Tragically, our world is a complete and utter mess. Serious disasters and threats are everywhere. How do we even begin to list them all?
They include rapidly accelerating climate change, divisive politics and extreme polarization, racism and discrimination, expanding economic inequality, out of control gun violence, and a mental health tsunami of epic proportions where anxiety, depression, suicidality and substance abuse are everywhere.
We live in very difficult and frightening times for sure. While the world has always experienced serious problems and threats, our current ones seem apocalyptic with human extinction and complete chaos a realistic possibility. Remarkably, most of our problems are preventable and are actually self-inflicted. The root cause is human behavior and in particular poor ethical decision-making. Too often, the darker angels of our nature overwhelm the better angels of our nature. Our selfishness, lack of compassion, inability to feel or care about the pain of others, and refusal to put aside our egoism for the benefit of the common good drive our behaviors creating crises wherever we look. When we live a life that is all about me, we ultimately destroy life for everyone, including ourselves.
Perhaps our only hope to reverse these disturbing trends is to dramatically embrace better ethical decision making on a massive scale. This is no easy task, and our prognosis for doing so is poor. No one wants to be told what to do and to be criticized for their decisions. In fact, when I was recently shopping an ethics book proposal around to publishers, I was told by one editor that, “No one will read a book on ethics since no one thinks that they have an ethics problem. If anything, people think other people have ethical problems, not them.” Oy!
I believe that there are three critical ethical principles that we should all embrace for our well-being and survival.
The first is the Golden Rule, treating others as you wish to be treated. Although most people know and agree with the Golden Rule, few seem to actually implement it. We need to create a culture where the Golden Rule is the expectation and norm for interacting with each other.
Second, we need to use whatever gifts, talents and desires that we have to be part of the solution rather than part of the problem. We all need to ask ourselves what can we realistically do to help create a more humane, just and sustainable world. There is a lot of talent and desire out there that could really help to develop a better world for everyone. People generally like helping others and being part of something that feels good and important. Could we commit to using our talents for the greater good?
The third principle is to embrace the notion that all life, including all people, is sacred and important — treating each other and our planet with nurturance, care and even reverence. This is harder in our polarized world where we are quick to dismiss and cancel anyone who has views different from our own. We are quick to categorize ourselves and others into competing camps rather than seeing all of us as unique individuals. Can we look to others, even those we do not like or agree with, with an attempt at understanding and even compassion. We don’t have to like or agree with everyone, but we could at least be respectful to and considerate of all. These ethical principles are easy to say yet hard to do, but embracing them on a massive scale might be the only way to ultimately save ourselves from ourselves.
Thomas G. Plante is the Augustin Cardinal Bea SJ professor of psychology at Santa Clara University and an adjunct clinical professor of psychiatry at the Stanford University
School of Medicine. He published his ethics book, “Living Ethically in an Unethical World,” in August.
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