Ethics as a word and as a concept are both derived from ancient Greece. The word is a close kin to the less common ethos, which roughly means character – as in character of a society or of a nation. The 1943 edition of Webster’s Dictionary on my bookshelf was inherited from my father, and it helps me separate trendiness from substance. It defines ethics as “The science of moral duty; broadly, the science of ideal human character.” As a concept, ethics transcends our Judeo-Christian heritage or that of any other religion. It is, rather, the underpinning of all religions and philosophies: the adhesive that holds together the moral fabric of any just society. Without societal attention to ethics in their leaders, that fabric begins to tear.
Ethics should not be transactional. A robust sense of ethics doesn’t allow one to support unethical people because, by ignoring moral lapses, we can transact business with them. If we do “this” they promise to do “that”; and by their doing “that” the greater good is served. Even if the unethical person has a track record of sticking to such promises most of the time, they cannot be trusted. Such individuals only undertake ethical actions if they sense a transaction that benefits themselves. Once that benefit expires or is even appears to have expired, the transaction will end. Like the Biblical metaphor of a great mansion built on sand, “transactional ethics” are not based on a shared concept of the ideal human character and are doomed to fall.
The current administration in Washington starting with President Trump himself appears to be based on an ethos constructed exactly like such a mansion. The surprise is that so many otherwise ethical and moral people seem not to notice that whatever ethics are displayed always are of a transactional nature. Those transactions are subject to cancellation by a whim or by a change of circumstance, as has become increasingly obvious with each week, with each new scandal.
True ethics are based on seeing how closely we as a society can approach timeless ideals. Welcome the stranger. Feed the hungry. Heal the sick. Provide for the homeless. There are two reasons for these ideals. First, we ourselves are often the strangers; we can easily become hungry; we need healing of every kind imaginable during the course of our lives; and disasters can render any of us homeless at any time. But the second reason, the more important one, is that we need those ideals as goals for our government to work toward, in order to keep the fabric of our society whole.
We need to hold ourselves and our government responsible for following fundamental and not just transactional ethics. It has been said of God’s help that without it we cannot succeed, and that with it we cannot fail. The same is true of our society and of our government, when speaking about ethics. It is vitally important that we each of us consider fundamental ethics now, this year, as we enter another political summer.