it has. When discussing moral definitions of how one ‘should’ behave in a large society, it is hard to argue against the reasonableness of this outlook. We want to be judged by a common set of standards that we all share, not by one person’s (perhaps unsubstantiated) opinion. As long as the standard is upheld by a steady, just hand, and guided by a spirit of pursuing the truth, doesn’t this seem more fair?
In this view, “Right” isn’t necessarily a concept defined by a common agreement but rather a universal truth that needs to be discovered and studied. Cultural differences are one thing, but we are all human beings on planet Earth and underneath our multi-faceted layers we do share common bonds and ethos. There are certain behaviors we can all agree are not acceptable by members of society: rape, murder, theft, and bigotry for starters. None of us would want these acts perpetrated upon ourselves, so how can we justify perpetrating them upon another human being? (See Kant’s Categorical Imperative.)
Ignorance that these are inappropriate behaviors seems an impossible excuse in this day and age, assuming one has a fully functioning human intellect. There should be no need for an ‘enforcer’ of these general rules but, alas, laws are made for the ignorant, the noble and wise do right on their own. Or something like that.
On a certain level, these are not values that a government can enforce, they must be desired by an enlightened citizenry. If we maintain that democracy is the the best form of government, we must demand The People care about these values. But how? This is the great question of our age.
Values like “Right” and “Good” cannot be policed, they must be understood and accepted, or a person will forever rage against them. To help the world see that violence is always an incorrect solution requires a paradigm shift. The ego drives us to say “my way or the highway” and “they will bend or they must break” and, well, the ego does not care about the preservation of society. If we do, a north star must be found and, in any conflict, both sides must work to guide their forces and turn their faces towards this light.
But these values must also be objectively defined, or everything eventually becomes excusable, and here study and discussion of philosophy can help greatly.
Do the right thing