Why lead an ethical life? And what is an ethical life, anyway?
I am going to try to answer these questions, though my answers will only be partial and provisional. As I sat down to think about how I might approach this question, my mind flooded, and I started to drown a little bit. So, I hope I will not completely sink as I write this — and if I do, please send me a life raft!
The reason I am addressing these questions to myself and answering them in this public way is because it occurred to me that there may be some value in someone with my background (ancient ethics scholar) saying something about how I, personally, understand ethical living. I have obviously devoted an enormous amount of time and resources to thinking about these questions. However, I will shy away from academic discussions of particular ethical traditions, though those debates and that history inform my understanding, as do my various life experiences. For I do not believe one must have this academic background to ask these kinds of questions or to arrive at promising and unique answers. And in fact, my academic pedigree might speak against me, as some studies have shown that academic ethicists are less ethical in practice than non-ethicists!
Before I begin, I want to emphasize that I have no religious or political agenda. Though my extended family are Christian missionaries, I walked away from religion when I was thirteen. I belong to no political party; I see problems with both conservative and liberal ideologies. In any case, it seems to me like the more important question to ask ourselves is not what particular religious or political sect we happen to belong to, but rather, how we ourselves are living, or failing to live, ethical lives. This is a question that cuts across traditions and sects, politics and religion.
This reorientation or refocusing is liberating. Instead of placing one’s entire focus onto something one has limited control over (e.g., national and global politics, religious fundamentalism, blind consumerism, the spiritual crises of our time, etc.), one can greatly improve one’s own thoughts, feelings and actions, the world within oneself. Despite whatever turmoil is going on outside of ourselves, we can create a profoundly peaceful and joyous world within ourselves and with the people in our lives. Indeed, it is our right as human beings to do so. What is more, we can lead lives that express our values and peacefulness, and when we do this, we feel more connected to our fellow humans and to our natural environment.
And truly, this is the greatest human happiness: to feel connection and peace within oneself and with other people. The recipe for happiness is simple, not complex.
So, I think I have said a little about why one might try to lead an ethical life. Seeing the bigger ethical picture in each little action helps one feel connected to the world and to the human race. And caring about the world and other people helps one feel at peace, even if the world is not a particularly peaceful place.
If you do not believe me, give it a try. 🙂 Is there any harm in trying?
Now I want to say just a few things about what an ethical life is (and is not). It is not about performing actions that have definitive positive consequences. The world is too complex for us to know the exact consequences of our actions. What is more, my individual action (e.g., not using plastic because of environmental pollution) might have no discernible positive consequence or even a negative consequence. Who knows?! It is a big world, after all. However, if everyone, under the grip of this consequentialist reasoning and the feeling of futility it inspires, failed to alter their individual actions and continued on their present course, then we humans would sink ourselves in environmental toxins. In order to avoid social and environmental disasters, most of us must try to do the right thing with no guarantee or assurance that there will be any positive outcome whatsoever.
So, why should we be motivated to express our values in individual action? The motivation, I think, needs to come from a deep desire to express our values in the world, no matter what the concrete consequences might be, to recognize that each and every one of our lives is like a beautiful work of art, and though we have limited control over what concrete consequences our individual lives have, we can construct a morally beautiful life of connection, peace and purpose.
Thinking about beauty is so helpful here: anybody who engages in creative endeavors (i.e, all of us!) has an interest in creating something beautiful or intellectually engaging. We can just as easily apply that creative approach to our own lives, in our actions and speech and thoughts and even feelings. And as I have suggested, when we take this ethical orientation we feel more at peace and more connected to humanity and to the world, whether or not our individual actions have discernible consequences. No matter what the condition of the outer world is, those inner feelings of peace and connectedness cannot be taken away, and they are of immeasurable value. They are the stuff of happiness, as I have said.
As a matter of fact, I believe that living in this way does, over time, enable one to live a life of great consequence. Because the more one expresses one’s values in each moment, the more one strengthens one’s character, values and habits of heart and mind. And then, when life throws us a curve ball and we have to make the really big choices that have really big impacts, we choose better, because we have formed ourselves in the right way, through all those seemingly inconsequential, mini-choices.
If we were all engaged in this project, what would the outer world look like? If we were all aware that every moment is an opportunity to express our deepest values, what would the world look like? If we joyously pursued an ethical life — and forgave ourselves and others whenever we/they slipped up — how happy could we all be? Much happier than we are now, I reckon!
I will end with a cautionary note, as it is something I have struggled with and one of the reasons I try not to moralize too much. It is easy to become egotistical about ethical living. The second we begin to form an identity for ourselves as a “moral exemplar” or an “activist”, we lose the feeling of peace and connection that forms the basis of any well lived life. Living an ethical life is not about becoming self-righteous; that only alienates us from the human race and possibly even the natural world. There is so much destruction in the world, so if we form an identity as an ethical or enlightened being, then we pit ourselves against a whole lot of people. This undermines the purpose of living an ethical life; namely, connection and peace.
The ancient Chinese tradition has a solution to the problem of ethical showmanship. Whenever we see someone doing something violent or destructive, we should simply remind ourselves of a time when we acted in a similar way. This will help allay our own tendency to see ourselves as ethically superior. And it fosters compassion, both for the other person and for ourselves. Because nobody, no matter how hard she tries, can lead a perfectly ethical life — no more than anybody can create a flawless piece of art. This is why the ethical life, just like the creative life, is about striving. It is about conscious practice and small improvements, not perfection.
The inner peace and connectedness comes from the adventurous striving, not from the finished product.
What does your life raft look like? 🙂