Friday, June 22, 2012

Invitational Ethics #3

I have described what I mean by coercive ethics, and I've shown some examples of its application that most of you will recognize. Now I'll turn to some of the reasons that even if you found the previously mentioned applications acceptable, you might consider the system inherently flawed. In this video, I will argue that our system of ethics is literally a religion, with all of the important characteristics of the supernatural religions.
The most obvious religion-like aspect of coercive ethics is its reliance on falsehoods. We sometimes complain that Jefferson's Declaration muttered lofty incantations about self-evident, equal, inalienable rights over the din of slavery. The most fundamental falsehood of coercive ethics is the notion that anyone has rights. Rights are imaginary. A legal fiction, like corporations. It perhaps isn't much of a surprise that a claim based on a legal fiction turns out to be false itself.
Another religion-like aspect of coercive ethics is the infinite regress contained in the vital question, "Who says?". John Stuart Mill, one of the towering figures of utilitarianism, struggled heroically, but in vain, to find rational support for the concept of justice. He concluded that it comes down to everyone having an equal claim to happiness. By this he meant that if I have any claim to happiness at all, then you have an equal claim, and society ought to defend you if I infringe on your claim. Unfortunately, as Mill admitted, he could not answer the question, "Who says that society ought to defend you?" This is infinite regress in the fundamentals, exactly the same as, "Who created 'god?'" You have to take it on faith, as they say.
A third clue that coercive ethics is a religion lies in the fact that in order to believe that it works, one must ignore most of the science humans have accumulated over the centuries. Half a billion years of animal evolution seem to suggest that our notions of justice, rights, and should are based on natural and useful instincts. But if they're natural and useful, then common sense suggests that they're suitable as the basis for our ethics. Why would we change? For the same reasons that we changed our previously common-sense notions such as the earth being flat, or humans being the center of the universe. Science has shown us that our common sense is not a useful guide to human progress, until, of course common sense has been informed by science. I propose that this applies to our ethics as well.
Our current ethics, especially as it pertains to the law, looks very similar to the other religions. The legislators and judges are the priests, the attorneys are intercessors for the masses. The law is cumbersome and complex, full of arcane theory and jargon, based on eons of priestly interpretation of oral and written traditions. It relentlessly grows ever more unwieldy and dysfunctional, always accumulating contradictions and difficulties that must be resolved by the priests.
Religion has been referred to as a thought virus, especially resistant to treatment because it hooks into your primitive feelings of shame and guilt and fear. Coercive ethics is similarly resistant because it hooks into our primitive feelings of fairness and especially into our retaliatory impulses. Having so infected us, it causes us to view punishment as the most effective means of maintaining order in society, encouraging us to take shortcuts with a lot of hidden costs.
When I propose that we do away with coercive ethics, one question I often hear is, “But how will we keep people from going out and murdering each other?” If you've ever observed an atheist trying to convince Christians that there is no god, you'll recognize this question.
The fact that the bible is fundamentally based on falsehoods is one of the primary contributors to sectarianism. If the Wikipedia article is to be believed, there are well over 30k denominations of Christianity. If you have no facts, no bedrock, no means of anchoring your system in reality, then you have to make stuff up, and no two people make stuff up exactly the same way. Ultimately, everyone constructs a very personalized ethical system.
Our secular system of coercion, lacking a foundation, fails in exactly the same way. Most of us fall back on some version of moral relativism; we can't define right and wrong, and it would be dangerous to impose anyone's particular version on society, so anything goes, although this sentiment doesn't feel right. Most of us make an exception: anything goes, as long as it doesn't infringe on anyone else. But the question of whether your behavior is infringing is answered from individual intuitions. Again, everyone constructs a very personalized ethical system.
Coercive ethics, the ethical system practiced by almost everyone, is a religion.
That's #3. Thanks for watching.

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