Ethics and Morality

The Good Person

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High Standards

A complex fantasy of superhuman performance emerges in every culture that supports the delusion that humans do better than they actually do. This is a collective self-deception on a grand scale. Leaders and aristocrats with various pedigrees are often given unearned prestige and superhuman abilities may be attributed to them. All humans, regardless of status, share basic tendencies and limitations. Inflated attribution will lead to disappointment sooner or later. Self-deceiving and unrealistically high standards for others have a social value and appear in every human group. Claiming a high standard makes it easy to shame, blame and discredit others who make mistakes. Humans can be described as animals with material ambitions and moral aspirations whose performance inevitably fails to meet their own expectations, but they ignore their own limitations and deny their own errors. A more realistic view is that even the smartest, nicest humans have distinct limitations, will routinely make mistakes, and occasionally, one of their mistakes will have major if not tragic consequences.

When Jesus' childhood sweetheart, Mary, was to be stoned to death by neighbors who disapproved of her occupation (sex trade worker), Jesus defended her saying:" Let the person who is without sin, cast the first stone." A reasonable ethicist realizes the truth of this pragmatic claim. All humans break rules and have imperfect performance. All humans judge others more harshly than they judge themselves. The punishment delivered to others is greater than the punishment you would wish for yourself. Indeed, the best defense is offense.

High standards are used to motivate group members to work harder, compete and achieve more. In the best case, high standards operate as attractors that align individuals with learning experiences that can improve performance. Another function is to support claims of elite groups that they possess special qualities that others cannot attain or can only attain by seeking membership in the elite group.

The American National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is a prototype of interacting groups of smart people who sometimes do not get it right. In NASA, the smartest scientists, engineers and administrators collaborate on making space flights and other projects. NASA is also a showcase for American technology and has a major public relations responsibility. NASA failures are highly visible tragedies that are well-studied. When the regular orbital flights of NASA’s shuttle began, managers estimated the risk of failure to be 1 flight in 100,000. After the explosion of the shuttle, Challenger, in January 1986, Feynman declared that NASA exaggerated the reliability of its product to the point of fantasy. In 1988 when flights resumed, the revised estimated risk of catastrophic failure was set at 1 flight in 50. After a decade of successful flights the estimate of risk was improved to 1 in 254 flights. The shuttle, Columbia, disintegrated on re-entry in 2003, and the risk estimate became 1 in 100. A piece of insulating foam fell off the fuel tank 82 seconds after liftoff and struck one wing edge with sufficient force to punch a hole in the wing. On re-entry, hot gases entered the wing causing progressive damage and the eventual disintegration of the shuttle. All astronauts perished. NASA teams worked for two years and spent hundreds of millions of dollars trying to fix the foam problem. When the next shuttle took off in July 2005, again pieces of insulating foam broke off the fuel tank two minutes after launch but drifted away in the thin atmosphere. The shuttle completed its mission, but NASA, displaying appropriate caution and concern, announced that further flights would be suspended until the problem had really been fixed.

The actual risk of catastrophic failure of the shuttle as of 2005 was 2 flights in 113 or 1 in 56.5 flights. In his report on cognitive problems at NASA after the Challenger disaster, physicist and Nobel prize winner, Richard Feynman stated:” It appears that there are enormous differences of opinion as to the probability of a failure with loss of vehicle and of human life. The estimates range from roughly 1 in 100 to 1 in 100,000. The higher risk figures come from the working engineers, and the very low risk figures from management. What are the causes and consequences of this lack of agreement? Since 1 part in 100,000 would imply that one could put a Shuttle up each day for 300 years expecting to lose only one, we could properly ask: “What is the cause of management's fantastic faith in the machinery?”We have also found that certification criteria used in Flight Readiness Reviews often develop a gradually decreasing strictness. The argument that the same risk was flown before without failure is an argument for the safety of accepting it again. Because of this, obvious weaknesses are accepted again and again, sometimes without a sufficiently serious attempt to remedy them or to delay a flight because of their continued presence“. Feynman concluded that a successful technology requires that reality takes precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled.”

Never Wrong

Despite the obvious limitations of each human and the inevitability of error, misunderstanding and conflict, all humans have difficulty admitting they made a mistake or have undesirable habits. Denial is a basic strategy of survival. Denial often replaces accurate self assessment. A heavy drinker will deny heavy drinking. An obese woman will deny compulsive eating. An unfaithful spouse will deny being unfaithful. To use a popular description, every human is “in denial.”

The tendency is to deny error and project blame onto someone else. This is a deep tendency and has no simple remedy. This tendency to deny error is found at all levels from children avoiding the punishment of parents to national states who would rather go to war than apologize. Several features of the human mind seem to converge to produce denial and projection of blame. Innate narcissism precludes objective self- evaluation. Each person believes that he or she lives up to the high standard that he or she imposes on others. Claiming a high standard makes it easy to shame, blame and discredit others who make mistakes. The denial of guilt is a standard plea of defendant accused of crime. The most pragmatic humans recognize that others will always criticize and blame them for actions that they may or may not have committed and, therefore, the only effective policy is defensive and begins with denial of all blame. Human interaction always involves conflict about who is to blame and no final agreement can ever be achieved.

McCullough suggested that denial often includes members of a local group, an aspect of the uneasy bargains we strike to be social creatures. He stated” “We really do want to be moral people, but the fact is that we cut corners to get individual advantage, and we rely on the room that denial gives us to get by, to wiggle out of speeding tickets, and to forgive others for doing the same.” Carey suggested: “The capacity for denial appears to have evolved in part to offset early humans’ hypersensitivity to violations of trust. In small kin groups, identifying liars and two-faced cheats was a matter of survival. A few bad rumors could mean a loss of status or even expulsion from the group, a death sentence. “


  • The Good Person: Ethics and Morality by Stephen Gislason is a book in the Psychology & Philosophy series, developed by Persona Digital Books.

    Ethics is about the interface between selfish interests and actions and the common good. Both good and bad tendencies are innate properties that have useful functions, were not invented by modern society and are not going to change until the construction of brain changes. The dialogue between good and bad in human affairs is constant, predictable and universal. When a baby is born, the family and local community begin to teach the emerging being what is going on here and now. They provide the local language, costumes, customs beliefs and the local science and technology. All adult humans have an ethical standard and a technology to teach. While the local culture has an obvious impact on the appearance and behavior of emerging adults, the constant innate features of the human mind are pervasive and persistent. The variance in mental abilities within a local group will often be greater than inter-group variance.

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