Living With Ethics – Part Two
In part one of Living With Ethics I talked about Virtue Ethics, which for me is the foundation to an ethical life. Now I would like to talk about Descriptive Ethics. Descriptive Ethics, as I’ve already mentioned in part one, is the factual study of the ethical standards or principles of a group or tradition.
I come from two cultures; the first is Irish (mostly Irish on my father’s side) and Middle Eastern (on my mother’s side). At first I thought that these cultures could never have much in common, after all one is western and the other is eastern and we know how well these two sides get along. I looked at the pre-Christian and pre-Islamic cultures and I was very surprised by what I found. At the heart of the early Irish society there was a passion for justice, hospitality, honor and courage. The same can be said of the early Arab society. In this essay I will look at the structure of both societies in pagan times and their ethics. I will start with the social structure of both the Arabs and the Irish.
I’m going to start with the structure of Arab society in the Arabian Peninsula, which is where my mother’s family came from. They started out in what is now Najd in Saudi Arabia and then they settled in Kuwait when the Al-Sabah ruling family (which was back then only a part of a tribe) migrated there. Over all, the Arabs in Arabia had no political organization what so ever. They were a group of tribes each led by a tribal leader and they owed allegiance only to him. This leader’s authority was based on his character and personality and his leadership was more moral than political. The Arabs were divided into two tribal groups, the first is sedentary and the second is nomadic. The sedentary tribes were merchants, traders, moneylenders and farmers while the nomadic tribes raised sheep, horses, camels, goats and cows. Both groups had a warrior class that defended the tribe, and both groups were very fond of waging war pitting tribe against tribe or group against group. These wars were waged according to old and gallant ethical codes. These wars gave the warrior class the chance to display their combat skills, horsemanship and to win honor and glory for their tribes. The Arabs were considered to be arrogant, conceited, boastful and vindictive with a love of raiding, feasting, drinking and gambling. 
Now let us talk about the Irish. I won’t go into the finer details of the Irish social structure because this would take up a book of its own but I will talk about the generalities. Each tribe or state in Ireland had an Rí Mór Tuatha (King of the Greater Tribe) then an Rí Tuatha (King of the Tribe) then the Flaiths or Nemedh (nobles or privileged), all these together constitute the Aries (chiefs). Next come the Fénes or bó aires (free farmers or cow chiefs) then the Daer céiles (free tenants) and the Saer céiles (unfree tenants) and this is where the tuatha ends, after that comes the Bothachs (cottiers or outlaws). The warriors of the tribe would ideally come from the Flaiths or Nemedh class. Titles aside, here is what I know and parallels that of the Arabs. There was a total absence of political organization. The tuatha mainly answers to its direct chief. They constantly waged war against each other. And as evidenced from the Irish literature and annals that we have, they were arrogant, boastful, and vindictive and loved to feast, drink and go cattle raiding. Does that sound familiar??  
The Arabs had a set of standard ethics that was common to both nomads and sedentary groups of tribes. The most important of the ethics was hospitality. They used to compete with one another to be the best host. Some would even go hungry just to feed a guest. The second most important was keeping a covenant; keeping a promise made was so important that there is literature showing how people had lost children or homes just to keep a promise. They had a sense of honor and repudiation of injustice; many wars were started over saving face or lifting an injustice thought to be done against someone. They believed in having a firm will and determination and they admired forbearance, perseverance, and taking the middle road unless it had to do with hospitality. These are of course only a fraction of the virtues and the ones that are most famous.
Now let us talk about Celtic virtues. The Celtic values can be inferred from the myths, and the Irish Laws that have come down to us through the Celtic tradition. As with the Arab virtues the virtues I am going to talk about are just a few of what we know. Piety, courage and generosity are among the first to come to mind though they might not be the most important. Underlying these three is the concept of honor because without it the other virtues can be used to bully people. To be honorable is to maintain one’s “face” or reputation before the community and to be “heard of” or thought of in a good way. With honor comes loyalty and it means to be steadfast or consistent in the way you deal with people and situations. One of the most important virtues to the Celts is hospitality (which can also be linked to generosity) and it is something that kings and the poor all are expected to participate in. Truth, honesty and justice are next. The Celts consider that the truth is something that is not subjective as evidenced by many myths most famous of which is Cormac’s cup. Honesty means to be open and friendly in dealing with others. Justice means to be in accordance with the truth and something that everyone must try to attain and maintain in their lifetime. Finally, oath keeping, a person’s word was binding through this life and into future lives.  
At the end of this essay let me say this. Neither society was perfect; though these virtues were practiced in them it doesn’t mean that they were a fairy tale that we need to get back too. They had their problems and their vices and it is up to us to pick what was the best in these societies and adapt it to our modern world and learn from the worst. When I started out I thought these two cultures could never have anything in common and I would have to choose between which cultures I wanted to base my ethical code on. What transpired was that I realized that they had more in common than I thought and in some instances they were identical.
I hope that this small survey has wetted your appetite to learn more and sends you on your own search. The next essay will be my final thoughts and my own ethical code of conduct inspired by ancient virtues and the virtues of both my ancestors.
 Byrne, Francis J. Irish Kings and High-Kings. Four Courts Press, Ireland. 2001
 Patterson, Nerys Thomas. Cattle Lords and Clansmen: The Social Structure of Early Ireland. University of Notre Dame Press, London. 1994.