What does it mean to “exercise one’s humanity”? I think it has to do with putting yourself in a situation where you need to be better than you are. I thought about this when teaching my Ethics class yesterday, when a student, Emily, ask a good question: “Are ethics for our present self or our future self? Do we establish ethics so we can be who we are or who we are becoming?”
She asked some great questions, and it took me about a half hour of class discussion to respond to her questions. We’re currently working on an assignment where the students have to write an essay about what their personal ethics are, those guiding principles that help the individual enact “right conduct”. What is “right conduct”? That’s another discussion that we have frequently in our Ethics class.
What It old Emily is that the difference between the present-self and the future-self is in large part determined by your level of self-awareness. The more self-aware you are, the more present you are, and the less of a distinction there is between who you are and who you are evolving into. Ethics, those guiding principles, help guide us in the right direction, help us make the decisions that enable us to “do the right thing” on a moment-to-moment basis.
I listed my morals in The Descent into Happiness. After listing them, I explained why each one is relevant to me, how the ethics help me be who I am. In a way, I did the assignment I’m requiring my students to do when I wrote the book. That’s why it’s a required text for the course: I want my students to understand why it is important to me—personally and professionally—that we all have guiding principles that help us make it through any given day.
I also think it’s important to surround yourself with ethical people. I’m getting to know a couple, Shawn and Erin Alexander (and their daughter Maple). They have defined ethics, which is why I’ve decided to team up with them on a project that would enable students at my university to travel to Padibe, Uganda and work on a medical facility—to engage in ethical activity. I’ll write more about this project as it unfolds.