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:
- Being good involves a number of interrelated skills (“virtues”) that are learnable and that most everyone can get better at with deliberate practice.
- Rules and maxims are poor substitutes for practice and habit when push comes to shove.
- 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.
- That said, the intellectual exercise of elucidating the heuristics that roughly map to your ethical intuitions can be a helpful ethical yoga.
- 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.
- 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 judgement.
- 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 judgemental. It is also wise to be humbly aware of your fallibility.
- If you can learn to catch yourself lying to yourself you will have discovered a life-long and very rewarding hobby. Happy hunting!
- 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.
- 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.)