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Ellen Feig

Professor, Bergen Community College


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Based upon a discussion we are having in the Idea area, I wonder - how do you define morality and why? Where does your definition come from?

I have been working on curriculum for college students that incorporates literature and the notion of being a moral, ethical person; it is clear that I need to step back and first come up with a clearer definition of morality or ethics.


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    Jan 26 2013: Thank you all for your insightful responses - I really struggle with this idea that morality, and in many instances ethics, come from experience of a person or culture; does that mean that there is not a code of morality that transcends all cultures or religions? I remember years ago learning how the Golden Rule (do unto others...) was something that all religions espoused. However, if that is true then how do humans continue to kill in the name of religion - doesn't that destroy the very essence of the golden rule? The next issue is the idea that morality comes from past successful experiences. My questions is what defines successful experiences? I was having this conversation this morning with my family who has always valued money as the definition of success - by this definition I am the least successful member of my family as I make the least amount of money. However, I am passionate about my job and the work I do so isn't that success?

    This is all very circular thinking and may simply be impossible to define but what happens when each of us or each group has their own idea of what is moral or ethical? Would that lead us to potentially hurt others in the name of our own sense of morality? If I am brought up in a culture that says it is okay to kill in the name of a higher power, that in fact it is ethical to do so, does it make that moral?
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      Jan 26 2013: it's really not that complicated. You have values which are based in your experience. I have values based in my experience. When we are young, those experiences come from our parents but as we grow we are exposed to experiences that include teachers, co-workers, friends etc. Some experiences we embrace and some we discard and that is how different people can create different values who have undergone the same experience. That is why some of your values have priority over your family's values.

      Values dictate morals (how we act towards others) and ethics (how we talk about morals personal or shared)

      There is no overarching morality although here in the west we like to pretend there is one. In some societies cannibalism is practiced perfectly moral and ethical. In past societies human sacrifice was the norm. We can only navigate value systems and come to social values and morays when we move into community. Those can eventually translate into law.

      It's pretty linear to me but navigating value systems takes practice. The more cultures and value systems you are exposed to the easier it gets.

      Most, if not all, conflicts can be broken down into a clash of value systems. Everything from abortion to immigration to gun control to euthanasia (hmm human sacrifice??)

      I would recommend you see if you can get your hands on an open source syllabus for biomedical ethics. It might be a good start for the ethics piece. Most hospitals have an ethics board. You might want to see if they would have any board development documents that could help.

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