This project is an effort to formalize my personal interest in the history, philosophy and practice of ethics. One goal of the project is to produce a series of maps of ethical spaces - hence, an Ethical Cartography (Ethography) or a Cartography of Ethics - ethical maps of Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Shinto, etc…

And then to see how these maps overlap with each other, to identify the areas of intersection between religions and spiritual traditions. How do Buddhism and Judiasm align? What are the areas where all of the major religions agree?

We aim to create two types of maps:

(i) human-accessible visual maps in the tradition of geographic maps, and

(ii) machine-readable maps that will aid software-based systems, including autonomous and intelligent systems, to access and be informed by human-oriented ethical rules and requirements.

Our hope is that these maps may assist us - as individuals, as groups, as a species - in more effectively placing ourselves within various ethical landscapes and in helping us plot a course in life that allows us to more confidently align our daily choices with our ethical principles.

Project Phases

As currently conceived the project will involve five distinct phases:

  1. Phase I: Religious Ethography - A systematic review and mapping of ethical spaces, primarily long-standing spiritual and religious traditions.
  2. Phase 2: Personal Ethography - Ethical Terrain of the Individual. A set of tools to support individuals to better understand their own ethical map(s). We envision a process that generates multiple ethical maps for each individual:
    1. a mapping that captures a person’s intellectual understanding of their own ethical preferences and positions - that reflect their personal values and beliefs,
    2. a mapping that reflects their community/religious affiliations and memberships, and
    3. a mapping that tracks their actions in the world - mechanisms to collect and score a person’s daily habits and practices to yield a personal-ethical map that reflects their lived experience.
  3. Phase 3: Social Ethography - Ethical Landscapes of Groups and Communities. This includes any collection of individuals. Religions and churches, but also countries and counties and cities, as well as professional communities and ... everything else :),
  4. Phase 4: Technical Ethography - Ethical Landscape of Human Creation. Ethical maps for human-made things - products, services and things.
  5. Phase 5: Ethographic Translations - Translation of all prior phases into machine-readable analogues, more formalized versions that are accessible to software systems

Phase I - Religious Ethography

Initial work will focus on Phase 1, an exploration of ethics, both historic and modern, as represented in major religions and spiritual traditions. Buddhism will be the starting point.

The mapping process will require a systematic review and analysis of ethics in the context of long-standing religious and spiritual traditions. In it’s simplest formulation the mapping process will involve the following steps:

  1. Identify sources (foundation of primary sources and supporting secondary sources)
  2. Read/Analyze sources to create a list of commandments (and other ethically-oriented statements, anecdotes, etc..)
  3. Categorize each commandment (Food/Diet, Sex/Marriage, etc…)
  4. Map the data: This will require the invention of cartographic systems to turn raw information - lists and categories - into a meaningful visual experience.
  5. Invite others to participate: We aim to be as transparent as possible in terms of the process, inviting others to access our sources and methods. We hope to learn and improve each element of the project by tapping into the knowledge and experience of others. Additionally, we recognize that meaning, especially in the context of religion and sacred experience, can be unavoidably personal. As a result there may be no final universal canonical map - it may be more likely that each person have their own map for Islam or Buddhism. One goal is to provide tools to aid people in creating their own maps.

Historical Analogues

In my initial research I have been surprised by the lack of lists of commandments for major religious traditions. They either don’t exist or they exist in a fragmented, somewhat unaccessible form - aimed at a particular sectarian perspective or are more focused on an audience of religious scholars than everyday people.

Still, there are a few significant historical analogues to this project. Perhaps the most prominent among them is the work of Moses ben Maimon, known as Maimonides. Maimonides, a prominent Torah scholar in the middle ages, curated a list of 613 mitzvot - 365 negative commandments and 248 positive commandments. And these 613 commandments were then separated into categories.

The work of Maimonides continues to be relevant in modern times - providing one perspective on the foundational ethical requirements of Judaism. The work remains a point of reference for modern scholars, one example is a 1990 analysis by Chofetz Chaim asserted that only 271 of the 613 commandments can be followed today.


Mapping Overton windows through time

And plotting a course for the future