Ethics is all based on one premise: what we do affects other people. Our actions make a difference. Our lives matter. To say that right and wrong are not relevant is to say that our lives and actions do not matter after all. I suspect one reason ethics has left the popular discussion and popular consciousness is that so many people question whether their lives actually do matter. And if our lives do not matter, then it does not matter what we do with them. Ethics becomes a moot point.
Ethics rarely stoops so low as to say that right and wrong are completely irrelevant -- though I have heard that position argued. The more common position is roughly "If you harm none, do what you will." This position is based on a radical individualism -- nearly an isolationism -- that completely ignores any groups to which we belong. It defines our persons and our actions in isolation unless damage is done to another, and only recognizes material damage as wrong. It does not recognize that being an isolated individual is itself harmful, that relationship damage is wrong. That's why divorce and child abandonment -- once nearly unthinkable in our society and reserved for the lowest of the low -- have now become commonplace in our culture. That's why parents are left to die alone in nursing homes even if they aren't too ill for their children to tend. Popular morality now glosses over the fact that our lives matter to other people, and that we may be important to them.
Granted, some people have abused ethics to control people; but other people have used individualism to neglect people. The question isn't whether a position can be abused, it's whether a position does justice to life. Radical individualism's basic claim is that I do not matter to the people around me, that my life and actions are irrelevant to the world at large, and that their lives do not matter to me unless they attack me or steal from me.
This radical individualism is against some of the well-respected thoughts of the ages. "No man is an island."1 "United we stand, divided we fall." And of course: "As I have loved you, so love each other." There are some who still build communities as best as we can. One concern is how difficult that may be when the concept is largely rejected. My concern is greater for those those who do not belong to communities. There is an epidemic of loneliness fueled by an extremist individualism that does not even recognize the basic human need for companionship, that looks on groups and extended families and communities with distrust. To base an ethic of "freedom" on the premise that your life is irrelevant and meaningless to others leads to isolation and despair. This isolation in turn easily leads to neglect of those who see you as part of their group or community or family, an aloofness or absenteeism from those who love you best.
But to reclaim ethics, we must start at the beginning: what we do makes a difference.
1 - One of the nice touches in the recent children's movie The Incredibles was that the father wrestled with trying to do everything himself, and ended up in deep trouble on an island called Nomanisan. The filmmakers were careful not to spoil the joke and never put it together for you: Nomanisan Island. The film as a whole was a refreshing but rare recognition of family and non-isolation in a modern popular forum.