The Ethic Hierarchy

What being ethical actually means.

Can you write about something, completely sidestepping the question why it exists, what causes it? I think so. Newton had no explanation for the cause of gravity (Hypotheses non fingo), but that didn’t stop him from writing about it – and doing a great job.

Perhaps it’s not so stupid then to write about what ethics actually looks like, bypassing entirely what makes something ethical, or even if it’s worth being ethical.

Not Doing Bad

Right at the bottom of the ethic pyramid is the concept of the ‘asshole’. By asshole I mean a person who pointlessly or selfishly injures another. The words pointlessly and selfishly differentiate categories of assholes.

The pointless inflictor of pain is the sadist, the prime asshole. A person who injures another for no other reason than that he derives happiness from the suffering he inflicts. The archetype is perhaps a bully – not the one who bullies in public to build his status, but the one who bullies in private, and bullies someone who can in no way harm him, nor even offer him anything.

An active asshole inflicts needless suffering. A passive asshole, as opposed to an active one, is an asshole who doesn’t inflict the suffering himself, but derives pleasure from the knowledge of it. Perhaps he doesn’t inflict it himself because he’s afraid of the consequences – in that case the only difference between the two is that the passive asshole is a coward.

The second word was selfish. The selfish inflictor of pain injures, not because the act of injuring or the suffering of someone gives him pleasure, but in order to gain something for himself. Archetypes of this category of asshole abound – from rapists to thieves to tyrants.

What is common to assholes is the view that they are the center of the universe, that other people, so far as they exist, exist only as a means to their own ends. Completely subordinate, as extras in a movie where I am the hero, NPCs in a video-game where I am the player, and therefore perfectly legitimate targets to be harnessed to benefit the main character.

Such selfishness or pointlessness is not untouched by presumptuousness, by arrogance, that another creature, another human, exists only as a tool for your use. The rapist who inflicts unimaginable pain simply to satisfy his lust, the thief who deprives another of hard-earned wealth to indulge his greed, the despot who sends masses to their deaths, destroying families and cities to build his so-called empire.

Being self-centered doesn’t make someone an asshole – it’s not a sufficient condition, not all self-centered people are assholes (such as a loner). But it is a necessary one – assholes are self centered.

Perhaps some level of self-centeredness is in-built in us, as David Foster Wallace put it in his speech, This is Water.

Here is just one example of the total wrongness of something I tend to be automatically sure of: everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute centre of the universe; the realest, most vivid and important person in existence. We rarely think about this sort of natural, basic self-centredness because it’s so socially repulsive. But it’s pretty much the same for all of us. It is our default setting, hard-wired into our boards at birth. Think about it: there is no experience you have had that you are not the absolute centre of. The world as you experience it is there in front of YOU or behind YOU, to the left or right of YOU, on YOUR TV or YOUR monitor. And so on. Other people’s thoughts and feelings have to be communicated to you somehow, but your own are so immediate, urgent, real...

The point is that petty, frustrating crap like this is exactly where the work of choosing is gonna come in. Because the traffic jams and crowded aisles and long checkout lines give me time to think, and if I don’t make a conscious decision about how to think and what to pay attention to, I’m gonna be pissed and miserable every time I have to shop. Because my natural default setting is the certainty that situations like this are really all about me. About MY hungriness and MY fatigue and MY desire to just get home, and it’s going to seem for all the world like everybody else is just in my way. And who are all these people in my way? And look at how repulsive most of them are, and how stupid and cow-like and dead-eyed and nonhuman they seem in the checkout line, or at how annoying and rude it is that people are talking loudly on cell phones in the middle of the line. And look at how deeply and personally unfair this is...

Except thinking this way tends to be so easy and automatic that it doesn’t have to be a choice. It is my natural default setting. It’s the automatic way that I experience the boring, frustrating, crowded parts of adult life when I’m operating on the automatic, unconscious belief that I am the centre of the world, and that my immediate needs and feelings are what should determine the world’s priorities..

David Foster Wallace

Often, one is pushed towards being somewhat of an asshole – the selfish kind, not the pointless kind (that’s self-determined). A thief who robs only to feed his family, for example, is different both in degree and in kind, because both the consequences and the intentions differentiate him from the selfish asshole. A difference of degree – he steals the bare minimum, and a difference of kind – that he regrets his actions, and more importantly, the suffering he knows it will cause.

The base of the ethic hierarchy then, is ‘Not being an asshole’.

Making Allowances for Bad

The next stage, after not being an asshole, is tolerating one. Can you make allowances for assholes?

The thing is that, of course, there are totally different ways to think about these kinds of situations. In this traffic, all these vehicles stopped and idling in my way, it’s not impossible that some of these people in SUV’s have been in horrible auto accidents in the past, and now find driving so terrifying that their therapist has all but ordered them to get a huge, heavy SUV so they can feel safe enough to drive. Or that the Hummer that just cut me off is maybe being driven by a father whose little child is hurt or sick in the seat next to him, and he’s trying to get this kid to the hospital, and he’s in a bigger, more legitimate hurry than I am: it is actually I who am in HIS way.

Or I can choose to force myself to consider the likelihood that everyone else in the supermarket’s checkout line is just as bored and frustrated as I am, and that some of these people probably have harder, more tedious and painful lives than I do...

But most days, if you’re aware enough to give yourself a choice, you can choose to look differently at this fat, dead-eyed, over-made-up lady who just screamed at her kid in the checkout line. Maybe she’s not usually like this. Maybe she’s been up three straight nights holding the hand of a husband who is dying of bone cancer. Or maybe this very lady is the low-wage clerk at the motor vehicle department, who just yesterday helped your spouse resolve a horrific, infuriating, red-tape problem through some small act of bureaucratic kindness. Of course, none of this is likely, but it’s also not impossible. It just depends what you want to consider. If you’re automatically sure that you know what reality is, and you are operating on your default setting, then you, like me, probably won’t consider possibilities that aren’t annoying and miserable. But if you really learn how to pay attention, then you will know there are other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down.

David Foster Wallace

How does someone make such allowances?

Please don’t worry that I’m getting ready to lecture you about compassion or other-directedness or all the so-called virtues. This is not a matter of virtue. It’s a matter of my choosing to do the work of somehow altering or getting free of my natural, hard-wired default setting which is to be deeply and literally self-centered and to see and interpret everything through this lens of self. People who can adjust their natural default setting this way are often described as being “well-adjusted”, which I suggest to you is not an accidental term.


By ‘adjusting’ one’s natural default setting. Which is simply ceasing to see yourself as the center of the universe. Not ceasing to see yourself at all (that’s self-abnegation), but simply seeing yourself, and others, as ordinary planets and stars in the universe. Removing the hero-extra dichotomy of movies or the Player-NPC dichotomy of games.

And that’s the same quality that’s needed to not be an asshole – the ability to not see everything as revolving around you. Which means that not being an asshole is a necessary condition to make allowances for one. It’s necessary because by definition an asshole is incapable of such adjustment, believing everyone and everything to be meant for his personal convenience. But it’s not sufficient, because it’s possible to not be an asshole and yet not be able to tolerate one.

It’s very clear that you don’t want to tolerate all the assholes all the time – if you start condoning blatant abuse, crime, violence, theft you get treated as a doormat, creating an open invitation to more assholes, and a negative spiral.

But it might be worth condoning some of the assholes some of the time, particularly where there isn’t any real harm. Someone who talks rudely, or someone speaking loudly on their phone. A person’s rudeness doesn’t really affect me, if anything it tells me something about them – that they’re probably better avoided. Some people are just incapable of understanding that their loud conversations can annoy others. Expecting them to see that is like expecting a lion to see the suffering it causes the family of its prey – in other words, beyond their mental wavelength.

There is a rather nice story of two monks walking from one village to another and they come upon a young girl sitting on the bank of a river, crying. And one of the monks goes up to her and says, ‘Sister, what are you crying about?’ She says, ‘You see that house over there across the river? I came over this morning early and had no trouble wading across but now the river has swollen and I can’t get back. There is no boat.’ Oh,’ says the monk, ‘that is no problem at all’, and he picks her up and carries her across the river and leaves her on the other side. And the two monks go on together. After a couple of hours, the other monk says, ‘Brother, we have taken a vow never to touch a woman. What you have done is a terrible sin. Didn’t you have pleasure, a great sensation, in touching a woman?’ and the other monk replies, ‘I left her behind two hours ago. You are still carrying her, aren’t you?’ That is what we do. We carry our burdens all the time; we never die to them, we never leave them behind.

Freedom from the Known, Jiddu Krishnamurti

It’s worth it for this reason alone, that not making an allowance means carrying the burden with me, at least for a while. That’s not even to do with ethics of any sort, but simple selfish interest. And making allowances doesn’t have to mean doing nothing – I can just tell them they’re rude, they’re loud, without adding them to my mental baggage.

Another part of making allowances is to avoid pinning the blame on innocents – not using people as punching bags to vent your frustration. If I get a defective product, it’s hardly likely it’s the delivery guy’s fault – he just takes what he’s given to the address he’s told. If the food sucks, it’s not the waiter’s fault – he didn’t make it. If there’s a long queue at the checkout, it’s not the fault of the person at the counter that so many people chose to shop at the same time. That’s only logical. Raging at someone who didn’t cause the problem, and probably can’t do anything to solve it, is stupid.

Doing Good

After not being an asshole, and being able to make allowances for assholes, you finally come to a more active form of ethics – doing good.

(It’s worth mentioning that ‘stopping bad’ is a subset of ‘doing good’. Perhaps a very demanding one, seeing as it involves confronting and facing the consequences of the bad oneself in order to shield others from it).

I can’t speak for humanity, but I think I would do good primarily if either of two conditions are satisfied.

The first is if I don’t lose much, meaning it doesn’t cost me anything substantial to help. Sometimes I don’t care much, and yet I might do something, usually because it’s not a big exertion on my part – it doesn’t cost me anything. This is doing good if it doesn’t cost you much.

And the so-called real world will not discourage you from operating on your default settings, because the so-called real world of men and money and power hums merrily along in a pool of fear and anger and frustration and craving and worship of self. Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom all to be lords of our tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the centre of all creation. This kind of freedom has much to recommend it. But of course there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talk about much in the great outside world of wanting and achieving…. The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day.


The second is if I get something out of it, meaning it’s something I want to do for some reason. Sometimes you go to lengths to help someone because you care about them, or because you strongly wish to, which makes it ‘worth’ the effort.

This is the next level of the ethic hierarchy – going out of your way to help.

It’s easy to recognize how it looks. A person flying across continents to take care of someone, a person volunteering hours to do something, someone giving up money or freedom or opportunity or anything precious for something or someone.

How it feels is something I wouldn’t know because I think I’ve hardly, if ever, done it myself. Sometimes you hear about people going to incredible lengths to do something for others. The thought that always strikes my mind is how differently they must be constituted from me. Perhaps that’s what not being self-centered must be like.

Of course, you could argue that there is no such thing as a true ‘sacrifice‘ – you give up something, but only in order to get something you consider more valuable, so what differentiates this from the previous level? The difference is that, even if it’s to get something more valuable, you do give up something, make some significant effort by going out of your way.

The Ethic Hierarchy

What these come down to are four different aspects of ethics.

Don’t do bad (or stop someone doing good) – don’t be an asshole.

Don’t mind badness – make allowances for assholes.

Do good if it’s easy – doing good if it doesn’t cost you much.

Do good though it’s hard – going out of your way to help.

I’ve steered clear of any why’s and how’s (and what good or bad is) throughout; there’s nothing in the nature of an exhortation to live up to any of these – full disclaimer, I don’t meet the cut myself, not by a long shot. My only intention was to try to imagine what ‘being ethical’ actually means in day to day life (the only life there is), so I can recognize and think about it better.