Creating an Ethos for the 21st Century

We live in a polarized and fragmented world. Modern society is facing what might be called a crisis of meaning and connection – the loss of a shared sense of what is good, meaningful and worthwhile in social and political life. Examples of this crisis are ubiquitous. Our shared democratic traditions are being threatened by tribalism, polarization, and intergroup conflict. Politics and the media foster division and moral outrage. In the absence of a shared sense of social values, people retreat into their own private systems of belief. However, they ultimately find themselves cut off from each other, and longing for a sense of community where they can create the types of relationships and connections that make life meaningful and worth living. In the absence of genuine connection, people find themselves soulless, alienated, and empty. This is seen in the mental health crisis where rates of addiction, depression, anxiety, suicide and nihilism are rising at alarming rates.

We need to create a new ethos for living in the 21st century.

This is not something that we can do alone. We must collaborate to find new, shared ways of being together -- new values that that bring together and even transcend different and conflicting ways of being in the world.

A Relational Morality for Human Flourishing

A relational ethos is one that builds upon but goes beyond the concern for individual rights. A relational morality is one that acknowledges that we are both individual and relational beings. As individual beings, we recognize that we are different persons -- I am not you, and you are not me. However, as relational beings, we embrace the idea that we become persons only through other persons. We develop who we are through our relationships with others. As expressed by the African concept of Ubuntu, my humanity is inextricably bound up with yours. If this is so, then any moral ethos must embrace both our individuality and connectedness to each other. At the very least, it must be organized around rights, care and compassion for others, and a renewed and evolving sense of what it means to be good and virtuous persons. From such a framework comes collaboration toward the goal of promoting human flourishing.

Building a Relational Ethos

The theologian John MacMurray said that humans are guided by two dominant motives: Fear for the Self and Love for the Other. In virtually every interaction we have with others, we are always seeking to navigate between between autonomy and connectedness, power and love, or between our individuality and relation to the community.

A relational ethos builds upon both poles of this human tension, and brings them together in a way that resolves the conflict between them. In this way of thinking, a moral person is one who identifies the self with some conception of what it means to be a good person in relation to others. This brings together individual rights (and self-interest), care for others, and conceptions of goodness (virtue). This conception not only expands our sense of what it means to be moral persons, it also has the advantage of reflecting how most people tend to approach their moral lives.

How We Become Good Persons

A moral life can arise when we learn to reconcile self-interest with our concern for others. The Reconciliation Model of Moral Development (Frimer & Walker, 2009) shows how this is possible. We can think of our moral identities as developing in three broad steps.

Phase 1. Self-Interest and Concern for Others Develop Separately. The first step begins at birth. Even in infancy, children show both self-interest and concern for others. Their self-interest is easy enough to observe. Infants cry when they are hungry, resist having objects taken away from them, and so forth. While it may be harder to see concern for others in infants and young children, it’s nonetheless there. Newborn babies cry more loudly when they hear the cries of other babies – an early form of empathy. By 8-months, some children begin to spontaneously help other people in need (they might pick up something that was dropped).

At this point in development, however, self-interest and concern for others tend to develop separately. In some situations, they act out of self-interest; in others, they show concern for others. But these two motives are separate – a child typically shows one or the other, but not both.

Phase 2: Self-Interest Comes into Conflict with Concern for Others. Although self-interest and concern for others tend to develop separately during early childhood. However, over time, children begin to experience conflicts between self-interest and their concern for others. For example, a child may want to keep a toy, but realize that her friend is sad without one. In such situations, self-interest conflicts with concern for others. At this level of development, children become aware of the conflict, but have difficulty resolving it. For example, they may go back and forth between wanting to keep a toy for themselves and sharing it with someone else.

Phase 3: Reconciling Self-Interest with Concern for Others. As children enter into adolescence, their sense of self changes dramatically. They begin to ask questions about the type of person they want to become. Part of this process involves asking questions about how to resolve conflicts that arise between self-interest and concern for others. Over time, as adolescents and adults construct their identities, they have several choices. They can:

1. Ignore the needs of others and build identities organized primarily around self-interest;

2. Ignore self-interest and build identities organized primarily around concern for others;

3. Reconcile self-interest and concern for others into a seamless moral identity.

It is this last choice that brings about a moral identity – a sense of self that is neither self-interested nor self-sacrificing. To reconcile self-interest and concern for others is identify oneself with caring for others. It is to make the concerns and interests of the other part of one’s own identity and sense of who one is. When this happens, it is possible acting out of love for others is experienced as something that enhances rather than diminishes the self. Caring for others is not something that is selfless, but instead is something that enhances the self.

People take great satisfaction in their capacity to contribute to the well-being of others. This doesn’t make such acts selfish; it synthesizes self-interest and care for others into a seamless whole. No longer would we ask simply, “What can I do today that will make me happy?” Instead, we would ask, “What can I do today that will make a contribution to the world? To make my life better? To make our lives better? To make a better society?

And, as Aristotle so clearly saw over 2000 years ago: it is not the attainment of status, fame, pleasure or money that makes us happy. All of these pleasures are fleeting. Ultimately, what brings happiness is our desire to cultivate and appreciate that which is good.

Building a Good Society

At the level of society, we should seek to foster human flourishing, both individually and collectively. This requires an ongoing re-evaluation of the values that define what it means to for humans to flourish. It also calls for discussion of the types of systems and practices that can be reasonably constructed in order to promote human flourishing. Such questions require that we adopt an open-ended but practical mindset of what is possible in the world. We should ask, “Is what we are doing working? Who is it working for and for whom is it not working?” “How can we change what we are doing to make it promote human flourishing?”

There is much that we are doing as a society that is not working. Our social and economic systems have produced climate changes; deep income inequality; racial strife; social fragmentation; nuclear proliferation; gender, racial and class divides; a failure to meet the needs of citizens. These questions require that we do better. Doing better will require that we actively question our existing social and economic structures – that we ask ourselves uncomfortable questions about whether longstanding ways of doing things are part of the problem or part of the solution. It requires that we look beyond simple binaries like capitalism and socialism; power and oppression; individual initiative or social determination, and so forth. It requires moral humility, concern for both self and other, and a desire to rethink cherished ideals.