Weird Ethics

We often catch “public people” like celebrities or politicians in breaches of ethics that seem absurd. Absurd for two reasons: not only because the actual behavior is atrocious, but because it seems like it should be obvious that it’s atrocious.

You’ve seen this happen, I’m sure. A public figure gets caught doing something horrible, but the manner in which they got caught is because they just talked about it openly to people or made no attempt to hide it (or at least, no attempt that would pass even the most basic level of investigation).

Why does this happen? Is it that some people are so horrible that they flaunt the most basic moral rules with utter disregard?

That might be a small percentage, but I think there’s a different force at play. I think the “obviousness” of ethical rules relies on a certain kind of life, and that life gets wildly distorted when you reach the outer fringes of publicity. In other words, I think some people just enter a world that’s so weird, and stay in it for so long, that the basic ethical rules stop being obvious.

A lot of “ethics” is us mostly trying to figure out how to live in a society in which we have relatively comparable (even if not actually equal) levels of power and authority with the people around us. In its most basic form, for example, you learn as a kid not to hit people primarily because you don’t want to be hit, and anyone you throw a punch at could throw one back. So we try to figure out the rules that keep us all safe and happy.

But imagine your life was such that it was actually impossible for anyone to hit you? For a really long time? And any time you even accidentally hurt someone, no one ever called you on it? And when other people in your world hit people, nothing bad happened to them? How long might it be before it was no longer obvious to you that you shouldn’t hit someone?

So then you might punch someone in the face and not try to excuse yourself or cover it up, not because you’re flaunting the basic rules of an ethical society, but because you don’t actually realize what those rules are.

The broader lesson here is to be very aware of how our circumstances can affect what we view as correct moral behavior. Be aware of your own biases – and the biases of others. Don’t let your weird world go to your head – or poison your heart.

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