Ethics fascinate me.
I’ve tried to write about them any number of times, and have failed utterly each and every time. It always gets too messy, very quickly, and I end up walking away from the conversation. Today, however, I’ve been given a framework to speak about ethics, and things have fallen into place, so I’m going to pop this one out while the words are around me.
So what are ethics? Many say that they are a way of telling good from bad, right from wrong. And that’s where I get stuck. Because “good”, “bad”, “right” and “wrong” are four words I do my utmost to avoid. They are nominalizations: abstract nouns that will be fully understood as soon as the proverbial jello is successfully nailed to the proverbial wall. They are utterly useless when it comes to rational analysis.
Anyone who has spent much time with me, and coLeads in particular, god bless their patience, knows that I incessantly correct terminology. Especially when people ask:
- Is it good?
- Is it bad?
- Is it right?
- Is it wrong?
I postulate a different line of questioning:
- Is it helpful?
- Is it harmful?
- Is it useful?
- Does it offer benefit?
We can assess, measure, debate, whether something is harmful or helpful – we can bring in figures and facts, testimonials and assessments. But “good”? “Bad”? “Right”? “Wrong”? Slippery, messy words that are usually of benefit to no one.
My 15 year old daughter tells me that many of her friends are using YOLO (you only live once) as an excuse for doing all sorts of things that I wouldn’t deem ethical. They use the “only live once” argument as a reason to avoid deciding whether something is “good” or “bad”, “right” or “wrong”. She, god bless her (I use that phrase a lot apparently), sees it from the other side of the tracks – you only live once, so do things that matter, that are beneficial, and that make a difference in the world. Follow in the lines of Whitman, she says, and “sound your barbaric YAWP over the roofs of the world.”
Living ethically, IMHO, has nothing to do with good and bad, right and wrong. Living ethically is about choosing consciously to act in ways that are helpful, that are useful, that offer benefit and that increase the health of a complex living system.
I’m not sure if that’s a “good” definition of ethics by some subjective analysis. But that very subjective analysis offers no benefit. What matters is that I find it a useful definition, one that offers a framework through which actions can be measured and evaluated.
After all, ethics is about more than just good talk.