I’m in the process of reading Ethics for the Real World: Creating a Personal Code to Guide Decisions in Work and Life, by Ronald A. Howard, Clinton D. Korver, and Bill Birchard.
Talking about things like “ethics” can seem very dull. But in the right hands, it’s one of the most fascinating subjects going. It’s one of those topics where you can end up having very fascinating conversations that reveal, at a deep level, how a person sees the world.
There are a couple of very valuable distinctions that the authors make, which can help inform our ethical decision making.
Distinguishing between ethical, prudential, and legal dimensions
It’s very easy to confound these three dimensions when choosing a course of action, but they are very different. A decision may or be legal, for example, but that doesn’t mean it is ethical and/or prudential.
The legal dimension is probably the straightforward. It’s the interplay between the ethical and prudential dimensions that I find the most interesting. The question of whether something is prudent or not is different to the question of whether it is right or wrong (in the ethical sense).
I’ve found that applying this lens, many of the decisions I make have a prudential dimension but not an ethical one. This has cleared some of my thinking and the emotions associated with some of my decisions in important ways.
Positive and negative ethics
In terms of creating a “personal code”, the book focuses on negative ethics. This means that it focuses on things you can decide what not to do, rather than those that you should do.
If you think too deeply about positive ethics, it’s easy to think that you’re living a deeply unethical life. For example, you could fall into a loop of thinking you could and should be doing more to help underprivileged children and nations, and that anything you do for your personal comfort or pleasure, when you could be doing more, is by extension unethical.
Negative ethics are a lot more simple and abide by on a consistent basis. If your code says you won’t lie or steal, then it’s much clearer what it means to follow this code.
Having, and adhering to, a strict code in relation to negative ethics, doesn’t create the exhaustion that comes from focusing on positive ethics, and means there is less room for a “slippery slope” where you make one exception, and you subsequently allow for other exceptions because you’ve already made others. Positive ethics are also more likely to be ambiguous and difficult to define. You could characterise them as more “aspirational”.
This isn’t to detract from positive ethics and doing good deeds. But it’s easier to distinguish the two, and be prepared to give ourselves a break sometimes in relation to positive ethics.