The back page of the New York Times, Week in Review section had an anthropologist and a psychologist claiming a solution to the mid-east crisis. It's not land, or money, or oil, or resources, or peace that the Palestinians and Israeli's want. It's words. More specifically, apologetic words. Acknowledgment words. Validation words.
Atran and Ginges argued that people on both sides of the divide would choose raging war over sacrificing their values and what they believe in. Palestinians want an apology from the Israeli's, and Israeli's want an acknowledgment of its right to exist from the Palestinians. According to the authors, this is not only an essential part of the peace process; it could actually be the peace process itself.
This is just the kind of argument that has economists and mathematicians decrying the social sciences as intellectually sloppy parasites sucking the university resources dry. At first glance, you can see their point. But before everyone storms off in a huff, there is something to what they are saying.
They write, "People will reject material compensation for dropping their commitment to sacred values (such as family, country, religion, honor) and will defend those values regardless of the costs."
In other words, you will stand up for what you believe in over your own comfort. In some cases, you would literally defend it to your death.
The mid-east crisis is an extreme example, but I see this principle in action every day in my job. In the cancer hospital where I work, nurses and doctors will quit because of the unethical things they have no control over. If they can't quit because of money, they burnout or turn to alcohol or drugs to deal with the stress.
It's not the overwork that kills them (although that's part of the problem). It's that they are not living in line with their principles. Psychologists call this "moral distress." It's when the par between what you believe in and what actually happens is too wide for you to bear and it causes tension. Anyone who has ever been in this kind of situation can tell you that it's soul destroying.
So while the social scientists may be a tad dramatic with their contention that ethics and morals can solve the mid-east crisis, I think their point is relevant to our lives.
Everyone wants to be a good person, but the underlying message we get in the culture is that morals and ethics aren't cool. In fact, we are supposed to drop them the second they interfere with our goals. Think about how many times you have been encouraged to cheat just a little bit or turn a blind eye to that unethical person in your workplace in order to get ahead. It's built right into the capitalist system. Lie, cheat, steal and step over everyone and anything that gets in your way.
What's so powerful about bringing ethics back to the table is that it validates something that runs counter to the way we operate, but that we intuitively know is true. It acknowledges that people who believe in something are inclined to protect their values over anything else, and if that if they can't do that, they will suffer emotionally for it.
Maybe it's time to start talking about values in the government, ethics in the office, and morals in the classroom? Don't get me wrong. I am not suggesting that there should be ONE set of values for everyone. But it's about time we start acknowledging how important these beliefs are to living a good life.
It may even be a matter of life or death.