Thursday, June 21, 2012

Invitational Ethics #1

I propose an alternative to the ethical framework we currently use across all civilization.

In this series, I will discuss the weaknesses and failings of our current system of ethics, and I will describe said alternative. In this video I'll explain what I mean when I refer to our current ethical framework, and I'll openly speculate a little bit about its origins and development, in the hopes of illuminating some of the flaws in that framework.
A quick word to everyone who gave me feedback in my previous video series. Your contributions have been a major help to me in clarifying these ideas. Thanks very much.
What exactly is this ethical framework everyone supposedly uses? It's the ethics of good and evil, right and wrong. It's based on notions like justice, rights, claims, people getting what they deserve. Based on the idea that we're imperfect, that we must battle our imperfect nature within to maintain proper behavior, and as a society battle the imperfect natures of cheats and lawbreakers to maintain order. Based on the idea that punishment is among the first answers to questions of limiting undesirable behavior in the world.
I consider this ethical framework coercive, because its ultimate aim is to enable one person or group to impose its will on another person or group. The ideas of should and ought that form the foundation of the system are among the more obviously coercive ideas lying around. Also consider the moralizing labels we use on each other, such as greed, selfishness, vanity. When I apply these words to you, I'm saying that there is something about you that should change, a moral failing, an imperfection that should be corrected. We spend a lot of time telling each other how to behave, that is, trying to coerce each other to behave properly, each one of us having his own ideas about what counts as proper.
Where did this framework come from? Its earliest beginnings probably lie in the simple, retaliatory conditioning we now observe in social non-humans everywhere. If you've ever observed a group of them, you've probably seen it in action. In a herd of wild donkeys, one donkey, "Donkey A," steps on the foot of "Donkey B." Donkey B has an impulsive response to the pain, retaliating against A with a bite or a kick. This unpleasant stimulus conditions Donkey A such that it will be less likely to step on another donkey's foot. This scenario has repeated itself countless times among countless different species of social animals over the last half-billion years.
We see that evolution has given social animals an instinct for simple, retaliatory conditioning, and it obviously works really well among most of the non-humans, so it might seem safe to say that it's a highly adaptive trait among social animals. But when early primates started simulating each other's mental states, the mechanism began to show signs of weakness, resulting in new kinds of unnecessary suffering, as you can see in colonies of capuchins and geladas, monkeys who share many of our social ills.
It has been observed that human children, even from a very young age, have a sense of fairness. If you've ever accidentally given one child more ice cream than the other children in the room, you have probably witnessed this phenomenon yourself. It seems to be built in: we know when we're being treated unfairly, and it's an extremely unpleasant feeling. It triggers in us an impulse that is very hard to suppress.
Learning from David Attenborough about macaques and capuchins in their stratified societies, I imagine that our distant ancestors knew this feeling of injustice very well long before they had words to assign to their feelings. They would have felt the pain of it, just as we do, and would have wanted to retaliate against the person who seemed to be the source of the pain. Those whose childhoods were filled with that feeling would have fallen victim to various, often outrageous social handicaps, prevalent among them the need to impose strict and often arbitrary rules of proper behavior on everyone. If you're in a culture that talks to deceased ancestors, all you need is one dead control freak to invent a coercive religion. Who says? Grandpa's ghost says, and he will punish you if you don't follow his rules...according to my interpretation, of course.
That's #1. Thanks for watching.

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