When Do We Think About Ethics?

It’s commonly said that ethics are what we do when no one’s watching.

That seems a good enough shorthand for now, though of course it’s important to act rightly when people are watching. (When that is, and who’s watching, is a topic I expect we’ll return to.)

Another way of thinking about this might be to say that ethics are what we do all the time. Which begs the question: when do we learn and practice them?

I’ll suggest two answers. First, we’re learning all the time. A mature ethical code should (and probably can only) be developed through repeated interactions with the real world. Second, the time to think deeply about ethics is precisely when no one’s watching — that is, the downtime between those moments when you’re expected to do the right thing, on the spot, in full view.

There’s no time to come up with a code that works in the moment, just like you can’t make up for all the weight training you didn’t do beforehand when you step onto the field to play the game.

Training always happens on your own time. Ethics, then, are the product of what you do when no one’s watching.