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.

Augustine’s Confessions, Book 1

Why even learn?

It takes so much time to learn, but it’s worth it, right?

You know, maybe not.

I’m reading St. Augustine’s Confessions, and though it was written 1600 years ago, the way he was taught doesn’t sound all that different from today. (Less focus on STEM.) 

The way he describes how he learned, and why, is a lot like what children are taught today. The effects are similar, too: they’re disastrous. To Augustine, we veer way off course regarding what’s really important when teaching, learning and seeking excellence.

It starts like this. St. Augustine wasn’t born a saint (or maybe he was, I don’t know how that works), he was born a baby. Babies can’t talk, but they make up for that in being very mean. Their meanness gets them what they want until that time they learn to talk.

Being weak, babies’ bodies are harmless, but babies’ minds aren’t harmless. I myself have observed (carefully enough that I know what I’m writing about) a tiny child who was jealous: he couldn’t speak yet, but his face was pale and had a hateful expression as he glared at the child who shared his nurse. Who doesn’t know that this happens?

In Book One, Augustine sets up a process of learning, which starts with learning to talk. Learning to talk comes through repetition and sheer force of desire to get what one (as a baby) wants.

In due course, when I had heard words often in their proper places in a variety of sentences, I gradually deduced what they were symbols for; and once I had tamed my mouth and made it use these symbols, I could announce my wishes through them.

Thus I began to share with those around me the symbols for making wishes known, and I ventured farther from shore on the stormy sea of our common human life—depending on my parents’ authority and the power of people older than myself.

After that, teachers take over. He gets to school and first learns how to read and write, and second learns foreign languages (Greek), literature and rhetoric.

So the progression of learning in Augustine’s society goes like this:

Learning to Talk → Becoming Literate → Literature/Foreign Languages

This is a bad way to order and organize learning.

First, Augustine argues, literacy is a higher skill than being book smart. People don’t just forget how to read and write, even after not doing it for months. People all the time forget the important parts of stories and speeches.

If I were to ask which it would be a greater drawback in this life of ours for any given person to forget, reading and writing or those poetic fairy tales, who (unless he’d forgotten his own existence, i.e., was brain-dead) wouldn’t see what the answer needed to be?

Secondly, what is it that we’re trying to do with all this third-stage learning? It’s not what’s most valuable to Augustine, that’s for sure.

Throughout Book One, Augustine sets up a second progression, that of the value of learning. It goes something like

Getting what you want  →  Understanding the world  →  Being correct and skillful

This is how it works in the world, at least. It’s not the best way. Beyond learning to read and write all teachers care about is being correct and skillful. You’re meant to value this above all else too, and that’s a bad focus. There’s no consideration for whether what you did is true or good.

If someone who upholds and teaches those ancient tenets should, against the rules of the language, pronounce the word homo, or “human being,” without an aspiration in the first syllable, as ’omo, he would offend other human beings more than if, in violation of your decrees, he hated a member of the humanity to which he belongs.

As a mere boy, I sprawled like a forlorn lover on the threshold of such ethics. In this arena, on this wrestling floor, I was more wary of making a mistake in pronunciation than of envying people who didn’t make one when I did.

Teachers, like in Augustine’s language class here, emphasize the value of the quality of your speech and pronunciation more than guiding you on whether what you’re saying is moral.

So we’ll revise our progression on the value of learning. It should be something like

Getting what you want  →  Understanding the world  → Being true and good

That, of course, is not how curricula were set up in the 400s, and maybe less today (more STEM). So learning in school starts as a positive, and looks like it’ll continue to be a path toward excellence or what’s Good. But we veer off. This focus on correctness can actually drive you away from what’s good and true. And to Augustine, away from God.

Well shit. Where does that leave us? I’m not in school, but I do enjoy reading and learning, and I wear learning around as some sort of virtue. Is it? It doesn’t sound like it.

Throughout Book One, Augustine wrestles with this as he recounts his early life. How could it be that what he thought was the right path, what adults told him was valuable, could be so completely blind to the actual path — knowing and becoming closer to God?

Today it’s well worn to think ‘yeah, what society thinks is right probably isn’t.’ But Augustine’s compact dissection of book learning in Book One is fresh, even one and a half millennia later. What is it that we’re doing here?

FOOTNOTE: I’m reading Sarah Ruden’s translation of Confessions, and it’s outstanding and lively. Pick this one up.

My Goal is to Get Zero Emails

Good morning!

I don’t like email. I generally don’t like having email addresses, I don’t like receiving emails, I don’t like having to check and reply to emails.

An email in the inbox could mean anything from nothing to multiple conversations of coordination and followup between multiple people. And they just stack up.

The tone of emails is weird. Tone shifts from email to email from formal to casual, complete to off-hand. The power dynamics in emails (work emails in particular) are opaque. Everyone's received a one line email that you know is going to take you paragraphs and hours to respond to.

So I just don’t want to get emails. (One aside, late last year I did get an email from a middle school friend I hadn’t talked to in decades and it was one of the best parts of 2020. Brad gets a pass.)

I can’t control emails at work, other than to be structured in my own communications and how I process email. I’m always trying to figure out how to better manage work email.

But life email I feel like I’m getting a handle on. Over the past year, I've begun to shrink life email down to the size of a walnut so I can put it in my pocket, and I think I’m getting there.

Here’s how:


Gmail’s not cutting it. It’s got the different tabs now, but the list format still triggers compulsive reading, archiving and cleaning for me. Don’t like having tons of unread emails no matter the tab.

I’ve been trying out Hey (made by the Basecamp crew) and I recently made the splurge ($99/year, ech) to work it for a year.

Hey's been great! Email’s become more of a stop on my reading rounds rather than something I dread opening because it’s full of chores.

Emails aren't tasks or things to do in Hey, they're just content.

Stoop Inbox

I gotta get some newsletters, but email’s just not a good format to receive or read those. I use Stoop as an inbox just for newsletters. Ithas an app and it’s just become part of my app rounds like Twitter or a news app. Better than that, the stuff I don’t read can just pile up and be passively archived without me worrying about it.


By default, I look to unsubscribe to any email that comes in. I relish defeating the dark patterns that try to get you to stay subscribed. I treat well-meaning nonprofits the same as the biggest enterprise email list: if one email isn’t something I’m actively happy to see, I am OK never seeing their emails again. At first you feel like ‘well I’ve been interested in some of their stuff. This is a cool nonprofit or small business I want to support’ but trust me: shed the guilt. I’ve never missed out on an email.

What I’d Love to See

Decouple my calendar from my email

I don't want to think about my schedule while I'm processing emails. I'd love it if calendar apps got better for processing incoming invites and scheduling. The email address as the marker for who you're inviting to something will likely have to stay, but beyond that I don't want to think about my calendar in my email workflow, and I'd like a sane calendar workflow that does not involve my inbox. 

Improve my newsletter experience

I love me some Stoop Inbox, but newsletters still feel weird as a separate stop in my content rounds. Part of me still wants it part of something else. Hey has a cool feature called The Feed which treats emails as almost a social feed where missing things is OK and implied. But there's still a grey area for me with newsletters where they're not quite "important emails" but I do want to make sure I get to them. 

I'd actually love if Pocket gave me an email I could sign up for newsletters with and just pipe them in there. But I could also see moving my newsletter subscriptions over to Hey at some point with a new feature or two added. 

Work email is a whole 'nother beast that I have had to use different tactics to manage. I've cracked it less than personal email, so if you have any tips let me know!

I made a book list

I made a list of the books I most often recommend, re-read and reminisce on.

Making the list was fun. I want to put down the books I’m reading now and dig back in to a few of these.

Seeing it all laid out is also itchy and uncomfortable, in that I feel like it’s reflecting something about me that’s a bit left of how I see myself…

I’ll think more on that. In the meantime, I think you’re liable to find something really enjoyable in here. Take a look.

Hello World

It’s about time to start a newsletter.

So here’s the deal. My current concept is to pull together articles around nature, technology or government every week or two, and send them around so we can all make a little more sense of things.

We’re gonna keep this casual. Terms subject to change. Let’s have some fun.

Image by John Karel.

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