Yuri Tarnopolsky                                                                                                                         ESSAYS
21. On Ethics

ethics. Albert Schweitzer. Niels Bohr. understanding.

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Essay 21. On Ethics

Here, following Essay 20, I would like to summarize my previous twenty Essays.

In Essay 3  I noted that Montaigne designed Essays as a tool of understanding. His Essays included a large part of the contemporaneous map of knowledge (and fragments of the knowledge itself) that was mostly based on the authors of classic antiquity. His introspection, however, expanded the continent of human nature and daily hum of human body almost up to the literature of the nineteenth century.

I believe that Montaigne, widely read in all European countries, including Russia, was one of the precursors of the European novel of morals and manners.

Montaigne wanted to understand himself, following one of the commandments of the Antiquity : "know thyself," attributed to various sources, including Thales of Miletus.

Writing these Essays I have come—jumped, rather—to a conclusion that self-understanding is not as difficult as Thales of Miletus was said to believe. It comes automatically with age. We are embedded in the network of relationships,  receive signals, send our own signals, think, and act. The way we do it is what we are.

To understand ourselves as humans, our collective past, and possible future is more difficult because it means to understand Everything. We, as a species, interact not with individuals but with Everything, are born by it, know it, and will dissolve in it. What is not linked to anything does not exist.

Understanding is not only the road map of what we know but also the edges of  the map beyond which we cannot go: the laws of impossibility, like the laws of thermodynamics, competition, and selection that adamantly oppose our equally stubborn liberal ethics, including the Albert Schweitzer's reverence for life. The very fact that the tug of war still goes on (example: the European attitude to death penalty) makes this life bearable. It does not make it either good or bad.

If I had to offer a single ethical principle, I would repeat what I said several times in these Essays:

No idea is good or bad on its own. Any idea is evil if there is an unopposed violent force behind it. Any idea is good if there is a skeptical opposition.

The most productive reverence we can possibly have is reverence for Niels Bohr.  I would half-seriously paraphrase his view as: "no single ethical principle exists."

If so, we have a coupled principle, not quite symmetrical to the first:

One has to stand for his or her own idea with utmost energy and conviction, as if it had a proof of goodness,  and one should not be outright skeptical to any other idea.

Every deep idea is shallow, however, because most people act out of their deepest instincts in the basement of the soul that preclude ideas in the mind's loft. As far as the ethics of action is concerned, I am rather a traditionalist.

To be wise in the spirit of Montaigne is to be both skeptical and tolerant. Including toward yourself, I would add.

It was from Montaigne that I learned to be skeptical of propaganda and authority. It took my entire life to become tolerant to myself.

P.S. (2016). In other words, what is not disputed by somebody, is neither right nor wrong.

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