To Thine Own Self Be True....
An Ethical First Step

In many articles over the years, I have mentioned an educational tool employed by the English department at Mt. Lebanon High School, which I absolutely hated. I did not enjoy memorizing poetry or prose. Strangely, that horrible requirement has turned out to be one of the greatest blessings in my learning process. I would not trade that experience for anything.

Sometime in my senior year, I stood before my English teacher and said...

This above all: to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.
Farewell, my blessing season this in thee!

Most humbly do I take my leave, my lord.

   Hamlet Act 1, scene 3, 78-82

It would have been nice that my recitation would have been as grand as this one.

After reciting those lines between Polonius and his son, Laertes, meant something to me...5-less lines of memorization that I had to do during that semester. Little did I care about how that related to the play, Hamlet, to Hamlet himself, or to my life. Those lines merely got me closer to not worrying about memorizing anything.

Over the half century since I dreaded that educational scourge of memorizing, two very strange things has happened. I can recite parts of many of those lines memorized long ago. In addition, I use many of those lines daily in articles or while teaching.

Presently, I am teaching an ethics class and attempting to help the class see the importance of ethics. In addition, the course will help them develop an ethical system for themselves as they prepare for the real world. At the beginning of the semester, it was difficult for the class to see beyond what they knew as ethically right or wrong. Therein lies the problem. We do not come to life or even ethics with a tabula rasa. We are influenced by family, society, religions, and many other contributors to formulate what we think are ethically right or wrong.

We all say that we know what is ethical or unethical. However, once we look deeper into the deciding process, the water gets murky. My students and the rest of us need to look into how we come up with ethical decisions...the cause and effect of our conclusions. My class and nearly all Americans will say that bin Laden's act of 9/11 or that of ISIS beheading innocent journalists was ethically wrong.

However, did bin Laden and ISIS think that either of their actions was ethically wrong...from their perspective? Take Putin's attempt to re-establish the old Soviet Union by meddling militarily in Ukrainian matters. There are not many Americans or people in the world that see Kim Jong-un in North Korea acting ethically in his country or the world. Those people were doing what they think is ethically necessary. Imagine sitting in an ethics class in Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea, and listening to them discuss how unethical America and the West are in their dealing with them.

Democrats and Republicans here in the States have fought over many issues like racism, sexism, healthcare reform, and taxes. Which group was ethically correct and which was not? We all have a knee-jerk reaction to which group is ethical and which is not, but our decision is not accepted by the other group.

How do we know whether they are following advice of Polonius to Laertes, "This above all: to thine own self be true"? At first glance, it is obvious. Bin Laden, ISIS, or Kim Jong-un act or acted unethically. Nonetheless, look around beyond what is seemingly obvious. This applies to the international incidents and well as national and personal matters.

Granted, we will not soon arrive at a universally accepted ethical system in which all things fit neatly and tested to being ethical or not. However, we need to take initial steps developing more knowledge and understanding about which is a better system than merely what we might first think is ethical. We need to be honest with ourselves as Polonius tells his son.

This above all: to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.
Farewell, my blessing season this in thee!

Polonius uses a strange set of words as a benediction as his son leaves for Paris: my blessing season. What he is telling Laertes is that ethical decisions should be seasoned like wine or even the wooden barrels containing the wine. It is a poetic way of saying to think all things through before making ethical decisions. One's first thought might not be the best one when all the facts are understood.

Therefore, we need to take heed of Polonius' warning to his son, "This above all: to thine own self be true, And it must follow, as the night the day, Thou canst not then be false to any man." The question for us is how to be true to ourselves. That list is long. Nonetheless, there are some obvious initial suggestions. Here are three suggestions to my ethics class.

First, we need to become more educated, which involves both formal and informal learning. The reason for beginning with education is that we do not know everything there is to know. The problem often occurs when we act as if we do.

Secondly, find someone with whom you trust but often disagree. I wrote a human-interest column for a newspaper in Dixon, IL for over a dozen years. The editor at the time was Bill Shaw. He and I were politically about as far apart as people could be. However, he and I would listen to each other whenever debating some political issue. Whether we would agree or not, at least we more fully understood the other side's opinion. That is an important learning.

Finally, discuss things that are controversial in public. Merely repeating old beliefs to your friends reinforces untested beliefs. One of the things that I love in class is discussing something with students. Often, some in the class and I will have a contrary positions. Nonetheless, the process of an open debate informs the class and might also inform those debating.

Connecting The Dots

Connecting the Dots

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