A very solid professor of mine, during the pursuit of my doctoral degree, gave us three very poignant quotations from three very notable authors and asked, “do we see similarities in their ethical stances? What are they indicating about man’s character and his conduct” (McIntyre Sherwood, 2016)? What is apparently clear, is not only the struggle to conform to the pressures of remaining in balance with the cultural norms that shape and form our community, but also how those pressures often force us into making decisions that do not align with our own character and code of ethics. Ultimately, what we begin to see, is a departing of our own beliefs in order to preserve the structure of the community.
Ultimately, what is the cost associated with a dissonance between our values and our actions?
This leads us away from any kind of abstract ethic and towards an ethic which is entirely concrete. What can and must be said is not what is good once and for all, but the way in which Christ takes form among us here and now. The attempt to define that which is good once and for all has, in the nature of the case, always ended in failure. Either the proposition was asserted in such general and formal terms that it retained no significance as regards its contents, and thus to say in advance what would be good in every single conceivable case; this led to a casuistic system so unmanageable that it could satisfy the demands neither of general validity nor of concreteness. (Bonhoeffer, 1995, p. 87)
I value ethical standards, of course. But in a culture like ours—which devalues or dismisses the reality and power of the inner life—ethics too often becomes an external code of conduct, an objective set of rules we are told to follow, a moral exoskeleton we put on hoping to prop ourselves up. The problem with exoskeletons is simple: we can slip them off as easily as we can don them. (Palmer, 2004, p. 8)
How can anyone hope to set down ethics for so large and populous a country as the United States? Well, you have to remember that the great philosophers of the modern era meant to define ethical principles not just for this continent and our time but for all times and all places. Such universal principles, however, have got to be thin or false. An ethics that matters must have a more definite compass. How narrow should it be? Somewhere, presumably, in between the universe and Missoula, Montana. (Borgmann, 2006, p. 3)
The quotes by Bonhoeffer, Palmer, and Borgman may have differing rationalizations, but all speak true to a common theme. There is a disconnect between man’s character (which is his propensity to do good) and his conduct (the acts in which he commits). There is a reoccurring belief between authors that the general principles or the ethical codes man subscribes to are good. Bonhoeffer (1995, p.86) suggests, “Christ did not, like a moralist, love a theory of good, but He loved the real man.”
Each author contends that it is not in character that man falls short, but in his actions of doing what he knows is right. The constant battle between the good within and the actions taken by man are perpetually conflicting.
Palmer (2004, p.4) admits:
I yearn to be whole but dividedness often seems the easier choice. A “still, small voice” speaks the truth about me, my work, or the world. I hear it and yet act as if I did not. I withhold a personal gift that might serve a good end or commit myself to a project that I do not really believe in. I keep silent on an issue I should address or actively break faith with one of my own convictions.”
One point of Bonhoeffer’s is suggesting that we as people have a natural tendency or ability to find a legitimate reason or a purpose for a behavior that would be considered in any other situation unethical. An example of this might be lying to protect a friend and their feelings from the truth. Whether it be sacrificing the life of one for saving the lives of many or sweeping an unethical action from a figurehead in order to protect the solvency of his company, men have been rationalizing these issues to often validate their unethical actions for thousands of years. Bonhoeffer suggests the associated problem with this type of ethic is that it leaves each situation available for interpretation and/or judgement. (Bonhoeffer 1995) “[Casuistic System]”.
Palmer makes the point that although we are all aware, we have been taught, we can discuss what is and is not ethical, we as a culture tend to wear and disrobe our ethical views based on the situation we are in. Palmer (2004, p.6) states, “The divided life comes in many and varied forms…We make our living at jobs that violate our basic values…We harbor secrets to achieve personal gains…We hide our beliefs from those who disagree with us to avoid conflict, challenge, and change.” This further emphasizes the strong inability to maintain integrity to oneself and each other.
With Albert Borgmann, we see there is a responsibility to help ensure that others are operating and functioning in an ethical manner. I am given a strong sense of the responsibility or action needed by the self to influence and maintain ethics within the community.
Borgmann (2006) implores:
“Taking responsibility” may sound meddlesome and intrusive…”Taking responsibility” in a patronizing way is clearly unacceptable. But taking responsibility for what we obliviously and perhaps detrimentally do to one another is recognition or realization rather than intrusion.
Bonhoeffer, Palmer, and Borgmann all believe, within these excerpts, that there is a varying level of compromise between man and his ethical principles. In each example, you see a difference in reasoning, but all have a common undertone. In Bonhoeffer’s quote, men sacrifice an ethic for a reason. In Palmer’s quotation, we tend to sacrifice based off of a situation that one might be placed in. This could be as simple as wanting to fit in with the right group or sacrificing a principle in order to get the vote from local constituents. Finally, In Borgmann’s clip we see that he discusses the responsibility the collective must possess in order to protect the individual and/or the greater good because it is the correct and responsible thing to do.
One weakness in reading thus far might be Borgmann’s presumption that we are living on the ethical stances our ancestors took and that we lack the same principles. (Borgmann, 2006) “Here, as so often, we tend to be the spoiled beneficiaries of our ancestors. Building this nation took great resourcefulness, a combination of fortitude, ingenuity, and good judgment.” One could counter that argument with a discussion with a simple reminder of slavery, the holocaust, the dropping of the atomic bombs, the removal of Native American’s from their lands in order to build this great nation and so on. I am not in complete agreement that we have lost a portion of our “hidden wholeness” (Palmer 2004) over the years. Nor will we. As Palmer (2004, p.2) would see it, “The soul’s order can never be destroyed. It may be obscured by the whiteout. We may forget, or deny, that its guidance is close at hand. And yet we are still in the soul’s backyard, with chance after chance to regain our bearings.”
Bonhoeffer, D. (1995). Ethics. (N. H. Smith, Trans.). New York, NY: Touchstone.
Borgmann, A. (2006). Real American ethics: Taking responsibility for our country.
Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
McIntyre Sherwood, V. (2016). The Ethical Educator. Concordia University. EDDC615
Portland, OR: Concordia University-Portland.
Palmer, P. (2004). A hidden wholeness: The journey toward an undivided life.
San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.