Integrating Ethics

From Thought to Action





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Self vs Other



When talking about ethical decision-making, one has to be aware that there are two ways of approaching this process--the "individualistic approach" or where a person is responsible for his or her own decision-making, and consideration is given first to how it affects the self rather than the “other.” There is also what might be called the "communal approach" or where members of communities are partially responsible for the behavior of their members, and thus make decisions based on that view.

Consider the debate about the legalization of drugs. Advocates argue that they have an individual right to do with their body as they please. A more communal approach would ask them to look beyond the individual and reflect on issues of public safety and the potential harm to others. In addition, when the interests of the larger community are included in any debate, solutions can be offered: What kinds of drug policies will promote the good of both the individual and the community? It can only lead to a greater understanding of the issue for both sides.

Should the self or other come first when making decisions? The conflict between individual and community is not easily reconciled.

Anthropologist Colin Turnbull has written about the Mbuti pygmies of the Congo. The Mbuti have long employed nets of twined liana bark to catch their prey, sometimes stretching the nets for 300 feet. As Turnbull came to understand, Mbuti hunts were collective efforts in which each hunter’s success belonged to everybody else. But one man, a rugged individualist named Cephu, had other ideas. When no one was looking, Cephu slipped away to set up his own net in front of the others. Word spread among camp members that Cephu had been trying to steal meat from the tribe, and a consensus quickly developed that he should answer for this crime.

Cephu defended himself with arguments for individual initiative and personal responsibility—he felt he deserved a better place in the line of nets. The tribe responded that if that were the case, Cephu should leave and never return. The Mbuti have no chiefs; they are a society of equals in which redistribution governs everyone’s livelihood. Faced with banishment, a punishment nearly equivalent to a death sentence, Cephu relented. This ended the matter, and members of the group pulled chunks of meat from Cephu’s basket.

Among the Mbuti, as with most hunter-gatherer societies, equality is a system that enhances individual freedom. Following these ethical rules helps prevent any one individual from taking advantage of others or even dominating the group as a whole because of unequal privileges. However, just as it is in our society, the negotiation between the individual and the group is always a work in progress.

There are times when our willingness to consider both the good of the individual and the good of the community still leaves us in a dilemma, and we are forced to decide between competing ethical claims. Affirmative Action Programs, for example, bring concerns over individual justice into conflict with concerns over social justice. How does one decide?

When facing such dilemmas, the weight we assign certain values will sometimes lead us to promote the common good. At other times, our values will lead us to decide on actions that will protect the interests and rights of the individual. But perhaps the greatest challenge in discussions of ethical decision-making is to find ways in which are paradigms are designed to promote the interests of both.