On the possibility of leading an ethical life

Statue outside the National Archives in the snow

In response to a recent post, somebody asked: “Is it possible to live ethically in our society?”

The question is a surprisingly difficult one. One way to begin picking away at it is to present a common form of the argument that we cannot:

Premise 1: Society, as it exists, is unsustainable (here is an excellent and concise definition of the term)

Premise 2: By participating in society, we perpetuate that unsustainability

Premise 3: Unsustainable behaviour will eventually destroy the planet’s capacity to support humans and other species

Premise 3: It is wrong to destroy the planet’s ability to support future humans

Premise 4: It is wrong to destroy the planet’s ability to support non-human species

Conclusion: It is wrong to participate in society.

There are a number of possible responses to this argument:

1) Questioning the fact of unsustainability

The first is based purely on physical facts and projections about future physical facts. It is what might be called the MalthusLomborg axis, using the names of the most famous pessimist and optimist respectively. If you successfully disprove the claim that present society is unsustainable, you don’t need to worry about the other premises or the conclusion. The next possible approach is to say “Society isn’t monolithic, some bits are sustainable and some are not. As long as I am only supporting the sustainable bits, I am being ethical.” Beyond this, another approach is to say: “Society isn’t sustainable yet, but it will naturally become so in the future.” This is a version of the environmental Kuznets curve and it is an argument that has some possibility of being true.

2) Restricting the scope of who matters

One possibility that you will rarely hear argued is that we have no duty whatsoever to either (a) future generations or (b) people other than ourselves. If we can treat group (a) or both groups in any way we desire, the fact that society is unsustainable doesn’t matter. That said, you will not find many people arguing this position, probably because it offends virtually any general theory of ethics.

Many people reject the idea that it is wrong to harm non-human living things, except where such harm eventually causes harm to people.

3) Stressing the limitations of individuals

Another possible set of rebuttals are based around the scope of individual agency. A person can say: “The whole structure of society is unsustainable. I cannot change that. As a consequence, I am not responsible for the destruction induced by society.” This claim has a strong form – ‘I cannot change the whole world, so I have no duty to improve it at all’ – and a weak form – ‘I have a duty to improve the world, but don’t expect much from me.’ Another way of phrasing this is as a ‘no acceptable alternatives’ argument: “What am I supposed to do? Live naked in the woods, eating grubs and tree bark?”

4) Utilitarian arguments

Two more arguments are based around a kind of ethical calculation. The first says: “It is tolerable to do immoral things in some circumstances, provided the total sum of my actions is beneficial for humanity.” In this case, as long as a person has a net positive sum of morality, they can legitimately engage in limited forms of immorality. A somewhat different formulation is based on an idea of rationed wrongness: “Nobody can be expected to be perfectly good. As such, we each have a kind of ‘allowance’ for unethical behaviour. As long as we are spending within our allowance, we are ok.” The big difference here is that the ‘allowance’ is automatically disbursed as a recognition of human frailty, not earned through good deeds.

5) Competing duties

Yet another set of rebuttals is based on competing moral claims. A person can say: “I have a duty to care for my family, even if doing so involves participating in an unsustainable society.” This is a tricky one. It is also one that strikes close to why the kind of ethics being discussed here are so hard to achieve. In general, the unsustainable things we do provide relatively immediate benefits that are specific to us and the people who we know personally; the costs they impose are distant, diffuse, and largely born by people we will never know.

Tentative conclusions

What can we conclude about this? To begin with, it seems fair to say that most people are unaware of some significant ways in which actions they consider personal (driving a car, eating a sort of food, etc) impact others in a harmful way. It is also fair to say that no individual can possibly anticipate or understand the complete set of all outcomes arising from their behaviours. In addition to this, we must recognize the way in which contemporary economic structures can create huge distances between cause and effect. Just as a London banker’s cocaine-fuelled evening has affects in the coca growing regions of the Andes, much of what we consume as individuals affects other people at enormous distances.

Collectively, these realities imply a certain ‘duty of awareness.’ It is not ethically tenable to live in wilful ignorance about the consequences of our actions. Whether based on one of the forms of rebuttal above or something different, we need to have some kind of justification for our actions that measures up to what we consider their total set of effects to be. Estimating our impact and developing a justification almost certainly does not satisfy all our moral requirements, but it is probably a necessary step in any series of actions intended to do so.

The question of how we evaluate the relative plausibility of every person’s excuse is the really difficult one.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

17 thoughts on “On the possibility of leading an ethical life”

  1. Another possible justification is the: “Fair share” position.

    It can be either meaningful or not:

    1) “I sort all my cans and glass and plastics for recycling. Therefore, I am doing my part for the earth.”


    2) “I am living on a small sustainance farming plot where I survive using organic muscle-powered agriculture and consume no manufactured goods whatsoever. Therefore, I am doing my part for the earth.”

  2. “living on a small sustainance farming plot where I survive using organic muscle-powered agriculture and consum[ing] no manufactured goods whatsoever”

    That’s not sustainable either. Not for 6.6 billion people. There isn’t enough land.

  3. “living on a small sustainance farming plot where I survive using organic muscle-powered agriculture and consume no manufactured goods whatsoever”

    6.6 billion and growing is hardly sustainable, no matter how frugal an existence we impose upon ourselves. Malthusian catastrophes can happen in places where people live as you described, e.g. Rwanda. In the early 90’s, it had a population density approaching that of a city state and an economy consisting almost exclusively of subsistence agriculture. That lead more or less directly to most of the violence of the genocide: neighbors killing each other over tiny plots of land, even in ethnically homogeneous communities.

    I think the main problem is that from a historical perspective, growth has been kept sustainable by famine, disease and violence. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could agree educating and emancipating women, and using the resources of rich nations to provide good public health services is a preferable alternative to mass slaughter?

  4. It is not plausible that an immoral action could be the right action. What it means for an action to be moral is for it to be appropriate and right.

    Morality and ethics are minimally divided: morality refers to the rights of individuals to make decisions about what the right action in their own life is, and ethics is a system of rules which can be imposed on others. It is always possible that the ethical action is immoral, and that is why we allow individuals to make their own decisions – their personal perspective on what is right can not be understood exhaustively from without. Minimally, this is because people are free and have a right to actualize their freedom; they have an alienable right not to be forced into the ethically right action against their will.

    The question “is it possible to live ethically in our society” will be to some extent decided de facto by what “live ethically” means in the sentence. Premises 3 and 4 state values and deduce from them ethical wrongs. However, ethics is not the sphere of right and wrong but the sphere of duty. That something is right or wrong is known in morality, not in ethics. Ethics can impose duties on you, and then those duties can be evaluated morally. There can be a moral or immoral ethics, but that judgement is made from outside, from the moral position, which is why an individual can choose whether or not to abide by the duties imposed upon him.

    It is not at all apparent that there is a duty to future generations that is above our duty to our family and to society.

    So, I do not think it is unethical to live in society. It might, however, be dramatically immoral to perpetuate the kind of society you live in. Mayhaps the Kantian principle of universalizability is an appropriate kind of moral thinking. Instead of “if I steal this bank note, and the maxim I’m acting on was universalized, we wouldn’t have banks”, remove the time condition and say things like, “If I (do some action that perpetuates unsustainable society), and that maxim was universalized, would society cease to exist after some time”.

    The key is to produce a way of thinking ethics which gives you the concrete right action, not which makes you refrain from all action (i.e. living in society) as de facto wrong.

  5. I am glad you your return to Vancouver has brought your interest to more pressing and useful things than the discussion “what is an ethical life?”.

    (That remark sounds facetious, but it isn’t). There are more important things in life than our obligations to people we will never meet.

  6. Tristan,

    The matters concerning me in Vancouver are certainly more pressing than general ethical musings. Clearly, it is also important to spend time with friends and family when you get the chance.

    That said, a life devoid of any such reflection is unlikely to do much good.

  7. R.K.

    You are right to say that people often think that trivial contributions represent a ‘fair share.’

    6.6 billion and growing is hardly sustainable, no matter how frugal an existence we impose upon ourselves.

    This may well be true. Hopefully, we will see the global population peak sometime this century and decline quite a distance subsequently.

    That said, a lot of governments have a foolish notion that maintaining their population level is necessary or desirable.

    It is not at all apparent that there is a duty to future generations that is above our duty to our family and to society.

    Why can we legitimately discriminate in favour of our relations? How badly can we treat others for the benefit of the people we know? Does that include only exploitation of future generations, or can we legitimately exploit people in other countries today? We we exploit different social classes within our own society?

    While it is fair to recognize that people will privilege other people who they know, I don’t see why we should accept that as ethically legitimate.

    So, I do not think it is unethical to live in society. It might, however, be dramatically immoral to perpetuate the kind of society you live in.

    This is the heart of the whole matter. How can we live in society while not perpetuating it? What defines our duty to effect change? What kind of change can we be personally expected to produce? Do the answers to these questions depend primarily on the kind of arguments in the section about utilitarianism above?

  8. Ann, because I love you I’m going to be honest with you. I keep positive through selective caring. It’s the way we all keep positive. How can we eat breakfast every day, given what’s happening in Darfur? Through deciding where we can make a difference, and understanding that there are other areas that we can know about, but not act upon, whether through choice or circumstance.

  9. Let us not waste our time in idle discourse! Let us do something while we have the chance! It is not every day that we are needed. Not indeed that we personally are needed. Others would meet the case equally well, if not better. To all mankind they were addressed, those cries for help still ringing in our ears! But at this place, at this moment of time, all mankind is us, whether we like it or not. Let us make the most of it, before it is too late! Let us represent worthily for once the foul brood to which a cruel fate consigned us!

  10. What Makes Us Happy?

    Is there a formula—some mix of love, work, and psychological adaptation—for a good life? For 72 years, researchers at Harvard have been examining this question, following 268 men who entered college in the late 1930s through war, career, marriage and divorce, parenthood and grandparenthood, and old age. Here, for the first time, a journalist gains access to the archive of one of the most comprehensive longitudinal studies in history. Its contents, as much literature as science, offer profound insight into the human condition—and into the brilliant, complex mind of the study’s longtime director, George Vaillant.

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