What does this have to do with Terry Pratchett? The words we read help form us. Sorry Jacques, but there is an author and there is a reader. Pratchett was a profoundly moral and humane author who railed against a world which oftentimes was anything but. And I, a black-and-white reader in a grey world, latched on to his ethics. In fact the only ethical standard that I have been so ready to assume is that of Bill and Ted: be excellent to each other. It is deceptively simple, in that simple isn't necessarily easy. The hard way is hard, as Granny Weatherwax said, but not so hard as the easy way. So I'm going to share some of the lines from Pterry's books which inspired my own ethics.
“All right,” said Susan. “I’m not stupid. You’re saying humans need… fantasies to make life bearable.
REALLY? AS IF IT WAS SOME KIND OF PINK PILL? NO. HUMANS NEED FANTASY TO BE HUMAN. TO BE THE PLACE WHERE THE FALLING ANGEL MEETS THE RISING APE.
“Tooth fairies? Hogfathers? Little—”
YES. AS PRACTICE. YOU HAVE TO START OUT LEARNING TO BELIEVE THELITTLE LIES.
“So we can believe the big ones?”
YES. JUSTICE. MERCY. DUTY. THAT SORT OF THING.
“They’re not the same at all!”
YOU THINK SO? THEN TAKE THE UNIVERSE AND GRIND IT DOWN TO THE FINEST POWDER AND SIEVE IT THROUGH THE FINEST SIEVE AND THENSHOW ME ONE ATOM OF JUSTICE, ONE MOLECULE OF MERCY. AND YET—Death waved a hand. AND YET YOU ACT AS IF THERE IS SOME IDEAL ORDER IN THE WORLD, AS IF THERE IS SOME…SOME RIGHTNESS IN THE UNIVERSE BY WHICH IT MAY BE JUDGED.
“Yes, but people have got to believe that, or what’s the point—”
MY POINT EXACTLY.
This is perhaps the first step. Ethics aren't real, they aren't tangible things, and there is no "ethics stick" with which to slap bastards, more's the pity. It is an idea, a construct in your own mind. It is a guide to right action, a way of achieving outcomes which at best do the most good, or at least do the least harm. It isn't a thing unto itself, I'm sure there's an ontological word for that, but it is important nonetheless.
Another huge influence from the Disc is Granny Weatherwax speaking on the nature of sin:
"There is a very interesting debate raging at the moment about the nature of sin, for example,” said Oats.“And what do they think? Against it, are they?” said Granny Weatherwax.“It’s not as simple as that. It’s not a black and white issue. There are so many shades of gray.”“Nope.”“Pardon?”“There’s no grays, only white that’s got grubby. I’m surprised you don’t know that. And sin, young man, is when you treat people as things. Including yourself. That’s what sin is.“It’s a lot more complicated than that . . .”“No. It ain’t. When people say things are a lot more complicated than that, they means they’re getting worried that they won’t like the truth. People as things, that’s where it starts.”“Oh, I’m sure there are worse crimes . . .”“But they starts with thinking about people as things . . . ”
That's as fundamental as it gets. Weatherwax here is talking with a priest, so she refers to "sin". We could refer to unethical practice in place of sin and it would mean the exact same thing: the world and its inhabitants are not yours to take apart and play with like a Lego model. Living beings have their own ideas, personalities, intentions, relationships, and these must be left alone wherever possible. Where we must encroach, we must tread as lightly as possible and do as little harm as possible. Even when we must inflict harm or take a life, we must do so no more than necessary and we must do so with the utmost respect.(Carpe Jugulum)
Sam Vimes, Commander of the Ankh-Morpork City Watch, has this to say on the nature of crime. Again, we can read "crime" as unethical practice:
"Thief-taker, Rust had called him. The man had meant it as an insult, but it'd do. Theft was the only crime, whether the loot was gold, innocence, land or life. And for the thief-taker, there was the chase..."
(Jingo)We can add to that list safety, dignity, and health. To deprive a sentient being of any of those is a form of theft. We rob the creature. Doubly so of a sapient being. Stealing to eat is not a crime, stealing to survive is not a crime, but theft committed to any purpose bar those is downright criminal. Note I'm making the distinction between a "crime" and a "breach of criminal law". If I steal a loaf of bread to feed my family I am not a criminal, but if I steal a gold watch because it compliments my outfit then I am a criminal, irrespective of the law, and that actually is to do with things. What of non-things? The sentient and the sapient? If I am to rob a creature it must only be to save life or prevent greater harm, otherwise I am a dirty thief.
This is the difference between testing medicine and testing cosmetics. Testing medicine is stealing to live, but that is still stealing. It is an indignity that we must seek to remove ourselves from at the earliest opportunity, and in the meantime our victims must be as few as possible. Testing cosmetics is more like stealing the gold watch and must never be done.
There are many other lines I could quote, all on this sort of theme. Fantastic discussions of the ethics of human nature, war, bigotry, violence and civics can be found in the above titles plus The Fifth Elephant, Guards Guards, Men At Arms, Monstrous Regiment, Small Gods, and of course I Shall Wear Midnight, a book which features a young girl having to give a decent burial to a forcibly-miscarried foetus and care for the injured mother because all the "grown-ups" are too busy wanting to hang the man who'd caused it that they can't see the real work that needs doing first. Amidst the action is a wonderfully subtle lesson on the need to give what care needs giving first before contemplating harm, and to not let our feelings blind us to this necessity.
I leave you with a wonderfully succinct line by Death, from Reaper Man. It captures, beautifully and completely, the reasons why we must care for those we must harm. I have this line written in the hem of my labcoat, though long before that it was carved into my soul.
What can the harvest hope for, if not the care of the reaper man?That's all you need to know. If you would be as a god then it is as much your duty to give as to take away. If you don't care for the lives you take then you've no business taking them. End of.
Gaun yersel Terry. Go satirise the angels for not angeling right!