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Ethical Education

One of the challenges of not belonging to an institutionalized spiritual tradition is that it has left me, as a parent, without a set of texts about ethics and morals which I can share with my daughter. I am quite aware that the examples of the adults around her have a powerful impact, but there's a lot to be said for having something explicit that can be used as a reference and a point of discussion. I haven't had that, and the older Wolfing gets, the more uncomfortable I've been about it. She's smart, she's tender-hearted, and she seems to have a good sense of justice, but I've been wanting to have some specific conversations with her about ethics, rather than leaving things generalized and intuitive.

What I have really wanted is to be able to teach her what my ethics are, but I kept running up against the frustration of not having a systematic statement.



I grew up in an educated, middle class, Christian home. My ethics were conventional, Bible-based, but my parents were very good about giving my sister and me practical justifications behind the rules, appealing to our common sense as much or more than they did to threats of dire consequences. The fact that our church ethics closely matched the general rules of society helped. (There is an entirely separate, longer post that could be made about the pitfalls of Christian ethics being presented as synonymous with those of the dominant culture, but I'll leave that to my Christian friends.)

After my existential crisis, which occurred in my sophomore year of college, I decided that if I was going to be intellectually honest, I could no longer hold a Bibically-based ethic. If I no longer believed in God -- any god -- then it was inconsistent to privelege a scripture as a source of moral guidance. However, since I was at a stage when I didn't feel much trust in any authority, I didn't turn to alternate classical references. Instead I created what I called my "ethical liferaft": a set of principles -- not rules -- which would guide my life. I believed that if I adhered to these principles I would live in a way which would be good for myself and those around me. These principles were Wisdom ("considered experience"), Integrity ("honesty with self and others"), Courage ("doing the right thing even if frightened"), and Tenderness ("kindness and compassion toward others"). Later, at the suggestion of an older friend, I added Humor to the list.

I was uncomfortably aware that the conclusions I came to ended up being not very different from the principles I grew up with. My "crisis of faith" had left me without faith, but hadn't changed my approach to morality. Maybe it was those rational explanations that my parents provided me rather than "Because God said so." Later, I realized that these principles are widely regarded as ethical pillars (okay, maybe not humor), and while I learned them in a Christian household, they transcend Christianity.



It was two or three days ago that I realized that I do have a statement of ethics: my life raft is still valid. It's still my point of reference, my conclusions about the qualities -- Wisdom, Integrity, Courage, Tenderness, Humor -- which I believe are essential to being "good."

On Friday I drove Wolfling to her dad's house for the weekend, and I told her that this had been on my mind, and we were going to start talking it about when she comes home. I told her that we'd talk about my ethics and what they are -- and that she was welcome to debate and challenge them, if she wanted. I also encouraged her to spend some time thinking about what she would consider her own ethical framework. "If you were given a little kid and told to teach it right and wrong, what would you tell them?" I told her she didn't have to do this, but that it might make the conversation more interesting for her if she did some reflection first.

We'll see how it goes. . .

I'm realizing as I write this that there is definitely development that can be done. There's no reference to stewardship, for example. Concepts like Service and Justice can be extrapolated from Compassion, Integrity, and Courage -- but there may be something to be said for making them explicit.

It could be fun to engage Wolfling in the process, and see where we end up together.

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