The Modern Survival Guide #52
This is the Modern Survival Guide, a guidebook I’m writing for things I think people need to know about living in the modern world. The views expressed here are mine, and mine alone, and if you can believe it I really do try my best to translate these views into real-world actions. Which is relevant, because in this article I want to talk about ethics and how we can view them in a practical light.
See, I figure that most people, when they think of the subject of morality, tend to view it as a discipline of either ivory-tower intellectuals or priests. Which is really weird, since on a daily basis most of us make dozens, maybe even hundreds of moral choices. But understanding them, and figuring out what counts as a moral choice… well, that’s tricky.
The Importance of Practical Ethics
Let’s talk about definitions real quick. For the purposes of this article, when I say “morals” I’m referring to a person’s personal beliefs on right and wrong. When I say “ethics” I’m referring to the codes of conduct that allow them to put those beliefs into practice. And therefore “practical ethics” is how we practice our codes of conduct in daily life.
It’s important to note that your ethics tend to define your life. It’s the difference between spending your money on a movie or giving $20 to charity. It’s the difference between stopping to assist a motorist with a disabled car or driving on. It’s the difference between returning a lost wallet or taking the cash. In short, it’s the difference between an exploitative lifestyle and a supportive lifestyle.¹ These have major consequences on not just your available resources, but also your quality of life in your community and relationships.
It’s also worth noting that other people’s grasp of ethics tends to define your life. It’s the difference between starving or receiving $20 worth of food aid. It’s the difference between being stuck in the rain with a busted radiator or getting a lift to the gas station. It’s the difference between getting your wallet back or losing your hard-earned money. This also has major consequences on your life, obviously.
So with that in mind, I think it’s a survival advantage for everyone if most people have a good grasp of practical ethics, for four big reasons:
- People tend to respect other people who have strong ethics. Respect is a resource, and it also feels good.
- Establishing consistency in ethical actions helps establish consistency in life experiences, and moves us toward a good “normal” quality of life.
- Recognizing and practicing ethical actions makes it more likely that you will engage in the correct ethical actions for your personal morals.²
- Being a good person is good. Pay it forward, etc.
Defining Practical Ethics
So if we accept that ethics are important, this means that ethical actions are really important, and here’s where we actually get into the “practical” part of “practical ethics.”
So — what actually is an ethical action? If you ask three different people you’ll probably get four different answers. As for me, I would suggest you draw inspiration from a source we don’t normally associate with ethics: the law. See, practical ethics is all about real-world application of very abstract concepts… and the legal eagles among us have had a few centuries of practice in that. Specifically, lawyers are often concerned with three big-ticket items: intent, action, and consequence.³ We’ll use these to assemble a practical guide to ethical actions.
- Intent — what you meant to do: Intent is all about your goal. Let’s go back to the pic at the top of the article. Let’s say your intent was to surprise your friend with a practical joke: you’re going to modify a gun to fire a harmless shower of candy for their birthday. You paint it pink for funsies. You don’t intend anyone harm; you intend it to be a fun and entertaining surprise.
- Action — what you do: Action is all about what you personally do. To continue the example, you load up your pink gun on your friend’s birthday, take it to the party, and pull the trigger while pointing it in your friend’s general direction. Unfortunately you loaded the wrong thing by accident; you had a live shell with a real bullet in the gun (which is very much not candy), and now that bullet is moving downrange.
- Consequence— what happens as a result of your action: Results are all about what actually happens, not just from your own action, but from immediate follow-on effects. To finish up our birthday surprise, which is at this point going badly wrong, the bullet misses your friend and all the other party guests but puts a nice hole in his wall and totally shreds a needlepoint “Home Sweet Home” sign his grandma had given him.⁴ Sufficed to say, he’s a little pissed.
So — how do we score the morality of our little birthday party gone wrong? The Russian judge gives it a 4 out of 10 on initial goodness of intent, a 1 on action⁵, and an 8.5 on result, because that needlepoint sign was awfully ugly. Dude did his friend a favor there, and gets style points for execution.
No, I don’t actually mean to say that you should or could assign a point value to each of your actions. I’m saying that if you want to practice your ethical code in your life, you need to be as damn sure as you can be that all three elements line up with it. You don’t get to count yourself as righteous if you just think about giving to charity; nor yet if you have no intention of giving to charity but trip and fall and accidentally drop some cash in the bucket on your way out of the market. And you don’t get to take credit if, unbeknownst to you, a company you bought from gives to charity with money they got from you.
Now, I realize this is a contentious opinion.
For example, a large number of people would say that only the consequences of your actions matter, because that’s what actually happens in the world and there’s no way to tell what a person’s intentions actually are. Those people are wrong. Intention has to play a role, because otherwise proper ethical action isn’t a repeatable phenomenon, and there are perfectly acceptable ways of determining the intentions of others (again, the legal eagles have been doing this for a long time). Besides which, this isn’t always about other people, this is also about your intentions. You presumably know why you are doing things. Most of the time, anyway.
Similarly, an equally large number of people would say that intention is most important, because we can’t fully control consequences. Those people are also wrong. The road to Hell is paved with good intentions. If you can’t see far enough ahead to predict the immediate consequences of an action, don’t do it. Human history is littered with examples of “good idea at the time” schemes that backfired in ridiculously horrible ways.⁶
Finally, an enormous number of people would say that the action itself is the most important part of the equation because, good grief, sometimes people do some horrible shit in the name of righteousness. The road to Hell may be paved with good intentions, but its line markers are surely necessary evils. These folks are wrong because placing too much focus on the action essentially just makes us all agents of chaos. If we have no intentions, and pay no attention to consequences, we’re just acting randomly.
So yeah, most people mix and match a bit, but I personally believe that all three elements of an action must receive equal focus. Practical ethics is the view and practice that each of these components matter, and each must be considered in the evaluation, planning, and execution of moral choices.
Using Practical Ethics
This boils down to four main points:
- Have a moral code: It’s hard to make deliberate moral choices if you don’t have any standards.
- Form an intention: Have a clear goal in mind when contemplating serious actions.
- Act on your intention: Say what you mean, mean what you say, and act according to your chosen path.
- Adjust future actions based on consequences: If something doesn’t work, stop doing it.
This isn’t about scoring your morality, it really isn’t. It’s about forming a pattern of behavior and training yourself to think before acting, act deliberately, and pay attention to the consequences of your actions. And this requires a fifth point:
5. Be prepared to be wrong!
We can’t be right all the time, and it isn’t helpful to pretend that you’re right all the time because, well, that almost immediately defeats the purpose. Also part of living a good life is not being a dick, which is pretty much unavoidable if you can’t accept that you’re wrong from time to time, so… yeah.
You also can (and I think should) use practical ethics when judging the actions of others. And it’s important to acknowledge here that, while I’ve laid this out as a very simple process, it absolutely is not in real life. Real life has shades of gray. Sometimes intentions really might matter more than consequences in the moral calculus. Sometimes the action is predominant in everyone’s mind. It’s very much a situational problem and I do not believe it has a standardized solution. You’re going to have to muddle through.
Finally, let’s bring this full circle back to why it’s important for you. You’re going to need to make moral choices in life, and they are going to affect you. Period. It’s not a question of if, it’s a question of when you will make these kinds of choices. It is to your benefit to make the correct choices. I can’t tell you what those will be. But I can give you a tool to make them more explicit, more transparent, and more understandable.
Practical ethics isn’t about making life perfect, or making choices flawless; it’s about making sure that we are not ignoring things that make life worse, or making choices which are inherently flawed. It’s about establishing patterns of behavior that hopefully make our lives better. That’s all. That’s a lot.
¹What we consider morally “good” choices usually feature an opportunity cost that becomes an investment in particular people or causes, usually for the purpose of making things better as a whole. That means that making a “good” choice usually involves some sacrifice, but with the expectation that this will translate to a better world down the line. You want a neighborhood where people aren’t afraid to lock their doors? Be prepared to spend a lot of time in social activism, economic advocacy, and getting to know your neighbors.
²AKA, you won’t be so much of a hypocritical ass.
³Well, four if you count legal fees.
⁴Look, I’m not going to totally wreck my imaginary straw man’s birthday by shooting him. What do you take me for, some kind of monster?
⁵Because, and say it with me — never point a gun at anything you don’t intend to kill.
⁶This isn’t an argument in favor of being paralyzed in deliberation. There is a natural, rational limit beyond which you cannot see the consequences of most actions, and it is: two steps out. Think that far ahead, and you’ve done your bit. You’re welcome.