Against an Ethical Lifestyle

This short essay first appeared on the Culture Wars webpage, and is available here.  The article looks at the idea of ever-progressing ethics, and how ‘ethical living’ challenges our ideas about right and wrong.


Some friends of mine have committed themselves to an ‘ethical lifestyle’.  Fantastic, I thought, how great it would be if everybody did that. It would only take the world’s worst dictators to join the bandwagon and we’d soon see massive improvements. But then I began to wonder. Which dictators would admit to not ‘doing the right thing’ already?  Some go to great lengths to convince people they are, setting up national broadcasting services for the purpose; other more deluded ones might genuinely believe their lives are ethical, that they do what’s best given the circumstances.

It’s difficult to contest the idea of an ‘ethical life’: how can you stand up for being unethical? – it’s like trying to defend lying and hoping people believe what you say. When a person claims to be ethical, in the same way as with self-ascriptions of holiness, it generally ends debates rather than facilitates them. That’s why historically, authoritative claims to being ‘ethical’ were often frowned upon by Enlightenment-minded people. When the aim is Truth through respectful discussion and debate, we can’t begin by agreeing one protagonist already knows the answer.

I find my friends’ ethical lifestyle admirable: they’re going green, offsetting their carbon footprints, recycling their waste and looking at ways to generate their own electricity and feed it back into the grid. It’s an expensive and time-consuming hobby, but seems worthy and slightly exciting.  Listening to them talk about it, it’s as if they’ve discovered the secret to changing the world, and it involves copying Richard Briars and Felicity Kendall from the 1970s sitcom The Good Life.

‘Ethical Man’ was the dubious term adopted by Justin Rowlatt on BBC 2’s flagship current affairs programme, Newsnight.  He committed himself to living in an environmentally friendly way for a whole year, examining every aspect of his family’s life and making changes whenever he could afford them (the BBC didn’t want to subsidise the project).  Food miles, the washing, the car, family holidays – every activity was judged by its carbon dioxide output.

The jarringly annoying part of all this is the conflation of ‘being ethical’ with ‘reducing CO2 emissions’. There’s nothing wrong with environmentalism, but let’s not confuse it with ethics. Indeed, even though contemporary manifestations of the ‘ethical lifestyle’ claim to involve thinking of future generations, they don’t seem to say much about being ‘ethical’ to help starving people in this one. The approach measures an individual’s ethical actions in purely self-centred terms; surely ethics is a social issue? Ethical living concerns physical impact; isn’t ethics more metaphysical than that?  Looked at this way, the idea of an ‘ethical lifestyle’ is almost as self-centred and materialistic as the way of life it seems to be ostentatiously rejecting.  And many who adopt an ‘ethical lifestyle’ and are smug about it are certainly being self-centred!

These ‘ethical lifestyles’ are an anomaly that jars with a growing consensus in the rest of society that finding right and wrong is a ‘work in progress’, ideas we can approach but never entirely survey. Our odyssey to be ethical is a journey where we know the direction but not the destination. Through ever-progressing ethics we ‘learned’ slavery was wrong a couple of centuries ago; racism and sexism turned out to be bad sometime during the 20th century; and homophobia became unethical a decade or so later. In another half century we’ll all become vegetarians.

Richard Dawkins, the contemporary champion of atheism, advocates this view as an alternative to god-rooted ethics. It’s a neat rebuke to Nietzsche, who doom-mongered that, ‘if God is dead, then everything is permitted’. The theory of ever-progressing ethics gives us all hope, and like other evolutionary theories, it fits the facts rather neatly.

It can be wonderfully open-minded too, allowing many different strands to claim they are the New Way Forward. Feminists, environmentalists, free-marketeers, and socialists have all done this, as have those who argue against them.  Some mischievous advertising types have even pretended their product – washing powder, a flash car or cosmetics – encapsulates the next stage in our moral evolution.  The idea of ever-progressing ethics leaves open the debate about what is right and wrong, perhaps even encouraging it, even if some of the bids are a little wayward.

But ever-progressing ethics is misleading because it confuses three things, and when confused we make our fashions overbearing, our leaders overly self-righteous.  The three things are our ever-increasing knowledge about how societies and the world works, the ‘signalling’ function that comes from declaring something ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, and the deeper notion of being ethical.

The first of these, our understanding of the world and society, evolves rapidly.  Societies change every generation; politics, the media and conversational topics change every day.  Our social thoughts focus on what’s new, what’s different, seeking out new events and trying to identify new trends.  Science is an industry of progressive knowledge accumulation, and social scientists do this with social patterns.  As this ever-increasing knowledge feeds into ethics, it makes for more informed choices and decisions that get better every time.

The second element within ever-progressing ethics is the signalling function, which is the stuff of propaganda and politics: ethics used to proselytise, and people only need to proselytise when they want to persuade others.  It can be used to describe oneself to fit current trends or attitudes – a party leader making a statement by riding a bike or talking fondly of their moral compass.  Or it can be used to address the problem of the day: ‘Dig for Victory’, ‘Think globally, act locally’, or ‘Education, education, education’.  These provide emphasis, and play to our bounded rationality (our ability to think about only a few things properly at once), so don’t expect these loudhailer ethics to sound at all coherent.  Coupled with our ever-increasing knowledge, it means the most gossiped about contemporary notion of what’s ethical is likely to focus on how to solve newly recognised problems.  That’s why politicians focus so often on the zeitgeist when they implore us to do something.  And hence the current obsession with polar ice caps, carbon offsetting and Felicity Kendal.

But the third element of ever-progressing ethics, the ground rock of it all, is something far deeper and more constant.  Adam Smith and David Hume identified sympathy as the basis for moral decision-making more than two centuries ago, concurring with older texts that respecting fellow men (later expanded to the whole species) is what it’s all about. There are some common notions of right and wrong that glare out from Hollywood movies: hard work should pay off; cheats shouldn’t prosper; nice guys should come through and so on.  Some of these may be culturally specific: the long strand of self-sacrificial heroes in English literature may have a biblical basis. But, dig deeper still, and it is still possible to discover a basic and largely unchanged notion of right and wrong.

Whether you dig for the ground rock of ethics through sympathy or divine for it through ethical grammar, it’s soon possible to survey a reasonably clear idea of right and wrong, one that everyone who uses terms like ‘should’ and ‘ought’ in a normal way is obliged to accept.  We can find out where we’re going.  Ever-progressing ethics isn’t the end of it: we can blow the clouds from the peak to view our final destination.

Now my friends with their ‘ethical lifestyle’ certainly have part of the answer.  (Better than the dictators, admittedly – they’re part of the problem.)  But however much we all recycle, cut down on flights and fit solar panels, we’re only going to do some of the things we ought to do.  Environmentalism is a ‘more ethical lifestyle’, but it’s not the end of ethics, not at all.

It’s excellent that my friends are going green, and some of their home-grown organic vegetables taste wonderful. Labelling their way of life ‘ethical’ may even encourage others to copy them, doing much good to the planet.  But let’s acknowledge that proper moral awareness should extend way beyond the environment; exhorting people to adopt this ‘ethical lifestyle’ is just potty training for humanity.