Ethics is a wide topic that touches every facet of our individual lives and our society. I want to talk about a very small slice. The fact that ethics has, in certain cases, been boiled down to one concern – environmental ethics or how we interact with the natural world. In particular, reducing one’s carbon footprint.
Let me explain. The BBC recently appointed Justin Rowlett as “Ethical Man”, his task was for him, along with his family, to live ethically for one year. Something we should all aspire to, right? However, his ethical duties were not to help old ladies across the road, to treat others with respect, but to live in such a way so that he and his family would minimize their carbon footprint and consequently their impact on the environment. (1)
There is a clothing line in New York City called the “The Ethical Man” that manufactures and sells clothing made with a minimal impact on the environment. (2)
I’m not claiming that thinking about how we use natural resources is not part of what we call ethics. I’m saying that environmental ethics are a part and not the whole of living the ethical life.
I simply have a concern that by portraying one aspect of our existence as living the ethical life, we may stunt truly ethical behavior. We can tell people it is better to ride a bike to work than drive, but if they ride in a reckless manner so that they run an old lady over on their way, can we say they are acting ethically in a holistic sense?
Moreover, if we tell people that they can be ethical solely by bike riding and recycling that may provide some with an easy way out. Throughout human history, we have tried to boil down the ethical life to rules that we can follow. Jesus confronted Jewish religious leaders who claimed living the “ethical life” could be accomplished by following an increasingly elaborate system of religious rules but did not truly behave ethically.
Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. (3)
Jesus replied, “And you experts in the law, woe to you, because you load people down with burdens they can hardly carry, and you yourselves will not lift one finger to help them. (4)
He instead stated that only by changing one’s character can one truly act ethically. He contended that it was not just our actions that determine whether or not we act ethically but our underlying thoughts and attitudes.
You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. (5)
How to act ethically, to live the “good life”, is a problem that many have wrestled with throughout history, and one that all thinking people should carefully examine. We should not let ourselves or others off the hook by pretending that following rules in a certain area of life, we are truly and completely ethical.
For more on this topic please see this post – Good.
(1) See http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/programmes/newsnight/ethical_man/default.stm.
(2) See http://www.theethicalman.com/.
(3) Matthew 23:3 (New International Version).
(4) Luke 11:46 (New International Version).
(5) Matthew 5:21-22 (New International Version).