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Dr. John Kaiser Ortiz uncovers moral complexities of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’

Dr. John Kaiser Ortiz discusses the complexities of morality and ethics. Nina Plaksin/Snapper

Julia Walters
Managing Editor

Right and Wrong. Good and Bad. Virtuous and Evil. Human beings are obsessed with thinking about morality in black and white. This is seen as a major cause of human suffering; how do we know what is right and how do we live our own truth consistently with being a ‘good’ person in mind?

Talking with Millersville University Philosophy professor, Dr. John Kaiser Ortiz, morality and ethics are more complicated than anyone can conceive on the surface. Some believe that morality and ethics are two ideas separated by small distinctions, but Dr. Kaiser Ortiz has another opinion.

“I don’t think there is any significant difference. It’s in many ways a false dichotomy. Call it ethics or morals, the terms are rather synonymous. The focus is on what we should do and why we should we do it. At that point, we’re quibbling over the language of the ideas, not over the importance of the ideas themselves which are how to behave, how to act, and why.” The major takeaway is that the distinction between morality and ethics doesn’t matter; it’s trying to get a sense of how to be a better person rather than the connotations of the words themselves.

But do personal morals ever conflict with each other? If morality is subjective, this theoretically means that an idea of right and wrong could directly oppose another’s idea of right and wrong, and this is what creates arguments. Though, again, Dr. Kaiser Ortiz doesn’t think people need to be thinking about it so subjectively.

“It’s not all just subjective. We don’t just have our independent moralities. Our parents raised us, we’re raised in a culture, in a society, in place, space, and time. If who we are is a function of where we come from, our identities are tied to the community. The question here is really of agency; who is doing the acting, who is doing the thinking that precedes the acting, as well as follows the acting. In all cases, we don’t have a conflict of morals. The conflict isn’t really there, it’s in our minds.”

Some may take this opinion and argue still that there are cultural differences of morality, that a Western view of morals and ethics is so unique from Eastern or Southern African views of morality. There is a question that comes up that discusses how these cultures manage morality differences. Dr. Kaiser Ortiz again refutes this as a significant opposition in the idea of morality.

Human beings differ in their moral ideas “only to a degree. Human beings generally like to have relationships with other human beings. Those cultures are still defined by people, political institutions, actors, economic realities, religion in a local context. Ultimately, when we’re talking about ethics and morality, like how should we behave? Usually, we only ask that question when it’s in question. People going about their daily lives aren’t thinking about that. It’s more about ‘what do I gonna do next?’ We’re faced, very rarely, with moral problems in that way. It’s not always a question of right or wrong. We don’t all question whether it’s right or wrong to show up to work today.”

The biggest problem, according to Dr. Kaiser Ortiz, is having bad faith, which is our greatest danger in terms of moral philosophy. Bad faith is “knowingly doing the wrong thing. Aristotle called this ‘weakness of will;’ he called it ‘akrasia,’ people knowingly doing the lesser of two goods. We knowingly lie, cheat, and steal, and then tell a different story than the truth. Enough to where there’s a question of manipulation, of  ‘are you really interacting in the way that is a model for others to act?’ If we’re being honest with ourselves, the philosophers will say ‘most of the time, we’re not being honest with ourselves.’

One ethical problem many philosophers find themselves questioning are the small, white lies we tell on a daily basis. The comments such as ‘oh, that shirt looks great on you!’ or ‘No, you didn’t mess up that exam too badly!’ while in the backs of our minds, we know that shirt looks horrible on our friend and they also did mess up really badly on that exam. But maybe these comments aren’t the moral faux pas we sometimes believe them to be. Dr. Kaiser Ortiz states that this is called “paying it forward, putting out positivity instead of paranoia,” which the world could use a little more of all around.

Thinking about our choices and decisions can be quite difficult when mulling over these complexities in their entirety. “There’s a kind of truth telling to ethics and morality that you have to be willing to have frank conversations about topics and situations that many of us would prefer simply to not be in.” Ethics is no easy topic, but it can also be worth it to have a better understanding of why we act the way we do and how to use that knowledge to better ourselves.

He goes on to say, “We can’t help but question it because we do have options as human beings; we have choices. A famous philosophers named Jean Paul Sartre said ‘not to choose is a choice.'”

So, at the end of the day, what do we owe each other as human beings, as friends, as people trying to be good people? According to Dr. Kaiser Ortiz, the answer is far from concrete: “Nothing. And everything. And everything in between.”