“Why can’t I have all the presents?” one of my kids shrieks.
The tone isn’t joking the way you might think. She is demanding, furious, her face red and sweaty. For a moment, she is overcome with that primitive urge that seems to defy all ethics. I call it the “me-want-now” urge. We all know it, though we don’t always admit it and some of us bury it deeper than others.
“I want everything! They’re mine, not his!” She kicks toward her brother but I pull her away. He is often ready with sibling comebacks, but this one of those moments when his older sister shocks him into silence.
Some kids seem to be born with a moral compass on the most basic level. They have the urge too. but they also get that other people have it and that we’ve got to meet somewhere in the middle. Fair is fair. They can be persuaded to see the logic of “How would you feel if someone did that to you?”
But this is by no means a universal trait. And unfortunately, my kids aren’t among the budding saints of the world.
I not only have kids myself, I also teach preschool and early elementary ESL students. Two sisters ages 5 and 8, who I teach, are always cuddling. The older one looks out for the younger one—making sure she gets the colors of crayon she needs and that she’s dressed warmly to go out—but then insists on winning all the games in recompense. And most kids aren’t even that nice.
Between the current wave of right-wing, anti-compassion politics and my struggles with my own little humans, I have been thinking a lot on ethics lately..
We blithely talk about teaching children to know “right from wrong,” but increasingly it seems like adults in our world don’t know or at least wildly disagree on the subject. OK, most people—at least publicly—get behind the rules of not killing or physically harming people or stealing.
But every week I come across at least one online post declaiming on how wimps who are hurt by verbal bullying should grow a thicker skin—i.e. exclusionist opinions in direct opposition to what I know of as ethics. And clearly, while most of us think it isn’t okay to kill or steal, we go on buying products the production of which requires killing and stealing from the poorest people in the world.
What is it we really believe? And why would we strive to live morally and ethically even if we could agree on what it would entail?
Abrahamic religions have an answer that is so widely disseminated in the world today that I doubt there is a fluent English speaker who isn’t well versed in it, regardless of whether or not you follow one of those faiths. There is the carrot of Heaven and the stick of Hell. And each particular religion or specific sect has its set of commandments or moral rules saying what will be grounds for sentencing you to Hell or rewarding you with Heaven.
For those who believe literally in this Heaven and Hell thing, the ethical life may seem relatively simple. Follow the rules or you will suffer. It’s a fear doctrine with a bit of a possible reward held out—not unlike my methods with my children. “Stop kicking your brother or you will lose your video privileges and be banished to extra chores-ville!” I’m less eternal about it, but only because I—unlike the Abrahamic God—can’t manage to hold grudges and don’t have guards to enforce my Hell while I am otherwise occupied.
Another popular method is the Hindu concept of Karma. Some more sophisticated versions perceive Karma as primarily about providing specific lessons that one needs to learn. But there is always an element of “If you behave unethically, you will suffer as a result, possibly in another life, but eventually you will suffer.”
This may be conceived of as learning a necessary lesson in order to be more enlightened in a future incarnation or as straight-up karmic punishment, depending on who you listen to, but either way, it’s a method of enforcement.
My parenting often has a Karma-like element too. “If you break your toys, you won’t have them. If you use up all your time fighting, you won’t have time to play. If you break someone else’s toy, you’ll have to work it off.”
In parenting circles, we like to call this “natural consequences” rather than punishment. Just like we like to call the Heaven and Hell version, “reward-based discipline.”
Every reward entails the possibility of its denial. And every natural consequence that a parent enforces is only one step removed from punishment.
It may be that immaturity leads many of us to require this kind of external moral compass. As children we almost all need it to some degree. Many adults still appear to need it. Without constraints, most humans don’t act particularly ethically. This is why we have law enforcement after all.
Some people will argue that morality and ethics are nothing but social constructs, and thus somehow suspect and questionable. Many animals don’t appear to have ethics, these ethics deniers argue.
But that is a belief primarily espoused by those humans who spend very little time with animals or in nature. In fact, very few animals kill beyond self-defense, the need for food or competition for procreation, i.e. beyond absolute necessity. Some do but most do not. Many animals respect the territorial rights of others with only exceptional outbreaks of violent struggle. And recent research is showing a remarkable number of animal species that are capable of compassion, loyalty, empathy, revenge, community cooperation, communication and occasionally even heroism.
So it isn’t really possible to say that ethics is a merely human conceit.
A secular, humanist perspective acknowledging this science often simply claims that we want to do “what is right” without any basis for it. And perhaps those young children and animals who act ethically—seemingly without threat or reward—may be proof that this principle has some traction. This reason for ethics is pleasingly uncomplicated, but often there are hidden reasons.
My extraordinarily well-behaved eight-year-old student wants the approval of adults. She is highly motivated for approval and enjoys being praised more than most kids. She also enjoys winning though, which is why she insists on winning every game over her younger sister.
There is a reward being sought and a consequence being avoided. The reward of praise and approval and the consequence of disapproval. The fact that her reward and consequence equation is a bit less tangible and forceful than that required by some kids does not negate the fact that it is still there. She glows under adult praise and so pursues it.
It is still an external reward but perhaps it is easier to transition from such a non-tangible reward to an internal reward and thus to ethical independence. That is why parents often try to motivate children through praise alone, hoping that our children will not always need a carrot or a stick.
As a follower of Pagan gods and a seeker for spiritual insight in ancient traditions, I am often fascinated by the ethical systems of ancient cultures. Many do not appear particularly moral to us today. The concepts of ethics were different and some ancient cultures were quite hierarchical and ruthless. But the deeper you go into tribal, hunter-gatherer traditions, the less hierarchical and the less external reward-consequence thinking you find.
It is not that there is no possible reward for ethical acts but in these ancient cultures there is a heavier reliance on internal rewards, those we give only to ourselves in the form of self-respect and s healthy self image.
This is what I am interested in. Whether we call it enlightenment, awakening or honor, it all comes down to one thing—self-respect.
Within reason, children need consequences and rewards. And in law enforcement, these mechanisms seem necessary as well. But when it comes to most ethics and my own deepest beliefs, I want to live my life ethically based not on a hoped-for reward or a feared consequence from outside, but rather because my self-respect demands it.
Unless I am within a specific tradition that uses a different term to mean the same thing, I use the more universal term ‘self-respect” because that most clearly gets at the meaning. My goal is to live well, ethically and morally in such a way that I can feel unreserved self-respect.
This is one reason I follow an earth-centered spiritual path with ties to ancient cultures. This spiritual approach lends itself to the ethics of self-respect. I strive to teach my children these values as well. It is not easy in a world filled with instant, external gratification from consumerism and passive entertainment. But when they do well, my first response is not a material reward or even my approval, but a comment to notice how they feel inside.