Sunday, June 28, 2009

Are Ethics Subjective?

In about 3 years I will hit the point in my life where I will have spent 1/3 of it in this beautiful, ironic, historic land of Italy. One of the main things I have learned and been stretched in is to 'embrace the grey', cioe', to let go my death grip on the black & white moorings of preconceived notions and uninformed assumptions and to allow myself to float a bit in the grey, mostly calm, but occasionally choppy waters of life in Italy.

A couple of examples might help. I live, mostly, with the value of honesty. I tell the truth. I don't lie - hardly ever. And when I do, I've discovered, it is mostly by omission, by smoothing over or by avoidance, cioe', by not verbalizing my real feelings or opinions. Anyways, if someone asks me a black and white question, I give an honest answer. If someone were to ask me, "Is your car red?", I would say, "No, it is blue." Early on here, as we began purchasing things we discovered there is a bigger difference between debit and credit cards. Whenever we use plastic to pay for something here, they ask, "Carta di credito?" (Credit card?). Well, in the beginning, I answered honestly - no. It isn't. It is a debit card. But what happens if they run our U.S. debit cards is that they don't go through - our pin numbers don't work. However, if we 'lie' and say it is a credit card, they swipe it, we sign it, and the money comes out of our account (after a heavy hit with the exchange rate.) See, no big deal, right? By simply saying, "Yes", when the honest answer is, "No", we avoid hassle and extra minutes in line explaining, "Well, really, it isn't a credit card. It is a debit card but since it is tied to a U.S. bank, if you will just pretend it is a credit card and treat it as such, it will work." This, a time or two, led to calling a supervisor and checking my I.D., etc. It is jusy easier, more efficient, less hassle to not tell the whole truth.

The next example has to do with cars. If you've been here, you KNOW that the streets are narrow, jammed with parked cars, many illegally. Life here requires you know how to parallel park. (For a painfully funny example - and don't ask me to translate the commentary - check this example out - from Ancona.) Occasionally, it is almost necessary to 'bump' the car in front or behind to ensure you can fit into the spot you're aiming for. If I were to bump a car in the U.S. in any way, the 'right' thing to do would be to leave a note, right? Sometimes, when squeezing through a narrow lane 'one' will bump mirrors (which are all designed here to be breakaway mirrors) with another car - again, under 'normal' circumstances - the 'right' thing to do would be to leave a note or at least make sure that there aren't any scratches. But here, it is very normal and seemingly expected.

So, in my head, there is this little battle that goes on concerning this question. Not that I lose sleep over the little examples, but the bigger question makes me wonder. How much of what we call ethics or our moral code is cultural and how much is Biblical? And if we answer Biblical - is or was there a 1st Century moral code that doesn't always fit with ours? By saying, "Ah, we're in Italy so I don't need to explain that this isn't really a credit card..." - are we missing out on something? Are we glossing over a potential conversation. By overlooking the bumps and scratches are we losing something? Are we giving in? Are ethics subjective?

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