Ten Things I Think Are Probably True Concerning Ethics

A friend of mine shared a version of Bertrand Russell’s ten commandments on a social networking site. Inspired by that, and thinking that it could make for a useful exercise, I thought I’d try to come up with ten of my own. Instead, I came up with…

Ten things I think are probably true concerning ethics:

  1. Being good involves a number of interrelated skills (“virtues”) that are learnable and that most everyone can get better at with deliberate practice.
  2. Rules and maxims are poor substitutes for practice and habit when push comes to shove.
  3. Efforts to reduce ethics to one or a small handful of rules are perennially tempting and always wrong. Avoid the temptation to make ethics simple.
  4. That said, the intellectual exercise of elucidating the heuristics that roughly map to your ethical intuitions can be a helpful ethical yoga.
  5. Many people do not value their characters nearly enough. You’d be wise not to make that mistake. Aside from being a good idea in its own right, when you value your character you also find being virtuous inherently pleasant and attractive.
  6. You ought to beware when you step into a role (particularly a role in a hierarchy) that you believe permits or requires you to operate under a different ethical standard than normal or to suspend your judgment.
  7. It is okay to tell people when they do things that you think are dishonorable. It is okay to be intolerant of intolerable things. It is a good idea to be judgmental. It is also wise to be humbly aware of your fallibility.
  8. If you can learn to catch yourself lying to yourself you will have discovered a life-long and very rewarding hobby. Happy hunting!
  9. You are not a by-stander. You are involved. Doing nothing or sticking with the status quo is just as much of a moral choice as any other and you are just as responsible for having made it.
  10. You yourself have to be the one to care about it, value it, put it right, or make it matter — the universe isn’t going to do any of that for you and there never has been a God.

These are largely stolen from other people who said things that struck me as being true to my experience of the problem of figuring out how best to do this living thing. (For instance, Aristotle gets credit for #s 1, 2, and 5; Kwame Anthony Appiah, I think, convinced me of #3; Adam Smith and later experimental ethicists brought me around to #4; Hannah Arendt can have credit for #6, though she’s not alone, and some of #7 and #5 as well; the existentialists won me over to #s 9 & 10. I’ll claim #8 as my sole original contribution, though I’d be surprised if a bunch of people I haven’t come across yet didn’t really beat me to it.)

Some bits and pieces from here and there:

  • Here’s some more good stuff about the guerrilla electricians in the Greek Δεν Πληρώνω (“Won’t Pay”) movement who reconnect the power to people who have had their electricity cut off for failure to pay the new taxes. The article claims that the movement has successfully, and quite illegally, relit a thousand Greek homes in this way.
  • A Huffington Post columnist covers Americans who are renouncing their citizenships to get out from under the IRS.
  • Francisco José Sarrión Torres reports on the activities of the Tax Resistance Group of Ciudad Real [Spain]: “This year we wrapped up the war tax resistance campaign with no refunds redirected to two-thirds of the tax resisters in Ciudad Real. It has been reclaimed as though it were an error, but we have already stated publicly and in writing that it was not, but was an exercise of conscientious objection in the face of the misuse of our taxes by the government. We have redirected €870 to organizations like Ecologists in Action of Ciudad Real, the 0.7% Project of the Rural Christian Movement, the Anselmo Lorenzo Foundation, or Doctors Without Borders, from believing that these are some that actually contribute to progressing toward a peaceful world.”
  • Carlos Lopez has an article on tax resistance up at the Euribor blog. Some excerpts, translated from Spanish:

    …there are reasons to protest, most of us understand that the national books have been cooked and since we are shackled with deep debt, the most workable, quick, and “EU-recommended” solution is budget cuts, to be prioritized in terms of their expendability — and it is here that most of us feel betrayed, by seeing how expendable the citizens are and how comparatively vital are the political class, who have barely changed their privileges.

    Lopez has decided to become a “social rat” — reducing his consumption as much as possible so as to avoid paying the value-added tax:

    …I declare a consumer strike, and I will get the most out of every cent I earn; I subscribe to lonchafinismo (responsible consumption). I’ll stretch out the time on my monthly contact lenses, I’ll cut my hair less, I’ll give up on going to the movies and watch films at home, I’ll stretch expiration dates, will drive more economically. Certainly the shops are not to blame, and I’m sorry for them, but if the government comes to realize that it [the VAT increase] is a useless measure, perhaps they will rethink it.

    He also recommends a few other methods of tax resistance. There were over a hundred comments on the article last I looked, many of them off-topic in the classic internet fashion, but giving some clue as to the reach of the article.