I hear the words “in order to” a lot these days.
People meditate “in order to” be focused and productive. Teenagers study “in order to” get good grades and have successful careers. Entrepreneurs start businesses “in order to” make a profit and have an impact. Many of us try to live more sustainably “in order to” save the planet and/or humanity itself.
There is nothing inherently wrong with these justifications. But when all of our choices are made “in order to” achieve something else, then we are never actually “here”. Every choice becomes a way of getting “over there”. Life turns into a never-ending race of looking ahead rather than confronting what the moment calls for, now.
In school, I used to think that ethics was a boring, irrelevant subject. Now I think differently. I believe it’s one of the most important disciplines a human being can devote themselves to – especially in today’s world.
Ethics is the study of making good and effective choices. Depending on your philosophy, there are different definitions of what a good choice is.
One approach is instrumentalism. According to instrumentalism (similar to utilitarianism or consequentialism), a good choice is one that maximizes the outcome according to whatever the metric of success is, like money, pleasure, happiness, fame, convenience, etc. Options are filtered through that lens to determine which has the highest utility and use. Choices are seen as tools and means to ends. In instrumentalism, every choice is made “in order to” achieve something else.
Take the following short story by Ursula LeGuin, The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas, as an example. In Omelas, thousands of people live happy, beautiful, perfect lives – but only as long as a single child is held prisoner in a tiny cell. The child eats nothing but half a bowl of cornmeal and grease per day, with not even a toilet to use or a bed to lay in. Most people in Omelas ignore the child; some visit without saying a word. But all of them know the terms of their predicament: if they bring the child out into the sunlight, feed it, comfort it, even speak to it, then all of the prosperity and delight of Omelas would be destroyed. “The terms are strict and absolute; there may not even be a kind word spoken to the child,” LeGuin writes.
What should one do?
According to instrumentalism, keeping the child locked up is a difficult yet necessary choice. Thousands of people’s well-being is on the line. One child’s imprisonment may be a painful fate, but it’s all in service of the greater good. The child is kept prisoner “in order to” ensure everyone else’s comfortable lives.
This line of reasoning might seem unavoidable. But it’s not the only way to define what a good choice is.
Another ethical approach is deontology. The word comes from the Greek deon, meaning “duty”. According to deontology, you base your actions on what is “good in itself”. It’s based on moral obligation, which does not necessarily lead to the calculably best outcome. Instead, doing good in the moment is what matters. Ends in themselves take center stage. The basis for choice is simply what is good, now.
According to deontology, allowing the child’s torture in Omelas is an unacceptable choice under any circumstances. There are moral obligations that carry greater weight than our own pleasure and well-being. Human life and rights are held as sacred. We are obligated to tend to other people with dignity and care, no matter the costs to ourselves. Under deontology, being content to look on as the child remains in the cell would not be a viable option.
These two different ethical philosophies yield two very different choices. There are other ethical approaches out there as well (an increasingly popular example being virtue ethics, which holds that the good depends on the virtues we aspire to fulfill). But the question here is not which of deontology, instrumentalism, virtue ethics, or any other ethical approach is better. All of them have their place in the ethical life. It’s rather a question of appropriateness: What ethical basis am I using to make choices right now? And is that the most appropriate choice?
LeGuin’s story paints of metaphorical picture of the world we find ourselves in today. Just as the people of Omelas left the child alone in its misery “in order to” guarantee their happiness, in our own instrumental world we make significant sacrifices in service of what we worship. Countless animal species are displaced and habits destroyed “in order to” extract resources for consumable goods. Millions of people work in deplorable, deadening conditions “in order to” make life more convenient for the rest of us. Plenty of other examples exist. Hardship, misery, and destruction seem to be the price we’re willing to pay “in order to” secure convenience and material comfort.
Even many environmental movements are under the throes of this instrumentalist paradigm. We’re told we should become more sustainable “in order to” save the planet, future generations, and humanity itself. Despite the good intentions, such appeals also make environmentally-friendly behavior into a means to an end. Eco-friendly choices are presented as ways of ensuring our survival and sustaining our current ways of living.
If we instead use a deontological approach, our choices become less about eco-friendly outcomes and more about how we relate to the world. It’s a process of coming into right relationship with the natural environment, regardless of the consequences or benefits that might result. Choices become the vehicles through which we tend to our surroundings with care, respect, and dignity – not because of what that care achieves, but simply because that is how our world deserves to treated.
Our ethical approaches influence not only what we choose and value, but also how we know.
Since instrumentalism is based on ethical calculus, it prioritizes knowledge that comes from forecasting, arithmetic, and numerical data collection. “Objective” data trumps all – the more “objective” data you have at your disposal, the better your calculations will be, and therefore the better choices you can make.
The promised land of this approach is Artificial Intelligence. Proponents paint pictures of a future where political decisions are outsourced to machines, eliminating human interference in service of more “objective” methods. These hopes are based on the assumption that better choices require more objective data and better processing capacities.
From a deontological perspective, however, it is not possible to calculate your way to an ethically good choice. Instead, it’s a process that requires feeling your way into it. This does not mean choosing what gives you the most pleasure or joy, nor about following your subjective whims. Rather, it means making the choice that feels least bad when factoring in the obligations and dependencies of the context in question.*
Telling the truth in a tight spot, caring for a sick child in the middle of the night, or dedicating one’s life to service do not necessarily feel good in the moment. But under deontology, not doing them becomes intolerable.
The more one can actually feel the pain and the needs of the world, the more incomprehensible it becomes to not do anything about it. Our capacity to feel therefore lies at the heart of ethical choice-making. “To think well ethically, you have to feel appropriately about what is happening,” says educational philosopher Zak Stein.
The challenge for most of us, however, is that we’re numb.
If you’re numb you can’t feel, and if you can’t feel then you can’t respond appropriately to the situation. Since you don’t have the appropriate instrumentation to sense your surroundings, the information you’re basing your choices upon will be limited.
If we can do the work to heal, restore, and melt our frozen bodies and minds, then we can begin to feel more of each other and more of ourselves. We can start to notice our inherent nature as relational beings, feeling how we are inextricably bound up and entangled with everything we meet. We begin to feel that other people, animals, the natural environment, and the planet are all part of us and we are all part of it. When we’re able to feel these dependencies and interconnections, we become able to relate appropriately and make choices effectively.
This process of coming into right relationship with ourselves, each other, and the world is a path of ethical restoration. It’s a path of restoring our capacity to feel, to choose well, and to live in relation with the world.
What if we treated our natural environment with care, not because that lowers carbon emissions and increases the chances of humanity surviving, but simply because that is what it means to relate appropriately with our world?
What if we related to businesses as places of mutual flourishing, not because that leads to higher employee retention and higher profits, but simply because it is Good?
What if we respected children’s interests and feelings, not because that provides them with better career prospects, but simply because that’s what it means to be in right relationship with another human being?
In the story The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas, nobody stood up to the prevailing system. No one violated the terms of their agreement, and no one galvanized protests to stand up for the child’s rights.
But as the story’s title alludes to, a few people chose to walk away. After seeing the child in its tortured state, they walked home in a stunned silence before leaving Omelas forever. These sole dissenters walked alone through the city gates without looking back.
“Each alone they go west or north, towards the mountains. They go on. They leave Omelas, they walk ahead into the darkness, and they do not come back. The place they go towards is a place even less imaginable to most of us than the city of happiness. I cannot describe it at all. It is possible that it does not exist. But they seem to know where they are going, the ones who walk away from Omelas.”
Sometimes the ethical choice is to walk away from what we cannot live with anymore, following nothing but the faint whisper of the Good we can hear in our hearts.
* As astute readers will have observed, deontology is traditionally presented as a set of universal moral laws. In this piece I am pointing at something slightly more nuanced. As opposed to an abstract set of principles, I am attempting to convey that living ethically means aligning oneself with what the mystics called Natural Law, the Tao, or Rta, or the Way. This cannot be achieved through adherence to a defined set rules. Instead it’s about living in alignment with the Good in every moment.