Just Not Good Enough: The Desire for a New Ethos

Updated: Jan 9

The desire for the adoption of a new ethos is a primary element in today’s cultural life. We want better, we want to do better, we are just not good enough. This is the feeling and the mantra that is often stated either implicitly or explicitly. Though is that really where we are? Are our most undesirable misgivings a direct result of a deep ethical compromise? Is a better world actually awaiting at the foot of “better judgment”? Is the same civic formula for revolution our most effective route to change as in centuries past? As these questions are asked most often in relation to political practice, that would be a fair place to start our exploration, though that would also cartel a conversation of great length and complexity; the who, what, where, when, and whys of it all are just all too much information to cover in one sitting. And none the less, it does not seem that a complete knowledge of history and the accountability that should ideally follow thereafter strictly corresponds to a Utopian result. However, we can extract a few propositions from what we know from our latent knowledge of the topic.

That is, [1] the world starts out uncivilized, and [2] is made more civil through the organization of societies and ideals. This, of course, is not a clean process, which is what will lead us to the third claim. [3] Discord as a consequence of betterment. Here we stumble upon a certain paradox. That is, while trying to become better, we have to tolerate-often in greater proportions-the very thing we are trying to mitigate. For example, if there is civil unrest because of a certain political issue, there becomes even more unrest while trying to resolve it. In such a case, the ethos that seeks to be propagated is for a time disrupted by a behavior antithetical to it. Those acts of which we can call negative behaviors such as greed, theft, corruption, and violence have sought to be regulated for millennia. Though there has been significant progress made in regulating these behaviors either by religious morals, societal norms, or legal preemption, the propensity to exercise one or more of these negative behaviors while trying to maintain a higher civic order always seems to persist. An ethical aspiration, then, that does not acknowledge or allow for the eventual likelihood of human error cannot satisfy us.

In the case of the new ethic, the move towards social justice, and even in neighboring movements such as deep ecology, there is a call for the revolutionized self, one with deeper ethical practice which will seemingly correlate to more ethical outputs in society. These movements are often quoted as a departure from the anthropocentric view of the world. The goal is to achieve a world with less offense, less harm, less waste, less exhaustion, and higher efficiency. While noble, these sorts of progressions do not seem completely alien to our inherent ethical propensities, which have been acted out in any other time in history that might otherwise be deemed ill through the scope of our current lens. We already seem to be the types of creatures that are predisposed to betterment and organization. The attainment of desirable ethical outcomes is also not, as it is often assumed, strictly obstructed by a lack of virtue in-and-of-itself but often encumbered by natural faculties of disorder and discontinuity. The more precise question here may be how much are we in need of a motivational or meta-narrative to excel our progress and diminish our discontents? Even more, how do we know that that narrative is genuine and most efficient?

Here we find two different and perhaps even competing aspects of social life and ethics: the one that we carry out by our practical nature and the one that we are motivated to believe in. A snippet of this kind of disparity is mentioned in Amy Chua’s book Political Tribes (Chua 2018). Here she recites some peculiar happenings within the Occupy Wall Street movement in America. The two most peculiar of the sort were that a movement spoken for the poor was headed by the upper-middle class. Those of whom were also often outside of the racial demographic they were representing. Conversely, the actual members of these groups by and large disagreed with not the fight for equality but with how it was being fought. Though this movement sought to motivate people to believe its contents were genuine and consistent, the actual ethics of the people they were representing were unalike.

Protest and civil unrest are often idealized, but they are not without complications. Amongst those is the question of performativity. For those adherent to the revolt, the performative element is seen as constitutive of freedom and democracy. For those critical of or opposed to these actions, they ask what are the limits of such actions, and even-more, are the prospective goals of these actions limited by personal or group interest? Are they the kinds of things that can be obtained without protestation? Do they absolutely require consent or legislation? How much does one's right to protest override one's right to a civil state? How might it affect the opinion of the courts when the protests are tied to legal matters? Quite ironically, the unduly murder of George Floyd occurred in the midst of my writing this article. As we have all watched the discourse unfold, there has been much speculation on whether the protests are justified, and we see quite clearly through this event that the response to injustice, if not just for a time, leads to more injustice as the body count of both citizens and police continues to rise due to civil unrest.

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