Toward an Ethic of Aging II

By Stuart J. Whitley | Bio

Ethics concerns the attempt by disciplined discernment to identify moral options available in a given case, around which there is some general agreement. Professional societies and other groups, through statements of ethical standards or codes of conduct, attempt to assert rules about rightness of conduct that rise above the minimum standards of the law. This is most often referred to as ‘applied ethics’.

Morals involve the identification of what is good about a person’s own conduct as a matter of conscience. Moral standards set for oneself may be considerably higher than ethical ones, though the terms are frequently interchanged in ordinary conversation. If most of us agree on a moral choice, we describe that selection as an ethical one.

The question I ponder is whether those of us who have lived long and experienced much have an ethical duty to share the lessons of that experience in some way? That duty exists in aboriginal societies: it is dubious whether there’s any consensus around its existence in the larger culture. Rather, deference seems to be owed to the young. Beauty and ornament demand allegiance; duty is owed to those who have them.

The idea of duty has a quaint ring to it these days (sometimes that is the best that may be said for it). After all, concentration camps abound now, more than one hundred years after the Boer War (during which they were introduced in earnest), where internees are encamped in brutal conditions by those who assert that they are only “doing their duty”. The debasement of the term in this way has diminished its currency. As one observer put it, at times we are willing to say that one who does something because it is his duty—and not for hedonistic or theological reasons—acts with a purer motive, and hence is more worthy of being called a moral person. The call to one’s countryman to ‘do one’s duty’ can be seen in both positive and derogatory terms. For example, the call for a Parliamentarian to ‘do her or his duty and resign’ may be appropriate or facile. Indeed, such a demand presupposes not only a clear idea of that duty, but that it is triggered appropriately in a particular event.

And there’s the rub.

How would one begin to define the ethical responsibilities of seniors in Western society? When is there a responsibility to act in accordance with it?

In aboriginal cultures, one would not struggle with these concepts. Nevertheless, I think it is arguable that aging does have ethical obligations, a duty that requires more of us than perhaps the popular notion of ‘getting on in years’ or retirement would have it.

More to follow on this…

© 2008 Stuart J. Whitley. All rights reserved.