Your ethical imperative to be excellent

Forget about your craft. You've got to think bigger.

Your ethical imperative to be excellent
Photo by frank mckenna / Unsplash

In another life, Your Host spent many years thinking deeply about virtue ethics

You'll have to be a member to read this full post. Click here to join for free.

Modern ethics are so dry and sterile that hardly anybody pays attention to what ethicists say.

Sure, you'll see the occasional smart boy trot out that thought experiment about the trolley running over a fat guy... and then the nerds get to bickering over whether it's better to kill one guy or let five die.

They never stop to ask whether you've got that kind of godly control over these manufactured ethical dilemmas, especially in high-stress situations with lots of moving parts.

True story, the "trolley problem" was never meant as a problem in need of a solution.

Philippa Foot, who first cooked it up in one of her papers back in the 1950s, used it as an example of how our moral judgments can vary according to how we relate to different kinds of moral dilemma.

You can easily imagine a different case involving the exact same outcomes... one person killed to save five others... where the moral judgments are entirely reversed.

There's a difference between an outcome that we deliberately create and an outcome that is foreseeable but unintended.

There's a difference between allowing to happen and directly causing.

Modern ethics is mostly locked into this binary between either doing math to figure out the "best outcome" or arguing about rights and obligations.

It's all these grand ideas and zany schemes to remake the world. Many of the people who talk like this are big on "humanity" but despise the human beings standing right in front of them.

If you ever hear the phrase "We have a moral obligation to..." you can safely stop listening.

Only a small but vocal minority of ethicists will even ask about who.

Who's the person doing these things?

Who's the person we're trying to help with these well-meaning schemes?

Modern ethics doesn't care much about these questions. They just want to get on with the spreadsheet calculations.

If only it were that easy. Moral obligations and "good outcomes" [sic] depend on the point of view of the person you're talking to.

Moral welfare is experienced by actual people, not an accountant's quarterly P&L sheet.

Used to be that everybody talked about ethics by talking about real-life people.

Plato and Aristotle were both highly interested in individual character.

Same in the East. Confucian ethics begins in personal character.

The Master said: “Do not worry if you are without a position; worry lest you do not deserve a position. Do not worry if you are not famous; worry lest you do not deserve to be famous.”
– Analects, chapter 4

Ethics isn't about outcomes or acting on the right principles.

It's about who you are in thought, desire, and deed.

Valuable advice for anyone who wants to put realistic characters in realistic moral dilemmas.

But it goes deeper than that.

When you think about ethics like this...

Even your craft and entrepreneurial skills are ethical

You know why I'm going on about ethics in an article about mission and craft?