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.