The best ethical ideas of the year?
Foreign Policy magazine recently released its annual list of the top 100 global thinkers of the year. The members included a wide range of activists, scientists, politicians, academics and businesspeople, but what most interested me was a sidebar feature. The feature consists of a half-dozen questions that were posed to each person on the list, including what was the best idea they heard this year. This made me wonder, more specifically, what are the best ethical ideas of recent years? There is often scepticism about the possibility of real moral progress, but are there some standout ideas that point to real forward movement in the moral realm?
While most on the Foreign Policy list cited scientific or economic ideas, a number could be classified as properly ethical. Here are some of them (the name refers to the person citing the idea, not the originator of the idea):
- Chen Guangchen: “The determination of China’s common people.”
- Rima Dali: “”The means we use must be as pure as the ends we seek.” –Martin Luther King Jr.”
- Andrew Ng: “More Pell Grants. Students should not have to choose between paying for college and paying for groceries.”
- Norman Ornstein: “A lottery prize for voting.”
- Mohammad Fahad al-Qahtani: “The increasing possibility of political change in Saudi Arabia that will bring about democracy.”
- Nabeel Rajab: “We got rid of some autocratic tyrants during the Arab Spring.”
- Jameel Jaffer: “The Arab Spring was a good idea, and still is.”
- Husain Haqqani: “Containment of totalitarian Islamism.”
- Kiyoshi Kurokawa: “Critical Importance of human wisdom.”
- Adela Navarro Bello: “Rich people paying more taxes.”
- Roger Dingledine: “Holding Western corporations accountable for selling censorship and surveillance tools to dictators.”
- Jocelyn Wyatt:” Slavery Footprint’s Made in a Free World platform for businesses to eradicate forced labor in their supply chains.”
- Martha Nussbaum: “For me, the best ideas are always subtle and complicated ideas, and not always new, so: John Rawls’s idea of “Political Liberalism,” Peter Strawson’s idea of the importance of the “reactive attitudes” in human freedom, Rabindranath Tagore’s proposal for a global culture of imagination, emotion, and justice.”
- Sana Saleem: “raiding an office used for spying on civilians, reclaiming your private data, and exposing the criminals. The Egyptian people, this one’s for you.”
On examination, a large number of those ideas are not entirely new – this is especially true of Nussbaum and Dali, who cited now-deceased thinkers, but also holds for many of the other suggestions. Liberal democracy, progressive taxation and peaceful protest are not themselves new ideas. However, it is quite reasonable to suggest that many of the applications are new. Most salient here is the Arab Spring. The novelty is not the idea of protesting and replacing totalitarian regimes with democracies, but rather the widespread acceptance of that idea in regions that previously appeared relatively ambivalent towards democracy. This is, I believe, the real shape of moral progress – large-scale uptake of sound moral ideas.
Still, there are more clearly novel ethical ideas worth mentioning. I would personally suggest the idea of the professional philanthropist (or ‘earning to give’) that recently emerged from the folks at 80,000 Hours and has previously been proposed on this blog. The idea is that one of the most effective ways to make a positive impact on the world in one’s lifetime is to devote one’s career towards making as much money as possible, but give away the bulk of that money to the most effective charities. This is not a completely new idea, to be sure – people like Zell Kravinsky have already been living this sort of life, and it is arguably a corollary of Singerian ideas that the well-off have very strong obligations to use their resources to assist the global poor – but the compelling and sustained arguments that have accompanied it are, to my mind, relatively new and quite persuasive.
I suspect that’s just the tip of the iceberg – readers, what do you think are the best new ethical ideas, or best new applications of old ethical ideas?