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11 November 2010

Two Ethical Precepts

I stole this from an NPR interview with the NYTimes house ethicist (but can't track down a link for it). These are two ethical precepts by which I'm trying to live these days:

  1. Do to others as you would have them do to you.

  2. If the consequences of everyone in the world behaving in a given manner would be deleterious, do not behave in that manner.

The first of the two is of course the Golden Rule. It's tough to argue against that one, but the second is unique. I'm sure there is a title for it, and if anyone know what that is please share it with me because I can't find it. Regardless, it adds a social aspect to the all-too-often individual nature of our ethical considerations. The best example I can come up with is buying an automobile. Does it directly affect me when another person buys an SUV? No, so it passes precept one, but what if everyone in the world bought an SUV? That clearly would not be sustainable given the cost and geopolitical entanglements of petroleum (not to mention the environmental impact); ergo, I should not buy an SUV. Too often we look at the world as a collection of rational actors with perfect agency. The reality is that our lives are all interconnected in nonobvious ways that lead to irrationality and structural constraint. By adding precept two to our moral maps, we might better be able to hedge some of our destructive tendencies.

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