A Good Person
For much of my life I’ve puzzled over the question of what it means to be good. How do you become a good person? How should a good person behave in our complex and confusing, highly integrated and yet intensely conflicted 21st Century world? And how should I behave, with my particular abilities, limitations and experiences, if I want to be or to do good?
Towards the end of 2017, a year into the Trump presidency and a year and a half after the Brexit vote, I realised that there was one thing that I couldn’t go on doing whatever my definition of goodness might be… and that was to go on doing nothing.
Admittedly, I hadn’t been doing absolutely nothing. I’d held down a well-paid job. I’d shared in bringing up a family. I’d written a couple of books… But I wasn’t able to say I’d done anything particularly worthwhile for my community, anything particularly unusual or beneficial for the society into which I was born.
Within weeks of this realisation I gave in my notice at work and by March 2018 I was unemployed.
I was ready to become a different person. I was ready to start doing good.
A Divided Life
I’ve written all my life. While at school I scandalised my family with poetry that was so blood-thirsty and apocalyptic it was only a cat’s whisker away from self-parody (if that). Later I wrote science fiction, emulating writers like Ursula Le Guin, John Brunner and Philip K. Dick. From there I moved on to more literary work, completing my novel To The Bridge, a love story set in modern day Bristol but with a walk-on part for Isambard Kingdom Brunel. Yet all of this was only one aspect of a divided life. I wrote in the evenings, at weekends and between jobs, and in my real life I supported myself and my family through a frequently stressful but often enjoyable career in IT.
But I wasn’t going to live a divided life anymore. I was now settled on one life: a life that contributed significantly to others, a life where I tried to be a better person.
The only problem was, I still didn’t know what ‘being a better person’ really meant.
A Change Of Direction
Looking around me at the world of Brexit, the world of Trump, at our fears of climate change and global warming, at populism, inequality and the proliferation of fake news, I wondered whether I was alone in feeling that we live in a realm of ethical quicksand, where one person’s good is another person’s bad and where just about everyone across the world seems to have their own interpretation of which is which.
It came to me then, fairly unexpectedly, that perhaps I could do a little good by using the time I now had to document what ‘doing good’ actually means for our turbulent moment in human history.
By April 2018 I’d settled down to serious research. I was jobless; there were few distractions; and I had enough savings to tide myself and my family through. My project quickly became a passion. I worked twelve and fourteen hour days. I read countless books, from Yuval Harari to Rutger Bregman, from Aristotle to Mary Warnock. I quizzed friends and contacts about their feelings about morality, about how our world could change for the better. I wrote, discarded, wrote, re-wrote. I continued at this pace for almost a year, injuring my shoulders and back from the weeks spent huddled over my laptop, yet ploughing on regardless. And it was all worthwhile. By February 2019 I had completed not one book but two – and developed the outlines for several more that I wanted to write.
Both my completed books were fairly ambitious – which isn’t surprising given the field I’d chosen to explore. In the first, Intelligent Ethics, I attempted to reconstruct an ethics capable of tackling the key risks and opportunities of our times: the dangerous and yet potentially wonderful technological transformation overtaking our lives; the demand for beneficial political change versus the uprise of populism and fake news; the frightening prospect of climate change.
In the early chapters of this book I consider the very basics of what it means for our lives to have meaning, and how the fact of life itself, of being alive, creates meaning – and I construct from these foundations what I hope is a coherent and encompassing moral code. I try to show that an ethical code is necessary for social cohesion and flourishing, but that any successful ethical code must also have a source of powerful moral authority. And I attempt to find just such a source…
This is no small challenge – yet there is no need for people to agree with the specific source of moral authority which I identify; they can still agree with the core moral aims I derive from it, moral aims which appear to me to be crucial to re-establishing trust and cohesion in our conflicted world:
- To nurture others
- To nurture our species as a whole
- To nurture all life
- To share life with the empty reaches of the stars
The first two of these aims – the nurturing of humans as individuals and the nurturing of humanity as a whole – are not unusual. They are found in many ethical systems of the past. They are what allow us to trust one another. The moral person does not just look out for themselves, they look out for the people around them, also. The moral person doesn’t just care about their own isolated community of neighbours and friends, they recognise that we are all in the same boat, all part of the same species, and that for a child to suffer on the other side of the world is as bad as for a child to suffer in our neighbour’s home.
The third moral aim of Intelligent Ethics is the nurturing of all life. This is an aim which it is essential for us to embrace if our biosphere is to be restored to good health, if we are to prevent life-threatening climate change. In asserting this aim, we assert that we must value not just the thriving of each other and of our species, but also the thriving of all the life around us, of the biological world upon which our civilisation and potentially the very survival of our species depends. This is a core moral aim now embraced by a multitude of people and organisations across the globe, from Greenpeace to the IPCC, from the Vatican to the young climate strikers in our schools.
And the fourth? Imagine if we are able to renew our world, if we are able to create an Eden of justice and sustainability upon Earth. It’s a marvellous ambition, and many would say unattainable – but just imagine if it were possible – what then? Humans are not built to idle away their lives in Utopia, even if such a Utopia is achievable. Our species needs a project, and what greater project could there be, after we have resolved our issues at home, than the sharing of life with the dead spaces beyond the boundaries of our world? Life gives meaning to a universe of dead matter. Why not take that meaning to places where none has been before?
The moral compass of Intelligent Ethics
A New Way Of Seeing
So far so good. A great number of people will agree with the majority of these aims. But is asserting our commitment to humans, to humanity and to all life enough, if we are still trapped in a world of propaganda, of manipulative language and of dishonesty and division? If we want our society to flourish, or even just to survive, if we are keen to reorganise our world along ethical lines, then we need to be able to penetrate the barrage of information, disinformation, fake news and spin which presents itself to us every day of our lives.
My second book, Ethical Intelligence, outlines techniques for seeing the world clearly and ethically. These can be summarised as follows:
And why not? This has to be preferable to waiting until someone or something else – be it person, algorithm or AI – does your thinking for you.
- Place your thinking in the moral context
If we are to become more ethical then it is essential to question, from a moral perspective, what our social media, our politicians, our news sources and even our friends are encouraging us to agree with or do. How does what is being asked of us fit into what ‘being a moral person’ or ‘behaving with integrity’ means?
- Use the language of understanding
In Ethical Intelligence I argue for the importance of using the language of understanding rather than that of dogmatic opinion or belief. Language such as “My understanding is this…” Or “With the information I have so far it looks as if…” Or even “Help me to understand…”
After all, ‘understanding’ has a built-in implication of tolerance. It encourages communication rather than the use of words to bludgeon or bully. The suggestion is that together we can achieve a mutual understanding. If we have disagreements we can reassess the basics of our understanding, the evidence on which it is based, and reach an improved understanding on which we both agree.
- Be ambitious in your thinking
Why stick with the way things are now or the way “they’ve always been”? Humanity has accomplished wonders and we’ve only just begun. Why not create the beautiful, the astounding, the original? Why not turn our world around and make it work in brand new ways?
In both my books I suggest that honesty is integral to morality. I argue that we must value honesty in our words, in our thinking, in our self-awareness and our actions. We must also value it in the words and actions of others and, particularly, in our leaders and politicians. A dishonest person cannot be moral. A person does not have integrity if they lie. An unethical politician is not a politician in whom to place your trust. A dishonest person is almost by definition a person who may very well let you down.
- Root your thinking in reality
An essential aspect of understanding is its basis on the evidence. The more closely our personal ‘map of the world’ meshes with reality, the more empowered we are in owning our own lives, in understanding what is influencing us, in controlling that influence and in being empowered to contribute to an ethical world.
- Aim for ever greater understanding
Lastly, a central characteristic of understanding is that it can always improve. The rapidly changing world in which we live is one where total, inflexible certainty about just about anything is usually a mistake. Far better to be alert to new evidence and prepared to adapt and improve.
The seven disciplines of Ethical Intelligence
An Ethical Toolkit
I hope that with these two books I have created a toolkit capable of helping people navigate their way through our polarized and conflicted world. I touch on many other issues: the tricks we need to be alert to in propaganda; the lies we tell ourselves; the internal logic of morality, and the social transformation we will need to embrace if we are to be moral. I touch on free will and equality, on the importance of integrity and involvement.
I know that my investigations into what ‘goodness’ means have already changed me. While writing these books I became a vegetarian – not for dietary or health reasons but for ethical ones. I’ve become more politically involved and not just an armchair observer. I’ve begun to attend political meetings and to participate in demonstrations. My determination to try to be a better person has, if anything, increased.
My books are now available on Amazon, and I’m encouraging all those I can reach out to to read them, to share them and to respond to me with their own thoughts and observations about what it means to be moral in the 21st Century. My main social platform is LinkedIn (www.linkedin.com/in/luke-andreski-52166b33) but I have just set up the Twitter account @ethicalrenewal and I can be contacted by email on ie (at) ethicalintelligence (dot) org.
Next on my agenda? To campaign for teaching ethics in schools… and to write a version of my books which children might enjoy.