Classic Rock is classic not because it’s old but because its creators strove for and achieved timelessness with their art. Similarly, great ideas in philosophy don’t have a ‘sell by date.’ When thinking about a framework for ethics one ought to start looking for what matters and to do that one ought to start with what mattered first. Some of the greatest teachers of ethics lived between 2000 and 2600 years ago. In each case they lived in milieus that were violent, cosmopolitan and rapidly changing. Their influence has shaped our identities and very selves and continues to ground thought and policy around the world today.
While there are clear differences in how Aristotle, Confucius, Lao Tze and Hillel the Elder taught ethics, they shared some remarkable commonalities. In each case they strove to set ego aside and grasp what is real, without preconception or prejudice. The central aspect of Confucian teaching is to follow a moral path and to participate in the ennobling of society through virtue. Aristotle concurred insofar as his ethics are all about understanding how to act virtuously. Both of them exemplified humility and actions consistent with their scholarship and teaching but nobody did this more than did Hillel, who may have been the greatest of all rabbis. For Hillel, law was not some dry set of rules that were all about avoiding contamination or error; rather it is about giving full expression of love through action for creation and participating in God’s work out of gratitude. Much of what the Christians later said was an echo of this philosophy, which was also infused with Zoroastrianism. For Lao Tze, the world we get caught up in had become too complex and a need to return to simplicity was the only sensible or practical response to a universe that does as it wills, not as we would like. Followers of Taoism, of which Lao is the great old master, may have branched into epicureanism or fetishism, but the central message of the Tao Te Ching is one of doing by not doing (wu wei) and letting things and yourself be. To interpret Taoist words is often supererogation. It is far better to just let them wash over you and then reflect. However, though there were disagreements between the followers of Confucius, who wanted to do well in the world by doing right, and the Taoists, who wanted to live well by not caring about pedestrian notions of morality, the deeper similarities between them are like those of the Pharisees and Essenes of Hillel’s time. For all of these teachers, ethics is another way of learning to live in a way that is consistent with right belief, which is both transcendent and absolute and yet must be grounded in reality if it is not to be worse than useless. Remarkably, reading all of them, one can arrive at an amazingly consistent conception of what this means in thought and deed.
For any ethical framework that has to do with how information is used to guide, support or possibly destroy the lives of people and the shape of things, nothing could be more important than to decide what is real, what precisely constitutes virtue and how this can be acquired. To be grounded in what mattered first in ethics means to consider how the framework fits into a timeless representation of what is good. We will come back to this repeatedly as we go, but my conclusion at the outset is simple: to say of ethics that it is value-free or value-neutral, or even extremely relativistic, is nonsensical from the standpoint of what its greatest teachers believed, taught and lived.