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On tragedy, ethics and the human condition.
Alex McGilvery   Jun 24, 2016   Ethical Technology  

The shootings at the Pulse club in Orlando highlight once more just how far we humans need to go in the evolution of our ethics. People on all sides have already weighed in on how their particular way of seeing the world would have prevented the crime. Almost immediately they began talking past each other with little or no effort to hear the other side.

This is not about gun control, though gun control might be a useful tool. It isn’t about assessing risk from individuals, though that may be a useful tool as well. We aren’t going to solve what is at the root a human failing with legislation. We can slow it down, as evidenced by countries with strict gun laws, but we won’t stop it. Not as long as individuals or small groups see murder and terror as reasonable acts.

The failure is a failure of ethics. I know ethics is mostly viewed as a discipline as far removed from daily reality as philosophy, but that itself is a large part of the problem. We go through our lives knowing what is right or wrong, but rarely asking the larger question of why? Or the much harder question of are our assumptions correct? Lack of consciousness about how we think and feel about the world is part of the human condition.

Until we begin to bring our tacit assumptions of right and wrong out into daylight and study them, we will be unable to work together to find solutions to the tragedies of violence caused by fear and ignorance. It is painful to bring our ideas into the open, even more so to admit we may be wrong, or at very least, not as perfectly correct as we’d like to think.


Over the years I’ve had many long and enlightening arguments about ethics. With humanists, atheists, religious of all descriptions. What I’ve learned is while we don’t agree on the source of our ethics, at the core there is a common concern for at least two things.

The first is rights. All people have the right not to be murdered because of who or how they choose to love. There are more, but this will do for the discussion at hand. The problem is many groups so closely define ‘people’ as to make anyone outside their group non-human and thus having no right to life. This is not just a problem of religion, as easy as it is to point fingers at religious extremists. It is a problem for nationalists who want to keep their country ‘pure’. For atheist regimes who wish to prevent the spread of religion. In fact any tribe tends to see outsiders as less human than they are, however you wish to define the tribe.

Rights are great, but we tend to accept them for ourselves, and spend less energy on making sure others share them equally. The next concern rises out of the question of how me make rights truly universal.

The discussion of responsibility is a harder one than rights.. Are we truly responsible for our actions? Some science suggests we don’t have actual free will, but react purely to stimuli and programming. Oddly a very similar argument to the Calvinist doctrine of predestination. While the science is sorted out, I suggest we act as if our decisions matter and take the time to think about them. Accepting we have responsibilities as humans means we must become part of the drive for change.

Thus the next part of responsibility is positive action. Rights are conferred on us either by governments or the nature of our humanity. Responsibilities are our to pick up and work on. The responsibility which might accompany the right of people not to be murdered is two-fold. First, we have a responsibility not to murder. Indeed most people go through their lives without becoming killers. The second part is the hard one. We have a responsibility to create a society in which such murder does not happen.

It isn’t the government’s job to legislate fixes, or the extremists of all stripes to change their views. It is our work to make a space for those things to happen. We begin by examining our assumptions about our ethics. Do they in any way allow others to be made less than human? Do they allow us to stay uninvolved or limit our involvement to blame? Are they based in fear?

Once we have examined ourselves we will be in a much better position to live out our response to tragedy. As conscious individuals we will be able to act more compassionately and  wisely to those around us, and most important, with the knowledge of our fear not driving our words and actions.

Change is possible, but it won’t happen without each of us being involved.

Alex McGilvery is currently living in Flin Flon, Manitoba, Canada. He is an author and serves as the minister of a thriving United Church congregation.


Actually, not a priest, a United Church minister. I most strongly hold to the ‘Thou shall not commit adultery’ in reference to drinking Scotch. While relationships are complicated, it isn’t my place to judge, but to aid people in creating better relationships. The Sabbath isn’t about reserving a day to do nothing to honour God. More properly it is a day to refrain from everything which distracts us from the family and community surrounding us. It is a day to enjoy relationships. Like many other things about the scriptures, we got the wrong end of the stick.

In reference to the ‘each’. Jesus makes two comments about people being with him or not. One, the disciples come and tell him some people are casting out demons in his name. Jesus says “If they are not against me, they are for me.” In another instance he has reason to chastise the crowd and says ‘If you are not for me, you are against me.’ The point is that the question of responsibility is always a personal one. Do I pick up my work as a human or not?

We far too often make it about the other, judging them along the way. Have they picked up their work as humans? The question is being asked of the reader, not the people the reader knows.

I would also argue that the sick and elderly have tremendous opportunities to live as humans, and in many case choose to do so more than the rest of us.

Actually if you take the sermon on the mount, looking with lust was tantamount to adultery. The point of Christianity is we cannot demand perfection of ourselves. The work is not to make ourselves perfect, but to follow an individual as imperfect humans.

There is only one law in Christianity, Love each other as Christ loves us.  As Paul states categorically in Galatians. You can live by the Law and by Grace. It is one or the other.


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