Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Training in ethics

Yesterday Brown had a mandatory training in ethics for students funded by NSF. By coincidence, in the last few days I have been reading a book by Kierkegaard that also talks about ethics. It says: "The ethical as such is the universal, and as the universal it applies to everyone, which may be expressed from another point of view by saying that it applies every instant. He then proposes the Greek hero as a model that is intelligible for us -- Agamemnon sacrificing his daughter Iphigenia to do his higher duty: "the tragic here renounces himself in order to express the universal". Perhaps there is a microscopic version of this whenever someone chooses to do what they recognize as their duty even it is at significant personal cost.

K. then moves on to examine the behavior of Abraham getting ready to sacrifice his son Isaac. It is beyond heroic and becomes a lived paradox. Abraham cannot talk about it because no one would understand him. They would think he is out of his mind. He can only go forward in solitude, fear and trembling. From what I understood so far, K. finds that Abraham's crazy mixture of fatherly love, resignation to do as he is asked, and faith in a miracle, is the ultimate ethical behavior. But I bet that Abraham would not have fared well in Brown's ethical training session!

There is one obvious difference, as I have experienced, between ethical judgments among the French and the Americans: how to react when witnessing actions against the rules or against the common good. In the US, the natural ethical reaction (courageously ignoring the risk of retaliation against oneself) is to warn proper authorities about it, so as to help maintain order and justice by having the offender found out and properly dealt with. In France, the natural ethical reaction (courageously ignoring the risk of personally becoming a target of the law) is to hide the offender and help him or her, in solidarity, escape from the untrusted official authorities. The American would judge the French to be abetting criminal actions, the French would judge the American to be a dreadful collabo. Both sides think that their perspective is obviously the right one.

So much for universal values.


  1. So you're saying that there's nothing in American culture against rat-finking squealing snitching tattle-tale stool pigeons?

  2. Thanks Ken for the vocabulary lesson.

    Obviously in American culture there must have been at least one line of thought against informants, or else there would not exist so many terms to describe them. However it has not been my personal experience. Maybe the culture has changed?