First posted 17 Feb 2004. To be honest, I'm not really sure that I HAVE a moral code now, in a standard sense. I think that we all have moral (as opposed to practical - like let's all drive on the right hand side of the road so that we crash into one another) rules for the same reason that some of us have glasses and contact lens, because we don't see things clearly enough to operate without them.
I guess the way I think about it remains broadly consequentialist, but I probably lean more now to 'act' rather than 'rule' utilitarianism (see below). But I don't really think of it in terms of adding up the goods and the bads of every action. Just considering the impact as broadly as possible and acting with love in your heart, as if everyone/everything impacted were yourself.
Taking a fresh look in every moment and acting appropriately with current information is what is most important, so the 'Pragmatic' element is central to me now.
I believe that man writes his own moral code. No one else out there has written it for us. Having rejected God as a moral source, I also reject pure reason - in the sense that Kant meant it - because its realm is too narrow. Pure reason can help us reach desired ends, but it cannot define those ends. Emotion is central to defining objectives, including moral ones.
My approach is broadly consequentialist. If you can accept, as I do, that pain and death are generally bad and that life and well-being are generally good, then we can travel at least part of the road together. We may disagree eventually on matters of finer detail - does the well-being of non-humans count?, future generations?, prudes?, sadists? should we handle acts and omissions differently? - but let's not get wrapped up in that for now.
I have several problems with simple (or what might be called 'act') utilitarianism. First, it requires the accurate assessment of the effects that two or more alternative actions will have. Many effects will be unpredictable. Second, it requires that we be able to assess the mental state of others - will Mary be more happy in case A or case B? How do I know what Mary will feel, let alone the many others who will feel second- and third-order effects of my actions? The third point is not wholly distinct from the first two but bears highlighting, and that is the sheer volume, the enormity of the calculation required for every morally relevant decision. Life would grind to a halt.
My final issue with act utilitarianism is quite different. Irrespective of the difficulty of predicting objective effects, assessing subjective ones and somehow calculating it all with the appropriate weights, I fear that we can't really TRUST ourselves in the heat of the moment to do the sums honestly. In the midst of life's whirl, aren't we all too likely to 'queer the pitch', to 'fudge the sums', to 'bake the numbers' to make the calculation come out in favour of whatever course we want to follow? Even if this weren't likely to happen consciously, surely our tricky subconscious would jump in to 'guide' the process…
This collection of concerns leads me to see R.M. Hare's two-level utilitarian model as the best guide to practical ethics. I won't attempt to lay out Hare's argument but rather lay out my own explanation. Because of the problems I mentioned above, strict act utilitarianism is wholly impractical and potentially biased. In truth we all act according to intuitive, general rules most of the time. These rules could come from any source - tradition, self interest, religious belief - but I believe they should be based on accumulated experience and 'off-line' critical assessment of 'what-if' scenarios using an act-utilitarian framework. Because these calculations are not done in the heat of the moment and are smoothed over an 'average' of different situations, they are less susceptible to the problems I've outlined. This critical reasoning creates a system of rules, which guide the vast majority of our day-to-day decision making.
The rules are formed on consequentialist grounds, so this is often called rule utilitarianism. A system of rules or principles formed in this way guides my practical ethical thinking. There are, however, times when we should or need to revert to the critical (strict, act utilitarian) level. If two or more of my principles conflict, I need to resort to a more critical analysis (again, on consequentialist grounds) of which should take precedence. When I encounter a highly unusual situation that lies outside the realm of my experience and previous contemplation, for which my existing principles cannot be extrapolated, then I must return to the critical level. When there is a clear case of utility maximisation in which I am highly likely to be able to trust my own calculations and in which application of my intuitive rule would lead to a sub-optimal outcome, then I must revert to the critical level. Now, I am quite a conservative person, so I believe we should be VERY careful about that third point. We must not use it as a way to override our own rules for our own advantage. I personally think that application of this third exception should be very rare indeed.
Now, this whole method for practical ethics has a strong parallel with the process by which William James explains that we gain knowledge of any kind, the empirical and psychological process by which he says we access truth. I won't go into it further here, but it is worth pointing out that my ethical system is just a special application of a general method for attaining knowledge / identifying truth in a world in which (as far as we know) no objective and absolute truth exists. James's school of philosophy is called Pragmatism, and although (for all I know) my approach to practical ethics may be quite different from what he put forward, I think of my system as Pragmatic Ethics.
Pragmatic not in the cynical sense of conveniently justifying our selfish wants with ethical rationalisation, but rather in the sense that it allows for learning, for incorporating greater experience - not just 'real world' experience but also reflective experience via the thought experiments that test our ethical principles in a range of situations. Pragmatic Ethics allows for the ongoing incorporation of new information, for adjustment of the rules to encompass a growing range of situations, for continued honing to find as simple and elegant articulation as possible (but no simpler!).
This is the way that science advances. But in an important way, science is simpler than ethics. Science can advance for humanity on aggregate. Discoveries made by one person are tested by others, accepted as the best working model, and used by the entire field until disproven or supplanted by a more encompassing explanation. This is because science, at its purest, involves falsifiable hypotheses that can be repeatedly tested by different observers who carefully replicate the relevant conditions for the test.
Ethics is much more complex, if for no other reason than that it does not refer to an objective 'it' in the universe. So, although I am suggesting an approach that parallels the scientific approach in its openness to continuous 'improvement', I am certainly not suggesting that ethics can be reduced to science. Despite exactly that assertion from generations of great thinkers, I think the fact that no synthesis has coalesced over these millennia speaks for itself.
First posted 17 Feb 2004 - This film covered a lot of ground. It may have lacked rigour. It may have made insinuations that outreached any fact base. But you can't deny it prompted questions and presented interesting material in relatively digestible form. My own views have shifted significantly from those I held at the time of this review. Some are now closer to the film's, some still not.
Having seen 'I Heart Huckabees' on Sunday, I saw a preview screening of 'What the Bleep Do We Know' this evening - quite a philosophical week. 'Bleep' will probably launch properly in London in March or April.
Well, Bleep certainly covers a lot of ground. I am on board with the need for a paradigm shift - from one dominated by the residue of our longstanding and recently ended infatuation with major western religions to something that retains the connection with the numinous while using what modern science has to offer.
I have to say that the paradigm I envisage differs in a fundamental way from that suggested by the film, but it also shares much ground. Irrespective of whether I or anyone else actually subscribes to the film's specific direction, it is a must see - simply because it is so thought-provoking.
Particular items that caught my attention or stirred a reaction were:
Quantum mechanics (QM)
The film starts with a strong version of the Copenhagen Interpretation of QM, which says that sub-atomic particles cannot be said to exist independent of observation. Unobserved, 'they' exist only as potentials, the probabilistic evolution of which is well defined by a mathematical construct called a wave function. In this wave form, the 'particle' exists as a weighted superposition of all its possible selves (with different positions and momentums for each potential self). Only upon measurement by an observer does the wave function 'collapse' to a unique particle with definite characteristics (not all of which can be known to arbitrary accuracy at the same time). This interpretation obviously gives a special role to the 'observer' in nature.
This is combined with a specific view of the self, one in which Mind stands outside the laws of material nature and in a position of primacy relative to the material world - literally Mind over Matter. I guess you could say the film was espousing an Idealist as opposed to a Realist (read materialist) view of the world: thoughts, ideas, intentions and emotions are the primary building blocks of the world, not atoms, molecules and cells.
The film intertwines these two propositions and draws the conclusion that we each create reality everyday. Further, by adopting more positive attitudes and engaging in more positive thought patterns, we can impact the material world around us to make our world a better place.
As you'll know if you've read my articles on QM (If you think you understand this, then you don't, Quantum Determinacy, Problems with Quantum Orthodoxy, and Revisiting the Quantum - information please) and the Self (Who Am I?, Destiny, Subjective Objects), I disagree fundamentally with each of the two propositions above. I am a causal realist at heart, believing that there is an objective material world that exists independent of us and that subsumes us. And although I think that the Mind is awe-inspiring, I think that it is wholly resident in and reliant on the body.
So without going into any refutations of the film's positions (because I've discussed that in the articles I've mentioned), I'll just say that the film's position on those dimensions does not resonate with me. I don't view either of them as absurd in their own right. However, I do think that the leap to the overall conclusion about our ability to literally impact matter and space with our minds is a bit far. QM's interpretation is still a mystery, with many holding views close to the interpretation cited in the film and some holding views closer to mine. Consciousness is also a puzzle, with clear-thinking people on each side of the Idealist - Realist debate. However, just because QM and consciousness are both unexplained doesn't mean that they are related to one another in any way, let alone a causal tie as blunt and direct as the film proposes.
The Arrow of Time
One of the contributors pointed out the peculiar asymmetry of time. Most (I don't know whether we call say 'all') of the mathematical formulae that so accurately describe the world around us are indifferent to the direction of time, working just as well backwards as forward. Yet we can only experience time in one direction. We can (if we can trust our memories) have knowledge of the past but not of the future. We are troubled by the thought of our not living into the unending future, but we have no problem with the fact that we were not alive for the many thousands of years before our birth.
Some (but not this contributor) have suggested that time's arrow is tied to the second law of thermodynamics, which says that in a closed system, entropy increases over time. Entropy MUST increase as time moves forward, so perhaps this irreversibility drives the same irreversibility in time. But upon closer inspection, entropy's increase is not absolutely necessary: it is only probabilistic. It just so happens that the universe began in a relatively ordered state. Since there are many more (uncountably so) disordered states than there are ordered ones, entropy's march is staggeringly probable - NEARLY assured. Yet that is not the same as being necessary, absolute. So... if we are to tie time to entropy, we would also have to accept that time's direction is not irreversible in theory, but is only practically guaranteed by the high probabilities discussed above.
The Brain and learning, habituation and addiction
Several contributors discussed the role of neural pathways or networks in our behaviour. We reinforce the formation of certain sets of connections through our habits. The reinforced sets 'wire' themselves to respond to the frequent call for their combined performance. Other possible combinations, if not called upon, do not wire themselves up. We can, through conscious habituation, re-wire some of these networks (e.g. the ones associated with more positive outlooks, more pleasant moods, more confident postures and more successful behaviours).
And this electrical component is accompanied by a chemical one, with parts of the brain creating (or causing to be created) different chemicals for different needs. Just like we can become addicted to external drugs, we can become addicted to some of these internal, home-made concoctions. We then engage in the behaviours and nurture the states of mind that give us our fix.
The important point is that a bit of us can stand outside the fray, perhaps up on the mental balcony, observing and intervening to break the vicious cycle. But we have to recognise and support that bit, exercise it and have confidence in it.
I don't know the science well enough to comment on the accuracy of this 'folk' version of it, but it doesn't seem outlandish; in fact, it jibes quite well with the rough understanding I have from some previous reading.
I'll see it when I believe it
One scene is built around the story that the natives in the Caribbean did not see Columbus's ships as they sailed in, because they had no visual or mental construct for a ship. The more general point is that we cannot see or accept things that do not already exist in our mental model or paradigm.
To be honest, I don't buy the foundational story at all. I can accept that the natives would not know that the ships WERE ships. I can understand that they would be confused as to what these dark patches on the horizon were, confused by the shapes they became as they grew closer. But I cannot believe that they literally did not SEE them.
Like everything else in the film, though, it is thought provoking. It recalls to mind a vague picture I have of how we deal with sensory input and with anomalies in particular. We are bombarded with sensory input, with much more than we can process, in every waking moment. Our brains are partially hard-wired through evolution (i.e. natural selection) to help discern the useful info from the 'white noise', and our particular experiences further shape the more plastic aspects of that filter.
From our earliest days, we begin to assemble our working model of the world. What matters? What does not? What framework allows us to maintain internal consistency across the broadest range of our experience - to make sense of the world? When new input arrives that is labeled as irrelevant, we do not attend to it (unless perhaps we pay the price for ignoring it and our brains pick up on that fact and adjust the framework). When new input fits the paradigm and is labeled as important, we attend to it.
But what happens if new information is so far outside our accumulated experience and reasonable extrapolation from it that we can make no sense of it at all? We tuck it away into a certain bit of the brain where it sits in a cache; at night, while we sleep and dream, among the routine brain maintenance that takes place is a re-assessment of the framework (or paradigm) in the light of any new anomalous information. What is the smallest adjustment that can be made to the overall model in order to accommodate, make sense of, this new input? Do we need to scrap the whole model and start anew (when rocks begin to talk or we find out that we are just carnival entertainment for some other, alien and invisible race!)? If the accommodation necessary is too large, we may well end up just disregarding the anomaly (the Red Sox didn't REALLY win the World Series) and just continue with the paradigm intact.
So you can see that I identify more than a grain of truth in the film's underlying point here.
Back to the addiction theme, another segment looked at it from the somatic cell perspective. Every cell has loads of receptors for receiving information from its environment, including the chemical drinks discussed above. If the receptors are incessantly bombarded by some protein 'hit' they shrink and become less responsive to it, meaning it takes more of it to give the same 'fix'. Cells can then become so engrossed in getting their next 'high' that they neglect other important functions like communication with neighbouring cells and even elimination of their own waste products. Keep in mind that I'm talking about 'internal', not 'external' drugs here (although I wouldn't be surprised if the story were much the same for external ones).
You can tell by my over-use of analogy that I'm not up to speed with the proper science here, so I can't judge the accuracy of the scientific claims. It does, though, appeal to common sense. (Yeah, yeah, I know, common sense often leads us astray when we venture away from the normal life scales and conditions in which it developed.)
One contributor spoke (a bit too loosely, I think) about cells being not only alive - an assertion with which I wholly agree - but also conscious. She said a cell was conscious because it interacted with its environment and processed chemical information. This doesn't, for me, suggest consciousness. Or, to put it another way, if it DID qualify as consciousness, then we would have to admit that computers and computer networks are conscious. Perhaps we should...
No good, no bad
Several contributors pointed out that there is no objective good or bad 'out there' in the world. A belief with which I am in agreement, as you can read in my articles: Right and Wrong, Sources of Morality, Ethical Notes, Disobedience, Pragmatic Ethics and Nietzsche's Call to Creativity.
No Personal God
All contributors who discussed religion found the creation of a person-like personal God harmful to mankind and in many instances antithetical to what they saw spirituality as.
I tend to agree that, however powerful, insightful and well-intended the original spiritual messages are, when organised religion accretes around them, the foibles of man dilute, pollute and hijack them.
This isn't at all to say that all clergy are guilty or that all followers are silly. I just think that the more organised a belief structure is, the more likely it is to lose sight of the wood for the trees.
As I said, there were a number of things with which I agreed and a number of things - including the major thesis - with which I didn't. Still I can heartily recommend 'What the Bleep Do We Know' as an interesting, challenging, thought-provoking film that may well make you want to sit down and put your thoughts to paper.
First posted 5 May 2005. These days... actions, words, beliefs are all equally 'parts' of what happens. What a person says and does is what the person is. The speaking of the words is just a subset of the actions. The actions owe no consistency to one another, but rather each renders consistency with the moment in which it happens, of which it is a part.
Are a person's actions the true expression of their beliefs? Part of me thinks so. I think the existentialists have a point when they say the real votes are the ones that we make with our feet. If you say you value integrity but routinely tell white lies, then you really don't value integrity (at least as it applies to you). Our actions define us.
Yet I have a couple of doubts. The first one, you might call Catholic. The Catholics (among others) recognise our fundamental human frailty and might say that the white lies in the example above do not speak against the person's values themselves, but rather against the person's discipline and strength in attempting to live by those values. I have a little time for this angle, but not much.
The more significant doubt is based on the unconscious activities of our brains, and it really comes down to the definition of belief. If we define a belief as a wholly conscious mental product, and if we admit that many of the drivers of our actions are sub- or unconscious ones, then we would have to disagree with the existentialists. We believe one thing as conscious beings, but we are not ONLY conscious beings. It is unsurprising that our actions, which have sources outside the conscious realm, do not speak with the same voice as the conscious mind.
On the other hand, if a belief is a mental entity that includes not just conscious components but unconscious ones as well, then I guess we would say that the conscious mental formulation or utterance that we imprecisely call a belief is actually something thinner and less complete than the real belief - just a shadow of a belief. This, I guess, paves the way back to the existentialist conclusion that only the 'whole package' (both conscious and unconscious) as demonstrated through action constitutes the real belief.
'A cadet will not lie, cheat or steal, nor tolerate those who do.'
Thus spake the Honor Code at West Point. Anyone deemed to be in violation of it had to appear before an 'Honor Board' in which the alleged facts of the case and any defense were presented to a 'jury' of peers, who would decide whether the charged cadet was 'found' (guilty) or 'not found.' A cadet found on an honor violation was punished severely, most often by expulsion from the academy.
The rationale for the weight placed on the honor code lay in the absolute trust that one officer must have in another in the profession of arms. As an officer of the state's armed forces, one's character and actions had to be beyond reproach. We all took it very seriously.
The first three elements of the code were relatively simple:
Don't lie - period. Not about your age when trying to buy alcohol, not about where you were when a surprise inspection the night before had detected you were not in your own room.
Don't cheat - period. Not on your homework. Not in an exam. Not when doing your push-ups for the physical fitness test.
Don't steal - period. This one, unlike the two above, hardly ever tripped anyone up.
The fourth element of the code - called the non-toleration clause - was more personally demanding, as it required that you report any known cadet infringements of the code. It didn't matter whether the culprit was someone you didn't know or your best friend, a rival or someone you owed a favour to. If you were found to have known of a violation and to have failed to report it, then you were in violation yourself.
My sense was always that cadets accepted the first three elements without question, but that some harbored doubt about the non-toleration clause. The trouble lay in the clause's perceived undermining of the value of camaraderie - another essential glue among military professionals. You had to know that your buddy would be there for you, no matter what. You were a team, in it together. Yet the non-toleration clause could be seen as flying in the face of that tightness.
In the end, I subordinated camaraderie as a stand-alone value to the principle of non-toleration. This was, of course, in keeping with what the academy wanted us to do, and I bought the official reasoning: camaraderie, team spirit, is not commendable when it serves an ignoble end (e.g. lying, cheating, stealing). Were we to elevate camaraderie above our ethical principles, we might find ourselves supporting cover-ups of looting, massacres, rapes or genocide during war, in the interest of 'protecting buddies'. I certainly didn't think that would be right. I do think that most at the academy bought into the non-toleration clause as I did, but it wouldn't shock me to learn that a (quiet) minority prioritised camaraderie instead.
I graduated from West Point in 1988. In 2002, I received a message from another academy grad, asking me to get in touch. I must have copied the phone number incorrectly, because I was unable to reach him. He left a further message and expressed a certain urgency to speak with me. Although we knew one another pretty well as cadets, we had never been especially close friends. Without other clear ideas for why he might be phoning, I suspected he might be looking for a job with my current employer and hoping for some help.
When we finally caught up with one another by phone, we engaged in the usual talk-once-a-decade chit chat about where our lives had got to, etc. He then adopted a very sober tone and said that something had been digging at his conscience for years and that he needed to make a confession to me.
He went on to remind me (I had no recollection) that he had been charged with an honor violation during my final year at the Academy and that he had called me as a character witness. I 'testified' as to my views of his character at the time, and in the end - on the basis of all the assembled evidence - he was not found. His confession to me in this phone call, you will have guessed, was that he had committed the offence, the details of which I can't remember.
It had obviously taken some real courage for him to come out with that, and I told him that I appreciated his call and admired him for undertaking to set the record straight with me. He did the same with every person who was involved in the case, and indeed with the Academy itself. For me, that is sufficient to expunge the stains from that period of weakness at West Point, but I'm not sure what the Academy's official view is.
Can honor, once lost, be recovered? I would like to think so.
First posted 10 Nov 2003. Pretty much agree with these Doug-made proposals for ground-rules to a man-made ethics.
I sat down to hash out an ethical framework, arrogantly thinking I could generate a coherent set of thoughts on the subject. Having realised that I need to put a lot more thought into anything approaching what I might call my ethical system (and realising that I haven't posted anything in several days) I decided to share the sketchy notes I've come up with so far:
First posted 31 Oct 2003. I seem to have forgotten one of the most obvious sources - of moral behaviour if not morality itself - fear of sanction / punishment. My sense remains that right and wrong, like good and bad, are man-made and therefore only 'natural' in the sense that man is part of nature.
I said in Right and wrong that right and wrong do not exist anywhere outside of human minds, that they are created by us and grounded in a number of bases: 1) our awareness of our own mortality, 2) our empathetic feelings (outside the 'heat of the moment') toward others, 3) our ability to generalise through reason from our own specific desires and needs to those of others, 4) our recognition that the overall gains from co-operation are greater than those possible in unbridled competition, and (unfortunately) 5) the drive of some to manipulate and control others. Let me go into a bit more detail on these bases.
Knowledge of our own mortality
Although I think we need to realise much more clearly that we are animals, more like our other two, four, six, eight and thousand legged friends than we would like to admit, I'll focus for a bit on one important way in which I think we differ from them: we are able to contemplate our own death. This brings a new dimension to our life, an overlay to the strong survival instinct that we share with non-human animals. We can conceptualise a world carrying on after we are gone. We puzzle and wonder at what happens to us after earthly death. We construct elaborate plans and form long-term expectations for how to get the most of our time. In some ways, this gets in the way of just plain living. But it also makes us realise (a cognitive operation only we have) what death brings an end to.
Empathy for others
We can also empathise with the feelings of others. I'm not sure to what extent other animals share this ability, but when it is combined in us with the point above, it becomes quite powerful as an emotional barrier to taking the lives of those we are close enough with to share empathetic bonds. Empathy also makes us want to help others avoid pain (other things being equal). But empathy, unfortunately, resembles gravity in that its strength diminishes rapidly with distance. The 'further' another is from us, in terms of geography, relationship or similarity of appearance or belief, the less empathetically we feel towards them.
We tend to feel the plight of a starving child in our street more than one in Africa. We care more for members of our family than we do others. The same holds, albeit less strongly, for citizens of our country or members of our church. We empathise less with those who espouse views with which we disagree strongly. Even as regards animals, we cannot bring ourselves to kill a fluffy warm rabbit, but we squash spiders and insects without a second thought.
Call me on this if I am wrong. I don't want to ascribe to mankind that which I feel myself. As a matter of fact, that has been one of the main problems with using empathy as a foundation for ethical behaviour, as some have tried. These well-meaning, kind, generous writers assumed that everyone was as nice as they were and said, 'Can't we all just get along?' I don't want to assume that everyone is as much a bastard as I am (but I have a hard time avoiding it). This is not to say that I or others do not care for people far away or unlike us. I'm just claiming that empathy is not universal in its strength.
Generalising from our own interests to those of others (Universalisation)
Can't we appeal to our reason, as that which most separates us from other animals, as a foundation for ethics? Kant thought so, that pure reason could show us how to behave. I don't see this as possible, mainly because I see reason as morally inert. It could tell us how to best achieve a certain end, but morality largely concerns settling on what those ends should be. Reason can give a map to the objective, but it can't pick the objective on its own. But that doesn't mean we can't put it to good use.
We know that we have fundamental interests in life. Many involve keeping others, including governments, from interfering with our lives - by killing us, hurting us, stealing from us, or telling us what we can and can't think and do. Some require positive action from others - like giving us food or medical help when we can't gain access to them ourselves. If these interests are legitimate for us, then they must also be legitimate for others who, let's face it, are pretty much like us in most important aspects. We can generalise from our own interests to those of others, thereby providing a basis for respecting their needs.
Too bad, though, that our reason is at least as good at finding differences as it is at finding similarities. Having identified the differences between ourselves and others, we are then all too good at using them as justification for different moral standing, different treatment, different rights. This shows unsurprising intellectual parallels with the emotion of empathy mentioned above. 'He doesn't even pay taxes. Why should my hard-earned money go to supporting him?'
Seeing the non-zero-sum game
One reason for us to subscribe to laws that restrict our behaviour is that we see we are better off under the protection of those laws than we would be in the freer but more dangerous world that would exist without them. We pay taxes because they give us public goods and services that might not be provided under a pure profit motive. We accept income redistribution because it reduces the plight of a group of people who might otherwise feel left behind by 'the sytem' and turn to crime to get by. We lock ourselves into contracts because those legal documents provide a framework for cooperation, without which neither we nor our partners could achieve the goals toward which we strive. Perhaps I would not be reaching too far if I said that we behave ethically, at least in part, because we expect it to increase the likelihood that others will behave ethically toward us.
This works most of the time for most people. But like empathy and universalisation, it is not foolproof. The fly in the ointment is that not everyone plays by the rules. It pays to cheat if you can do so without getting caught. A fair chunk of our most advanced evolution is explained by an 'arms race' among brains (and the genes that build them) that could cheat in seemingly reciprocal altruistic exchanges and brains (often in the same head!) that could detect and punish cheaters. This may go a long way toward explaining our sense of moral outrage, our heightened senses of perception in situations with moral overtones, and our big brains in general. It also provides the most compelling justification for punishment, which has nothing to do with exacting revenge on or attempting to rehabilitate the cheater who has been caught and everything to do with publicly demonstrating what happens to cheaters so as to deter others from trying it themselves. While detection and punishment can maintain a degree of trust in the integrity of 'the system', they are imperfect. Hence cheaters are still plentiful today.
Since none of these human answers provides an air-tight ethical system, a guarantee that people will behave 'well' toward one another, leaders have often turned to manipulation. One of the simplest ways has been to piggyback on some other basic human needs (largely tied to the recognition of our own mortality mentioned above) via religion. I say piggyback because I believe that religious belief would flourish irrespective of its value to church and government leaders as an ultimate grounding for ethics and law. People want to know where they are from, how they fit into the big picture, where they will go when they die on Earth.
But what an opportunity it gave to the powerful! 'Do this.' 'Why?' 'Because God, your maker, your father, your ultimate judge and jury, says so!' Can't afford enough policemen to keep a watch on all the potential cheats and subversives? Hire God! He's watching all the time. His punishment is not confined to earthly dimensions - it is infinite and eternal! You can't beat that. Am I saying that all leaders who cite God are acting manipulatively? No. Do I suspect most? Yes.
Don't get me wrong. I'm not saying manipulation is 100% bad. For instance, if without it we would have an anarchic society with no foundations, then it might be justified. Because I don't believe in any non-human basis for morality and because I don't think everyone will ever agree to a given ethical code, I do see governments (to the extent that they are representative, and there is much we can do, even in Western democracies, to improve that) as the ultimate underwriters of right and wrong. Over time, we can hopefully see greater cooperation and convergence among state governments - and ideally (but I'm a pessimist) fusion of them into a world governing body.
Wait, I need to be careful here. I see individuals, not governments as the true creators of right and wrong. If an individual disagrees vehemently with a law under which he lives, he should 1) do everything he can to convince his countrymen and his government to change that law and, if necessary 2) act according to his conscience in disobeying that law. However, if (1) fails and an individual moves on to (2), then that person needs to accept the punishment meted out to him (by a representative government via the due process of law).
I have moved from a discussion of ethics and morality into one about law and civil disobedience. That is a direct result of my beliefs that we are the creators, definers of right and wrong and that there is no possible pure, irreducible and irrefutable ethical system. We have to work with the best we have.
First posted 26 Oct 2003. Much of this reasoning still holds for me today. The original, though, had a sniping, accusatory, condescending tone toward religion, which I've toned down even for re-posting. As a matter of fact, Mark's "...love thy neighbour as thyself." is probably the core of my ethical beliefs these days, turbocharged by seeing that your neighbour IS yourself (but that will take a bit more explaining).
There is no ethical dimension to the universe per se. Nothing, intrinsically, is right or wrong, good or evil. Everything just is. Along with any other self-conscious beings that exist out there, we humans define right and wrong, and it is all too obvious that we disagree among ourselves on many of the finer points. We must simultaneously accept that there is no irreducible moral formula and commit to continuing a pluralistic ethical dialog.
Nearly all of us have a righteous element literally bred into us, and our social conventions reinforce this. This combination of factors means we can hardly help believing that what we (each of us) defines as right is right not by virtue of our definition but as a universal fact, which we simply recognise rather than create. Nonetheless, the right and the wrong are human children, born of a combination of mental ancestors - 1) our awareness of our own mortality, 2) our empathetic feelings (outside the 'heat of the moment') toward others, 3) our ability to generalise through reason from our own specific desires and needs to those of others, 4) our recognition that the overall gains from co-operation are greater than those possible in unbridled competition, and (unfortunately) 5) the drive of some to manipulate and control others.
In one sense, our search for universal ethical truths is good. I would like to think that humanity can agree to at least a broad set of principles that all individuals should be held to in their actions and interactions. In this sense, a 'universal' system is probably attainable, although its granularity is limited.
But there is another sense of 'universal' that I don't like at all. For a great part of our history as humans, many have appealed to fixed, closed, non-debatable rules, dictated by an almighty power whom they see as the foundation, the underwriting of morality. I'll write more on religion some other time, but for now I'll just say that I find it dangerous to ascribe to a higher power (who just happens to look like you and believe the things that your culture brought you up to believe) the regulatory minutiae that should govern the world.
Since I see it as a human institution, I fear that the church often has reason number (5) at the heart of its teachings and persecutions. Let's not seek to anchor right and wrong in a universal god or any other thing outside ourselves. I'm not sure, given the world we experience, how it could exist 'out there', and if it did, I don't think that I would trust anyone else in the role of seer and interpreter of the universal truth.
In the past several centuries, many more clever than me have searched diligently for a watertight secular system of ethics, usually basing it in number (3) above, or perhaps in number (2) by way ascribing to all the feelings that they themselves have. I can't pretend to have a simple, univariate, exceptionless system, but I do think that recognising the list above might help us in our moral discourse with one another. Of course, the truth is that we will continue to come up with different detailed answers. It is equally true that we will all need to be on the lookout for those who dress up number (5) in the finery of the previous four.
But perhaps we can establish and build on a core set of principles. Candidates are all around us. Often the biggest obstacle is the 'insider-outsider' syndrome. National laws (most likely those in liberal democracies) set up quite good frameworks for how citizens should deal with one another. They all too often fail to apply the same principles to those outsiders struggling remotely, unknown and unfelt.
I've done little more than put a marker in the ground here - attempting to slay the dragon of superhuman morality with a couple quick thrusts and suggesting the real drivers behind our conceptions of right and wrong. In another post, sometime soon, I'll put forward my (hardly original) view that ethical choices should be based on their predicted consequences and that the real task before us is to move to an inclusive conception of well-being with which to measure those consequences.