The Many Faces of Decency The Many Faces of Decency
Paweł Łuków. Photo by Mirosław Kaźmierczak
Dreams and Visions

The Many Faces of Decency

An Interview About Moral Norms
Paulina Wilk
time 20 minutes

Every day, we have to decide, both consciously and unconsciously, what is or isn’t a decent thing to do – and we don’t always get to make sure we’ve made the right choice. Professor of Ethics Paweł Łuków talks to Paulina Wilk about integrity and decency in modern times.

Paulina Wilk: What do we need for our conversation to be decent?

Paweł Łuków: Moral norms are necessary for giving direction to what we do and say. And they do it from the back seat, so to speak. If we are decent and honest, we usually don’t have to wonder whether we should tell the truth in a conversation. Being decent is – among many other things – a meta-norm of sorts, one that defines our entire personality. For a person to be decent, they also have to be open, genuine, honest and straightforward, as well as able to keep their word, give credit where it’s due, and so on. There’s a lot of it, the list could go on. We could arrive at the conclusion that an ethical lifestyle is incredibly demanding since we have to constantly deliberate over one thing or another. In reality, though, we usually behave decently enough not because we think about it constantly, but because we form our decisions and actions following ethical norms.

So integrity is not tied to consciousness?

We usually become aware of our ethical norms when we find them hard to follow. Rudimentary forms of behaviour regulate the way we act towards others as well as ourselves. Integrity, however, is above them, which is why I call it a meta-norm. We don’t always have to be decent on purpose, just like we don’t have to be constantly aware of telling the truth. We just do it. It’s not unlike traffic rules. An experienced driver doesn’t have to remember the right-hand rule at uncontrolled intersections; she simply gives way to vehicles coming from her right. But when four cars approach the intersection at the same time from all four directions, she might have to think about what to do and perhaps remember the right-hand rule.

How do we know whether were behaving decently or not?

In our part of the world, we traditionally attribute it to conscience. We believe that humans have a moral compass of sorts, but it could also be described as deeply internalized moral norms. When assessing someone’s integrity, we usually make a judgement based on their previous actions.

Exactly. Even if decency is a character trait, we tend to be decent in some circumstances, and not so much in others.

This trait doesn’t have to be unblemished. We are morally imperfect, which is why we need norms. Were we angels, we wouldn’t need any.

What do we need them for?

First, they mould our sensitivity, just like with the driver who knows without thinking where to look when approaching an intersection. These norms remind us where to direct our attention. Someone who has internalized the norm of truthfulness well will be honest and authentic in general. They will be true. St. Thomas Aquinas wrote about the virtue of truth-telling, which I interpret as respect for the truth – that is, being careful with the information we have. Truth-telling does not


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Illustration by Joanna Grochocka

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Towards a Trans-Species Understanding
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By assuming that thought, language and culture are exclusive to humanity, we have shut ourselves off from non-human experience and knowledge. What if we finally broke away from the old Cartesian division of the world into us and the rest? The humanities make it clear today that we are not the pinnacle of wisdom because there are other modes of cognition, which are no better or worse than ours.

What do cephalopods do when they meet deep in the sea and briefly touch each other’s tentacles? What is the intention of an octopus squirting water on the back of a disliked scientist (as described in Other Minds by Peter Godfrey-Smith, a philosopher of science) and what determines their social preferences? What is the content of mice songs or the choreographic messages expressed by crabs? Why would a chimpanzee mother carry a dead baby on her back for as many as 40 days? Why would she eat a little of her offspring’s body, a portion too small to have any nutritional value? We have no answers to these questions – and will probably not arrive at them any time soon. Although science – humanity’s superpower – is developing rapidly also in the sphere of ethology, the methods it has at its disposal, even the most advanced, are necessarily limited by human perception. Indeed, scientific enquiry is based on a deeply internalized system of concepts and values. In short, human cognition is invariably anthropomorphic, i.e. bound by what our minds and bodies are capable of. Does this mean, however, that the worlds of non-human beings – along with their creative and meaning-making practices – have to remain radically beyond our ken?

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