Does Ambiguity in Ethics Detract From its Purpose

The inspiration to write this article originated from a good-natured debate I had with an individual on a Go Bus about whether or not it was “ethical” for me to purchase a jacket made of animal fur. Having exchanged heavily opinionated ideas and “facts” about the process by which the jacket was manufactured, we had reached a dead-end in our conversation whereby we had left the realm of factual notions and entered a discussion seemingly governed by sheer subjectivity. After exiting the bus, I took some time to reflect on the nature of our conversation.

Ethics often puts people off because it seems that progress cannot be made with the issues, that the controversies are too extensive. It usually takes the form of conflicting attitudes. On the contrary, people need to be alerted to the fact that there is a great deal of ambiguity and uncertainty in making ethical decisions and that one has to develop a certain tolerance for the uncertainty. At the same time, it is important to understand the fact that progress can be made with the problems and that the uncertainty can often be reduced. On the other end of the spectrum, one might say that ambiguity in ethics is the saving grace.

To reach its purpose, ethics is and should be a disrupting subject. If it is pursued well and responsibly, we should be led to ask about our basic purposes. As uncertainty increases, particularly the uncertainty that punishment will follow immoral behaviour, the need for personal ethical control increases. Yet, Samuel Jackson wisely stated that integrity without knowledge is weak and useless. How are we to decide if the spectrum of ethics is so wide and broad?

The legalist insists: “I go by the book.” Laws are universalized and applied regardless of the situation. All answers to ethical questions are found in a book of rules. In this approach one does not have to wrestle with ambiguity in ethics. The law is the law. At the other end of the spectrum, the Existentialist is opposed to all laws, rules, and absolute standards of conduct. Instead, he declares, “I choose, therefore I am.” He sets up his own moral standards to live by and makes decisions in accordance with these standards. The ambiguity unearths when the utilitarianist or the hedonist confronts a situation he cannot calculate or when virtue ethics comes face to face with ethical egoism.

However, the reality that one rule does not apply to every situation is the saving grace. More often than not, there is no consensus on human nature as we are so strongly influenced by paradigms and our culture, whether we are an altruist or an objectivist.