Ethics, East and West
Tibor R. Machan
My title may suggest a sharp difference between East and West and that would be inaccurate. After all, we are all human beings, even though some of us grew up with different ideas from the others and over time these ideas may have divided us throughout the world, though by no means permanently or irrevocably. So, even though there are certain differences between the way ethics is understood in the Arab world by Islamists—especially by those embracing radical Islam—it doesn't mean that this is something frozen or cast in stone.
So although I will point out certain differences between how ethics is viewed in the West and the Middle East, this should not be understood as saying that these differences are impossible to overcome. For example, when not long ago someone suggested that people in Iraq are not ready for democracy, Condoleezza Rice responded that this is wrong; she insisted that they are as ready as anyone can be. Well, both sides are correct but in different respects. Many who live in the Middle East are not ready for democracy—or more precisely, the limited constitutional democratic type of political system professed by many in the West—in the sense that their thinking does not usually conform to the ideals and assumptions of a democratic society. But Condoleezza Rice is also correct because they are capable of changing their minds and with enough teaching and enough attention to the facts that need to be considered, they could very well change and become more sympathetic towards the democratic way of life.
Here, however, the focus will be on ethics, the area of concern human beings have about how they ought to act, the principles of good human conduct. A central point about how ethics is understood in the West—both as part of most theological as well as philosophical traditions—is that we tend to believe that in order to do the right thing one must do it voluntarily or choose to do it. No one can gain moral credit for telling the truth because someone holds a gun to one’s head and orders one to speak truthfully. Generally, one cannot gain moral credit if one acts justly, generously, productively, industriously, prudently, or courageously because one is being forced to do so. Thus, one sign of children becoming more mature and becoming closer to adulthood is that they become more and more responsible for their conduct.
Generally, throughout Western civilization most of the ways that ethics has been understood include the assumption that an ethical life presupposes that human beings can make choices and that their morally right as well as morally wrong conduct is a matter of their own free will. Acting morally right or wrong is not something people do instinctively, nor something that they are forced to do by others. It is, rather, up to them to choose to do so. There are intimation of this view in Aristotle, not to mention St. Augustine and Immanuel Kant. But it needs to be made clear that saying this does not mean that what is ethically right and wrong is up to us. No, only acting ethically or morally is up to us. However complicated, what is the right thing to do is not a matter of personal preference or choice.
The reason why most Western political theories and systems, however mixed and inconsistent they may be, tend to be anti-authoritarian and anti-totalitarian is that they recognize that such an approach to dealing with human beings politically ignores people’s moral agency and is, thus, in violation of their basic human nature and inalienable rights that derive from it. Human nature involves, in a significant measure, that some very significant portion of what people do is a matter of their own initiative or free will. This is also one of the reasons that we find ourselves so different from all other animals we know of (which doesn't necessarily mean that some couldn’t arise that will surprise us)—to the best of our knowledge all other animals operate instinctively. They are hard wired and thus behave without having to choose, to think up what they will do before they do it. Even as a cheetah “decides” when to pounce on its pray, it does so guided by instinct.
In contrast to this, human beings have to learn what to do, including what is right versus wrong. It's not built into them. If it only were, we would have very few problems since everybody would be doing the right thing automatically just the same way as birds fly south and forage about and make nests automatically. No one needs to teach them in classrooms in books but their elders inculcate them as a matter of routine or instinct. No on needs to reprimand them if they don't get things right because it's all in their genetic make-up.
Whereas, there are a lot of things fixed in our genes but what is morally right versus wrong doesn't happen to be amongst them. Right and wrong is something we learn from our parents, teachers, novelists, movie makers and sitcoms (I'm unhappy to say). Most adults around us think about these matters, exemplify them in literature, poetry, musicals, movies, and so on, for better or worse. This is how we come to become aware of what is the right thing to do and what is not the right thing to do, and in this respect freedom, including political freedom, is at present a distinctive part of the Western way of life.
In the Bible, for instance, from the very beginning of Adam’s and Eve's human lives what distinguishes them from their prior life when they were effectively mere animals is that they eat from the tree of knowledge and thus become capable of sinning because they have the capacity to do either what is morally right or morally wrong of the own free will. Aristotle, writing much earlier, already noted that the moral virtues are a matter of choice.
Unfortunately, however, this idea is by no means universal. In many places throughout the world—including in some circles in the West—it is believed that good conduct can be regimented, commandeered, or forcibly imposed on people and that their freedom is of no great significance when it comes to whether they are good or bad, act properly or improperly. So, to take a somewhat mild case, it doesn't matter very much whether women in Iran wear the veil as a matter of free choice or because the clergy and government require it. As long as women behave as is deemed to be proper, that's all that counts.
So there's a fundamental difference between how ethical ideals are understood in many of the Arab nations versus how they are understood in the West. That fundamental difference isn't mostly about what is believed to be right versus wrong conduct—although, of course, there are many difference between, roughly, the West and the East on that front as well. But on that issue there is plenty of disagreement in the West as well. Not everybody has the same idea of right and wrong. There is one thing that most Western ethical teachers and practitioners believe, namely, that whatever is the right thing for someone to do, the only way that one can be blamed or praised is if one’s choice is involved. If a person’s choice is not involved, he or she can not be blamed or praised.
Look also at the criminal law, which is largely based on people’s moral convictions. It is crucial that most defense attorneys are dying to find someway to prove that their clients couldn't help doing the wrong thing because if they really couldn't help it, then they're not blameworthy or culpable for what they did. So, this, too, illustrates that in much of western civilization human beings are viewed in such a way that right and wrong conduct must be a matter of their choice. Otherwise, we see them as something less than human—as invalids, as deficient or incapacitated, and so they aren’t deemed deserving of punishment. Maybe they become subject to therapy or placed into mental hospitals. The point is that they're no longer dealt with their full human dignity—the capacity for choice—in tact.
In contrast, in many other parts of the world and especially the parts with which right now we're geopolitically most engaged, this is not the case. That is one—though not the only—reason that there's so much hostility towards the West and, especially, towards America. American culture does have as one of its ideals, albeit often violated in practice, that morality may not—even cannot—be legislated or force upon people. That is why we have the concept of a victimless crime. Because there can be something that is wrongful but if it does not violate someone’s rights the law should not interfere since interference would rob people of the liberty to make their own choices between doing the right or wrong thing.
Obviously there are serious disagreements, for example, among conservatives, libertarians, and liberals on just how much liberty people ought to have about how they conduct themselves in areas where they do not interfere with others but in the main there is a Western tradition, especially in America, that wrongful conduct has to be chosen before it can be punished and that some wrongful conduct may not be legislated, may not be controlled. The bottom line is that it has to be up to the individual whether he or she does the right thing or the wrong thing. Instead of somebody holding a gun to one’s head or threaten to imprison one, ethical conduct needs to be left to individuals and may not be enforced.
Most of us recognize that as someone becomes a grown-up, adult, mature human being, he or she is gradually accorded greater and greater responsibility for choosing between right and wrong and is supposed to choose on the basis of the merits of the action and not on the basis of fear or adverse repercussions from others. This is something most parents try to teach their children. They hope that they will become aware of what is right and wrong independently of a mere fear or of sanctions. They work to bring about in their children a recognition that something is right and that it is to be done for that reason not because somebody is standing there threatening them if they don't.
Of course, this notion of personal responsibility has unavoidable risks. Quite a few people will not live up to the expectation of choosing to act properly, ethically, morally. So a free or approximately free society is marred with the distinct possibility of moral decadence—excessive gambling, prostitution, drunkenness, drug abuse, and even much worse, such as irrational violence. That is because we don't believe that the government should be a totalitarian organization that has any authority to micromanage our lives. So there is never any guarantee that such an approximately free society is always going to be squeaky clean, morally perfect, no. But what can be attested to is that in a free country when people are good, they are good of their own accord. Whether they will be good or not is up to the people themselves—up to others, including the government. Virtuous conduct is not something that can be imposed on us. (Aristotle is sometimes invoked as a critic of this idea. But he may only have argued that educating the young to be virtuous will involve some measure of force and pressure from family and friends.)
Cultural guardians in regimented—paternalistic, authoritarian, or totalitarian—counties often find this extremely upsetting because they consider the kind of freedom that ascribes to individuals personal responsibility—in other words, one that leaves it up to ordinary folks whether they do the right thing or the wrong—offensive to goodness. They want goodness to be totally protected, enforced, and guarded against even the possibility of failure. They do not accept as most people in the West do that what it comes to the human good, it has to be a matter of choice, otherwise it is worthless.
And so, when many from such cultures look at America and see that there it is mostly left up to individuals whether they choose to do the right thing or the wrong thing, they consider that offensive and degrading. Many in the West, however, are extremely proud of the idea. They are proud of it because most recognize that their outlook is more in accord with human nature, which is characterized by the freedom to do the right thing or the wrong thing and that it must be up to them whether they do one or the other. They see this is central to our moral nature or agency.
This point is made quite clear in various parts of the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights since when one has a right, for example, to liberty, it means that other people may not intrude. When one has the right to one’s life, that means that others may not govern one—individuals are sovereign and get to govern their own lives, while others get to govern theirs. As Abraham Lincoln noted, “No man is good enough to govern another man, without that other’s consent.”
Such a conviction stands four square against the kind of culture in which leaders would impose on everyone full compliance with what is deemed to be standards of right conduct. Anybody who believes that sort of imposition is the way to govern a society will obviously regard America as indeed a most guilty society, a most morally depraved civilization, for respecting the right of individuals to choose whether they would do the right or wrong thing.
It is crucial to realize that this isn’t an issue about whether the standards are objective versus subjective or absolute versus relative. In the Western tradition of philosophical and theological ethics there is considerable support for objective or absolute standards of right versus wrong. And this is accompanied by a parallel tradition that to do the right thing is something one must choose to do, otherwise one isn’t really one’s doing of the right thing at all. Of course, there are other traditions in the great variety of Western ideas on ethics and morality.
Not everybody even in the West embraces the idea that morality must not be forced on people. There are many organizations, churches, institutions that would just as soon impose upon us all, whether we like it or not, certain standards of conduct. Authoritarianism, the “totalitarian temptation,” is global and isn’t confined to Iran, Syria, Iraq, or anywhere else. In fact, it is right here in the midst of us. There are many people who are terribly impatient when something goes wrong, and immediately ask for laws or public policy so as to remedy matters.
In the last analysis it's only the individual’s commitment or resolve that prevents him or her from acting immorally, viciously. There is no formula that one can create that’s going to make people good. Just look at societies that have tried to do that, such as Nazi Germany, Mussolini’s Italy, Mao’s China, or Stalin’s Russia. And in less Draconian ways, look at all the monarchies throughout history in which the royal house had been deemed the “keeper of the realm” and taken to be assigned the job of making the society good, to be “the keeper of the realm.”
All such systems tend to go aground because they violate a fundamental fact of human nature, namely, that a human being has free will and is neither a robot nor an animal driven by instincts. To ignore this fact in a society’s laws and public policies, and various institutions is going to bring a society to ruin. And nowhere is this being tried more aggressively in our time than in the Middle East. One reason is the oil that enables most of the countries there to carry on without much human creativity and productivity. If the oil had not been discovered and developed by entrepreneurial effort in the East, the people there wouldn't have anything much prosperity. Their current systems do not encourage innovation and entrepreneurship.
Also, in most of those societies people tend to be tribal in the way they think about themselves. That is why so many killings of innocent people can occur. Most of us in the Western tradition tend to have the view that only those may be punished for a crime who have perpetrated it. No one may be held guilty for a wrongdoing who didn’t choose to perpetrated it—not their sisters, brothers, parents, or friends.
But this idea, again, is far from universal. It's not a global conviction. That is very much a part of the Western and, especially American, legal tradition of due process of law. The law may not act against people who are simply near the guilty. One must only go after those who are actually guilty, so that if the authorities can't catch the guilty then one must give up. No one may be substituted and punished for the guilty.
This general principle of the law does not bother too many people who send suicide bombers to blow up a bunch of school children or fly panes into skyscrapers. Why? Because for many of those people, especially the leaders, if you disapprove of an entire country, like America or Israel, you may hurt and kill any citizen there since they are taken to be one tribe, a collective entity.
By the Western legal tradition, however, maybe America or Israel doesn't always have the best policies but no one may kill American or Israeli babies or civilians in retaliation. That is what in much of the West is called prejudice and is seen to encourage a lynch mob mentality whereby people are hanged merely because they belong to a group the angry mob hates. According to such tribal thinking one may, even ought to, kill anybody from the West because that hurts “the West.” Osama bin Laden has spent some of his time on his videos laying out this position quite explicitly.
But the idea tends to be seen as rank absurdity by most Westerners because their traditions tend to be individualistic. Most don't accept the collectivist notion that has treated entire societies as if all members were guilty for the deeds of a few amongst them.
In conclusion, the fundamental difference between at least those on the East on whom we are now very much focused and ourselves is that we tend—in the main though by no means universally—to view individuals as responsible for their conduct and capable of choosing between right and wrong and their moral life would be demolished if we forced them to do even what is really, actually morality right. Once one is an adult, one’s moral or immoral conduct is one’s responsibility, not anyone else's. And this assumes that every intact human being must be free to choose.
Other societies, especially the ones that I've focused upon, don't have this conviction widely enough embraced throughout their culture and through their legal and political tradition. That in part explains our major differences between the dominant ethical outlook in the West and much of the Middle East.