I was recently asked for my opinion on an ethical quandary facing a friend of a friend. I was asked because I was perceived as somewhat of an expert on ethical issues due to my role as a humane educator, president of the Institute for Humane Education, and a writer about MOGO choices. I was surprised that someone would consider my opinion on an ethical matter more valuable than someone else’s, though, and when I took the ethical issue in question to our staff, a group of people whose moral compasses I admire immensely, we were pretty much split on it. So much for expertise.
I’ve always been bemused when an ethical issue arises in our culture, and the media call in an ethicist to offer an expert opinion. I don’t generally find such opinions to be more valid than my own or others’ perspectives. People’s opinions on ethical matters differ not because someone has studied philosophy while another has not, but because ethical decisions are often highly complicated as well as steeped in personal values, experiences, and beliefs.
This does not mean that I don’t think ethics is an important subject to study, nor that I would do away with ethicists. My life was radically shifted in 1984 by philosopher-ethicist Peter Singer’s book Animal Liberation, in which he lays out not only the cruelties perpetrated on animals but also the philosophical reasons for desisting in such cruelty and exploitation. The MOGO principle stems from what I learned from Professor Singer almost 25 years ago, and my own career as a humane educator is ethically driven and ethically informed. I teach people to consider what is right and good, which is a large part of what it means to be a humane educator. But I believe that ethicists are not experts. Rather, they’re deeply engaged seekers of ethical truths for a better world. Instead of looking to ethicists, each of us must commit to becoming an ethicist for our own lives and choices. Of course we can and should ask people we respect for their opinions on ethical matters, but it’s ultimately up to us to make MOGO choices through our own commitment to inquiry, introspection, and integrity – the 3 I’s I refer to regularly in this blog.
Does this mean that MOGO is always relative, that there are no right and wrong answers to ethical questions, and that whatever you personally decide is right? No. Many ethical questions are pretty clear, and moral relativism is often simply a way of justifying harmful decisions. But many choices are complex, especially when taking into consideration not only yourself and your family but also all people, all species, and the earth itself, and these require our commitment to MOGO. We won’t be experts, and we won’t always make MOGO choices, but the more we hold MOGO as an ideal toward which to strive, the more we will slowly but surely choose MOGO as a matter of course.