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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?

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3 Comment on this post

  1. One genuinely new idea is that non-human animals should be seen as members of human political communities, who are owed both legal rights and forms of political representation. This view is advanced in Will Kymlicka and Sue Donaldson’s new book, Zoopolis. They argue that not only do non-human animals have certain basic universal rights (not to be tortured and killed, for example) they also have rights depending on the relations they have to other humans. DK think we have special and different positive obligations to domesticated animals, “liminal” animals (who live in human communities but don’t seek out relations with humans), and wild animals.

    To many readers, I’m sure, this idea will sound crazy. But I don’t think it is. And I think Kymlicka/Donaldon’s book will likely spark a new interest in thinking about the place of nonhuman animals in our political communities.

  2. I wonder whether we shouldn’t turn this upside-down and ask whether human animals should be seen as members of multi-animal political communities, who are owed both legal rights and forms of political representation. The difficulty with this view is that it is unlikely that other animals would accept human animals that torture and kill systematically, for example.
    To many readers, I’m sure, this idea will sound crazy. But I don’t think it is. It is likely that, at least for the immediate future, it will not be possible to accept humans as the ethical equals of us termites.

  3. I have my doubts about the professional philanthropist model. It seems like a model based on excess, since by getting too much money you will be probably causing a lot of externalities that can cause more harm than the aid will you be able to give donating your profit. Which is pretty much an impediment of following the Luther King’s advice quoted above. The means you use will not be pure if you will have a main role in global economy. If you think gates foundation as a professional philanthropic enterprise by excellence you get the idea. In their approach to aid they made arrangements with gigantic enterprises as monsanto. Throughout this partnership they oblige the people who will be aided to use monsanto’s patented crops. Thus the cultivators find themselves under the legal control of monsanto whose choices cannot at all be said to be altruistic. Maybe taxation, another solution proposed above, is a better solution, but only if you assume that public policies for the development of poor communities will not be driven by the personal interests of politics. I believe the idea of expanding the circle (of moral consideration) advocated nowadays by Peter Singer (but can be traced way back) is a good one because it can act as a compelling moral adviser both to public taxes implementators and professional philanthropists.

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