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Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Prerequisites to ethical understanding

Equanimity is more rare a treasure
than pleasure. (cc) Mark McQuitty
I've noticed it is sometimes difficult to convince some people of why ethics matters. Recently I've realized this is because there are certain realizations that must be achieved before ethics can be comprehended.

By ethics I do not mean such things as the Ten Commandments or other authoritarian rules. Those are merely extortion and have little to do with true ethics.

One of the reasons some people are incapable of understanding the nature of true ethics is because they still believe that wisdom consists of, or results in, avoiding pain and pursuing pleasure. However, pain is unavoidable, and pleasure always fleeting.

Thirst for pleasure is unyielding. Any particular instance of pleasure never lasts and yet there are always new opportunities for pleasure. So pursuing pleasure is like trying to horde water flowing in a stream with your bare hands. There is nothing necessarily wrong with pleasure, but as a path to the good life it is both pointless and unnecessary as a subject of pursuit.

What we may find over time is that something else is far more important to the good life - more rare, and difficult to capture, but also more lasting once obtained - which is equanimity, contentment, or true happiness. Although pleasure may temporarily distract us from our lack of true happiness, it is quite a different thing from mere pleasure, in both its form and the manner in which we can obtain it and hold on to it.

Meanwhile, on the matter of pain, over time we may find that although it is unavoidable, we can learn how to confront it.

But in pursuing the good life, first we must abandon the notion that wisdom is about avoiding pain and pursuing pleasure. Then we must understand how to cope with pain, tell the difference between happiness and pleasure, and learn that the former is the more central to a good life. Rather than 'avoiding pain and pursuing pleasure' we move to 'handling pain and pursuing long term equanimity and peace'. Only once that shift has been made is someone ready to comprehend what true ethics is about, and why they ought to be ethical.


  1. If ethics involve establishing 'rules of behavior' and following them -- and if individuals make decisions about what rules to accept -- doesn't the whole field of ethics narrow down to a commonplace? Succinctly, individuals follow their own code of behavior, or allow passing interests/emotions to make them stray from that path..... I really think existentialism has more to offer in terms of insight than elaborate analytical systems.

  2. Tom, thanks for the comment. I'd say that it's about what practices and behaviors lead to a good life for an individual member of our species. While environment and circumstance certainly play a role in specifics, I think these answers in general are objective in nature due to our shared natures as human beings and the consistency of causality. Therefore, one can certainly choose whatever set of behaviors one likes. What they cannot choose is what effect those behaviors will have on their well being and happiness.