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I’ve been working on writing a personal statement, and it’s a beeotch. I must be witty, literate, blindingly intelligent, and authentic. In two pages. I’m very good at writing to a specific audience, and this is the opposite, really. I want it to be authentic, but it has to be self-aggrandizing without sounding like it is.

Anyway, I’ve been doing quite a bit of free writing to try and determine what it is I really want to say. What in the fairly twisty path of my life has lead me to this point? How does being an opera singer, a web monkey, and an ethics student get me to this point? So here’s my latest thought.

From the opera world, I realized that people need some form of moral and ethical framework in order to not go all Lord of the Flies on each other. And that’s pretty much what it was like, a whole lot of the time. Young singers were encouraged to act like anyone but themselves, people abused each other, victimized those with less power than themselves, colluded, and behaved mighty sexually inappropriately. If you questioned or fought the system, you didn’t “belong”. It was pretty much a big dysfunctional family where society’s basic ethical norms didn’t apply, and most people didn’t make it beyond about a 14 year old level of maturity. Imagine, a world run by pissed off, middle-aged 14 year olds.

While consciously I bought into this world for a while, as I got older I had an increasing sense of dissonance with it. Eventually I realized I would never be able to reconcile the joy I got from singing and from striving to perfect my art, with the misery and pain I experienced while doing auditions, competitions, or having to tell my teacher (repeatedly) to stop being an autocratic, abusive, bastard. I realized that someone could be a brilliant artist and also be a pedophile, mysogonist, or bully. Artistic talent does not actually excuse those things, and the “artist temperament” is largely and excuse for infantile people to continue to act like spoiled two year olds.

Art is all about pure self-expression and it serves a vital role in our society; it helps us connect to our basic nature and our kinship with each other. But the world of artists (at least the one I was in) is rigged to destroy and devalue the artist’s individuality, personality, and moral compass. These things could not co-exist for me. So I left.

The lesson is, in order to be vital, alive, and to contribute to your society, you must be connected to your own sense of ethics, and your subculture’s ethical framework must at least partially support this. Some rules are good. An entire lack of rules, not so much.

In the business world, I’ve seen a lot of crappy ethics as well. But there’s a big difference. There are basic rules. Businesses are required to meet those wacky ethical minimums we call “laws”, and people may actually have to pay a price if they repeatedly violate them. The system does not always work, and corporate culture, like any sub-culture, is a tricky thing. But policies exist, as do human resources departments, sensitivity training, and ethical codes. People, being people, do not always pay attention, but at least the language, structures, and therefore awareness is there. If you believe in your individual rights, and you believe you have a right to protect them, you do have some recourse if someone behaves inappropriately towards you. Compared to the opera world, Corporate America is a bastion of sanity.

But here is why the larger system works. And this harkens back to my rant on cults and ideologies. Our legal system is messy and sometimes extremely obnoxious. But that’s why it works. We enforce laws, but the the court system is there not only to decide if a law was broken, but to evaluate the spirit of the law and decide if it is just and appropriate in each individual case. So laws change, evolve, are struck down, and created in response to the evolution of our society. Society gets to take a fresh look at a law each time a case is brought to court.

Moral development happens in stages, and I believe that our system supports a higher level of moral development for our society than more rules-based systems do. Following rules does not make you ethical, it makes you obedient. To be ethical you must consistently examine your own internal reaction to events, compare them with your knowledge and experience, and decide if your reactions are consistent with your current level of development. Ethics are evolutionary, and like it or not, so is law. Law evolves and changes because it is constantly challenged. I think this is pretty cool.

The norms in the opera world were not challenged; they developed largely unconsciously and created a lot of victims and not so many adults. The norms in the business world are developing as organizations realize that they are responsible for the behaviors of their employees. Society changes, which drives changing legislation. And the courts are where legislation is tested and applied, or not.

I like to test things. I like to question, and push, and throw rocks at rules and ideologies and beliefs and see what happens. My own even more than those of others. I like to inquire and argue. This gets me thinking about several possible career paths that I would not have considered even a year ago.