Ethical conduct and minimalism means doing less of the wrong things, and creating the opportunity to do more of the right ones.
A revised version of this essay is collected in the book Eightfold Minimalism: Essays from A Minimalist Abroad, now available from Amazon.
Wisdom is foundational because it’s about understanding what we should and should not do. Ethical conduct is about the actual doing. For a minimalist, this is the follow-through. We know that we have too much stuff and are suffering with clutter, we know that our schedule is overbooked to the point that we have a lot of activity but no true productivity, we know that we’re maintaining relationships that aren’t healthy, now go do something about it.
Buddhist ethics are often summed up by the Five Precepts, although interpretations of these precepts can vary. The following is my own admittedly narrow interpretation, seen through the lens of minimalism; I don’t want to get into the religious or spiritual implications of the precepts, and will leave them for you to contemplate on your own.
Don’t Cause Harm
This is often expressed as “abstain from killing,” but it is often broadly interpreted as “do not create suffering.” This point ties back into Right Intention, insuring that the things that we own are ethically sourced. It can also cover self-harm, and we all know that the pursuit of stuff can lead to ignoring our actual problems (the avoidance known as ”retail therapy”) and create financial issues.
I’m going to come at this one broadly. Think beyond stuff, and think of opportunity cost. What else could we be doing with the time and energy we’re devoting to the acquisition and maintenance of material possessions? What else could we do with the time we waste in pointless meetings, binge-watching TV, or browsing social media? We’re stealing, from ourselves and from other people, by squandering finite resources.
Don’t Misuse Sexuality
The only thing I’m going to say here is this: Don’t steal from relationships. Don’t engage in behavior that might keep us from developing a deeper and more meaningful connection to someone special. Get rid of what we don’t need, what might be harmful, in order to make more space for things that are healthy, healing, and conducive to happiness.
Ethical conduct can only happen when we’re acting on objective reality. Minimalism only happens when we’re honest about our needs and our wants. We know that we’re never going to listen to most of those CDs and digital downloads again. We know we’re never going to read or re-read most of those books sitting on the shelf, in piles on the floor, and in boxes in the attic. We know we don’t need three lawn mowers junking up the garage and that we’ll never really get around to fixing the two broken ones. Don’t lie.
Don’t Use Intoxicants
Wisdom is required for ethical conduct, and we can’t develop or apply wisdom when our judgment is impaired. This isn’t just about alcohol and drugs. We all know that it’s possible to get high on the thrill of the hunt, completing a collection, or finding a bargain. We’ve all felt the excitement of a really busy day, filled with lots of motion and activity even if nothing is actually getting done. We’ve all felt the adrenaline rush of getting sucked into other peoples’ drama. We don’t need that. That’s how mistakes get made and resources are wasted.
Before we take actions, we need to stop and think for a moment before we act. We need to ask ourselves if the thing we’re about to do could in any way cause us harm. We have to ask ourselves if there’s any possibly way that what we’re about to do could create suffering for someone else. In a lot of cases the answer is going to be vague, and we can never know for sure, but if we’re reasonably certain that we’re about to create a problem for someone, at some point in time, we need to apply the brakes. Ethical conduct and minimalism means doing less of the wrong things, and creating the opportunity to do more of the right ones.