Friday, June 22, 2012

Invitational Ethics #5

At the last minute before I recorded this video, an interesting thought struck me, another shocking weakness of coercive ethics. The framework explicitly calls for punishment, which means that some people deserve to be made to suffer, and that is a proper function of government. But consider, if we give that power to government, then we must fear government all the more. Invitational ethics makes no calls for punishment; It seems that a government without the power to punish would behave better than what we're used to.
In the previous video we discussed some of the things that invitational ethics is not. Now, what it is: the short, catchy invitation goes like this: I invite you to renounce the religion of coercive ethics in favor of facts and science. The formal version sounds like this: I invite you to seek to enable the utmost happiness and well-being of everyone, and to be guided by facts, science, and humanity's best thinking instead of coercive judgements of yourself and others. Of course, that's for anyone who wants it formal. I'm sticking with the catchier version.
The central idea of invitational ethics is that what really matters in the world is suffering. That is, I invite you to explore the idea of suffering versus not suffering as a foundation for making ethical choices. The goal of invitational ethics is to enable the utmost happiness and well-being of every person, except when it interferes with the utmost happiness and well-being of anyone else.
You might want to ask for a definition of these words suffering, happiness, well-being. But consider, the request for a definition often comes with a request for a defense of the definition, because often it's the defense that matters and not at all the definition. You might worry that some despot could corrupt my definition of suffering to include everyone who doesn't agree with him. He could then round them all up, and put them somewhere supposedly safe. You might want to hear how I plan on protecting my definition from misuse. This is the invitational part of invitational ethics: we want to impose our will on people only when it is absolutely necessary to prevent them infringing on someone else's happiness. I can't use a silly interpretation of the word suffering to round up anyone, because if you're suffering willingly, it's none of society's business, and if you're suffering at someone else's hands, it's not you who would be arrested.
But still, we have to define the words for them to be useful, don't we? Actually, they're more useful if we don't define them. Consider: on the left hand, you have a person with AIDS. On the right, you have a person identical to the other, except that he doesn't have AIDS. Flourishing, happiness, and well-being are to the right, and suffering is on the left.
Let's revisit the applications of coercive ethics from earlier. What would invitational ethics have to say about the child who is regularly disruptive in the classroom? He is causing suffering according to our definition; we want to stop the suffering now and prevent it happening in the future. Stopping it in the moment might involve some coercion; the teacher might even have to remove the kid from the classroom, but without using humiliation or unnecessary physical force. As for preventing the problem happening in the future, we want to use sound problem-solving techniques, starting with the question of why.
Why did the kid disrupt the class? Because he's a bad kid? Unruly? Disrespectful? No. These are the coercive explanations. The real explanations are usually not terribly complex. It's usually some difficulty going on in the child's life, something he doesn't know how to cope with. It might be something episodic, like a death in the family, or it might be something more long-term, like dysfunctional family dynamics at home. Note that I'm not attempting to make a global diagnosis of all kids' problems. Rather, I'm offering examples to contrast with words like unruly and disrespectful.
Whatever the cause of the behavior, it seems clear that we'd contribute a lot more to the child's utmost happiness and well-being by at least trying to find the cause and offering understanding and support, and if we find the cause, helping the kid find ways to cope. How many kids have gone through the school system not knowing how to cope with certain kinds of feelings because their parents never taught them? How many kids have been punished by the school-system-parent tag-team until they just stopped expressing those feelings, sucking them up inside so they can explode back out in ten or fifteen or 25 or 50 years? How much better-adjusted might we all be if we didn't grow up with, "Fuck your feelings"?
Consider the couples relationship problems we looked at earlier. Selfish, weak, lazy, incompetent, all of these labels are empty. Problem-solving again, we start by asking why. Why did I use the label selfish in particular when describing my partner? What does selfish mean, really, in terms of behavior? What is it precisely that my partner does that I want to label as selfish? What is my partner's interpretation of that precise behavior? It's far easier to relax and be creative in problem-solving when your energy is not diverted into defending yourself against a coercive label. Note once again that I'm not proposing a global solution to relationship problems. These questions aren't derived from the ethical system. They're just the questions I ask myself when I find myself labeling someone.
All of these ideas on couples can also apply to one's relationship to oneself. Instead of calling myself a glutton, I can explore the reasons, asking myself what I really mean. No, it won't cause me to lose ten pounds in two weeks, but it will help me to understand myself better, and the better I understand myself, the more effectively I can address my eating or weight or body image issues, whatever they turn out to be.

That's #5. Thanks for watching.

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