One of the fascinating things about Petersen’s popular text 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos is that it is basically a moral Theology. The book is a re-read of many Biblical texts mixed with a smattering of Piaget, Jung and personal anecdotes. I find it amazing that people want to be told some ‘rules’ for living life especially when many of the rules are meaningless symbols of not much.
These are his rules:
- Stand up straight with your shoulders back
- Treat yourself like someone you are responsible for helping
- Make friends with people who want the best for you
- Compare yourself to who you were yesterday, not to who someone else is today
- Do not let your children do anything that makes you dislike them
- Set your house in perfect order before you criticize the world
- Pursue what is meaningful (not what is expedient)
- Tell the truth – or, at least, don’t lie
- Assume that the person you are listening to might know something you don’t
- Be precise in your speech
- Do not bother children when they are skateboarding
- Pet a cat when you encounter one on the street
It is also fascinating that Petersen is not a theologian and has no history or being interested in Theology and, the book has sold over 3 million copies.
Unfortunately, 12 Rules For Life is not much about life and being but rather about simplistic behavioural projections. Eg. how does the way you stand, petting a cat or preciseness of speech matter to an ethical worldview?
The idea of morality tends to be defined personally and subjectively whereas the idea of ethics relates more to systemic issues and socialitie. One can have a personal morality that can be at odds with a systemic ethic. The starting point for all ethical interest ought to be the nature of fallible being in a socially random world. Such an ethical starting point must reject zero.
When it comes to the idea of a ‘moral compass’ this concerns a person’s ability in a moment to be able to judge what is right or wrong (for them and others). Unfortunately, people confuse morality, ethical practice and white western middle-class values as the same thing. Bennett’s book The Moral Compass is an interesting example of this, anecdotal stories that advocate the idea that one knows intuitively how ’to do the right thing’, as if morality is ‘common sense’. The AIHS BoK Chapter on Ethics does the same thing, confuses morality and ethics as the same thing and then guides the reader to make decisions by ‘checking your gut’ (https://safetyrisk.net/the-aihs-bok-and-ethics-check-your-gut/), within a framework of duty.
Once one accepts the premise of the moral compass idea then one can project wilfulness onto those who don’t obey rules or don’t behave in a way as expect. Unfortunately, this puts the focus on the rule and behaviour rather than the interpretation of the person. Most moral and ethical reasoning is not held in a vacuum but involves a juggling act and ambiguity in judgment whilst being unable to see the future. This is why the notion of Justice should be dialectically linked to Faith-Hope-Love (https://safetyrisk.net/is-just-culture-unjust/). When Justice is isolated away from the values of faith, hope and love then one can easily enact brutal judgment on others because the focus is on measurable behaviours and rules that must be obeyed in duty. This is the affect of setting out ‘cardinal’ rules in safety, the natural outcome of an ideology of zero.
At no time in the BoK chapter on Ethics is the idea of ‘an ethic’ discussed. An ethic is a worldview (ideology) that frames the way one approaches morality and ethics. When one focuses on behaviours and rules this tends to hide a deontological ethic (https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/ethics-deontological/ ), a worldview that seeks to objectify the world and rejects social context as a condition for judgment. In a socially situational ethic one can imagine a context when a cardinal rule to be obeyed might be the worst decision, just as the inflexibility of zero frames a focus on absolutes. What such a worldview rejects flexibility, ambiguity, tolerance, uncertainty and paradox. This is why a focus on Justice ought to be held in tension with the other values of Faith-Hope-Love.
Of course, such a dialectical ethic is not prescriptive nor absolute, but neither is ‘check your gut’, ‘common sense’ or ‘do the right thing’. The game playing around these slogans hide the elephant in the room – utility and power. What if you ‘check your gut’ and it tells you to break a rule or reject the authority of your supervisor? It’s a wicked problem not discussed in the BOK chapter on ethics nor is the nature of the unconscious which is what ‘check your gut’ is about. Unfortunately, ‘check your gut’ also competes with ‘check your context/group’, a dialectic between your subjective morality and a social ethic.
Wouldn’t it be nice if rules made it easier to live with others and this would guarantee safety? However, even the idea of the 10 Commandments was never intended to be isolated from a social ethic. When it comes to risk we often don’t know the outcome and so we juggle things and tend to satisfice based on the limits of fallibility at the time. It’s always easy to be certain in hindsight. The discussion of this blog doesn’t suggest we should have no rules but rather rules (the moral compass) should be equally guided by a social ethic.