Whatever “ethical” dilemma it is, whether it be: murder, lying, cheating, or stealing – what do we really value? Can we not, each and every one of us, imagine a situation where we might steal, lie or even murder? Where we would feel justified in acting thusly? If I value my children I would steal a loaf of bread to prevent them from starving- is that still stealing? If I value love I would murder an immediate threat to those I love, or lie to protect them. And what about love? Forbidden love? In reality all of societal black and whites quickly turn gray. We all know Anna Karenina deserves our sympathy, but Madame Bovary…
What is the point of ethics that forbid what we value most in the world. An ethic that goes against what makes life worth living is not a good ethic. If the ethic is placed above the value- it renders it null and void; firstly by lacking probable adherence and also by a drowning out of what is true about people. We want to be kind to one another, we like to love one another and there are all sorts of instances where a little unethical act or even a huge one is born out of this essential aspect of our psychology. Finding ways to allow for and predict this proclivity in order to minimize counter-productive, ham-fisted laws, practices, codes and attitudes would be much more useful.
In a teleological approach, if we acknowledge that that happiness is our goal, Aristotle’s Nicomachean ethics can be most useful on an individual and subsequent societal level. The only real effect we can have, after all, is to, by habitual purposefulness, instill the qualities and modes of behavior that we value: what is referred to as “virtue ethics.” Eudemonism (the likelihood that good actions will produce happiness) is a tried and true methodology. What makes us truly happy (not in the hedonistic selfish now I have a stomach-ache-from-too-much-cake-cocktails-coitus-fill-in-your-pleasure sense, rather in the I-have-never-felt-so perfectly-satiated-exquisitely-balanced sense) is what we must work and strive for, finding, or at least aiming for that golden mean. By constantly keeping our sense of who we want to be at the forefront of our daily habits and interactions, by being true to what we love and value we can set our sails in the right direction.
There will always be complications. Both Emma Bovary and Anna Karenina are adulteresses. But are they worthy of equal contempt? If society had been kind enough to allow Anna out of an unhappy marriage (which can never be “good” for the children whom must live under the asphyxiation of lovelessness) when she fell in love, her story could have met a reasonable end. Her guiding force was love, perhaps a quality that is so rare it alarms the masses. The guiding force for Emma however was hyper-narcissism; societal reactions are irrelevant to such a twisted soul. The sin is the same, but is the ethic? There is a difference between the two.