Photo credit Teodora Cosman
When thinking of “ethical” behavior, I suppose people generally think of what’s fair, right, respectful, which to some degree is accurate yet a look at the etymology reveals more. From “ethos: the ‘genius’ of a people, characteristic spirit of a time and place”… from Greek ēthos „habitual character and disposition; moral character; habit, custom; an accustomed place,” in plural, „manners.””
Some of the keys here are “place” and “time” and “people.” What’s ethical at one time or in such-and-such a place or with a particular people/culture will vary from culture to culture as well as within the same culture over time. This is especially true with cultures that adapt to ongoing changes.
Nowadays, Original Peoples from so-called remote areas are utilizing technology so as to protect their ancient forests, lands, rivers; utilizing technology so as to make wake-up calls to the industrialized world that has unethically grabbed their resources for centuries, literally “unethical” because instead of respecting the “genius” of the culture, the grabbers too-often consider the Original Peoples “primitive, backward” and other demeaning and ignorant adjectives.
With regard to what varies from culture to culture, a simple example, not much related to what we typically consider an “ethical “ choice, but to make the point: While impolite at a fancy European or Western restaurant, “It is considered polite to burp following a meal in Bahrain and China, among other countries.
The Independent reports that residents of Bahrain regard belching as a sign of appreciation for hospitality. In China, burping during a meal or following a meal is considered to be a sign of good manners.”
While “what’s ethical” has general guidelines no matter where you are, for examples, being respectful and not taking other peoples’ stuff, the specifics and the contextual have been too-long overlooked.
I went to an elementary school called Ethical Culture School; if I remember correctly, what I remember from ethics classes was something like a thought- experiment situation: If so-and-so people were in a lifeboat and only some could survive, who would you choose? . . . I guess that’s one way to develop contextual thinking.
My current sense of ethics or ēthos is more aptly conveyed with the following Zen story which happens to align with the etymology cited above. I first read this in the wonderful book, Zen Flesh Zen Bones: A Collection of Zen and Pre- Zen Writings, compiled by Paul Reps and with Nyogen Senzaki (Tuttle Publishing).
“Tanzan and Ekido were once traveling together down a muddy road. A heavy rain was still falling. Coming around a bend, they met a lovely girl in a silk kimono and sash, unable to cross the intersection.
“Come on, girl” said Tanzan at once. Lifting her in his arms, he carried her over the mud.
Ekido did not speak again until that night when they reached a lodging temple. Then he no longer could restrain himself. “We monks don’t go near females,” he told Tanzan, “especially not young and lovely ones. It is dangerous. Why did you do that?”
“I left the girl there,” said Tanzan. “Are you still carrying her?””
What may be considered “unethical” with regard to the strict practice of being a Zen monk, is shown in the story as ethically benevolent . . . in the moment.
In the bigger picture, disrespected peoples, which includes the likes of pesticided bees and animals hunted for trophies, are crying out for ethical behavior.
Instead of simply thinking of what’s “ethical” as not doing harm and/or doing the right thing, let’s also consider “ethical” more so as a way to celebrate the “genius” of each People, each culture, each spirituality and custom. Whatta People those bees, bopping around plant to plant, flower to flower . . . and then we get to enjoy some honey; if that’s not genius, I don’t know what is.
With climate chaos and covid-times, it seems as if the Mother Earth Ship is making Her own lifeboat decisions. From the human perspective, the question need not be: Who survives? … rather: How do we tune-in with the Earth Ship and maximize survival of humans and other-than-humans?