A Note on Morality and Ethics

A Note on Morality and Ethics

The words morality and ethics are often used interchangeably, with one or another carrying emotional connotations depending on circumstance. While there is no universally agreedupon definition of either word, there is a widely held consensus among philosophers on usage. On the one hand, morality refers to the choices an individual makes about right and wrong based on personal conscience and feelings. On the other hand, ethics refers to systematic thinking about right and wrong, leading to principles from which we may try to make decisions in specific circumstances. A prominent example is professional ethics, the principles governing behavior in fields such as law, engineering and medicine. Thus, the physicians' Hippocratic Oath is an ethical system in which the commitment to act for good of patients is understood as systematically related to a commitment to do no harm to anyone. Because ethical principles are thought through systematically, they are generally codified by specialists and provided to us by an external authority.

Nevertheless, most of us possess a "moral compass" that guides us through our lives without our giving very much thought to the relationships among our moral decisions. Because our moral sense is influenced by various influences from diverse sources, the same individual who wishes to suppress the freedom of women, or the culture of national and sexual minorities, may be the first to rush into a burning building to rescue the very people he finds "immoral". In unusual circumstances, such apparent inconsistencies may lead one to question his or her private morality and attempt to resolve these questions through ethical principle.

The Moral Third

The Moral Third

Relational psychoanalyst Jessica Benjamin uses the term “moral third” in the context of dispute resolution to mean a space where “opponents can intersubjectively listen to each other’s stories and feel what each other feel, while retaining their own identities. To accomplish this goal the dialogue leader facilitates the empathic connection between human beings, their ability to listen to one another and feel, hear and recognize the other”. The development of this connection builds on the individuals’ moral sense.

The Ethical Mindset

The Ethical Mindset

The concept of “ethical mindset” grew out of Jessica Benjamin’s “moral third.” Developed by relational psychotherapist and peace activist Irris Singer (and her merry band), this is a multi-stage guided process designed to help in stepping out of denial, overcoming perpetrator/victim identities, diminishing trauma and ending violence. This denial refers to the mental roadblocks that prevent us from acknowledging the irreducible humanity of certain others and experiencing empathy for their concerns. In stepping out of denial we must recognize the “otherness” of the other and overcome whatever resistance we may find in ourselves to disqualify difference. The opposite of denial may be compared to the fundamental act of hospitality, the offering of shelter to a stranger. The acceptance of an “otherness” that poses no threat to the identity of the host strengthens both host and stranger, affirming the freedom and authenticity of each in a reciprocal act that transcends the limited perspective of either. The “ethical mindset” concerns the systematic attention to the ethics of reciprocity and intersubjectivity built upon this notion of hospitality.

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