Choosing an Ethical Life

Nick Govas asked me: “Adam, do you find yourself raging at the fact that everyday people don’t seem to share ur interest in ethical conduct? how does it feel knowing that your wise and moral actions as an individual are eclipsed by the masses, as well as by those with much more power and influence?”

I responded:
Most people have some sort of ethical theory by which they make their decisions about to do and not to do. They might not be able to formulate it abstractly, but if you bring up an action, like genocide, and ask them whether we should or should not engage in it, they are likely to come up with some answer.

They might say we should not perpetrate genocide because the consequences are catastrophic, causing suffering, death, etc. They might say that genocide goes against our human rights. They might say that engaging in genocide makes us worse people. These are rudimentary answers, but they correspond to the three main categories of ethical theories: consequentialist (consequences are what matter), deontological (rights and duties are what matter), and virtue ethics (character qualities are what matter.

So, I am not so cynical as to believe that most people have no sense of ethics or ethical conduct whatsoever. People do have some basic ethics, but these tend to be undeveloped, unsystematic, uncritical, or unquestioned. Each of these deficiencies can be improved through education and thought. Many people might choose not to improve them, but it is my goal as a teacher of ethics and as a human being to offer ways of doing so should they choose to.

But your question is a good one. My answer is that even if all the world were unethical and unconcerned with ethics, this should not affect my decision to value ethics, compassion, and wisdom. I see their benefits, I see the harms of living without them, I see their potential for guiding our action, and the rewards (personal and societal) of living in accordance with them. And that is enough to motivate me to act in ways that support, promote, and perpetuate them, at least in myself. Experience suggests that people learn more from actions than from words. So I can do my best, by speaking about these things and by living them, to set an example of a way of living one’s life. Other people may choose to take the example seriously or not. Over that, I have no control. I can only do my best and watch what happens. I accept this, which gives me some serenity.

However, the state of the world today, especially the global environmental situation, does get me down sometimes. I don’t feel so much rage as sadness for how blind and uncaring humanity tends to be.  However, as Gandhi said, we must be the change we wish to see in the world.  Through my life, my words, and my teaching, I try to do my best to be that change.

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