Constructing an Ethical System from Scratch
Becoming and adult when no one teaches you how.
I don’t know about you, but I feel like a fraud. A lot. Mentally, I’m still 12 years old. When my son’s friends are in the house, I have to remind myself, wait – I’m the adult here. How the heck did that happen?
At the ripe old of age of 48 – I should have my sh*t together already. And mostly I do. Actually, I’ve pretty much been functioning well now for almost my entire adult life.
I was lucky – I had parents who helped me develop a good ethical system and who taught me how to think and make good decisions based on that ethical system so that when I’ve had to make decisions on my own, I’ve done a pretty good job of it. So while I might feel like a 12 year old fraud pretending to be an adult, the reality is I’m a pretty good adult.
The problem I hear from the folks I help is that they weren’t as lucky as me. Either their parents didn’t really help them learn how to make good decisions, or the ethical framework they were raised in turned out to not be all that helpful for them as adults when they entered the real world. This problem is more common than you might think.
While pretty much every household teaches an ethical systems of some sort – either religious or philosophic, few of them really focus on HOW ethical reasoning and decision making is actually done. People end up with rules to follow but no understanding of why those rules exist. When they are faced with having to apply those rules for themselves without someone else to help them, they flounder.
It is no surprise that as soon as people leave their childhood homes, they start experimenting with the ethical framework they were raised with. How else can we learn to think for ourselves but to actually, you know – break a few rules and see what happens.
The problem with this figure it out for yourself approach is that it is often unnecessarily painful. It’s unnecessary because potential consequences can be taught through reasoning and education. For instance: You don’t actually have to get into a car accident to learn that driving drunk is probably a bad idea. You also don’t actually have to contract an STD to learn that safe sex is a good idea.
My point is that while it is entirely possible to construct a functioning ethical system from scratch, it can take a while and a lot of trial and error and smart people, learn from the mistakes of others so they can avoid those same mistakes themselves.
The problem isn’t just learning how to think through ethical dilemmas for yourself. The challenge for all adults is to decide on an ethical framework to guide their decision making process in the first place. Ethical reasoning can’t occur without a set of ethical values.
People who take on the challenge of developing an ethical framework for themselves spend a lot of time searching and learning. Decades even. Eventually they construct an ethical system for themselves out of all their learning over a period of decades. And the interesting thing is, all these individually arrived at ethical systems almost always look like Humanism.
Remember how I said that smart people learn from the mistakes of others? Well, the good news is that you don’t have to create an ethical system from scratch. You can borrow from other systems and see what works for you and what doesn’t. And you can do this not by spending decades searching for a perfect solution, but by learning about Humanism. Because that’s what Humanism is. It is the best of what we have learned so far and that we continue to learn about what it means to be ethical.
Humanism isn’t about a set of rules to follow, it’s a reasoned approach that considers what has been considered ethical in the past and verifies whether those values are still valid and good as judge by how well they help us behave and how successfully they help us interact with others.
If you are struggling with your current ethical system, you don’t have to start from scratch and you don’t have to blindly adopt someone else’s value system either. Start learning about Humanism and see if it is right for you. And if it is, then you just avoided a decades long search to get your sh*t together in a way you can be proud of.