Persons

Antonio Brown, an outstanding football player who just can’t seem to get his act together, is much in the news of late — for all the wrong reasons. A warrant for his arrest has been issued lately because allegedly he beat up the driver of a moving van outside his house. Details are sketchy.

Last Fall it appeared he would play football for the Oakland Raiders but his odd behavior resulted in his dismissal from the team. He was later picked up by the New England Patriots and then let go for, again, behavior unacceptable in an adult human. He apparently has a court case ongoing involving possible aggressive behavior toward a former girl friend. And the list goes on.

The talking heads are all in a dither and it seems to be the consensus that this man is a loose canon and needs help — and fast. They all agree, to be sure, that aggravated assault against another human is not acceptable behavior. The same conclusion surfaced when Kansas State and Kansas basketball players got into a brawl at the end of their game recently and one of the players was suspended twelve games for raising a chair apparently in order to hit another player before it was taken away by one of the coaches. In all cases, most reasonable people would agree that this sort of behavior is simply not acceptable.

But why not?

We go along insisting that people should let it all hang out, do their thing, and generally be completely honest with their emotions — if not their actions. If this is so and the basketball player and Antonio Brown enjoy hitting other people why do we now say this cannot be allowed? On the face of it we seem to be inconsistent if not contradictory in our likes and dislikes, not to mention our ethical claims. Either we should allow people to do whatever they want or we should agree that they should not do whatever they want.

Many would say we draw the line at hurting other people. Folks should be allowed to let it all hang out and express their feelings until or unless their behavior involves harm to another person.

But what is “harm”? Physical harm seems straightforward, though there are masochists out there that love to be punished — the harder the better. But generally speaking physical harm is where we draw the line. What about emotional harm — such as bullying, for example? Surely we don’t condone that even though the bully is simply letting it all hang out: he enjoys making other people feel bad. But he is not physically harming anyone. Still, there is damage being done to another person and any sort of damage, whether it be physical or emotional is simply not to be allowed.

If this is then the place where the line is drawn then we can say that we have an ethical principle: one should not harm other people. Persons ought to be respected to the extent that they are persons and as such capable of feeling pain, both physical and emotional. Kant would argue, further, that they as persons they are capable of making moral judgments (whether or not they ever do); thus they ought to be respected by other persons. But in any case, whether  or not we agree with cumbersome Kant, we seem to have arrived at what might be said to be the cornerstone of an ethical system.

And I suggest that we have done just that and in staying this I would add that this lends the lie to the claim that ethics is simply a matter of opinion and feeling: what is good is what we want to do and what is bad are those things we find repulsive. This sort of emotional guide gets us nowhere, whereas the ethical cornerstone we have uncovered — persons are valuable in themselves — allows us to build an ethical system that leads to important conclusions — such as: slavery is wrong; women have the same rights as men; women are entitled to the same rewards in the workplace as their male cohorts who perform the same jobs. And so on. There is a plethora of legitimate ethical claims that stem from our one principle.

And in the process of uncovering those ethical claims we find ourselves thinking about ethics and not simply emoting. Any idiot can emote just as any idiot can take a swing at another person. But it takes a reasonable person to think his or her way through conflict and arrive at a conclusion that can stand up to criticism. That’s what ethics is all about.

7 thoughts on “Persons

  1. in Old English Law and in other more ancient societies, “your freedom ends where my Nose begins,”…. in other words, do what you like but beware of the ancient laws guarding society from intrusive behaviour towards others,

    • “Intrusive” is a bit vague. At times we ought to intervene in order to stop someone from hurting another person or even himself! I prefer Kant’s notion that we ought to respect all persons because they are persons — i.e., capable of acting ethically (whether or not they do, in fact!)

  2. Hugh, hurting someone or attempting to hurt someone by raising a chair simply cannot be acceptable regardless of the talent or importance of the offender. Unfortunately, these folks can hire good counsel and stand lesser charges unless very egregious, and even then it is harder to convict. The quarterback for the home town high school football team must not get favorable treatment with a DUI, brawl, sexual assault, etc., but he does. The president brags that he could shoot someone on 5th Avenue and his supporters would be OK and sadly, he may be right.

    We seem to have situational ethics and laws. If it is my tribe, the crime is overstated. If it is my team, the athlete did not mean to do it. If it is the son of the larger factory owner in a small town, the judge looks the other way. The victim is minimized and some would seek dirt to say the victim deserved the outcome just to show the offender was more innocent. It is indeed frustrating. Keith

    • I do think the proscription I suggested (or Jerry’s version of it) will work to allow us to escape from “situational ethics.” Clearly context must be allowed for, but it is quite simply wrong to hurt other people. Just think of your Golden Rule!

  3. Dr. Curtler,

    The maxim you offer, “One should not harm other people” could be restated simply as “Do no harm to any person.” This, then, includes a proscription against self-harm. (Allowing self harm as an ethical matter is certainly defensible in some circumstances, but this formulation will do for getting on with it.)

    Then one has to define the term “harm” in a meaningful, yet, practical way.

    A physician or nurse, for example, often causes pain in the necessary and ethically-intended effort to treat a patient. Here the pain is an unavoidable part of the care or cure. Here, not causing harm (pain) to the person would lead to a greater harm (lack of effective treatment).

    I am not niggling, but just recalling a point you once made to me: Categorical ethics are always embedded in practical circumstances and those circumstance matter.

    Most importantly, I agree with you that we have to think of ourselves and others in the context of basic ethical obligations to one another. The perils of doing otherwise are all-too evident in our long and sad history — not to mention the day-to-day experience of our polity.

    As always, I enjoyed reading your post.

    Respects and regards,

    Jerry Stark

    • You are right, of course, to make room for harm to others by way of healing them. But one could “niggle” and say that the nurse is not really hurting the patient since the long-term result is eradication of pain. It’s a bit of a stretch, of course. But we must always be alert to the exceptional situations, as you suggest.
      It is always fun to read your comment! Many thanks.

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