Reinventing EthicsBy Howard Gardner
What’s good and what’s bad? There are plenty of reasons to believe that human nature changes slowly, if at all — all’s still fair in love and war. For millennia, religious believers have attributed our nature to God’s image, as well as to God’s plan. In recent years, evolutionary psychologists peered directly at our forerunners on the savannahs of East Africa; if human beings change, we do so gradually over thousands of years. Given little or nothing new in the human firmament, traditional morality — the “goods” and “bads” as outlined in the Ten Commandments or the Golden Rule — should suffice.
My view of the matter is quite different. As I see it, human beings and citizens in complex, modern democratic societies regularly confront situations in which traditional morality provides little if any guidance. Moreover, tenable views of “good” and “bad” that arose in the last few centuries are being radically challenged, most notably by the societal shifts spurred by digital media. If we are to have actions and solutions adequate to our era, we will need to create and experiment with fresh approaches to identifying the right course of action.
Let’s start with the Ten Commandments. We are enjoined to honor our parents, and to avoid murder, theft, adultery and dishonesty. Or consider the Golden Rule: “Do onto others. “ A moment’s reflection reveals that these commandments concern how we treat those nearby — we might say those 150 persons who, according to anthropologist Robin Dunbar, each of us has evolved to be able to know well. For most of history, and all of pre-history, our morality has been extended to our geographical neighbors — anyone else falls outside the framework of neighborly morality.
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