Ethics does more than reduce your options

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Many people value freedom, and rightly so. However, I think this has the negative consequence in how people view morality. It seems to mainly constrain one’s options: it is forbidden to do this, it is forbidden to do that. A moral life seems a boring and constrained life. Supposedly, a moral saint doesn’t have children, never takes an airplane, donates everything they don’t need to survive to charity, never lies, is a vegan, and never makes a mocking joke. Not an attractive life, is it? There are multiple issues at play here, for example that people focus too much on their negative impact, instead of the positive impact they could be making. However, I want to focus on something different here: a different way of viewing ethics.

The first way of viewing ethics is like the above: a constraint on one’s options. I call this Ethics as a fence. However, this rests on the assumption that we know all the options available to us, and that a wider range of choice is good for us. In fact, we don’t know all the possible career paths we can take, all the possible life choices we can make and lifestyles we can live. The question “how can I do the most good?” is a guiding question; it gives direction to navigating the difficult task of carving out a career path for oneself. Once you have decided what area is most important (e.g. combating factory farming, or reducing existential risk) the steps to take become clearer. Furthermore, more choice does not make us better off necessarily. In The Paradox of Choice, Barry Schwartz explains that having more options means it is less likely to make the best choice, and we will be afraid that we shall regret our choice.[2] Making commitments frees us from this decision paralysis, something that has also been described by philosophers of freedom.[3]

Ethics can function as a lens: it provides a focus on where to look and through ethics we discover new possibilities (e.g. the priority career paths of 80,000 Hours). We need to develop the simplified notion of freedom often advocated by neoliberals: endless options. A more nuanced view pays attention to the value of commitment and a more prominent place to ethics.




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