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Ethics: Is it just for the Nervous?

July 14, 2016

Anyone who has entered into a creative project always faces the problem of deciding when it is done.  If the project is truly new, by definition it lacks a blueprint—a checklist that, once completed, says “you’re done”.  Think about the artist who has to decide when a portrait is finished.  How is that done?  Legend has it that one of the most famous portraits in history, the Mona Lisa, was never regarded by the artist as finished.  Supposedly Leonard da Vinci carried the work with him for the rest of his life. 

Could it be the case that what is arguably one of the greatest works of art is simply not done?

If da Vinci struggled with the notion of deciding when a creative work was done, what chance is there for the rest of us?  Fortunately, most of us will never have to deal with deciding such a monumental problem as the completion of the Mona Lisa.

But perhaps that is just art—and isn’t that all supposed to be subjective anyway?  I would strongly argue that art isn’t subjective, but that is a story for another time.  Consider that math, that bastion of objectivity, also suffers from the incompleteness problem.  At one time mathematicians thought that the truths of mathematics would be neatly captured.  Take a few basic truths plus a little bit of logic and voila!! –you could then grind out all the truths of mathematics. 

That turned out to be a pipe dream, too. 

But it is important to realize that incompleteness is not an abstract question for philosophers of art and mathematics to ponder.  The problem of incompleteness surrounds us.  We live in an incomplete world.  We confront this problem of incompleteness in practical, concrete ways. 

Perhaps the most important confrontation that we have with incompleteness lies in ethics, that discipline that Socrates said was the most important discipline of all since it was the discipline in which we talk about just how we are to live.  

Ethical problems are tricky creatures; they are a lot like humans.  Kant said that the human heart is infinitely deep and ultimately unknowable.  It is easy to think that you really know someone and then suddenly be proven wrong.  The minute that you think that you have solved an ethical problem, it shows another side. 

This can be frustrating—as was illustrated recently at the Toronto Pride Parade and the interruption of it by Black Lives Matter.  

It is without doubt a great thing for human rights that the PM and politicians of other parties  marched in the Pride Parade.  It is a great thing that many citizens happily watched the parade with respect and acceptance.  All this shows that in some ways, certain problems have been, to some degree—not all—solved. But BLM showed that this is easy to think—but wrong to think so.  There is still incompleteness, more problems to be realized as problems and tackled and solved. 

The frustration over this incompleteness poured out in hate mail directed at BLM after the event. 

Ethics can take a lesson from art and science; their incompleteness is not greeted with anger or dismay.  Instead, their incompleteness is greeted as an opportunity for further and greater works, to reach higher artistic ground and deeper insights into the way that the universe works.  Art will never be complete and neither will science.  Isn't that a good thing?

The same goes for ethics. 

Incompleteness in ethics is an opportunity for us to become more tolerant, more open and more demanding of ourselves and our leaders.  It is an opportunity for us all to grow and reach broader ethical understandings of ourselves and our society.  It is nothing short of the opportunity to lead richer and deeper lives, both in the world of our own thoughts and the world that we share with others.  Incompleteness will drive us to be, in sum, more ethical. 

But there is a trade-off.  Descartes was right; humans may start with doubt and incompleteness but we really don’t like them that much.  We search for an Archimedean point upon which we may stand and lever the world into the place that we want.  

But there is no Archimedean point in ethics.  The incompleteness of ethics forces us to be forever slightly uncomfortable. 

Being ethical means being uncomfortable.  Comfort is a sign of completeness and closure. 

Beware of being comfortable in your ethical views and conclusions.  That is probably a key sign that you’re missing something.



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Tamara or Tammy Senger      July 15, 2016 at 01:53
Hello Richard Feist & all who read this,
I see your point and I was taught in all my art classes to be creative and that a project is complete when the artist feels it is complete or not, with that said, i have created some art works myself, left them for years, come back to them and may never complete them. I feel art can learn from math and science and vice-versa because, they are all inter-twined. Ehthic is defined as a set of moral principles that govern a person's behavior of how an activity is conducted. (From the Oxford Dictionary) So, if a child learns morals from a parent figure on how to behave, that is an acquired behaviour, it may change as time goes on and therefore; never end unless, we die. We can apply this to each and every activity we do in life that requires any form of using math, science or some use of art skills and abilitiies we are taught. As a person grows older so does there specific way of thinking and behaviours and the continuous use of skills and abilities and especially morals and values that were taught to us at an early age, whether they have changed or not, we all have them in us to do as we see fit and act accordinglya nd that is what makes us all so unique in todays society.
To answer your question and title of your article, No, I do not beleive Ethics is just for those who may seem nervous. We all have our certain, specific ethics we beleive in because we all have the need and want to accomplish something and completing a task makes us feel good about ourselves. I can also understand the psychological aspect of not ever completing a specific task, it would be like the infinity sign used in a mathematics equasion, meaning it never ends. We can only be open-minded to other theories of completness or not and I personally look at not completing a task as an ongoing challenge!
With that, I close this comment and hope this gives you my personal opinion and I'd like to thank you for this opportunity to write my thought here to share with you. Have a great day and thanks again for your time today.

Mrs. Tamara or Tammy Senger
Edmonton, Alberta, Can.