Some people love rules, some people hate them. Some search for meaning in life, others find solace in having no meaning and others live by the rules provided by religion: there are billions of us and we all have varying perspectives on how we should be making decisions.
Love them or hate them, having rules creates meaning and structure in our lives. Many of these rules can mean the difference between being successful in society, or not. Most of the time, these rules are culturally dependent, and, how each of us defines success and happiness is different.
The thing is, I think I’ve stumbled on the one rule that can be applied to everyone, in all aspects of life: one rule that can help you make moral, practical, even financial choices for yourself and the ones you love.
This rule is to engage in things that are sustainable in a greater context. Specifically: looking at whether your action/decision can be extrapolated to all cases of your situation and whether that situation can be sustained.
Sustainability is usually a word you hear in context with the environment, but I want it to be taken in the literal meaning of the word. That is, “able to be maintained or kept going, as an action or process” (dictionary.com). The greater context I’m talking about is to extrapolate your case/decision, to a situation where everyone in your “community” (whether that’s your family or the entire world) makes the same decision.
The best examples here, are moral decisions. For example if I was looking for a reason why murder is wrong, I could answer that it’s because it’s unsustainable: if all people that wanted to kill another person could act on it without punishment, it’s unsustainable – people couldn’t live together in a safe community. Of course, if being able to live in a safe community isn’t important to you, then murder might not be immoral for you.
In other words, in moral decisions the question is: “if the action/decision was done by everyone without consequence, does it result in a sustainable situation?” If everyone could intimidate or hurt or steal or lie to others (etc) without punishment, does this result in a community that can be sustained?
I’m certainly not saying that sometimes doing something immoral doesn’t have immediate benefits, what I’m saying is that, as a rule, you could argue something’s immoral/wrong simply because it’s unsustainable. Below are some example questions answers. You’ll notice there are also answers to the questions. That’s because the sustainability principle doesn’t prescribe to a certain moral stance, it is simply a tool for individuals to make up their mind.
Q: Is cheating on a partner the right thing to do?
A: If everyone cheated on their partners, would it result in sustainable relationships?
Q: Should I give to charity?
A: Is it sustainable for everyone to give to charities?
Q: Should women be banned from wearing burqas in banks?
A: Is it sustainable to live in a community where everyone wears burqas and they are punished for wearing them in banks?
But my claim is that this rule can be extended to all decisions. When dealing with an individual’s specific choice, the principle becomes a lot more dependent on your individual circumstance. So, instead of extrapolating it to everyone, extrapolate it to your own life. For example…
Q: Should you be a lawyer or an engineer?
A: Decide what you want to sustain over your life (money, happiness, security, freedom, respect, etc) and then see which choice has the greatest likelihood of sustaining it.
Q: Should you buy a house?
A: Will you be able to sustain the repayments for the life of the loan?
Q: Should I invest in company 1 or company 2?
A: Which company will provide you with sustained results? (If you’re looking for a quick profit, the period profits need to be sustained could be very short)
As you might be starting to see, the greatest complication with this principle is that how the sustainability question is framed can influence what answer you come up with. For example if the question is ‘Should we have the death penalty?’, you could frame the sustainability question in ways that give you different answers…
A1: If everyone committed a death-penalty crime, is it sustainable to kill everyone as a consequence? (presumable answer being ‘No’)
A2: Is it sustainable to kill everyone who commits a death-penalty crime? (presumable answer being ‘Yes’)
But this in itself can be a benefit… How are you tending to word the question? What answer does it lean towards? Are you looking for a certain answer?
Whether an answer is found directly via the sustainability principle, or, indirectly from it revealing what your underlying beliefs are, it seems to me that sustainability should be a guiding principle for yourself and or our community’s leaders. Perhaps then we might see more consistent, integrated and moral decisions being made.