In the blog before last I suggested that people in survival situations do ‘whatever it takes’ and had a challenge over that. It was one of those statements I typed out quickly as part of a different argument, so the subtleties of the issue just weren’t tackled. I really appreciate people catching me when I do these, because it requires me to think, to figure out ideas that I may have been taking for granted.
What I’ve come up with may be entirely personal to me, I don’t know. Usually when we talk about morals, ethics, behaviour we tend to assume that a given person has one set of values. On reflection, I realise that I do not. I have a number of levels within my ethical thinking, I’m going to simplify it to three for ease of explaining, but that’s probably not all of it in some instances.
I have ideals. These are the standards I would like to uphold, the things I think would be optimal. They include only buying organic and ethically sourced food, clothing and other objects, only using electricity I have generated myself by green and sustainable means, not using fossil fuels, re-using and recycling rather than throwing anything away, never losing my temper, never speaking or acting in haste, always acting with absolute care, thoughtfulness and integrity. There are others, but that’s enough to give a flavour.
In reality, I wouldn’t be able to afford to eat if I stuck to those ideals, and I certainly couldn’t buy clothes on those terms. The realities of not having much money are just not compatible with my ideals. I’m stuck with the available levels of technology, and while I have very low fossil fuel consumption, I’ve not got that down to no use, yet. And of course the whole being human thing means I’m not always perfect in my self-control, speech and behaviour.
So, I have an aspirational level of ethics, and the reality. I push towards the aspiration in every way I can think of, but the nature of those ideals is that if I get close to reaching them, I’m going to shift the goalposts. Those aspirational ethics are not fixed, they exist to stretch me.
Then there’s the ‘whatever it takes’ ethics, and I suspect we all have these too. I don’t steal. If I genuinely couldn’t feed my child by any other means (postulate some apocalyptic scenario if you will) I would take what he needed. No question. But that doesn’t mean that I would consider absolutely any behaviour if I had the right justification. I don’t believe that rationalisation holds water, although I have the impression some people do think that way. I would not, for example, kill someone in order to escape from an extreme poverty scenario. I would not countenance doing anything that put my child in danger to achieve any other end.
The idea of doing whatever it takes has a connection with whether you see the ends as justifying the means or not. For someone who does, ‘whatever it takes’ is a very broad remit indeed. I don’t see the ends as inherently justifying the means, I think instead that the means must support the intended outcome. So there are definitely things I would not countenance doing.
For most people then I think ‘whatever it takes’ exists within a moral framework. No doubt there are people who can uphold their highest ideals no matter that happens to them, but I for one have a ‘bottom line’ ethic as well. They come into play when two ethical positions collide. Duty of care versus something else would be the most obvious. How far would I go to save a life, to protect a habitat, to prevent a worse injustice from occurring? I’m not sure, I won’t know until it happens.
I’m not going to die of cold rather than burn coal. That’s putting immediate survival before aspirational ideals. Whatever it takes, is relative. It depends a lot on how you define survival and how you craft your priorities.