March 26, 2014 Reinventing Ethics

Reinventing Ethics

By HOWARD GARDNER   Click here for a pdf version

What’s good and what’s bad? There are plenty of reasons to believe that human nature changes slowly, if at all — all’s still fair in love and war. For millennia, religious believers have attributed our nature to God’s image, as well as to God’s plan. In recent years, evolutionary psychologists peered directly at our forerunners on the savannahs of East Africa; if human beings change, we do so gradually over thousands of years. Given little or nothing new in the human firmament, traditional morality — the “goods” and “bads” as outlined in the Ten Commandments or the Golden Rule — should suffice.

My view of the matter is quite different. As I see it, human beings and citizens in complex, modern democratic societies regularly confront situations in which traditional morality provides little if any guidance. Moreover, tenable views of “good” and “bad” that arose in the last few centuries are being radically challenged, most notably by the societal shifts spurred by digital media. If we are to have actions and solutions adequate to our era, we will need to create and experiment with fresh approaches to identifying the right course of action.

Let’s start with the Ten Commandments. We are enjoined to honor our parents, and to avoid murder, theft, adultery and dishonesty. Or consider the Golden Rule: “Do onto others. “ A moment’s reflection reveals that these commandments concern how we treat those nearby — we might say those 150 persons who, according to anthropologist Robin Dunbar, each of us has evolved to be able to know well. For most of history, and all of pre-history, our morality has been extended to our geographical neighbors — anyone else falls outside the framework of neighborly morality.

This characterization is largely true until we reach the modern era — the last few centuries, particularly in the West. The one dramatic exception is the brief period of the Greek city-state. Citizens of Athens pledged to work for the improvement and glory of the entire society. And in extending the gamut of responsibility, the Hippocratic oath of the Periclean era enjoined physicians to extend aid and avoid mistreatment of any person in need of medical attention. As explained a century ago by the German sociologist Max Weber, professionals were no longer simply humans relating to their neighbors. Rather, the doctor, the lawyer, the architect, the educator had taken on more specified and finely articulated roles, with characteristic rights and responsibilities. Now, the morality that we direct to those living in the neighborhood and the ethics that a responsible professional should direct to all who come within his or her ambit, whether friend, foe, or someone from outside one’s customary circle, are two quite different matters.

It would be hyperbolic to maintain that “the ethics of roles” disappeared for almost two millennia. Yet this wider sense of responsibility was much less evident after classical times, when almost everyone was a peasant, guilds kept their practices secret and emerging states were hierarchical and authoritarian. Only as these trends were gradually overturned in the West in the last few centuries, did the role of the responsible professional re-emerge. The rise of the Fabians

in England, of the progressives in the United States or of the elite professional classes in Bismarckian and Weimar Germany, to take some familiar examples, established a cohort of individuals who were given status and a comfortable livelihood in return for the license to render complex judgments and decisions in a disinterested manner. According to the historian Kenneth Lynn, writing in the early 1960s, “Everywhere in American life, the professions are triumphant.”

But even as Lynn wrote, the hegemony of the professions was breaking down. It was not only the witty George Bernard Shaw who believed that “professions are a conspiracy against the laity.” Many saw the professions as the province of the privileged — chiefly white, primarily Anglo- Saxon in lineage, largely male. Most of us today deem the democratization — or demoticization — of the professions as a healthy development. Yet, I maintain that this trend had its costs. Specifically, the very notion of professions serving the wider community has broken down, to be replaced by a growing consensus that professions are by their nature destined to serve parochial interests.

When Anthony Kronman, a professor and former dean of Yale School of Law, wrote nostalgically in 1995 about “the lost lawyer,” he has in mind the “found lawyer” who is no longer concerned with the health of the community but only with the wealth of his employers, generally large corporations. And the same waning of disinterestedness can be seen in the once- solo practitioner physician (“Marcus Welby”) who is now “managed” by the business school graduates of the health maintenance organization; the once “Mr. Smith goes to Washington” politician now under the thumbs of the most wealthy donors; the once selfless “ Mr. Chips” who serves his own careerist interests rather than those of the discipline, the college or the students.

Why should this matter? If my argument is correct, the professional deals every day with issues that cannot possibly be decided simply by consulting the Bible or some other traditional moral code. At which point should the journalist protect an anonymous source? Should a lawyer continue to defend a client whom she believes to be lying? Ought a medical scientist take research support when the funds come from a convicted felon or when subjects cannot give informed consent? Alas, traditional texts don’t provide reliable answers to these questions — they don’t even raise them. And yet, if professions are to disappear, should we simply answer these vexed questions by flipping a coin or by majority vote?

Perhaps the gradual undermining of the professions was inevitable, but it has certainly been accelerated by the emergence and increasing prevalence of the digital media. At the fingertips of anyone with a digital device, one can now learn the good, the bad, and the ugly of just about any professional practitioner — without the means of determining the legitimacy of these characterizations. Moreover, one can instantly access all forms of real and faux expertise on issues ranging from the treatment of disease to the preparation of term papers to the drawing up of a will or a trust fund. Tomorrow, if not today, one will be able to gain accreditation or diplomas for the thousand-plus careers that now style themselves as “professions.” And shouldn’t we honor these sheepskins, particularly if we cannot reliably distinguish on the basis of a score on a bar exam between those who went for three years to Yale Law School and those who enrolled in Dr. Khan’s free online course in legal thinking and practice?

These forces of democratization and digitalization will not go away. Ethical dilemmas are no longer going to be decided solely by those who wear certain clothing and who have a certain professional pedigree. How then should we go about deciding which of the alternative courses of action is the right one, or at least the one that is more ethical?

My solution involves the recasting of venerable institutions into forms appropriate for the contemporary era. In ancient Greece and Rome, citizens gathered in the central square, or agora, to discuss complex issues. Much the same occurred centuries later in the fabled town hall meetings of New England. A congruent “mentality” characterized the physical “commons” in which members of a community grazed their animals. Unless each member respected the need to limit grazing time, the pasture land would not be arable.

I call on members of a professional community to create common spaces in which they can reflect on ethical conundra of our era. For the first time in human history, it is not essential that participants occupy the same physical space. Virtual common spaces can allow all who have interest and knowledge in the area to weigh in — whether the topic is the protection of sources by journalists, the determination of which intellectual property can legitimately be downloaded and which not, whether studies of the creation of a deadly new strain of virus should be published. Indeed, in the last decade, in professions ranging from journalism and law to medicine and science, such spaces have been created and, in some case, have been ably curated.

Still, by themselves “virtual agoras” are limited; they can be hijacked, trivialized, or ignored. And so I recommend the reinvigoration of the role of “trustees” — individuals afforded the privilege of maintaining the standards of an institution or profession. Traditionally, trustees were drawn from the rank of wise seniors, and such persons can offer both time and experience. But particularly in a fast changing world, trustees should reflect the range of ages and experiences. And so, as an example, young journalists should be asked to choose as trustees both peers and veterans whom they admire; and veteran journalists should nominate both peers and younger colleagues who embody the best of the profession. These trustees should have vested in them a spectrum of powers, ranging from an identification of best practices to the institution of rules governing admission to or expulsion from the profession.

Clearly, in an era marked by fast change, the creation of attractive agoras and of respected trustees will not be easy. Nor will the relation between these spaces and these persons be straightforward. Yet, given the importance of establishing ethical practices in our time, we need starting points, and these appear to be the most promising. I’m fully confident that good trustees and well-curated agoras can improve on my recommendations!

The problem with a belief in the immutability of morality is the same as the problem with a belief that the American Constitution contains the answers to all legal disputes. Like the Ten Commandments (or the code of Hammurabi or the Analects of Confucius), the Constitution is a remarkable document for its time. But it’s absurd to believe that the text magically contains the answers to complex modern issues: the definition of what it means to be alive, or how the commerce clause or the right to bear arms amendment should be interpreted; or whether a corporation is a person. By the same token, while we can draw inspiration from the classical texts and teachings of neighborly morality, we cannot expect that dilemmas of professional life

will be settled by recourse to these sources. But we need not tackle these alone. If we can draw on wise people across the age spectrum, and enable virtual as well as face-to-face discussion, we are most likely to arrive at an ethical landscape adequate for our time.

Howard Gardner is the Hobbs Professor of Cognition and Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. His most recent book is “Truth, Beauty and Goodness Reframed: Educating for the Virtues in the Age of Truthiness and Twitter.”

Ross Williams Grand Rapids, Minnesota John Richmond

What’s missing here is an appraisal of the effect our economic system has had on traditional ethics and morality. “Doing unto others” does not make for good capitalism, and for me, that’s where the trouble starts. Prof. Gardner touched on this briefly in describing the difference between the “lost” and”found” lawyers, doctors today vs. those of yesteryear, etc. The difference is that we all now work for someone else, or more precisely, something else; the corporation and it’s single-the addition minded focus on ever-expanding profit. Any discussion of what form our morality and ethics should take today must also include the system in which we all earn our living.

An Ordinary American Prague

I disagree with the thesis of this column. The problem is not in our ethical standards, be they the Ten Commandments or the Golden Rule. The problem is with our imagination, our failure to identify humans at a distance as “neighbors”. The limits of our empathy are too small for the modern world. Perhaps widespread education purposely aimed to enlarge our identification with “the other” can change that. Or perhaps only the slow, incremental change in human nature can do so. But I am fairly certain that a few “professions” adopting new ethical standards is not going to change it.

Gemli Boston

God help us if we had to rely on the Bible to acquire our sense of morality. Human beings would never have evolved if we had to wait for the Ten Commandments to tell us that it was wrong to lie, steal and murder. We could never have survived as a species if we could not trust each other, or if we were all plotting our neighbor’s demise.

In general, we should be very cautious of the kind of morality that comes from religious sources. The Good Book has good advice concerning how a man should treat his slaves, and how to sell his daughter into sexual slavery, along with instructions on how to lay waste to neighboring villages, kill every man and child, while saving the virgins for, well, later.

There is an innate sense of morality that comes with being a human being. It doesn’t come from a book; it’s part of our standard equipment. It has survived for millions of years, and it will survive the age of the Internet. Possibly.
The essence of ethics comes from the Golden Rule, and each age learns how best to implement

its simple imperative. It can be done person to person, or in the agora, or on Angie’s List. Compared to the rate at which we evolve, these technologies are flying by in a blur. Before we can figure out one, something else has come along. The details matter less than the simple directive to be mindful of each other’s weaknesses, and to reciprocate fairness.

Tim Bal Belle Mead, NJ

I beg to differ.

“There is nothing new under the sun.”

We do not need another Constitution. We do not need “well-curated agoras”.

What we need is more common sense, less greed, and more honesty, compassion, tolerance and patience. In other words, we don’t need anything new to support a more ethical society.

Howard Los Angeles

In the world today, I don’t observe any great obedience to the Golden Rule and to the ethical (non-ritual) parts of the Ten Commandments. So it’s kind of early to say that obeying them wouldn’t suffice.
Certainly there are technical requirements for somebody to understand what “stealing” is in computer software, or what “false witness” is in describing medical treatments. But once that definition is made, the golden rule and its equivalents (e.g., Kant: Act as though your action would become a universal law) can take you pretty far.

David Jones Rochester NY

We need to stop holding up the Athenians as models of democracy. They kept slaves and routinely sentenced people to death by popular vote!

ACW New Jersey

I agree with you about the Constitution. (Someone tell Scalia, please.).And you had me up to the graf that begins with Anthony Kroman’s lament on the lost lawyer, and the supposed loss of integrity in other professions. Do you really believe there was a time doctors were selfless, unmercenary near-saints? Read Moliere. For that matter, read history; e.g., the inventor of the forceps was as jealous and secretive of his lucrative device as Big Pharma of any of its patents. That there was a time when lawyers were not venal, equivocating opportunists would startle, say, John Webster. Plato and Thucydides knew a bit about democracy and that the system’s more likely to spawn an Alcibiades than a Mr. Smith. And George Orwell, who wrote ‘Such, Such Were the Joys,’ is laughing somewhere at your encomium to teachers. (As is IF Stone, who pretty much took apart the myth of the noble martyr Socrates.)
Things ain’t what they used to be … and they never were.

The 10 Commandments and Golden Rule also won’t wash. ‘Thou shalt have no other gods before me.’ Who, exactly, is ‘me’? ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you’? As GBS

pointed out, never do unto others as you would have them do unto you; ‘their tastes may not be the same.’ The OT/NT and general history of revealed religion prove not only are the commandments and rule poor ethical yardsticks, there is no more mischivous creature on earth than a man convinced he is virtuous in the eyes of the lord (any lord).

Kevin Brock Waynesville, NC

We don’t need to reinvent ethics. Rather, we need to reinforce and expand to more and more “neighbors” the basic tenets of ethics we all are familiar with.

“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” applies equally to environmental policy as it does to international relations as it does to my barking dog.

“Treat the foreigner in your land as a citizen,” often dismissed as applicable only to the nomadic culture of the desert, applies equally to the conduct of foreign affairs or commerce in a global economy.
Biblical principles like gleaning, the forgiveness of debts, being slow to anger or take offense, taking care of the widow and the fatherless, and universal hospitality, all sound like worthy fundamentals upon which to build an ethical and just society.
There is nothing new in any of that, and nothing that needs reinvention.

Marilyn J Los Angeles

When I was a very small girl, a very long time ago, my father explained the Golden Rule to me and what it means. This was his version of “religion” and he believed that striving to live by this rule would create a better life and a better world. After over sixty years of trying to live by this rule I know he was right.

KiWi Markham ON

Judaeo-Christian morality says the Golden Rule applies only to our immediate neighbours but is not a universal claim? Which Bible is Professor Gardner referring to?

Alan Paris

Kant’s categorical imperative does not depend on “neighborly ethics”. The injunctions to treat strangers well in the Bible do not either. The “ethics of roles” was well-known to St. Thomas Aquinas. The author hardly makes the case that ethics needs to be reinvented. I confess I was relieved when I saw he was a member of neither a history nor a philosophy dept – but depressed to have my prejudices about Education departments confirmed.

David Chowes New York City


Do on to others as your greed compels you to. If it is illegal, make sure that it is
done with care so you won’t get caught. If indicted call on the most unscurulous members of the

profession which Shakespeare said to kill.

SteveH Henderson, NV

The professor’s sophist attempt to extirpate thousands of years of civilization’s wisdom in having created a system of absolute morality (the Ten Commandments) in terms of clearly defined right and wrong does not stand up to the realities of the world (yes world not neighborhood) which we all occupy. Jurisprudence, for example from antiquity to modern legislation (primarily criminal, but civil as well) recognizes the principles of malum in se vis a vis malum prohibitum. If history has taught us anything at all, it is that there is no disinterested arbiter that can be appointed or elected as an elite to judge the rest of us, professional or hoi polloi. Witness the current as well as past practices of the United States Supreme Court or the Security Council of the United Nations. The bright line simplicity of the Ten Commandments tempered by the relative but humanistic percept of the Golden Rule are perfect guides to a moral existence, if only they would be observed by elitists such as the Professor.

Robert Racine, WI

People whose knowledge of the Bible is limited to a fuzzy misquoting and misunderstanding of the 10 commandments should probably refrain from writing about morality or really, anything.

ACW New Jersey

‘God will know his own’ was uttered during the Church’s war on the Cathar heresy, after a soldier asked what to do about a town in which some were faithful and some were heretics, but the troops didn’t know which was which. ‘Kill them all. God will know His own.’ The modern updating, popular on T-shirts and bumper stickers, is ‘kill ’em all, let God sort ’em out.’

A good example of what happens when quotes are removed from their context …

Mark Thomason Clawson, MI

The Golden Rule provides a perfectly adequate answer to those supposedly hard cases. Put yourself in the shoes of each of the other parties, and treat them as you would feel to be fair treatment of yourself. Medical research? “If it was me in that bed or my loved one, my remains being used or those of a loved one . . ..” It works just fine.

Tom Midwest

The problem with agoras in public is the lack of civility and failure to follow the rules of debate that has been hijacked by the extremes. Just listen to any of the programs on talk radio these days. We still have old fashioned township meetings where I live, where many residents attend, listen quietly, respond when allowed, keep their comments civil and never interrupt another speaker. A johnny come lately frothing tea party type was asked politely to either shut up or leave. He were given the option to debate civilly but he declined and appeared much happier outside the township hall bellowing at the top of his lungs and being ignored by everyone. Sort of like it was back when the anti war protests were going on but now it is the other side.

Amused Reader SC

The 10 Commandments are outdated according to the writer as well as the Golden Rule. I guess that prohibitions against murder, adultery, and stealing as well as being good to your neighbor is too old fashioned for enlightened minds. I have always found that the KISS principal (Keep It Simple Stupid) works pretty well. And doing the right thing is not to hard to figure out. If we need complicated agencies to tell us what to do we already have the IRS and the Obama administration who are ready and willing to make those moral and ethical judgments for us in language so complex we don’t understand them.

I think the writer misses the point where we are to live so that we don’t hurt anyone and respect others. It doesn’t take a new Constitution or rewriting the 10 Commandments to let us know how we need to live in relation to our fellow man. All new rules do is to take away equality and replace it with some sort of chaste system where others are put above the “little people”. We already have government for that, we don’t need to lose the few freedoms we have left to glorified lawyers, accountants, and middle managers.

Ethics don’t change except when some people want to take advantage of others using their superior knowledge. We see where that got the Germans with Hitler. Leave the 10 Commandments, Golden Rule, and the Constitution alone. They work fine to protect us from the enlightened minority.

Goackerman Bethesda, Maryland

What a silly — no, make that scary — essay. Our “wise” Masters will tell us what’s good and what’s bad, and what we should do and not do. Define “wise”. I hope journalists reading this essay note that Gardner advocates journalism “trustees” deciding who should be admitted to or expelled from the “profession”. Journalism is not a profession in the classic sense, e.g., there is no specific education, examination, or license required, nor should it be. In a free press, journalists can be hired and fired, not admitted or expelled. As for the interpretation of the U.S. Constitution, Gardner seems merely to be venting his spleen because of some recent decisions with which he has disagreed.

JHSM Lake Placid, NY

Trustees, huh? As I recall, Plato called them the Guardians in his Republic. And with all his evocations of Athenian democracy, Prof.
Gardner can’t be unaware of the resemblances between his program and Plato’s. He must also be aware of how deeply contemptuous Plato was of the democratic assemblies of his city. In his fictional Republic, Plato evoked historical Athenian oligarchy and repackaged it as philosophically enlightened despotism.

It important to call professionals to account, absolutely. What bothers me is the notion, implicit here, that once the professionals get their acts together, the common man or woman will not have to concern him or herself with issues that to my mind at least properly belong in the public democratic domain. Prof. Gardner refers to the Athenian assembly and to the New England town

meeting as models for the virtual assemblies of experts he envisages. He seems to believe that these democratic institutions have seen their day, and that the issues of our era are too complex for ordinary people to resolve.
I wish I believed that experts weren’t ordinary, too. Perfectibility, even in right minded people, is not a realistic goal. The American democratic system is based on the Venetian notion that the wicked ambitions of one individual or faction necessarily conflict with those of others. The rivalry and compromise that these conflicts produce can lead to a decent, if imperfect, result.

Oliver Jones Newburyport, MA

“Do onto others?” Shouldn’t you have written “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you?”

John T. Grand Rapids, Michigan

Professionals have an obligation to not only think about themselves and their clients, but also about their role in maintaining the stability of the system. This is what the bankers failed to do in the run up to the financial crisis. In a way, it is a Kantian question: What if all my peers did what I am doing? Would it make the system unstable? In the case of the banks it surely did. It seemed like nobody asked that question. I am disappointed that the business community is not acting like a profession and asking the ethical questions it needs to ask. They have to change their professional culture.

James Currin Stamford, Ct

When Prof. Gardner finally gets down to something concrete, he tells us that we must give up the belief that our constitution contains the solution to all legal disputes. I know of no one, living or dead, who has ever held such a absurd opinion. Our Constitution was and is a compact between the several states to create a national government of limited and defined powers. That is all it is and it would suffice if only the courts would enforce it. What Gardner really means, but won’t say plainly is that the national government should have vastly expanded powers that the Constitution does not permit. As to his vaporous musings about “wise” trustees, they appear to be nothing more than the NYT editorial board writ large.

Martin Weiss mexico, mo

I get what you’re saying, and I agree with your proposal, but, for my own reference, I consolidate, boil these ethical guides, along with those of original doctrines of Jesus, Lao Tzu, Jefferson, and many others. Teilhard de Chardin,Rachel Carson, Lincoln, Madison, Annie Dillard, Edward Abbey, Aldo Leopold, and on and on– to synthesize what they all were getting at. What use is the Bible, what use the Bhagavad-Gita, the I Ching, etc.?
Rawls and Locke and Mill would agree, they were intended to prescribe best practices for group survival and long-term prosperity. That clarifies ethical choices. “Thou Shalt Not Bear False Witness”? Unless, by a lie, a life can be saved. And so on. The ultimate value must be life. Preserving, honoring, furthering life is a standard that cuts across all doctrinal differences, unifies the field, so to speak, of ethical dilemmas. In essence, the unified field is staring us in the face– so close we overlook it. Wordsworth and Einstein would have gotten along fine with

Hammurabi, Buddha, Krishna, Jesus, Maimonides, Spinoza and Lao Tse. Hammurabi’s law protecting strangers brought a manifold increase in foreign trade. Abbey’s injunction that “Grown Men Don’t Need Leaders” puts the ethical response-abilty into democratic hands. The synthesis of ethical doctrines may conflict with advice like spreading one’s dogma by the sword, but that can’t ensure group survival, anyway. Heresy is in the eye of the authorities. Common interest must prevail