The Ethics of Growth, Part I: Disorganized Thoughts

Today is the first official day of sabbatical, and I will make it a point to write at least a little bit every day. The summer was good. Not terribly productive, but not unproductive. I took some much-needed time to recover from the school year and my school persona, read a lot of books, continued my violin lessons, made good progress in running, saw many music shows, and had a long visit with my family. Now it’s time to write.

Some disorganized thoughts on the sabbatical project, “The Ethics of Growth.”
I don’t know if it is new, but the major goal of the book is to explore a version of ethics that I don’t think is very common in ethics.

In most ethical systems, some definition of “the good” or “the bad” is needed. Simply saying, “To be good means to be kind to each other,” simply begs the question as to what is meant by “kind.” Do we mean gentle? Sometimes, a bit of sternness and rigidity is the best way to help another, and being too gentle can sometimes lead to disaster. So, we want to examine the repercussions of different definitions of “good.” A few examples, stated very simply:

For Plato, “The Good” for people and cities meant “justice,” and justice meant a certain kind of harmony.

For Aristotle, “The Good” meant pursuing one’s happiness, which included living among friends and cultivating one’s virtues.

For Kant, “The Good” meant a human’s will that strived to do good, and a universal rule that could be followed in any situation.

For Mill, “The Good” meant happiness, and happiness meant pleasure.

I think there is something fascinating about each of these definitions, and others. Part of this year’s project is to explore both more modern versions and versions of this from other parts of the world.

My own ethical system therefore draws on some of these other systems, but mine has an emphasis on growth. In it’s simplest formulation, it holds that “the good” is best understood as growth, and “the bad” is best understood as decay. However, there are many caveats to this, because on its own, this formulation is rife with problems. Perhaps my first goal in the weeks ahead is to describe and respond to these caveats. Here are just a few of the things I’m talking about:
–I am not simply talking about biological growth. There is, for example, the growth of ideas, knowledge, diversity and complexity. Too much biological growth hinders other types of growth.
–There are different kinds of growth, and they are not equal. Some things that look like a lot of growth can actually contribute to more decay. Growing a business and an industry can seem good to those who benefit from that growth. But industrial growth can lead to environmental decay. This isn’t to say that all industrial growth is bad, either: there is a lot of industrial growth that has allowed for growth in many dimensions. As a small and obvious example, computers and the internet have given us great potential to exchange ideas, to educate ourselves, and to positively affect the world on a much larger scale than was possible prior to these innovations. But, of course, computers and the internet have also been used for the opposite affect: spreading misinformation, manipulating opinions, sabotaging knowledge. And these actions should still be considered “bad.”

More tomorrow…

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