I’ve been thinking a lot about ethics as of lately. When most people think of ethics and morals they usually think of right and wrong, but there is no law of right or wrong in ethics – just varying opinions of what should be right or wrong. If there are so many schools of thought pertaining to ethics (consequentialism, virtue ethics, deontology, and not to mention the various cultural and religious influences of ethics) then how can we, as a human race, define social justice? As a student considering law school, this question is really annoying as it challenges the very philosophy and foundation of my potential future career: if there is no overarching law of right and wrong, then I am just fighting for my opinion to be accepted - so what if my opinion, though seemingly just to me, hurts other people? Or causes more harm than good?
I feel like in today’s age when there is some sort of conflict placed in front of people, everyone elicits a gut reaction rather really analyzing the story and seeking to understand all sides. Though some instances of conflict may be triggering, thus it is easier to jump the gun and formulate an immediate viewpoint, I think the best way to master empathy is to first detach yourself and then seek to understand. With understanding you can then have a more enriching emotional experience.
This, of course, is all just my opinion. I’ve come to this conclusion because I feel like I can’t turn on the TV, open up Facebook, or even have a casual conversation without someone passionately yelling his or her views in my face (and most of the time these views are politically driven). I’m only 19, I’m still growing as a scholar and as an individual – with that I don’t think it is wise to formulate opinion without challenging societal norms as well as my own thought in order to understand the whole truth.
So let me ask you this: would you eat your friend?
Here’s some backstory: Ross and Rachel went on a fishing trip in mid-August. Unfortunately, a hurricane ambushed their trip and wrecked the boat on a deserted island far from civilization. After ten years of surviving on the island, a coconut fatally falls from the top of a palm tree and kills Ross. Rachel was heartbroken. Ross and Rachel have known for a while it was probable that one day one of them would end up alone on the island. So they made a promise about five years ago that whoever died first would be eaten by the other. Rachel was terrified to be alone, as she and Ross were best friends and had this on-again-off-again relationship. Though Ross and Rachel would go on the occasional ‘break’, they always knew they were two halves of one soul. So they felt as if this promise was fitting, as in death they would become one. Also, Rachel’s chances of survival are cut in half now that she is alone. Part of the logical behind this promise was that eating the other person would help survive on the island. So that night, Rachel ate Ross and since then she never felt like she was alone.
Question – Was this ethically wrong?
-Ross was not killed for the purpose of consumption.
-Ross being eaten didn’t hurt anyone.
-Rachel found inner peace by eating Ross.
-Rachel will survive longer on the island by eating Ross.
-There are no laws against cannibalism on this island.
-Rachel and Ross have been away from societal norms for 10 years and were forced to adapt to the conditions of the island.
This rendition of an ethical dilemma has been customized and discussed in many settings from a satirical portrayal (for example that episode of How I Met Your Mother when Ted and Marshal are stranded in a snowstorm and Ted offers up his body to Marshal for survival in the event he dies first) to analytical works (such as Jeremy Stangroom’s studies of ethical conundrums).
Your gut reaction to this story was probably yuck! As in most cultures, cannibalism is illegal and frowned upon. It is viewed as morally wrong to eat another human, or even to eat some other species, yet we regularly consume chicken, beef, fish, etc. To contrast this human norm, in the animal kingdom it is not uncommon for an adult lion to have a cub for dinner. Yet, eating another human is viewed as disgusting and unmoral; thus, there is this instinctive yuck factor that sometimes drives moral judgment.
A lot of philosophers question The Yuck Factor, as there are dangers in in ethics being determined by the feeling of revulsion because we may wrongfully judge others, as well as ourselves, with no logic or empathy but merely off this innate feeling of yuck.
The Callatiae tribe in India actually practices endocannibalism (eating members of the community after they have died). In this culture, it is not only a societal norm but also a valued tradition to eat friends and relatives after they have passed. People outside of this tribe may look at this practice and have strong moral judgments, but aside from health concerns – who is the judge of morality: external opinion that in no way is personally affected by this practice or those who are taking part in this celebration?
There are a lot of ethical lenses that can be used to analyze this controversy. The utilitarianism application is a consequentialist theory in that the worth of an action is measured by its outcomes. In other words, the ends may justify the means. Utilitarianism goes back to the 18th century. The philosopher Jeremy Bentham noticed that people tend to have a self-serving motive behind their actions where the goal of each action is to pursue happiness. This means that people will act in a way that will bring the most pleasure and minimize the pain. Bentham describes this concept by comparing it to a balance, where if you were to sum up all the values of pleasure on one side of a scale and all of the values of pain on the other- the pleasure side should outweigh the other. Upon educating myself of the origins of this specific philosophy, I couldn’t help but think of Freud’s notion of the id, ego, and superego. The id acts as the pleasure impulse, while the superego acts as a reflection of that person’s moral judgment, and the ego is the filter that finds a way to satisfy that pleasure while abiding by the laws of ethics. This theory focuses heavily on the id and simplifies all other factors to be less significant. In regards to the Ross and Rachel story, the utilitarian view believes it was not wrong for Rachel to eat Ross. The id does not focus on an institution setting rules for behavior, but rather what utility arrives with the consequences of each action. To Rachel, eating Ross not only brings emotional comfort but also satisfies her next meal on an island where resources are limited. Under this philosophical lens, there are not judgments against this action because the end result is pleasure.
Another philosophical approach to moral judgment is deontological ethics. This approach follows a more strict law of do’s and don’ts, believing that actions are intrinsically good or bad regardless of consequence. For example, say you almost cheated on your significant other and although that experience only reinforced your love for your partner, coming clean would only hurt your love so with a utilitarian philosophical you hide the truth. But in regards to deontological ethics, lying is wrong – regardless of the consequences of telling the truth – so telling your partner what happened, even if it hurts them, is still morally better. In regards to the Ross and Rachel story, this view emphasizes the logical components of the story. If you strip away all the emotional components of the story, you are left with a woman fighting for survival on a deserted island and a man with an accidental death. The two biggest factors to consider are the moral law of whether eating another person is wrong – which varies upon person and community – and the survival element. Upon debating these two main components, one can have a solid case for morally right and morally wrong.
Ethics, though typically associated with clear and strict laws, are all up to debate of opinion. There are structures and general stances people can follow in order to help guide their decision making process, but who is to say which lens is best? I think society as a whole (especially the political aspects of society) would really benefit from incorporating these analytical processes when facing conflict. Pulling from multiple perspectives can only lead to an enriched understanding. We are all too quick to form an opinion and neglect to explore multiple approaches in order to define whether something is 'good' or 'bad'. This, again, is all just my opinion - but I think everyone (myself included) could benefit from incorporating empathy into their thought processes, even if your gut reaction to whatever news article or conversation is screaming at you telling you to jump the gun and elicit instant revulsion or love for whatever is being said.