Ethics at dusk
When the chips are down
We are responsible for the world we live in. We are part of it, it is part of us. Things may happen, but they do not always just happen. We force, push, will, encourage, facilitate, coax, and very often we simply let things happen. And with each moment, a new turn in the garden of forking paths. Together, combined, these decisions all add up to make the world we inhabit. Beneath the macro is the micro, the choices and decisions each person makes each day; some more determinative and significant than others. The result is our actions can be both meaningful and without consequence. In such a context, abandoning ethical action in the pursuit of self-interest might appear ‘rational’ but does not make sense. By jettisoning thought of the other and the world one is part of, even if one’s actions accord to narrow self-interest, these actions are weakening and undermining the shared world inhabited with others. A Pyrrhic victory, left to enjoy the spoils amidst the ruins.
Ethics are not simply a concern for leaders and those holding positions of power, they are relevant for each of us, regardless of our apparent standing, as it is the sum of all our decisions that help shape the world we are part of. Separate from theoretical questions and abstractions, there are the lives we live each day, which are composed of interactions with others, and in those we have choices we make, which regularly have ramifications. When we act, we can never be sure of the consequences that will follow, we are always operating in a situation of incompleteness and uncertainty. This does not absolve us, however, still we must think, we must choose with open eyes. At some point, somewhere, there lies responsibility and judgement.
Dark times rarely come about like the switching off on a light. Rather, darkness spreads when dusk turns to night, the embers of the day flicker until they disappear. And unlike the setting of the sun, the growing darkness of our political and social life is not an inevitable advance. Our decisions can have consequence, we must think that. We need to act as if our actions matter, even if we can never know if they do.
In considering the dangers posed by not thinking, Hannah Arendt honed in on the key issue: ‘when the chips are down, the question is how they will act.’ This is not a question of intelligence or learning, it is a question of moral fortitude, of reflection and judgement. When the chips are down, how will one act. The open question, left in the air. Garry Kasparov recounts that the answer that was given by Soviet dissidents: ‘do what you must and so be it.’