As an ethicist, I am often troubled by the failure of most people to recognize the ethical implications of their own actions. Many of the things we do are actually strong indicators of our ethical views, and we ought to be careful about demonstrating what we actually believe. In some cases, our actions speak louder than our words, but they don’t say what we really mean when it comes to ethics.
I experienced a fine example of an inadvertent expression of ethics this weekend, during a camping trip to the Moab area. My wife and I drove over to Moab on Saturday morning, found a campsite, and set up our tents. We chose a site that was in a nicer part of the campground, and that seemed ideal for our camping preferences. We piled into the car and drove back to town so that we could call our friends and let them know where we were located, since we didn’t have cell phone service in the campground.
We returned to an entirely different scene than the one we had left only a short time before. Our quiet, peaceful campsite was now a mass of activity. A large group of mostly older teens now resided in the campsite next to us, and they proceeded to create a ruckus that far exceeded their numbers. Only two parents were present, neither of whom displayed any interest in controlling their children or encouraging any semblance of appropriate behavior. We became nervous that perhaps this was not such a good campsite after all.
As the night pressed on, we patiently dealt with horseshoes and soccer balls flying into our camp, followed closely by a drunken young person muttering a half-hearted apology, before continuing the same ill-advised activity that had caused the initial intrusion. Despite this, we had a reasonably pleasant time, until it began to rain. It was getting late anyway, so we retired to our tent with the hope that the poor weather would encourage our inebriated neighbors to follow suit.
Unfortunately, they did not do so, and what followed was two hours of loud, obnoxious chatter that never subsided for more than a few moments. I’ve done a fair amount of camping, and this went well beyond the limits of reasonable campfire conversation. Finally, at midnight, two hours after quiet hours had officially begun, I walked over to their campsite and politely asked them to keep it down.
Their reaction was unfortunate, but not surprising. They informed me that they would do what they wanted to, and that my eight-month pregnant wife and I could leave if we didn’t like it. I mentioned that quiet hours had begun long ago, and that I was really only asking them to follow the rules. This was met with a barrage of mocking and insults. Having no further recourse, I returned to my tent with the hope that their sense of decency might ultimately prevail if I allowed them time to consider how their actions were affecting others.
My purpose here is not to evaluate the actions of my camping neighbors. Clearly, they were in the wrong and should have known it. Rather, I want to consider what their actions told me about their ethical views, in order to highlight the importance of acting in a way that is consistent with one’s ethics.
Their actions clearly demonstrate two ethical beliefs, a prioritizing of hedonistic self-interest over all other considerations, and a lack of respect for persons. These individuals saw their desire to get drunk and be obnoxious as more important than all other considerations, including the well-being of others, special considerations like the needs of pregnant women, and institutionalized regulations. Further, their actions suggested that respect for persons is not a part of their ethical view. They acted entirely from an unsophisticated version of desire fulfillment ethics.
Should we assume that these individuals really believe that their hedonistic desires are all that matters, and that respect for persons is irrelevant to appropriate conduct? Possibly. Some people actually hold such beliefs, although few who do recognize that this ethical viewpoint requires that you allow for everyone else having the same beliefs, and for the consequently lousy treatment that you receive from others as a result.
But for many others, hedonistic desires are not the only thing that’s relevant to what we ought to do, and respect for persons is a cornerstone of numerous ethical viewpoints. Inconsistency between beliefs and actions in ethics is an epidemic, and it would be specious to assume that these individuals actually hold the ethical beliefs that their actions suggested. However, it’s not unreasonable to attribute certain ethical views to people based on their actions, and it is this point that becomes important for our purposes.
I was tempted, despite my philosophical training, to label my rude camping neighbors as ethically deficient, based on what their actions told me about their ethics. I might have been wrong about them, but I wouldn’t have lacked reasons for making this judgment. So if being an ethical person matters to you, and if you want your actions to reflect your ethics, it’s worth taking the time to think about what your daily actions say about your ethical beliefs. After all, ethics is about what we do, not just what we claim to believe.
About the Author
Elijah Weber is a graduate student at Bowling Green State University. He holds a Master's degree in philosophy from Colorado State University, and Bachelor’s degrees in sociology and philosophy from Chapman University. He currently lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan with his wife Laura, his son Brandon, and two cats.