I’ve always been interested in ethics. How do human beings, both individually and collectively, decide what is right and what is wrong? How do we know what should be considered good? And what happens if—or, more likely, when—we don’t agree? Who gets to decide? It’s a fascinating topic to observe.
We know the world can be a difficult place to live in, often more so for some than for others. Life is hard, and it isn’t fair. But fortunately, we’ve each been given a certain amount of influence over the quality of life on this planet. We don’t have to simply accept things as they are. Through various means, we have the ability to make a difference, to decide how the world is going to work. So how do we know what to do?
The most common answer I’ve heard is that the right decision in any given situation is the one which does the most good for the most people. This seems like a fine approach at first. If the goal is simply to create the most good, then this is the way to go. But after generations of trying this method over and over, we’ve found that it does have its flaws.
Because there are still those who don’t fall under the category of “most people.” Minorities of all kinds. The oppressed. Those whose needs society has simply decided don’t matter. These individuals don’t benefit from the “most good for the most people” approach. Instead, they get left behind to silently suffer the very evils that we’re trying to protect humanity from. Even if a decision makes the world better for 99% of people, it hardly seems fair to move forward if it makes life unbearable for even the smallest faction.
The “most good for the most people” mentally works great until you find yourself outside of the scope of its favor. Maybe you’ve never been there. To be honest, I don’t know that I have. But I do know people who have certainly fallen through the cracks, and it’s a terrible place to be. Creating the most good is a noble venture, but if it isn’t creating good for all, then it isn’t creating good at all.
In the face of this reality, some might give up on the endeavor completely. If we can’t find a way to help everyone, why bother helping anyone? Many have come to the conclusion that what’s right is simply whatever is best for them and those they care about, usually those most like them. This approach makes sense from a strictly pragmatic point of view, and it is how many people use the influence they’re given. But ultimately, it comes from a place of selfishness, which has no potential to positively impact the world and only leads to isolation. And in light of the fact that other people are people just like you and me, it seems that no person concerned with morality could actually make decisions from this perspective.
People of faith tend to claim that their understanding of right and wrong is of divine origin and thus perfect and universal. As a devout Christian myself, I do affirm the tenants of the Christian faith and believe that the world would be a better place were they put into practice fully. However, there are some problems that arise from taking this approach to solving ethical issues.
Firstly, all people are hypocrites. I don’t know why, but human beings have this baffling ability to claim that we believe one thing while simultaneously doing the exact opposite of that thing. Principles like love, peace, and grace are all beautiful and powerful, but when we fail to allow those principles to dictate our real-world actions, then we aren’t living out what we claim to believe, and there’s a huge disconnect between our faith and our real-world ethics.
Secondly, the world is a big, diverse place with a lot of different belief systems. No one religion is universal, and the very nature of faith dictates that it must be a choice. Religious beliefs and the moral actions that come as a result of them cannot be forced upon anyone. And so, it would be difficult to use any one faith (even if you believe it to be the one true faith) as the standard for ethical decision-making across the world. Regardless, any time religion mixes with power, the results are disastrous anyway.
That is not to say that our faith should not inform and influence our ethics, nor that we shouldn’t bring our faith with us when we come together to make decisions on a grand scale. At its best, faith makes us into better people, and so we must rely on it to help us make the right decisions. But a universal ethic of right and wrong can’t simply come from one group or another; we have to get there together.
A truly ethical approach to decision-making takes into account not just the needs of the majority, the benefit of the self, or the beliefs of a single group. Rather, the logical endpoint of every ethical question is that for something to be good, it must be good for everyone. Every person is a person, and every person must be considered.
I‘m not audacious enough to claim that I have all of the answers to the world’s problems. What I do have is an idea for a new starting point: What if, rather than coming from a place of scarcity, we approached the world’s problems from a place of abundance?
Because the truth is that there is enough. There’s enough money. There’s enough food. There’s enough work. There’s enough joy. There’s enough comfort. There’s enough fulfillment. There’s enough for all of us to have enough.
Far too often, we see life as a zero-sum game. If someone else gets more of something, that means I have less. But that simply isn’t the case. There’s more than enough of what we need in the world for everyone to survive, to thrive, to be all that they’re meant to be—and then some. And when we willingly sacrifice some of our abundance so that someone else can simply have enough, we aren’t losing anything at all. We’re taking our extra and turning it into someone’s enough, and in doing so, we’re creating good. Isn’t that worth so much more?
We are all in this together. We create barriers between people, families, races, nations, and more, and these boundaries are helpful to an extent. But if we aren’t careful, we can allow these human-made lines to trick us into thinking that they’re real, and the truth is that they’re not. We are all here together on this planet as one big group, and when any part of that group suffers, we all suffer because the greater good is diminished. The ultimate goal of ethics is the ultimate, big-g Good, and that means good for every last person we share this life with.
The solution to the world’s problems is not all for one. It’s not some for some. It’s not even most for most. It’s one for all, and that isn’t an idealistic dream. It’s a reality that we can create if we—each of us—choose to use our influence to make it so. May we make it so.