Monday, May 21, 2012

Post-Christian ethics, or: How to be a "good person" without an absolute moral code

I used to read the bible a lot (note the resemblance of my hair to a Hershey's Kiss). 

I recently met someone who struck me as a really "good person" and, in my bout of idealized esteem for this person, felt that I wasn't "good enough" to deserve for him to think the same thing about me. This sounds like your run-of-the-mill low self-esteem insecurity problem, but I don't think that's what it is -- I think that I logically believe that I am lacking in the "being a good person" department, and have been for years.

Why would I think this about myself? Let me give a little background information:

I was a conservative Christian from the ages of 13 to 19 -- some very formative years. During this time, I adopted the standard conservative Christian ethical living guidelines (lets call them SCCELGs, "skelgs"):

-No drinking

-No drugs (with the exception of the widely accepted caffeine, and possibly others)

-No swearing

-No lying

-No blaspheming

-No sex until marriage

-No non-heterosexual anything, etc.

Of course it was hard to adhere to such strict rules, but in one way it was easier than the alternative: I didn't have to determine moral guidelines for myself; they were just given to me (by other Christians).

There were some times that I had to Think For Myself about how to apply the SCCELGs in a certain situation, but for the most part, moral decision making was very black and white (i.e. "I will not try alcohol because it is wrong").

Then, when I decided I was no longer a Christian at the age of 19 (this meme sums up my reasoning), I had to come up with my own, personalized set of ethical living guidelines (ELGs, rhymes with "skelgs").

In my quest for my own ELGs, it seemed fitting to try things out before writing them off as "immoral" (with some exceptions, like murder) so I decided that it was okay if I made mistakes and did things I would later determine to be "bad" in the process of trying to figure out my ethical living guidelines.

Two years later, I am surprised to find that I am still living by this "try to do good, but if you don't know whether something is good or bad, try it" principle.

What I didn't realize when I first came up with this principle was that I will probably never decide on an absolute, complete, timeless set of ELGs -- which means that this "phase" of experimentation (and leeway for wrongdoing) could last the rest of my life.

So how do I hold myself to a high moral standard when I don't have an absolute set of ethical living guidelines? Well, I have a few ideas:

1. Rather than trying really hard to avoid making mistakes, I will make an effort to do the most good I can, with an emphasis on treating people well in everyday life. I'll remind myself to enjoy doing good things for others, not "cut corners."

2. Listen to my gut feeling more. The things I've done recently that I ended up regretting were all done when I was extremely unsure to the point of being hesitant. I'll raise the bar a tiny bit for how sure I should be before trying something: I should at least be at "totally unsure," not at "leaning towards no."
Spectrum of Certainty

3. Keep actively working on figuring out my ethical living guidelines. Even though I don't see myself declaring a set of ELGs that are as absolute and complete as the ones I knew as a Christian, I do think that I can come up with some guidelines to use as a starting point for ethical decision making. For example, I see myself eventually making a decision about whether or not I think drinking is a good thing for me (I like drinking, I don't generally do too much regrettable stuff when I'm drunk, but what about the time I was drunk and my friend was having a major crisis and I couldn't drive to see him? Should I refrain from drinking in order to always be available to meet the needs of the people I love in case they need me?)

4. Figure out some sort of way of being spiritual. I'm not looking to be religious, but I think a spiritual life can be rewarding and nourishing to my sense of self. I find that nature makes me feel spiritually fulfilled, so I intend to focus my spiritual pursuits around it.

How do you figure out your ethical living guidelines? Whether you're religious or not, it takes some intense consideration. What works for you? Is there anything you want to try to work toward being more ethical?

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

The 6 things I could never do without, or: OkCupid life lessons

I joined OkCupid a couple of months ago (not in search of a partner, just to meet new people for fun) and one of the profile prompts is "The six things I could never do without."

I quickly wrote a list off the top of my head while filling out my profile and found it to be sort of eye-opening in the way that it summarized my life. It felt like creating a mind map of my life. What I came up with in about 2 minutes felt really accurate and complete -- and it helped me to see what's most important to me.

Here are my six things:

1. Human interaction.

2. Inter-species interaction. (It turned out the duck didn't want me to touch it.)

3. Warm, sunny days.

4. Nature.

5. A means to explore various places (i.e. a car or bike -- I'm hoping to transition from car to bike).

6. Aspirations. I need something to work toward; how would I feel fulfilled without making and possibly reaching goals?

What are your six?

And did you find the process of contemplating it illuminating?