Sunday, June 24, 2012

Invitational Ethics Addendum #1

Some of you wanted to see more examples and more details concerning how our society might work if we all rejected the religion of coercion. I'll tell you some of my visions, but I need to emphasize that I'm not proposing any of these things; I give these examples as elaboration, not prescription. All I'm proposing is that you give up coercive ethics. I'm not saying we need to implement these specific changes.
In the series I discussed some of the unacceptably high ethical costs of state punishment, and suggested a couple of possibilities concerning how we might treat potential offenders. Some of you asked me to elaborate. Let's say that we want to protect children from pedophiles. Of course, we wouldn't use the coercive word pedophile. We'd say we want to prevent a certain kind of suffering among children. In this case, the psychological scarring that goes along with being sexually molested by an adult. This is not just word play; by leaving the perpetrator out of our goal, we emphasize the victim, which affects the way we approach the problem. Second, we get our best experts to provide recommendations on the most effective ways to prevent that suffering. Imagine a list of such recommendations. Doing anything that singles out a group of potential perpetrators is probably not even in the top five. Maybe just by implementing the top five you can all but wipe out this kind of suffering among children without ever applying restrictions to anyone. But let's say that we can't wipe it out that way, that to reach our goal we must consider profiling and pre-emptive restrictions.
How would we decide what kinds of restrictions? First, we look to science to quantify and estimate the total suffering of all children due to sexual molestation each year, then quantify and estimate the total suffering of all potential child molesters under various different kinds of restrictions. Then we could clearly see, perhaps for the first time in history, not only the ethical costs of passing our laws, but also the ethical costs of not passing them. Second, we analyze the data and find an optimum solution, where we keep the suffering of children below a chosen level. Why not zero? Because we understand the law of diminishing returns. Sadly, zero cases of child molestation per year would require total mind control. So we balance the amount of suffering we estimate will occur due to child molestation against the amount of suffering we know will occur when we impose restrictions on those who fit the profile.
Note that the restrictions don't involve hunting down and electronically marking those who fit the profile. We could simply restrict their employment opportunities, for example, to keep them out of the kinds of situations that foster molestation. Naturally, we'd always want to track our efforts and use science to improve the results whenever possible. Improved results could mean a reduction in the number of molestation cases, or lighter restrictions on those who fit the profile, although I'm sure we'd tend to favor children on that particular score.
Note that I've used an idealized scenario for simplification. I don't have any details on the criteria we would use to quantify the total suffering of anyone. I would leave that to the scientists. But I think you'll agree that some standard means of measuring it could be contrived, and even if it were imperfect, it would still be a huge aid in making laws that balance the suffering of potential victims and potential perpetrators.
It occurs to me that when I propose the end of coercive ethics, in a sense, I'm saying that it's time for us to grow up as a society. Little kids on the playground think primarily in terms of should and ought, in terms of coercing each other. Adults, at least when we're on our game, can think in other terms, such as looking at the big picture, planning ahead, and especially, complex judgment calls. Adults can make difficult choices without having to appeal to an authority. Kids look to adults as final arbiters. Adults, at least sometimes, are able to make choices that have no apparent justification other than, "It seems like the right thing to do."
Our society still thinks like a child, looking for absolute justifications for our behavior. We say that society is justified in punishing you because you deserve it. If we ditch coercive ethics, then society must think like an adult: doing the best we can, knowing that there's no justification anywhere, just knowing that we want everyone to flourish, and what we impose on anyone is demonstrably necessary to prevent certain kinds of suffering. Who chooses which kinds of suffering? We do. Naturally that leads to the question of how we decide, which leads me to the idea that science could be brought to bear on our very system of governance.
Consider the process we use for selecting lawmakers, that is, democratic election, the supposed salvation of the world, and note that the process provides entirely the wrong incentives to attract people skilled at making good laws. Rather, it provides incentives for charismatic speakers with good hair, no intelligence or even soul required. Surely the game theorists have already come up with ideas that would work better at attracting qualified candidates and discouraging empty shells. Surely there are better ways to govern ourselves. Again, I propose that we look to science for answers.
That's #1. Thanks for watching.

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