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A Rational Code of Ethics - Commentary

Commentary on the Code

Let me start by thanking everyone who commented on my first draft. You encouraged me to continue with the project. The amended code now comprises three fundamental axioms and nine guidelines. In this hub, I will expand on each of these in turn. But first, I would like to enlarge on the scope of the project, by explaining what the code is, and what it is not.

The code is:

  1. aimed primarily at junior school children
  2. intended to be as universally acceptable as possible
  3. based on three widely accepted factual axioms
  4. independent of faith-based belief systems

The code is not:

  1. in contradiction of faith-based belief systems
  2. intended as a blue-print for Government
  3. expected to solve all of society's problems

There is no longer universal agreement (in fact there never was) that religion should be taught in schools. Religious families are of course free to teach their faith at home or through places of worship, but many now accept that schools should focus on the observable, not the supernatural.

Traditionally, ethics and religion have been bundled together as an all-in-one package (though this was not always so; the ancient Greeks had no problem making the distinction). In a traditional homogeneous community, this worked well enough, as dissenters were few. But nowadays our communities are far more mixed, which is why schools and religion are unhappy bedfellows, at best.

A consequence of dropping religion from the curriculum is that the ethical component is also dropped. This is unfortunate, especially as many parents are unable or unwilling to teach ethics at home. The solution suggests itself - restore Ethics to its rightful place as the independent subject that it should always have been. And teach it in schools.

So, I hope we can agree that this project is not any kind of attack on religion. It is, however, recognising the reality of our present situation and addressing the ethical void left in the wake of religious education's inevitable recession in a diverse society. I hope we can further agree that the code as presented does not contradict the ethics of any major religion. In fact, there is no reason why it should do so, as humans and human societies the world over are more similar than different.

Discussing the code, point by point

Before launching into the discussion, a couple of general points:

  1. Individual freedom requires that everything is acceptable in general, unless specifically it is not. For this reason, proscription generally works better than prescription.
  2. However, it might simply not occur to people that they have an opportunity to make a contribution for the good of others. For this reason I have added a few prescriptive guidelines (no 7 & 8)

In what follows, the code itself is in plain type and my discussion points are in blue italics. The italicised text is commentary only and does not form part of the code.

Part One - The Knowledge

  1. We share the Earth with our fellow Humans, with Animal life and with Plant life. A simple reminder of the ecosystem and our place within it. There is plenty room for classroom discussion of the huge variety of life on Earth. Note that ethics is not concerned with how or why the Earth exists. That is the province of science and, for some, religion. Ethics is independent, pragmatic, and concerned with what is.
  2. We are responsible first to each other and our future generations, then to all life on Earth. This introduces our interconnectedness and the notions of responsibility and stewardship, as the Earth's most influential tenants, for the sake of the future of our kind.
  3. Sometimes we are subject to natural forces beyond our control. Strictly, we are always subject to such forces as gravity, but the point here is that we do not control (though we may influence) such as earthquakes, tsunamis, pandemics etc. Misfortune is part of life and this axiom merely recognises that fact.

Part Two - The Code

  1. Do not hurt, harm or abuse other people As the child grows in experience and maturity, s/he will learn the many and various ways we have devised for harming each other, and will at least know that they are wrong.
  2. Do not force your will on other people The teacher will have to explain 'force your will', with examples and encourage the children to suggest more. The aim is to instil a basic understanding of human relationships that can be built on.
  3. Do not take what is not yours I considered omitting this as it is a special case of both of the above, but in a society so dominated by material possessions, it probably merits its own line.
  4. Do not be devious, treacherous or deceitful This one could perhaps have been phrased prescriptively - be truthful, etc - but much of the time we are not called upon to 'be' anything. So it seems better to have a checklist available against which to measure particular speech or acts.
  5. Do not be cruel to animals Some have suggested this is advocating vegetarianism, but that is not the intention. We are omnivores by nature, and besides, even a vegetarian can beat his dog. It simply suggests that in our dealings with animals we should treat them well.
  6. Be moderate in your consumption The teacher can show that consumption extends from simple eating and drinking through to our use of energy and natural resources.
  7. Try to be helpful to other people This one is prescriptive because it might simply not occur to a child who is used to being looked after that s/he too can start to take care of others.
  8. Be generous with your ideas and talents Prescriptive for the same reason. And because it should be incumbent on the more creative and inventive to share their natural advantages for the benefit of society.
  9. When misfortune occurs, do not give in to despair In recognition that misfortune, illness, bereavement, etc is a natural part of the human condition, this suggests that we should meet it with equanimity as far as possible, and get on with our lives.

End piece - realism

Some commentators on the first draft pointed out, correctly, that sometimes the correct action is to break the code, e.g. in using force to restrain an aggressor, the aggressor might be harmed. But this is not an argument against the code. All ethical guidelines are just that - guidelines, not imperatives. In an imperfect world there is always going to be the need to weigh up and choose between less than perfect options.

And the very fact that the world is imperfect argues for, not against, the need to introduce ethical education into our junior schools.

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