Updated: Apr 20
"Ethics is not just an abstract intellectual discipline. It is about the conflicts that arise in trying to meet real human needs and values." - John Ziman.
Our human needs are real. As Maslow put it in his hierarchy, we need to put food on the table, make sure our loved ones are safe, love to be loved, and work to be accepted by society. If we look at animals, most of the needs are the same, even the need for acceptance. Then what makes us human?
With the emergence of homo sapiens around 200,000 years ago, a new self-reflective consciousness was born. For the first time, a species could draw paintings in the cave and create fire from the stones. With progression, as humans, we were able to reflect on the past and plan our future. We could contemplate the nature of our existence and were even able to determine that the universe was created 14 billion years ago through an explosion in a void. We humans have changed the nature of existence through our participation.
However, in our daily lives, we can sometimes feel like being on auto-pilot. The reflective consciousness becomes an over-thinking mechanism. How often we envy cats or dogs to be having a good life? Caught in the hamster's wheel of meeting needs or growing self-esteem, we even forget to ask, what are we striving for?
If we had asked Aristotle this question, he would have said, "Eudaimonia," the Greek word for loosely translated happiness, fulfillment, or flourishing. The state of being when we live the life of our fulfilled values. Each individual connects to some values, which makes their life worth living. In Platonic terms, we can call them "ideals" of, e.g., justice, truth, beauty, or goodness, which we connect with and strive for.
Our ethical value is what Joe Batten said, "is the sum total of our values." Ethical Individualism is about bringing our individuality forth in the world by acting on our own moral values.
Why Ethical Individualism?
Albert Camus, a french existential philosopher, famously said, "A man without ethics is a wild beast loosed upon this world."
With Individualism, as an evolution from collective society, Western society has celebrated the advance of reason and science. The power of individual thought with Descartes, Newton, Einstein, or Freud challenged the established norms and provided us a more objective perspective of understanding our reality's nature. When got mixed with unlimited greed or desire, the same individualized thought has created the system where everyone is for themselves.
The extreme capitalism of Milton Friedman, a Nobel-prize-winning economist, where he claimed that "the social purpose of companies is to make profits," harbored the one-sided development of the economy devoid of ethical principles. The threats of climate change, the extinction of wildlife, and the crisis of meaninglessness leading to widespread depression are a few challenges we face in the 21st century due to unhinged Individualism.
If only we are aware of our values when we consume. If only we relate to others the way we want others to relate to us. If only we become the change we wish to see in the world.
Individual thought coupled with self-defined ethical principles provides us the unique north star that can guide us towards the life of "eudaimonia." The flame of ethics burns away the impurities of our decisions and actions and allows us to create a world we would like to thrive in. The world where we are not a wild beast scavenging the planet but a fellow participant in its sustainable development.
Gandhi's path of non-violence, Martin Luther King's dream of equality, Dalai Lama's inspiration of compassion, and Nelson Mandela's heart filled with forgiveness are few examples of Ethical Individualism where individual effort based on an ethical principle has changed the world for the better.
Sometimes we can feel like a drop in the ocean thinking, "What difference can my values make?" The small acts of Ethical Individualism have a snowball effect of inspiration which creates a heroic community of like-minded people. In this age of mass personalizations, if we can personalize our lives based on our values, we can take back control from the algorithms based on others' values.
The collective consciousness emerging from ethical Individualism can have power much more significant than each of us individually. When Greta demanded justice, the entire generation woke up, initiating policy changes for the future. Each voice of ethical individualist is righteous in action. For the 21st century, no lesser ideal shall suffice.
How can we become Ethical Individualist?
This is the question which philosophy, with its love for wisdom, has explored for centuries. For Soren Kierkegaard, a Danish Philosopher, "ethics" is a level of existence where individuals start giving direction to their lives and making choices. The Ethical Individualist of Kierkegaard makes the subjective choice based on their unique nature rather than societally defined morality.
This ability to choose wisely, again and again, is an essential skill for an ethical individualist. Then the question arises, how can we choose well?
Rudolf Steiner, an Austrian philosopher, stressed the need for developing one's intuitive capabilities to engage with what is emerging. Our mental patterns might not be able to comprehend the emerging complexities of the situation entirely. The connection with one's moral will can provide the correct answers for the individual self.
It is not about societal morality of what right or wrong, but about the individual's ethical intuitive connection. It is also not about "how someone else would act in my position" but about the moral actions the concerned individual must take based on their ethics.
The capacity to connect with one's values can be developed using a three-step process:
Moral Ideas: What are the big ideas I am fascinated by or passionate about? What are the moral principles I strive for? e.g., when Gandhi was mistreated in South Africa due to the color of his skin, he wanted to fight with non-violence. A big idea or value he strived for his entire life.
Moral Imagination: How does the world I want to thrive in would look like? How would I feel about it? e.g., MLK Jr. sold his dream for a "just" world to fellow citizens with his famous "I have a dream" speech. His connection with his vision was much bigger than his fear of death.
Moral Technique: What actions I need to take to make a difference? What would I do differently? e.g., Nelson Mandela asked for universal forgiveness from people of color when apartheid ended. He even designed the new system based on equality, not to repeat the same mistakes that the apartheid era has made.
The big ideas fuels our imagination, and techniques convert imagination to reality. Ethical individualists' work demands both imagination and rigor, not once but repeatedly whenever their morals are tested. Steiner wrote, "A person is free in so far as they are able to obey themselves in every moment of their life. A moral deed is their deed only."
What if individuals have conflicting Ethics?
An Ethical Individualist acts from freedom, and this freedom does not exclude the moral laws. It is just not dependent upon that.
One of the most simple moral laws is to live and let live. Steiner said, "To live in love towards our actions and to let live in the understanding of the person's will is the fundamental maxim of free human beings." When we love our actions, we will automatically generate respect for other person's love for theirs. The deep resonance and the respect is the game through which the world of an ethical individualist moves.
However, there is always a possibility of conflict between the apparent "ethical" principles. More so in such cases, it is imperative to stick to personal values than support the world of antithetical values. There have always been few people in history who have lived the life of values and moved the world's consciousness needle forward.
If MLK Jr. or Nelson Mandela had accepted either the pervading values of the society where slavery or colonialism was a norm or of their oppressors who could have provided them a good life, the world as we know it now would not have existed. Ethical individualists' progress through acceptances and conflicts has weaved a path for us to live a life of aspirations.
Otto Scharmer calls the movement a "revolution from within." The changes in an individual's personal perception can manifest into socio-cultural change. Whether for good or bad, the societies has been changed throughout the values of few people. The choice is always with us what values we want to bring to the world.
In this age of mass personalizations, we are becoming more and more alienated from ourselves. We personalize our Spotify playlist, or Instagram feeds but mostly remain unaware of the values we want to bring to the world. This article calls to bring an ethical dimension to our individualization forward. Ethical Individualism is a process of connecting to our inner values, imagining the world we would like to thrive in, and taking actions from the place of inner clarity.
The concept of ethical Individualism was a response by philosophers like Soren Kierkegaard and Rudolf Steiner to Immanuel Kant's theory of morality, where the focus was on duty to follow society's structures. Ethical Individualism argues that it was individual morals that people should follow rather than societally dictated obligations whose validity might even have expired.
The problem, however, is individuals do not know how to connect with their own selves and end up following the easy path. An Ethical Individualist develops capacities for intuitive knowledge and operates from that place.
Sometimes Ethical Individualism requires starting from "the blank canvas," a concept advocated by Otto Scharmer. Other times, it shows in actions coming from the depths of our values and purpose. Rather than a concept, it is the feeling of finding or living our true self when the strength of vision is much higher than our existential angst.
It is the point where living a life of values becomes our fundamental human need, and John Ziman's conflict resolves itself. Ethical Individualism is about connecting to our human-ness once again.
MQ Learning offers values based leadership program to develop the practice of ethical individualism. Please check out our offerings at: https://www.mq-learning.com/trainings
a) Soren Kierkegaard: Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments (Journals)
b) Rudolf Steiner: The Philosophy of Freedom (Book)
c) Otto Scharmer: Theory U - Leading from the Emerging Future (Book)
d) Aristotle: The Nicomachean Ethics (Book)