Ethics as Applied to My Life
I have come to realize that even if I am not explicitly mentioned in a work that indexes ethics, each person faces the same ethical challenges that are described. The same framework can be applied to any context, to any society. I can see myself in works of writing that may not have a direct correlation with who I am as a person, and it is just up to me to extrapolate the information I need to improve my ethicality.
This recent realization is what has prompted me to write. I will go through the works of writing that we have studied in this class, and insert myself into their narrative. I will go through the ethical dilemmas, the virtues, and the morals in each of these works and find ways to apply it to my own life, proving to myself that even if someone specifically did not write to me as an audience, whether it be because of my gender, my race, my ethnicity, or my mindset, I can apply their own ethics to how I live. I want to be able to better my moral standing and my ethicality through works like Nicomachean Ethics by Aristotle and The Most Good You Can Do by Peter Singer, as a way to prove to them, and myself, that I deserve to be written into their narrative, no matter who I am. I want to write about how I have found myself in the literature that I was written out of, and how I am able to take implicit meanings out of the explicit.
Aristotle is the perfect example of a piece of ethical literature that was not intended for me as the audience. In his book Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle writes from the perspective of a white, educated, landowning male in Athens, and he writes for an audience of white, educated, landowning males in Athens. Aristotle never intended for me, a Latina women, to be reading his ethics and applying it to her daily life, especially since he saw my entire gender as subject to men and my race as inferior and the race of slaves. However, despite this limitation, I am still able to apply his works to myself.
In Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle references the ideology that one is to be, first and foremost, friends with oneself. However, he does specify that this is for the person with true virtue and ultimate good. He states, “Therefore he wishes for himself what is good and what appears to be good, and does it, since its characteristic of a good person is to strive for what is good; and he does it for his own sake,” (Aristotle 167). He presents the idea that you must be striving for the good of yourself and align yourself with your own virtues before you can be a good friend to another, or find a good friend for yourself.
Because we must find ourselves and establish ourselves as our own best friend, we need to find friends that align themselves with the same ideals. Aristotle points this out by saying, “So, because each of these characteristics belongs to the good person in relation to himself, and he stands in the same relation to his friend as to himself, friendship too seems to be one of these characteristics, and those who have them to be friends,” (Aristotle 168). He emphasizes his belief by saying that a main characteristic of friendship is, in fact, concord on what is good and rational.
Continuing with these two prevalent thoughts on friendship, I can understand why Aristotle says this. Historically, I have found myself aligned with people that believe the same things that I do: in regard to religion, race, ethnicity, sexuality, and gender. My friends from high school agreed with me when I said I didn’t want to have sex until I was married because of Christian faith. They agreed with me because they were also of the same faith. They also understood when I felt uncomfortable about speaking Spanish in front of Americans because they had gone through the same discrimination that I have when I speak it in front of people who don’t understand my culture.
However, Aristotle is extremely flawed when he commands us to stay within ourselves and those like us. How could he think any differently? After all, he is a white, wealthy male in Athens, a person who has been situated in a place of power and a place above all others. He doesn’t see other perspectives as beneficial, mostly because if he does, he will see the faults in himself when he relates to people of other mindsets. Aristotle might even start to see them as equals rather than subordinates, which wouldn’t fit his outlook.
I grow more and more frustrated with the way Aristotle looks at life, especially when I know I do not fit in his world, as a Latina woman. You might think that it is something to overlook, especially when it is no longer the case. However, after hearing the Aristotelian expert come to class and speak of the faults in Aristotle, and have to prodded to think about the people Aristotle doesn’t include justifies my frustration. How was it not the first thing out of his mouth? How was it that when Taylor, a student in the class, asked him straight on about how she does not fit into Aristotle’s narrative, he continued to defend him?
Maybe if more people aligned themselves with friends that were different to them, friends that were not “in relation to himself”, this wouldn’t be a frustration of mine.
It is because of this frustration that I continue to apply Aristotle to my life. On page three of Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle states, “Every skill and every inquiry, and similarly every action and rational choice, is thought to aim at some good,” (Aristotle 3). Everything that I do aims toward this thing he calls “the good”, and he explains it further by adding, “So if what is done has some end that we want for its own sake, and everything else we want is for the sake of this end; and if we do not choose everything for the sake of something else… this will be the good,” (Aristotle 4). However, in Aristotle’s mindset, there is only one good, not the good of the individual, which is a desirable thing, but the greater good. He defines this ultimate good as “what is good for a people of for cities” because he sees this ultimate as “nobler and a more godlike thing” (Aristotle 4). Though Aristotle’s ultimate good is applies to living for the good of his city, Athens, the same ideology can be applied to my situation. My ultimate good is not to work for the betterment of Athens, and yet I can say that my ultimate good is not to work for the good of myself as an individual, but to work for the good of a people, described by Aristotle as being “a godlike thing”.
Ultimately, I want to dedicate my life to making a difference. I have been very fortunate to be placed in this situation and this context, and I have seen the sacrifices my parents have made for my good rather than their good. With all of these privileges handed to me, how could I not try and dedicate my life towards a good that benefits others so that they can also have the same pleasure to be placed in a constructive context. This is the reason why I wanted to be a journalist when I was in high school. There are so many people going through situations that we have no information on because none of the news outlets are covering the suffering that these people are feeling. For example, Venezuela is going through an economic and social crisis and no one here at Duke has any information on the conditions the citizens are living with. The only reason I know about this is because my family listens to news from radio stations in Colombia and other South American countries, where these things are covered on national news. My way to contribute to the ultimate good was going to be by informing the public of these types of situations so that it would inspire change.
Though I no longer want to be a journalist, I still want to strive for the ultimate good, the good of a people. Aristotle’s point of view is applicable to my life because he values the good of others over the good of himself as an individual. We both want to strive for the good of a people, even if the people I want to help are different than Aristotle’s people, and the way I pursue my ultimate good is different.
In this fashion, I am able to apply the works we have discussed in class to my personal life. In Shop Class as Soul Craft, Matthew Crawford struggles when thinking of the idea of working outside of manual labor, seeing it as a threat to his own personal ethics. In his perspective, an ethical challenge in his daily life was making sure that external goods like money and success did not cloud his judgment and did not cloud his internal goods. He focused on this heavily, citing how while he was working in an office, his only motivation was the external good. However, while he was working manually in the motorcycle repair shop, he was working to improve his craft, his own internal good. Though the challenge of making sure my own external goods do not corrupt my internal goods is a common theme in my life, switching to manual labor to improve my craft would not glean the same empowering of my internal goods that Crawford felt. Rather, if I was working solely with my hands, the only motivation I would have to continue my work would be external, like working for the paycheck. In academia, on the other hand, I work towards my own internal goods, studying for the purpose of learning and improving myself. My external good, which would be the grade I receive, influences me, but is not the sole purpose why I study, and it would not motivate me if it was the only reason I studied.
Matthew Crawford, the first author we discussed in detail, regarded my aspirations and goals in academia as virtually useless. To him, my prospective career could be disregarded because it was not manual and could be taken from me easily by a foreign competitor. Crawford even mentions, “…30 million to 40 million U.S. jobs to be potentially offshorable, ranging from ‘scientist, mathematicians and editors on the high end’ to ‘telephone operators, clerks and typists on the low end’. Blinding predicts a massive economic disruption that is only the beginning, affecting people who went to college and assumed their education prepared them for high-paying careers with lots of opportunities,” (Crawford 34). Reading Crawford was an attack on my accomplishments, since I have basically done everything he condemns by coming to Duke University, and yet I was able to apply his work to my daily life. In fact, not only can I apply his ideas of internal and external goods to my life, but I can also apply his theories on metacognition and interacting with the world around us to my life. In his definition, metacognition is “the activity of stepping back and thinking about your own thinking” (Crawford 99). More importantly, however, metacognition is “what you do when you stop for a moment in your pursuit of a solution, and wonder whether your understanding of the problem is adequate” (Crawford 99). What this implies is that to be able to think metacognitively, I must root myself in the material world, not just in the abstract. Though I do not plan on abandoning my scholarly efforts, making sure I am rooted in reality while I pursue my goals is paramount. I will use my imagination “not to escape the world, but to join it” (Crawford 100). In this way, I will be able to pursue my solution with the understanding of the problem to help me pursue it. If what I want to do with my life is work for the United Nations, then understanding the material world and rooting myself in it will bring forth more effective solutions to the problems I am trying to solve. If my understanding of the problem is adequate, then my solution will be that much more effective and that much more real.
Even in books like Fools Crow by James Welch, where what we are discussing is the fictional story of a man in Blackfeet culture finding himself and trying to save his people from extermination in the 1860s, and Radical Hope by Jonathan Lear, where what we are discussing is a history of the Crow people, with a more concentrated look on Plenty Coups, I can find things that are applicable to my life. In Fools Crow, it seems as if James Welch perfectly describes a more modern example of the Melian Dialogue. The Melians are trapped in a debate with the Athenians about their own future and freedom, much like the Pikunis in the novel are constrained to either being complacent or fighting.
Much like the Pikunis, the Melians try to advocate for peace but are forced into a situation they have no escape from. When peace is no longer an option, however, both the Pikunis and the Melians choose their right to fight over yielding. When contemplating the issue of the encroaching Napikwans, Three Bears says, “But the day will come when our people will decide that they would rather consort with the Napikwans than live the ways of our long-ago fathers thought appropriate. But I, Three Bears, will not see this day. I will die first,” (Welch 258).
Unfortunately, the Blackfeet’s future had already been mapped out for them, just as the Athenians knew what would become of the Melians when they decided to fight. On page 279, a Napikwan thinks, “Even if all the chiefs had shown up, it would not have changed the simple fact that the Blackfeet were to be eliminated by any means possible, or at least forced into a position they would never peacefully accept,” (Welch 279). The Pikuni people’s fate had been shaped by the actions of Owl Child and his band, Fast Horse, and the settling Napikwans. All they could do was wage war for their honor and for the possibility of safety for their people.
This type of situation, being caught between two unacceptable choices, is prevalent in today’s society. My father is a Cuban immigrant that had to cross the border illegally to gain political asylum from the Communist government in Cuba. He had to choose between his family and his home, everything he had ever known, and the prospect of a better future. In each situation, a part of himself disappears. If he leaves, then he leaves all he loves and all he knows, but if he stays, he has to give up on true freedom of thought and action. That is a hard choice to make.
However, rather than shy away from the difficulties he knew he would face in the future, he left his home, persisted despite the fact that he was denied entry not just once, but twice, and was finally able to live in a country where his thoughts and criticisms could be freely expressed. He was determined to advocate for himself just as the Pikunis tried to advocate for their own freedom. Each situation, though drastically different, can be tied to the other because of the fundamental idea that even if the odds are stacked against you, you should persist for the betterment of yourself and for the betterment of your people.
In my lifetime, I have been asked on multiple occasions to state my core values. Though they have changed and fluctuated with time, persistence, determination, and hard work have constantly remained as part of my core values. Much like my father, and much like the Blackfeet in Fools Crow, submitting to an undesirable fate without trying my hardest to change it is not in my nature, even in activities that may seem trivial. For example, I just recently competed in a Taekwondo competition for the Duke Club team. In the first five seconds of my match, I was kicked so hard in the chest that I did not even realize I was falling to the ground until I was already on the floor. My opponent was taller than me, stronger than me, faster than me, and had more experience than I did, and yet I got back up and continued. This girl very literally beat me up, leaving me bruised, with torn ligaments in my thumb, a cut on my face, and sprained ankle. I knew after the first five seconds that I was not going to win that match, and yet I kept fighting. With each kick she landed, I just grew more determined to show myself that I could do something to give myself the upper hand. Of course, she won, but the score ended twenty-three to eight. I scored eight points on my opponent, despite everything that said I wouldn’t even land one.
There are parallels with this fight and the fight the Pikunis fought against the Napikwans. Fools Crow knew he and his people would not win, he knew that his opponent was stronger and more equipped to fight, and he knew he would end up beaten and bruised after his ordeal, and yet he and his people were determined to fight for what was theirs and for what they deserved. Despite the fact that Fools Crow is a fictional novel depicting Blackfeet culture, I can still connect its ethics to my daily life. There are applications to be drawn from the novel that show just how universal ethics can really be.
In Radical Hope, Jonathan Lear bases his whole book on a simple statement made by Plenty Coups. He speaks to Lear, saying, “…when the buffalo went away the hearts of my people fell to the ground, and they could not lift them up again. After this nothing happened. There was little singing anywhere,” (Lear 2). What we are told, however, shows that Plenty Coups was involved in many things after the buffalo went away. He worked with the Crow and the United States government to lobby for Crow rights and was an example to the Crow people, even representing the entire Native American culture at the dedication of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier (Lear 5).
Plenty Coups does all this, and yet he still feels as if his entire life ended when the buffalo left the plains. At a certain point, he felt the history of his people had ended, and yet his people were still alive, just not in the way they had been alive before they were forced on to a sliver of their original land accumulation. In a sense, a lot of things happened after the buffalo left, but their culture was disappearing so Plenty Coups felt as if nothing was happening. Imagine feeling like the future would yield nothing for you and your culture. Imagine still being alive, still living and seeing generations of your people come into existence and feeling like they would never be able to truly experience your culture the way it was meant to be experienced, and had been experienced for many generations before them.
This phenomenon is not something I have ever experienced, and probably something I never will experience. However, being Cuban and Colombian is such a huge part of my identity and how I see myself in regard to other people is so rooted in that Identity that I would not know how to live if that part of myself was ripped from me. Just as the buffalo and the Crow’s nomadic way of life was integral to their identity, I would say that speaking Spanish is integral to mine. Being from Miami, it was easy to maintain my Hispanic identity. Here at Duke University, I feel like part of myself slips away when I have no contact to Spanish outside of talking to my mother on the phone or listening to my Spanish music. I feel a part of myself slipping away despite the fact that I am still able to freely express myself in this language. More than that, I know people look at me differently when I speak Spanish on the phone in public. I see the way people stare and I see the way people judge.
However, all of this I can tolerate because I can still speak Spanish. It has not been ripped away from me like the buffalo were ripped away from Plenty Coups. If Spanish was taken from me, I can see myself saying the same words Lear cited as Plenty Coups’. After that, I can see how nothing else would matter. I can see how it could be described as the ending of a culture.
Iris Murdoch, in the book The Sovereignty of Good, focuses heavily on the idea that to have a moral philosophy, you must incorporate the concept of love. To start, she mentions this example of God and Christianity, citing the fact that the Christian ideology is that “goodness is almost impossibly difficult, and sin as almost insuperable and certainly a universal condition” (Murdoch 47). This, unlike many works in Ethics, is easily applicable to my life. Going to a Christian school from Pre-K3 up until my 12th grade year, I was constantly taught two things in my Bible classes. The first of the two was that each and every person was born with original sin because of the first sin committed by Adam in the Garden of Eden. He and Eve made a transgression against God, which meant that now all of humanity was born outside of fellowship with God and within that transgression. This is why, no matter how old, whether you are two seconds old or twenty years old, you are already imperfect in the eyes of God. The second thing that we learned was the fact that we could never be perfect because of this original sin, which meant someone had to be perfect for us, so that he could take all our sins on his back and pay for all the transgressions made and to be made. This someone was, of course, Jesus, and his perfect life saved me, and everyone else who believes, from an eternity in hell that we all deserve.
Though I know Iris Murdoch defines God as “a single perfect non-representable and necessarily real object” and wants to adapt this to the secular world, I cannot separate my God from her God because I am not secular and because of the many similarities in description, and will therefore use them interchangeably. In her eyes, the way to truly get to a moral philosophy is to get rid of the “fat relentless ego”, if you even can, because she sees it as the equivalent of original sin (Murdoch 51). One technique she offers up is the practice of prayer, which is defined as “an attention to God which is a form of love” (Murdoch 53). In my own Christian context, Murdoch’s definition of prayer perfectly sums up the kind of relationship I want to have with Christ.
In the Bible, we are taught that no one person or thing should be above God. He should be our sole focus and our sole purpose should be serving Him and His will. The Bible also says that we should be in constant prayer, always in contact with God so that if we are ever tempted, we will be stronger because He is with us. This means that instead of constantly thinking about the world and ourselves, we are constantly thinking of Him, constantly giving “an attention to God which is a form of love” (Murdoch 53). If I am constantly thinking about God and giving Him attention and love, how am I going to think of myself? How am I going to have a “fat relentless ego” if I am constantly putting someone else before me (Murdoch 51)?
Also, this constant prayer and attention is defined as a form of love, which means that what Murdoch sees as the opposite of the “fat relentless ego” is quite simply, just love (Murdoch 51). For me, this just solidifies the fact that I should be a Christian, not only because I believe that Jesus died on the cross for my sins, but also because my faith will lead me to a moral philosophy. The more I pray and the more I value God above myself, the closer that I get to ridding myself of my ego and surrounding myself in humility and love, which will, in turn, lead me to the moral philosophy, as defined by Iris Murdoch.
Quite unlike Iris Murdoch, Peter Singer does not center his philosophy on love but rather turns to reason to dictate each of his actions. Finishing the last chapter of his book, I came across many statement and ideologies that I had an extreme, violent reaction towards. I found the comparison of sufferings and valuing one suffering over the other absolutely deplorable, especially in regard to the whole page on rape. “How much shall we say that it costs to prevent, on average, one rape per year?” (Singer 135). This man truly has no empathy and no real basis on human suffering, and in my opinion, is no better than a robot that makes money and then gives it away because he has no use for it. In this regard, Peter Singer’s whole philosophy on true effective altruism can only really be achieved by a being functioning solely on reason and being not effected by biases. I could never separate myself so completely that I go into a situation of giving with no biases, only giving based on what will make the most good with the least amount of monetary backing. Though I might save more lives, I am not able to give money for malaria nets in Africa over giving money to the children in Colombia that are living without education and without homes. I understand that I am not practicing effective altruism, but I am not a robot and I have implicit predispositions to help the people that I identify with and understand, something Peter Singer mentions as wholly wrong. I cannot separate myself in a way that allows me to think that “even if we don’t empathize with distant strangers, their lives have the same value as the lives of those we love” (Singer 80).
The very last page in his book talks about saving the world from an existential risk, which he sees, apparently, as the only reason to educate women. His reasoning is that women are less violent so we will have less of a chance of blowing up the Earth as a result of nuclear war (Singer 178). This is also the only reason he sees why we should give them “greater say in national and international affairs” (Singer 178). He also mentions having less children as a plus for educating women, citing, “Educating women has also been shown to lead them to have fewer and healthier children, and that will give us a better chance of stabilizing the world’s population at a sustainable level” (Singer 178). So, now there are two reasons why we should give women education. If women were more violent than men and continued to have the same number of children with more education, there would, apparently, be no reason to educate a whole gender. Personally, I feel that there are many more reasons why women such as myself should be educated, one simple reason being that every person deserves to be educated, no matter what. In this one page, Peter Singer devalues me as a human being and only sees me as an instrument to save the world from an existential risk.
However, though I disagree with much of everything he says and he cannot seem to see me as more than a safeguard against total extinction, Peter Singer understands that there is need in the world, and I can apply his ideas to my life. He understands that there are people that need the money we are wasting to survive, and offers up many instances in which people are donating large sums of their income and still living a happy, fulfilling life. His strategies for using money to effectively save lives is applicable to everyone, including to me. Once I have an income to donate, I will be using the basis he established to make a difference and to pursue his good of valuing and saving lives. Singer sums it up perfectly by stating, “Effective altruism is something for people of many divergent backgrounds and for people who, while living in affluent societies, earn no more and sometimes even less than the average income in their society. They can, by giving, say, 10 percent of their income to effective charities, save lives…” (Singer 36).
From Aristotle to Peter Singer, I have been able to successfully insert myself into the narrative of these authors and philosophers, proving to myself that ethics is applicable, no matter what form it comes in. Just because I was not written into a person’s ethics like in Nicomachean Ethics and Shop Class as Soul Craft does not mean that I can’t equip myself with their ethics to better myself. Just because Fools Crow and Radical Hope are books that talk about ethics in Native American society doesn’t mean that I can’t learn from their experiences.
Dependent Rational Animals: Why Human Being Need Virtues by Alasdair Macintyre further proves my pint about ethics being applicable to all who want it applied to their lives. In his book, Macintyre applies philosophical theories to dolphins, which are nonhuman species (Macintyre 22). He even goes as far to say, “So humans are goal-directed in virtue of their recognition of goods specific to their nature to be achieved. And, on this Thomistic account at least, since each species has its own good, the goal-directedness of dolphins seems to provide the same kind of grounds for speaking of the specific and characteristic good of dolphins as the goal-directedness of human beings provide for speaking of the specific and characteristic good o human beings,” (Macintyre 24). If Macintyre can find a way to apply ethics to animals like dolphins, then I can certainly apply ethics to my everyday life.
Even if I am not explicitly mentioned in a work that indexes ethics, each person faces the same ethical challenges that are described in these works. The same framework can be applied to any context, but it is up to me to extrapolate the information I need to improve my ethicality.
Aristotle, and W.D. Ross. The Nicomachean Ethics. Enhanced Media Publishing, 2017. Print.
Crawford, Matthew B. Shop Class As Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work., 2009. Print.
Lear, Jonathan. Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2006. Print.
MacIntyre, Alasdair C. Dependent Rational Animals: Why Human Beings Need the Virtues. Chicago, Ill: Open Court, 1999. Print.
Murdoch, Iris. The Sovereignty of Good. London: Routledge & K. Paul, 1970. Print.
Singer, Peter. The Most Good You Can Do: How effective Altruism is Changing Ideas about Living Ethically. The Text Publishing Company, 2016. Print.
Welch, James. Fools Crow.,1986. Print.