Crawl Across the Ocean

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

27. Ethics and Words

Note: This post is the twenty-seventh in a series. Click here for the full listing of the series.

"Don't tarry in the Marshes," Orddu, while from within the cottage Taran heard loud and angry noises. "Else you may regret your foolish boldness, or bold foolishness, whichever1"

In this post, I'm going to describe a behaviour between two people and then ask you to think about what word you would use to describe this behaviour. Simple enough?

First case: Two people work together to achieve something that benefits them both that they couldn't do on their own.

Second case: Two people work together to find a place to live, where they can share living expenses

Third case: Two people work together to fight off a bear that attacks them

Fourth case: Two business executives from different companies work together to prevent prices from dropping in their industry due to an unproductive price war

Fifth case: A home inspector and a home owner work together to reach an agreement that benefits them both more than issuing a citation for a violation of local bylaws would.

Sixth case: A businessman reaches a deal with the head of an invading army not to raise trouble as long as the invading troops don't disrupt his business.

Seventh case: Two anarchists work together to form a plot to kill all the members of the Canadian government

Eighth case: Two Taliban soldiers work together to ambush and a kill a group of Canadian soldiers.


The first case, two people working together to achieve something they both benefit from, generally, as far as I know, goes by the name 'cooperation' and is generally held to be a 'good thing' or virtuous.

But all 8 cases involving two people working together for mutual gain yet not all would typically go by the same name.

Cases 2 and 3 are still standard cooperation.

But case 4 would normally go by the name 'collusion' which is considered unethical and is illegal in many places/contexts.

Case 5 typically goes by the name 'corruption' or 'bribe-taking' and is also considered unethical.

Case 6 goes by the name 'collaboration' and is even more unethical.

Case 7 might go by the name 'conspiracy' and is (arguably) most unethical of all.

Finally, case 8 seems similar to case 7, but here I suspect that we would normally be back to using the phrase 'cooperation' since there is no ethical condemnation of the act because it is understood that, in war, attempting to kill the enemy is what you are supposed to do.


In Systems of Survival, after listing out the ethics in the guardian and commercial syndromes, Jane Jacobs explains the absence from the lists of some typical ethical values,
"Where's cooperation, courage, moderation, mercy, common sense, foresight, judgment, perseverance, faith, energy, patience, wisdom? I omitted these because they're esteemed across the board, in all kinds of work."

But based on the 8 cases I've listed above, I can't agree that the simple act of cooperation is universally esteemed, unless we include that esteem as part of the definition of cooperation.

When it comes to ethical values, there is both the denotation (what behaviour is described by the value) and the connotation (whether that behaviour is considered good or bad) to consider2.

In the extreme case, a word like 'good' is all connotation, no denotation.

Interestingly, even though 'cooperate' has a strong positive connotation such that a different word is used for 'bad' cooperation, it's opposite, 'competition', does not have a strong connotation. Whether in a good sense, 'our business is a lot more competitive than it used to be' or in a bad sense, 'Bobby needs to learn to not be so competitive with the other children' the same word is routinely used (although it's interesting to note that a quick review of the thesaurus, shows that most of the synonyms for 'competitive' carry negative connotations - 'aggressive', 'antagonistic', 'combative' etc.).

This leaves open the question of whether there actually are any behaviours that are universally supported, or just words with strong positive connotations such as 'wisdom'. Even something as universally admired as perseverance gets recast as stubbornness when it seems that no good will come from the perseverance. In more severe cases (i.e. when perseverance is not combined with moderation), it might even start to be referred to as obsessiveness. A google search of the word 'perseverance' finds nothing but praiseworthy behaviour, but a google search of 'perseverance' and 'obsessive' brings up a gallery of mental disorders and destructive behaviour patterns.

Anyway, I'm sure that was all no-longer-fashionable hat to linguists and ethicists, but it's new to me, at least in terms of my awareness of the extent to which ethical terms contain a mix of both a descriptive and a positive/negative component. We need to be careful not to assume that a certain behaviour is universally praiseworthy just because it goes by a less common name in its non-praiseworthy context.

1from Taran Wanderer, by Lloyd Alexander

2This is true for a lot of words, of course, but it applies particularly to ethical values.

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  • How much time is this series taking you? I drop by from time to time to check it out...keep it up.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 3:27 PM  

  • It's just time I'd be spending blogging on politics for the most part, so the net increase isn't too bad...

    By Blogger Declan, at 10:06 AM  

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