What is ethics?

Ethics is more important now than ever. The US has a bad and erratic President, who is touchy and vindictive, and who does not understand the inherited achievements he is supposed to be protecting. The global balance of power is changing as increasingly powerful countries threaten the post-WWII order. And closer to home – at least in my corner of capitalism – people are tired, overloaded, and struggling to find meaning, in what they do day-to-day, and in the bigger picture: What is our work contributing towards? What are the ideals of the country we live in (and where have they gone)?

‘Ethics’ is the name for a body of knowledge that can help us solve these problems: the problem of defining what is a good life, and what is a ‘good person’; the problem of clarifying what is valuable and therefore what we should work towards, individually and collectively; and overall, the problem of ‘meaning’ – what it would feel like to have more ‘meaning’ in our lives, and how we can go about changing our lives and changing the system we live under – capitalism – to make it more meaningful and inspiring.

Ethics does not have a clear boundary. It is a collection of all the answers given by deep thinkers throughout history and across geographies on the topic of what is good, valuable and meaningful. One thing in common across all ethical thinking, however, is that it’s not just interested in thought but in application. It doesn’t just want to think about what is truly good and valuable. It wants to put it into action in our lives at a personal and political level. If we think of philosophy overall as the search for wisdom, ethics is the branch of philosophy that seeks to make wisdom powerful – in our lives and in the broader world. Ethics wants us to think not just about our own personal lives, and how we imagine our goals and how we relate to others, but also about institutions and politics, and how we might collectively embed ideals on a large scale.

What do we mean when we say ‘good’? On one level it’s just an innocuous word, that could be replaced by synonyms like ‘great’, or ‘awesome’. Or we could just talk about specific good things, like a good relationship (i.e., we could have a substantive, interesting conversation about the ingredients that make a relationship flourish, without even having to use the word ‘good’). The point of the word ‘good’, other than the normal ways we use it in daily life, is to carry one valuable idea: the idea that all true values are linked, and go together. This is expressed by the phrase ‘the good’. The idea of the unity of all values is not a proven one, though, it is a suggestion. It is a suggestion, from Plato, that if we keep looking, further and further, into ideas like ‘kindness’, ‘generosity’, ‘courage’, ‘love’ we will start to see connections between them. If we push far enough, goes Plato’s suggestion, we will see that all our hazy initial concepts were in fact getting at fundamentally the same thing, just expressed in different contexts. Whether it turns out to be true or not, this is a hope that can guide us, as we seek to clarify what is good, and bring what is good to life.

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