Perhaps one of the strangest arguments in ethical philosophy is the notion of a different ethical standard, value, or duty existing for those we are personally connected to versus those we relate to in public life. What is at question is not the rightness or wrongness of individual actions, but how we are to act depending on our relationship to those who have committed an immoral or unethical act.

While there are many arguments for why our personal bonds can not hold ethical weight, in this article for Epoché Magazine Antonio Wolf analyses why he believes it is in fact intelligible and cogent that our personal bonds be ethical considerations.

The basis for this is in the Hegelian conception of the self and of freedom, for through them we have the capacity to account for the seeming suspension of ethical norms of justice insofar as what these bonds determine is itself a higher freedom, a higher justice, than public justice can itself determine. Insofar as this higher justice is a possible reality, it holds greater weight for individuals than public justice does.

Recognition: Formal Civility and The Content of Personality

With acquaintances and strangers we have the formality of the recognition of simple personality in assuming that every person deserves the benefit of doubt and respect or dignity by being a member of the social community. We do not have personal rapport with them, we do not have any deep personal ties, and so when issues arise there is no comradery to appeal to our subjective egos to see things from each other’s side. Being unwilling and often unable to resolve these disputes between ourselves in a mutual judgment, we invoke the authority of law and the court of public judgment to settle things as impartially as anything can be once and for all. Because we do not know them, and often the animosity of things brings us to wish to not know them, we face strangers and acquaintances precisely as abstractions of real people instead of real people. We cannot deal with them as personalities other than in a civil ethical manner of right against right via an impartial third party in the system of law.

Family and Friends

With friends and family the recognition of personality is not formal. We do not simply accept some abstraction of a principle with regard to our relations and dealings with such individuals, it is not simply a matter of impersonal abstract right. We not only know the face, but we also to a large extent know the soul or heart of these individuals even when our relationships with them are stress and strife. We not only know the content of these individuals, but our relationship to them is itself content in and for us both.

If my friend breaks the law by stealing, and I immediately report and turn them in, I am treating them as I treat a stranger. While to the abstractly universal ethicist this is entirely rational and correct, to the concrete ethical reality this is a violation of the relationship of friendship insofar as this jumps the gun over other possible avenues of dealing with this injustice. I report and turn in a stranger because I have no necessity or duty to confront this breaker of ethical norms myself, to directly intervene and rectify the unethical at my possible expense and psychological pain. They could ignore me, they could be violent, they could be amiable—I do not know, it is not my job to put myself at risk to find out, and this stranger has no rapport with me such that my words should move them to reflect and turn from their wrong. I, being a dutiful citizen, therefore call upon civil authority to rectify this injustice. But if my friend engages in that same violation of ethical norms I have a different set of options to carry out before escalating to the need of invoking civil law if I deem that the law has to be brought in at all.

via Epoché Magazine, December 2021. Read the full article here.

Cranlana Centre for Ethical Leadership’s programs include the 2 day Executive Ethics, 6 day Executive Colloquium and year-long Vincent Fairfax Fellowship. We also deliver online and tailored corporate programs. Find the right program for you. They are all held under the Chatham House Rule to encourage genuine and open debate, and allow participants to candidly discuss sometimes sensitive issues in private while allowing the topic and nature of the debate to be made public, and contribute to a broader conversation. The alumni program offers ongoing leadership development support and a lifelong connection with Cranlana.

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