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Ethical Individualism: The Value of Values

Updated: Apr 20, 2021

"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?

Ethical Individualism: The Values of Values | MQ Learning
Ethical Individualism: The Values of Values | MQ Learning

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.