Building Ethically Proactive Communities

In April, my pandemic was winding down (for the first time…) and I was ready to get back into the world. I started joining. A political group, a neighborhood group, an exercise group. I wanted to be around some new people.

Some threw me in as one of the group right off the bat. Other organizations invited me to structured welcome sessions where they made sure I understood their norms.

All these groups were, in their way, showing me how their community culture dealt with ethics and ethical problems.

Ethics are powerful within communities, but more complicated when ethics are happening among a group.

I tend to think about ethics as a lens to use to see What’s Right. People use ethics, skillfully or not, to make decisions based on ideas, issues and solutions to problems that they come into contact with.

Under this framework, there are moral tenets that are absolute and discrete. Defying these means you’re doing something wrong. People with a better understanding of ethics have better access to these truths, make better decisions and live better.

A lot of basic ethical philosophy is probing and arguing this framework. The focus is on an individuals' relationship with the Truth.

In application, ethics doesn’t work like this. Ethics is more often enacted within and among communities. Individuals can be part of many communities, and have different ethical norms that dictate what they do in each.

Ethics in this sense is less like a lens offering a better or worse view of something true, it’s a membrane that surrounds the community. A community either accepts or rejects ideas, issues and solutions to problems using their ethics.

Agreed-upon norms are essential to being a community. Every community has issues they decide on and accept as a group, or else they wouldn’t be a community. And every community has a shared ethics, whether they acknowledge it or not.

Ethics here are a way of deciding what is acceptable or not in a community. Often it’s a conversation or a debate communities have as they approach issues that arise.

Hardly any of the groups I joined earlier this year would say they had a set of ethical norms. Most don’t feel that ethics is even something they deal with. But they do. Once a group acknowledges that, and acknowledges that ethics influence group decisions, they can become an ethically proactive community.

An ethically proactive community is one that discusses, documents and dissects the ethical decisions it's making. Through this, the community creates a set of shared norms.

Being ethically proactive, communities can then make ethical progress. Ethically progressive communities work to improve their frameworks and norms.

Having a strong sense of ethics in a community can help create positive communities. Positive communities beget positive communities, as people spread norms to other groups.

How can you encourage your communities to become ethically proactive? (Tactics for being ethically progressive we'll leave for another post.)

Becoming proactive with ethics is straightforward, a community only needs to

  1. Acknowledge they’re working within a set of ethics

  2. Discuss what those are both generally and as they apply to issues that arise ahead of a community

This doesn’t have to be daunting. You don’t need to decide as a group whether to be utilitarian or deontological or something. It can start with a conversation on how do we treat one another? What are our obligations to one another? Who is in our community? What other communities does ours interact with?

These types of questions and the conversations that follow will help create understanding about

  • what we expect between members of our group

  • what is in the scope of our community, and

  • how our group affects the wider world

And with that, your community will no longer be acting with a blind sense of ethics. You'll have more of a shared understanding of what ethics means to your group, and a foundation for building something better.

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