The Ethics of a Dream

Dream Good Dreams
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It was business ethics that taught me the importance of a dream.

I was on a plane to Uganda and I was thinking deeply about my ethical responsibilities as a business owner. Specifically my responsibilities to the Ugandan women I call partners.

“Love your neighbor as yourself.” This line came back to me as the foundational ethical statement. But how, I wondered, do I actually love myself?

We’ve all asked ourselves this question, but it struck me that I didn’t really know the answer. I mean, I brush my own teeth and feed myself and earn my own paycheck. But is that it? Is that all it means to love myself?

I tried to take a larger view, to ask what preference I naturally give myself that I don’t naturally give other people. And this is what I came up with: Every morning when I wake up, after brushing my teeth, I go out and try to make my own dreams come true.

This, I realized, is how I truly love myself. And so this is my ethical responsibility: to support my neighbors as they pursue their dreams, just as I pursue mine.

To me, this was a deeply revolutionary thought, that people’s dreams were ethically important. And as I thought further I realized that maybe they are more than just important. Maybe they are primary.

My ethical responsibility is to support other people in pursuing their dreams, and their ethical responsibility is to support still more people in pursuing their dreams. So opening opportunities for dreaming and pursuing those dreams is an ethical mandate.

For many years I have tried to define what Good with a capital G is. I’ve tried to figure out if there is some universal way for humanity to talk about how we should and shouldn’t act. This is the closest I’ve come:

Giving more people the chance to dream and pursue their dreams is Good.

A Good Dream then is a dream that, when realized, ensures people the liberty and resources to pursue their dreams. And those people ought to be encouraged to dream Good Dreams as well. In other words, a Good Dream makes it more likely that other Good Dreams will be realized.

This idea has profoundly shaped my life and work. I encourage you too, dream Good Dreams, and love your neighbor as yourself.


  1. Nice piece James. I agree with your premise, so long as the dreams you create the conditions for are not ones antithetical to others’ dreams. My thinking tells me that there is no way around this problem and that dreams inevitable conflict with each other. I’d love to hear your thoughts about this. Are their limits to creating the conditions for others to pursue their dreams?

  2. Bryan, great point. This is something I’ve been thinking about as well. So far, I’m okay with competition, but not exploitation. If pursuing my dream means I get there first and reap the rewards, that’s alright. But if pursuing my dream means I degrade your ability to pursue your dreams, that’s not alright.

    If I create the conditions for others to pursue their dreams, I don’t think it’s my responsibility to predict or monitor whether those dreams are Good. It’s the responsibility of the dreamer. But given foreknowledge of an exploitative dream it’s better not to empower it.

    Moreover, discussion and education on the importance of choosing Good dreams, and the methods of doing so, is powerful and important.

  3. Forgive me for pushing you on this, though I know you can handle it, but there are many questions here and this is a really interesting line of thinking!

    So, I am left wondering if there is a difference between “giving people access to pursue their dreams” and just competition in general? Are you saying that the only universal good is a system of competition? You wouldn’t be alone certainly, as this is a fundamental tenet of classical liberalism (the philosophical school not the political school). But of course, many people have issues with competition. I won’t go into all of them here, but essentially many claim that competitive systems do the opposite of giving access to people’s dreams. Some say that competitive systems are inherently exploitative. So I guess a big question for you, that I am sure you already have an answer for, is what is exploitation and where is the line between it and non-exploitation?

    Many proponents of competition would claim that there is no such thing as exploitation, only slavery. That is, no one can be forced to take a job that is not in their interest. Hence, the 12 year old Chinese girl works in the factory because the trade of her labor power for the trade of a couple bucks a day works out in her favor and the company’s. This is not exploitation, but a free market exchange, one that allows this girl to pursue her dreams, says the proponent. Of course, critics would call this exploitation, citing her age and ability to make an informed decision, her human rights, and the profits of the company or the salary of the girl’s American worker counterparts. In short, these critics see exploitation in decisions licensed by the person being exploited. For the proponent, this is an impossibility.

    This would seem to be a fundamental question for you considering how you drew the dividing line between acceptable dreams and non-acceptable dreams to pursue. I am not sure if a system of competition is consistent with your principle. What about you?

    (I apologize for the essay here, but it is your fault because you got me thinking and left space for me to comment :) Don’t feel obligated to comment back, I feel better now =)

  4. I think there are people like you, who create circumstances that allow others to dream the “impossible dream.” As far as the competitive component that was brought into the mix, I believe that competition is a positive when the result is a better product or situation for all involved. As with most things in life, there is a dark side to competition that can become detrimental to those involved. That result happens when the wrong “person” is in control. With God in the pilot seat, your dreams will continue to bring about miracles for the people who cross your path. May God bless all that you do.

  5. Bryan, good questions, as always.

    I suppose I see competition as a fundamental aspect of life. All living organisms are held in balance by competition within their ecosystems. Economic competition is a sort of cancerous outgrowth of this competition – first for food, water and basic resources, then for status, comforts, wealth, etc. It’s one game. So I’m not saying that the only universally good system is a system of competition, I’m saying the only system is a system of competition. So we might as well do our best to make it good.

    In terms of drawing a line between competition and exploitation, I’m smart enough these days not to attempt lines when a philosopher is involved. Nor am I trying to legislate a line that all have to live by. Merely pointing out that (I believe) one exists, however fuzzy it might be in some places. I won’t be angry if you paint it slightly differently than me.

    Like many things it probably exists on a gradient, say between slavery and volunteerism. Judgement calls must be made. Arguments abound. Mistakes will be made. But I’d rather be out there making them than not.

    Some examples, though, are clear. Take my Nepalese friend Mahabir. He has a dream of bringing the internet to rural Nepal. There are likely competing Nepalese dreams to keep technology out of the countryside. Empowering Mahabir is directly competitive to those dreams. But it’s not exploitative. This is the sort of distinction I was trying to make.

  6. I love how the Dream Good dreams concept is impacting those I talk to around the country.

    I agree that there is a line between acceptable and non acceptable dreams. But it gets tricky and the line must be fuzzy when there is not a universal Good that we subscribe to. It’s the familiar argument that good is relative and dependent on several changing factors: cultural, geographic, political, spiritual, etc.

    But my biggest problem is with the Good dreams. I ( like most people) have lots of good ones I think. But where do I invest my limited time, energy and money? For me the most loving act from my neighbor would not be a blanket support of my dreams, but careful wisdom, discernment and
    honesty that would help me filter through and move forward. That would require a deep relational
    investment and mutual vulnerability. This is something that can’t be spread thin, but goes deep with few.

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