Sunday, July 3, 2011

A new book on ethics and human values

July. No blog for months. But I have not been idle. I have been writing another book. Four years ago, after I wrote Human Values and Ethics in the Workplace, I realised that I also wanted to have a concise version of its key concepts, as a complement to the more academic approach of that book. Finally, I have got around to it, and it's been taking shape over the past few months.
The book is called The Little Book of Ethics, on the basis that you should try to call things what they are. It has no referencing; it just presents, in plain English, what I think are the core concepts of a constructive, practical approach to ethics. It has a sub-title: "A human values approach". There are eight short chapters, plus a self-awareness exercise and a "Frequently asked questions" section. (How 21st century, I thought.) It's about 100 pages in all.

Researching people's perceptions of ethics
I've also started a PhD in business ethics at University of Notre Dame in Sydney. My research will look at people's experience of ethics - what kinds of things do people say when they are talking about issues they see as ethical? The whole idea of talking about ethics in terms of human values is, I think, central to people's "ordinary conceptions" of ethics. I don't think people generally resort to the language that moral philosophers use, like deontology, utilitarianism or virtue ethics.
Sure, the moral philosophers might say that this is because people are generally uneducated in matters of morals. But I say that most people do understand the nature of ethical issues, even if they are confused about particular issues, and even if they haven't given ethics a great deal of specific reflection.
Until I finished The Little Book of Ethics, I thought I was on my own in this. Discussions I've had with moral philosophers and teachers of business ethics had left me thinking I was the only one who thought that starting with people's ordinary conceptions of ethics was a sensible thing to do. When people talk about ethics, in my perception, they are usually trying to focus on the question of how you should live your life, in the biggest sense. That extends beyond questions about contravening ethical rules to your aspirations for yourself, such as what career you will pursue, your attitude towards money, and how important kindness is to you.

Me and the moral philosophers
Moral philosophers instead tend to focus on the rules for making decisions when faced with ethical dilemmas. The first time I thought this was off track was when I realised that most ethical dilemmas are not ethical dilemmas at all. People are confronted with situations where it is quite clear that the action in question is unethical. The dilemma is what to do about it, and that is a question that is about qualities like prudence, astuteness and courage. Moral philosophy generally has very little to say about these things.
After I finished The Little Book of Ethics, I discovered that there are moral philosophers who have had similar thoughts. Tim Chappell, for example, has written Ethics and Experience: Life beyond moral theory. It's on Amazon at I couldn't have thought of a better title. I'm looking forward to reading it when it arrives.
Some people are uncomfortable with an approach to ethics that doesn't seem to rest on an a"uthoritative" principle. They argue that God has to underwrite ethics, otherwise all ethics is relative. Or there has to be a persuasive basis in reason, such as Kant's absolute, universal principles.
Tim Chappell says that the most persuasive foundation for principles of behaviour is thinking about the nature of ourselves. If you were a whale and you asked "How should life be lived?", your answer would probably include plenty of plankton, cool, deep unpolluted oceans, the company of other blue whales, and complete absence of Japanese fishing vessels.
For humans, the answer, I think, lies in thinking how life works for all of us, so The Little Book of Ethics talks about ethics as the concern for the well-being of others, and having regard to living harmoniously with "all that is".

When will the book be available?
The book is coming soon. It will be available through Purchasing books there is easy, and orders are delivered around the world very promptly, because they are printed on demand in the country where the order is placed. Wow.
I have an Author Page on Lulu, where all my books are available. See
My books are slowly making their way onto Amazon too. You can buy The Ten Thousand Things there, and Sustenance right now.
Next time I want to talk about the chapter I have written for a book due out soon, on "Adventures in manifesting"....In the meantime, enjoy.

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