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What do you use as a guide to “common sense” or “everyday ethics”?

I think people in EA often recommend against using EA to guide your everyday decision-making. I think the standard advice is “don’t sweat the small stuff” and apply EA thinking to big life decisions like your career choice or annual donations. EA doesn’t have much to say and isn’t a great guide to think about how you behave with your friends and family or in your community.

I’m curious, as a group of people who take ethics seriously, are there other frameworks or points of reference that you use to help you make decisions in your personal life?

I feel like “stoicism” is a common one and I’ve enjoyed learning about this. I suspect religion is another common answer for others. Are there others?

Something I try to use sometimes but not very consistently is something like:

"If this section of my life was a short story or a movie, would normal people think of me as a good character?"

Where by "a good character" I mean morally good/nice, and not interesting or complex.

This heuristic isn't perfect because it likely overweights act/omission distinctions and as you imply, is a bad choice for big life decisions (Having a direct impact on individuals is likely a bad compass for altruistic career choice, grant decisions should not be decided by who has a more compelling story). I also think everyday ethics overvalues niceness and undervalues some types of honesty. But I think it's a decent heuristic that can't go very wrong as a representation of broad societal norm/ethics, which are probably "good enough" for most everyday decisions.

  1. Abadar: People shouldn't regret trading with me.
  2. Keltham: Don't cause messes just because nobody is policing me, which causes an incentive to police me more.

I felt this thread needs some extra trolling, sry

I don't have any great answers for this, but my not very well thought-out response is to say that virtue ethics tends to be helpful (such as the ideas of stoicism, for which Massimo Pigliucci's book is a decent introduction). I think about the kind of person I want to be, how I want others to see me, and so on.

There are some ways in which ideas of stoicism have some overlap with Buddhism (mainly Buddhist psychology) in the area of awareness of our reactions, what is/isn't within our control, and recognizing the interconnectedness of things. However, but since I know so little about Buddhism I'm not sure to what extent my perception of this similarity is simply "western pop Buddhism." My impression is that much of "western pop Buddhism" is focused on being calm and being cognizant of your locus of control (Alan Watts, Jack Kornfield, and everything derived from Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction[1]). As a white American guy who lived in China for a decade, I'm also very aware of and cautious of the stereotypes of westerners seeking "Eastern wisdom."

If I push myself to be a little more concrete, I think that being considerate is really big in my mind, as is some type of striving for improvement. I generally find that moral philosophy hasn't been much help in the minutia of day-to-day life (how do I figure out how much responsibility I have for this professional failure that I was involved in, at what point is it justified to stop trying in a relationship, how honest should I be when I discover something, how should I balance loyalty to a friend with each individual being responsible for their own actions, to what extent should I take ownership of someone choosing to react negatively to my words/actions, and so on).

  1. ^

    McMindfulness: How Mindfulness Became the New Capitalist Spirituality was a pretty good critique of this.

Thanks Joseph! I’ll check out Massimo Pigliucci.

I like your concrete examples. Would be curious if other people have principles which guide how they act in response to those questions.

I personally stick to the golden rule, it has many iterations and for good reason, my personal favorite being the Mosaic version: “Whatever is hurtful to you, do not do to any other”. Very simple, very helpful. 

I like this framework - "The Lazy Genius guide to nearly everything, but I'm too lazy to count".  It says to decide once for all the small stuff (like what to wear to the store or what to order for lunch) so you can enjoy the moment.

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