The end of ethics

April 21, 2019 by Joshua
in Ethicist

Ethics, from Wikipedia:


Ethics or moral philosophy is a branch of philosophy that involves systematizing, defending, and recommending concepts of right and wrong conduct. The field of ethics, along with aesthetics, concerns matters of value, and thus comprises the branch of philosophy called axiology.

Ethics seeks to resolve questions of human morality by defining concepts such as good and evil, right and wrong, virtue and vice, justice and crime. As a field of intellectual inquiry, moral philosophy also is related to the fields of moral psychology, descriptive ethics, and value theory.


To start, I’ll point out that I’ve read Plato, Aristotle, Laozi, Confucius, and dozens of other philosophers’, psychologists’, and others’ work. I approach the field with respect, based on its focus, history, weight, and so on.

For about four-and-a-half years, since my September 25, 2014 post, New series: Non-authoritarian non-ethics, I’ve answered the New York Times’ Ethicist column’s reader questions with my answers. I started with the following view and motivation:


Though I find the writing generally fun and light, I find the premise—that someone else has more access than you to values, implied to be absolute—undermines people considering their options, considering their values, developing their social skills, developing their empathy and compassion skills, and so on.

I see that perspective as authoritarian so I call my approach non-authoritarian. Going by Wikipedia’s description of ethics as “systematizing, defending and recommending concepts of right and wrong conduct, often addressing disputes of moral diversity,” I’m not talking about ethics either, so I call my series non-authoritarian non-ethics. I’m sure I’ll come up with a title I like more.

The new series

I decided to start a series to respond to questions to The Ethicist based on these principles, which I expect I’ll refine as I develop experience with this series.

  • Avoiding imposing values on others, for example saying what is right, wrong, good, bad, acceptable, or the like, nor telling people what they should do
  • Considering the consequences of their actions to themselves and others
  • Don’t look for blame but take responsibility for creating the outcome you want

My series evolves

I don’t pretend that the questions a set of popular media columnists chooses (I’ve outlasted the columnist when I started) represents ethics, though I don’t think anyone could represent ethics any better. I don’t think you can define what “better” means in that context.

Over the years, I found myself writing similar responses. I also saw trends in questions and the underlying emotions and goals I concluded drove many questions. I saw trends in how the headline writer characterized questions, I presume to attract readers.

The point of ethics

I came to see a few goals of the column and ethics–for example, to create words and definitions for them, to label, to get others to enable action without you taking responsibility, and so on.

Whatever people seemed to ask, all the words ultimately seemed to lead to a person doing something. All the talk, however high-minded or philosophical, seemed to revolve around helping choose action and feel good or right about it–that is, also to act to create desired emotions, so still choosing action.

In time I found a few answers applied to nearly every question. I believe edge cases always exist so I don’t expect any approach could address everything, but few people get near such cases.

An issue that seemed more important to me than labels, definitions, and other focuses of the column was improving performance in greater ranges of situations. I know one most effective way to improve performance: practice. Practice develops skills and mastery. Mastery illuminates nuance where beginners see black and white. Mastery enables actions beginners can’t imagine.

Michael Jordan could see a path to the basket that someone lacking his skills and experience couldn’t. His skills and experience didn’t change the world. They changed him, which enabled actions that improved outcomes for him.

My surprising and surprisingly simple approach to ethics

A friend runs a business that has to handle a lot of customer service. At first all customer service questions seemed new. With experience, the team found patterns and effective ways to handle more of their customers.

Eventually, their responses evolved to a small set of responses. Sure, you can debate right, wrong, good, bad, or evil in each case, but this small set of responses resolved the problems and conflicts effectively, occasionally resorted to refunding the person, making them no longer a customer.

I found a small number of responses handled nearly all the Ethicist questions. I concluded that most of ethics, at least as represented by this column, but probably a lot more, boils down to a few responses, several of which are: develop relevant skills you don’t yet have. Readers may have found some or many of my responses inadequate, misapplied, unhelpful, or otherwise unsatisfactory, but I believe those problems result more from the one-shot, limited interaction format.

I concluded that academics and high-minded people who enjoy categorizing and using long words and complex constructions have hijacked a simple concept, turning it into a weird game probably more based on getting professorships than improving people’s lives. The field we call ethics became more about word play than living.

My results

The result of my nearly half-decade of practice led me to a set of responses like my friend’s customer service responses. I didn’t work on the project full-time so haven’t refined the responses beyond to my satisfaction. I never interacted directly with the question writers nor learned the results of my responses, if any even saw my responses.

My responses may have used shorthand where answers that seemed comprehensive to me didn’t to others, so some answers may seem incomplete that would unpack to complete solutions with more time and space for me to explain my meaning after learning the reader’s view.

I’ve written enough to feel satisfied with my number of responses and the ability for my stock answers to handle nearly all the column’s questions. Though listing them without context or explanation probably detracts from their potential meaning, I think they speak for themselves.

Here are my stock answers that I find handle nearly all Ethicist questions, though they may require



My responses:

There is no book in the sky or other measure of absolute right, wrong, good, bad, or evil that 7.6 billion people will agree to. If there were, you would have consulted it, gotten your answer and wouldn’t have had to write here. There isn’t, so you did.


“What should I do?” … Asking what you should do makes sense for children asking their parents. For an adult, it looks like asking someone else to take responsibility, which I call juvenile. Asking for options or views you might have missed makes sense, but you didn’t ask that.


Again a false dichotomy. Unskilled people see issues as black and white: should I do A or B? Skilled people see nuance and subtlety: what options do I have? What resources do I have? Can I create more options or resources. Masters look forward to acting, even when they don’t know what to do, because they know that they’ll do the best they can.


Labeling something doesn’t change your situation. You probably want to resolve it more than label it. I suggest that more than a New York Times columnist labeling something for you, you’d benefit from developing the social and emotional skills to resolve the situation and improve your emotional well-being. You’ll lose the excuse to say, “But the New York Times told me to” but gain the ability to resolve these inevitable parts of life without needing others’ help. You’ll make mistakes, but you’ll learn from them. Experience is the best way to learn these things, I’ve found, as have millions of others. I recommend accepting the missteps you’ll make, looking at them as learning experiences, and using them to learn and grow.


Besides the problem you describe, you say you feel guilty/anxious/angry/other emotion you don’t like. You can manage your emotional response—through, for example, choosing your environment, beliefs, and behavior—and I’ve never seen a benefit to suffering or being miserable. I recommend developing the emotional skills to manage your emotions. You’ll make yourself more effective in achieving your goals and feel emotions you prefer, which I call a better life.


Your question is legal/medical/other professional service. Talking to a professional will answer your questions more effectively than a newspaper columnist.


If you had to fix all the world’s problems before you did anything, you could never anything.

What should you do? I recommend:

  1. Figuring out what resources you have—relationships, time, etc
  2. Figuring what skills you have and can create
  3. Creating as many options as you can
  4. Considering what outcomes each option will result in
  5. Choosing which option to act on based on those outcomes, evaluating them using empathy
  6. Implement the option you like most
  7. Do the best you can, knowing that problems will arise

You ask what’s ethical. Since everyone has different values, you’ll just get a label that not everyone agrees on. I suggest you want not a label but a practical plan to resolve your situation as best you can by your values and the values of others affected as best you can tell using empathy and projecting possible outcomes.


You’re asking how to lead people, meaning you want to improve your leadership. If you’ll allow me a quick analogy, if you want to learn to create art, taking academic classes in art appreciation may help you appreciate art others made but not to create it. You have to practice, starting with the basics.

Nearly every resource I’ve seen on leadership is leadership appreciation—that is, books on principles and such that help you appreciate others’ leadership but not to lead. To learn to lead you have to practice, starting with basics.

To answer your question on how to lead people, I recommend my book, Leadership Step by Step, which gives you exercises to practice the skills of leadership, not just to appreciate others’ practice. You have to do the work of the exercises, not just passively read it, but what expressive or performance-based practice can you learn without work?

I’m not just plugging my book. I wrote it because nothing existed to give you experience and skills, not just appreciation.

Unit 4 covers what you want, though I’d start at the beginning and do the exercises in order.


We’ve all experienced trying to help someone only to find what we meant to help got the other person angry, frustrated, or the like. We’ve also all experienced someone trying to help us who only made things worse.

I usually respond to letters with no questions by saying something like, “Thank you for sharing your story,” and not giving advice or commenting much more. Not commenting may sound like an easy way out of more thoughtful and helpful writing, but I’ve learned many times in coaching, teaching, and friendships that helping people who haven’t asked for it is a recipe for disaster.

My starting point for why is that what different people consider “helping” depends on their values, views, goals, and other factors that you, giving unasked advice, don’t know. For example, offering potential solutions to someone who just wants to be heard often leads to exasperation, frustration, and feeling devalued. But just listening to someone who wants advice can lead to impatience, frustration, and other emotions neither party wants.

However obvious you consider your interpretation of what the letter-writer wants, dozens of other interpretations exist, any of which the writer may have meant, or not. Acting on unchecked assumptions risks imposing your values on others, which usually provokes responses you wish you hadn’t from others.

I’ve found the best policy to keep neutral until the person clarifies what they want so I know what “help” means to them in that situation.


I would categorize this situation as a problem-solving, not an ethics, issue. Abstract questions of philosophy won’t resolve this issue as effectively as adopting a problem-solving approach. As with most of life, each potential action has results and you want to find an outcome most acceptable to the most number of relevant people. What helps solve problems? In this case, probably talking to people with experience, developing social and emotional skills to communicate with the people affected, empathy for how potential results will affect different people. I would start with those things before writing a newspaper ethics columnist.


I recommend a different perspective than asking what others think you should do. There are many choices you can make where you don’t know all the possible outcomes, who will like the results, who might get hurt, and so on. I think of it like looking down a ski slope that splits, the paths diverge so you can’t either past the first part, and you have to choose. Or choosing which wave to surf.

When you can never know all the information you wish you could but still have to choose or risk standing in the cold while others pass you by, in life or on the slopes, the best I can think to do is to know that whichever you choose, you’ll enjoy it or live it the best you can, and that you’ll take responsibility for making it work. Also not to judge your choice based on information or experience that came after you chose but couldn’t have known at the time.


Since I commented on our educational system last time, I’ll comment on our media this time. This column consistently coddles people asking for what to do instead of helping them develop the skills to do it themselves. Credentials such as being a professor, an author, or a columnist don’t give people special access to universal ethics. Beyond people being able to work these issues out on their own, doing so develops resilience, initiative, responsibility, and other relevant social and emotional skills.

Giving people answers is like putting a cast on someone who could use physical therapy. Just as unused muscles atrophy, so do unused skills.


I’ll also note the insidious, nefarious skills of this column’s headline writers. They consistently pack the headline with the intellectual and mental equivalent of junk food—“should I . . .” “Is it okay to . . .” “Is it right/wrong to . . .” I don’t know what to call it. It’s not click-bait. It’s addictive mental junk food.


I find it sad that people prefer to ask for judgment more than help. I tend to look at our educational system for promoting compliance and analysis over examining our values and developing the social and emotional skills to act on them.


Everybody involved seems a consenting, sane, informed adult. Anyone who wants to decline can.


When I started playing sports and had no skills, I enjoyed playing in practice but feared playing in games for fear of being responsible for messing up and failing the team. After mastering the game and becoming one of the top players on the team, I loved playing the big points against the big teams. I could still mess up but my skills were great.

When you master a skill, you look for challenging situations. The problem with this situation isn’t that you don’t know what to do. The problem is that if you don’t have the skills, you could mess up. Even with skills, you could mess up. With more confidence in your leadership skills—that is, the social and emotional skills to behave and communicate with the relevant people to create and implement an outcome that all would feel that, if not desirable, was the best achievable given the situation—you would act with confidence. Sadly, you don’t.


If you’re going to do something that involves others, involving them in the process generally helps. You acted unilaterally on something that affected him. I’m surprised that you’re surprised with the outcome.



With this post, I’m wrapping up my Ethicist series, as well as most of what I consider the field of ethics, in my opinion. I’ll stack my responses, with appropriate explanation, given that I haven’t vetted them, against millennia of philosophers’ writings on ethics as leading to useful outcomes.

I’ll stack my life and character against anyone else’s, particularly anyone writing about ethics, teaching ethics courses, or who took academic courses in ethics. In fact, I bet the more people focus on ethics, the greater the applicability, usefulness, and by most people’s measure goodness of my approach to theirs.

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5 responses on “The end of ethics

  1. Josh – your explanation of ethics and the “lens” which has clouded so many from believing they can find the answer is spot on. Your statement quite resonated with me:

    “I found a small number of responses handled nearly all the Ethicist questions. I concluded that most of ethics, at least as represented by this column, but probably a lot more, boils down to a few responses, several of which are: develop relevant skills you don’t yet have. Readers may have found some or many of my responses inadequate, misapplied, unhelpful, or otherwise unsatisfactory, but I believe those problems result more from the one-shot, limited interaction format.

    I concluded that academics and high-minded people who enjoy categorizing and using long words and complex constructions have hijacked a simple concept, turning it into a weird game probably more based on getting professorships than improving people’s lives. The field we call ethics became more about word play than living.”

    The last line of thinking, reflecting, and not taking the next step – doing – is key to pivoting, reinventing, and forgiving oneself. It’s not enough to say you want to change. One must act on it. Change your beliefs, actions to and responses to situations and others. Start now. Yea, you may have wished to have started before… we can’t change the past. We can impact the future by acting in the present.

    • I appreciate the response and wish more people saw the simplicity in acting, which takes confidence, independence, and responsibility, but develops them too.

      Mainstream society and education tend to teach and instill the opposite.

  2. Brilliantly said, Josh! Your definition of ethics and the lens which clouds so many of seeing what it truly is – change – is hinged upon the “experts” who hide behind “big words.”

    As you write: “I found a small number of responses handled nearly all the Ethicist questions. I concluded that most of ethics, at least as represented by this column, but probably a lot more, boils down to a few responses, several of which are: develop relevant skills you don’t yet have. Readers may have found some or many of my responses inadequate, misapplied, unhelpful, or otherwise unsatisfactory, but I believe those problems result more from the one-shot, limited interaction format.

    I concluded that academics and high-minded people who enjoy categorizing and using long words and complex constructions have hijacked a simple concept, turning it into a weird game probably more based on getting professorships than improving people’s lives. The field we call ethics became more about word play than living.”

    We have the power to change… our thoughts, feelings, and beliefs. It is not enough to want to change; one must act. Yes, we may feel regret in not changing sooner. But we can impact the future changing today.

    • In the back of my mind, I would like to write my Ethicist experience and some sample results into a book. Something like “The Rogue Ethicist: How I Stole a New York Times Column and Discovered the Heart of Ethics”.

      The goal would be to give people the simplicity and power you described and its results.

  3. Pingback: My favorite posts » Joshua Spodek

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