Morality and Reality

Two recent articles about pollution and global warming triggered a thought which had been a latent reflection arising from reading Cicero’s writing on duties (De Officis) where he seems to be descriptive about morality and ethics rather than prescriptive, though it is clear he advises choosing some behaviors and values over others.

Nevertheless, one of his notable assertions is that the honestum and the utile in reality are interdependent. What is virtuous and authentically good when shown in public leads to prudent and efficacious consequences and what is of real utility in life tends to have an affinity with virtue and goodness.

My college education largely posed a conflict between morality – deontology, like Kant’s categorical imperative – and reality – utilitarian calculation of benefits and enjoyments, following Bentham and John Stuart Mill. We were told to take sides – either the moral and impractical or the practical, though it might be immoral on occasion.

But if reality is part of morality and ethics, then the decision as to what to do is either more simple – just follow the facts – or more complicated – figure out what the facts are when much is poorly known or unknown.

Since it is said that we live in a “post-truth” age, taking reality and facts as our guideposts seems foolish and a throwback to past imperfections.

One article I just read described how certain California communities and firefighters are preparing for the coming dry months and forest fires. They have moved beyond a Greta Thunberg moment when looming catastrophe overwhelms judgment and, immobilized, we resort to emotion and denunciation. They are rather learning from reality how these fires start and spread. They are clearing dry brush and grass from the forest understory; planting rows of trees as firebreaks where fierce winds will blow; and telling homeowners not to put flammable plantings near houses.

I consider their behavior to be ethical and admirable.

Next fall, we will learn how successful these intentional efforts will have been.

In another commentary, the author, John Tierney, broke ranks intellectually with many who see the moral course of action as prohibiting the use of plastic bags. His sense of reality is that plastic bags are not the problem many say they are and, in fact, have advantages for sanitation and sustainability.

He asserts as fact – as a reality check – that most of the plastic in the Pacific Ocean does not come from more wealthy consumers, but from ships and from Asia “as mismanaged waste.”

His take on reality leads him to make certain policy recommendations. Those recommendations would seem to deserve the status of being ethical or moral, as they are designed to reduce harm.

One of the ethical principles we proposed for NGOs and other civil society organizations is to take care – to be guided by reality when trying to be moral. The principle of care is:

“A Civil Society Institution (CSI) will recognize that its policies and activities are a legitimate subject of public comment and analysis. It is, therefore, willing to engage in reasoned discourse regarding its mission and objectives, values, principles, governance, actions and means used to achieve its objectives. When engaging in advocacy, a CSI will always, in good faith, present accurate facts and truthful information. When planning its actions or executing its policies, a CSI will demonstrate enlightened care and concern for those whose interests will be affected by its contemplated actions. In case a CSI inflicts damage upon a government, international organization, corporation, or other party, it will be accountable for its actions.”