Ethics: The “Do Not’s”
The following ideas were heavily influenced by the Theologian Dr. Huston Smith, who I saw give a talk on “The Enduring Truths of the Great Religions.” The word “Enduring” jumped out at me as the language of Science. There are not absolute truths, only enduring ones. While Huston Smith often laments the rise of “Scientism” as excessively focused on the Natural World to the extent of forgetting the Spiritual, his arguments persuaded me precisely because they were so focused on Natural Observations.
To begin, we should look at the common Ethical components of all religions, these are the “Do Nots.” It is interesting to note that these destructive acts are a rarity for intra-species relationships in the wild. Animals only kill, steal, lie, or exploit members of their own species to the extent required to survive. Species with a proclivity to commit these acts beyond satiation would quickly self-destruct themselves out of the environment.
These rules apply especially to the Human race, for our most powerful Evolutionary trait is our Social Organization, our cooperation, our Culture. We are a species of interdependent minds, each specialized to fill a need that benefits the whole. Without our Social Networks, we would die as individual units.
The East and the West take different approaches to Ethics. The West frames them as rules that must not be violated. The East frames them as character flaws that must be purged. The Ten Commandments and the Three Poisons are two expressions of these approaches.
The Four Core “Dont’s” of Social Living
Do Not Kill – Hatred
Every one of us fulfills a necessary function in our collective organism. Removing any one of us, not only removes someone who performed a service for the community, but removes their life’s wisdom as well. If you kill the farmer, where will you get your food?
The entire society raises each one of us. Killing a member of the community prematurely generates a loss on society’s investment. A potential lifetime of productivity and contribution to the community that raised the individual is lost.
Do Not Steal – Greed
Societies are social constructs, requiring a consensus on the rules of the systems. Our economic system uses currency that society defines the value of using a naturally fluctuating exchange rate. When the rules of our economic system are subverted the currency rate adjusts in relation to the subversion.
For instance, in the case of stealing, a product is taken without exchanging currency; therefore, the amount of currency for product exchange rate goes up to compensate for the loss of currency. In a case of violating acceptable labor practices, the amount of labor for currency increases, bringing down the value of labor everywhere to compete. In both cases, exceptions have a detrimental effect on the whole by distorting the values for products and services agreed upon by society.
Do Not Lie – Delusion
We live in a world of facts and we base important decisions on them. When someone lies, they introduce a falsehood disguised as a fact into the Memepool. For a macro-organism, such as Society, which collectively makes decisions, maintaining the integrity of the memepool, its truth, is crucial.
When a bad idea enters the memepool, society’s public disputational exchanges will often root it out and dispose of it. Yet, in the case of an individual, or group of individuals seeking personal gain from a bad idea, bad ideas can find greater staying power in the social mind. Society will always suffer as a result, in the form of poor policy-making and hindered progress.
Do Not Exploit – Hubris*
Exploitation is the objectification of another human being. There are many forms of exploitation such as slavery, rape, murder, and greed. It both encompasses the other “do not’s” and yet requires special mention.
Exploiting other human beings requires the delusional belief that oneself is better than one’s neighbor. It requires a greedy sense of privilege and a murderer’s contempt for others. All of these ethical violations are forms of hubris and they all fall under forms of exploitation.
Adultery is a form of exploitation, and not only within the context of a committed relationship. The objectification of one’s sexual partner removes their individuality, their humanity. It is a delusional perception that requires an unrealistically high self-perception to apply such a lowered perception of another human being.
The rationales for each of these ethical principles are intertwined. They all orbit the social animal that is the human race and the pragmatic needs of our societies. Without these principles, there cannot be a society. The lines blur between these principles and we can easily imagine how hubris leads to greed leads to delusion leads to hatred and back again.
*Hubris is not one of the Three Poisons.
The Mercurial Application of Ethical Code
Are these Ethics set in stone, as the Ten Commandments? Are they absolutes? We live in a complex world, where contextual variables must be applied in our Ethical applications.
Take for instance this hypothetical situation: A mad person is running down the road, killing people left and right. Is it wrong to kill them? Very few people would say so. Pragmatic necessity overrules the Ethical principle.
There is a substantive rational that could support killing in such a circumstance. If we define the Human race as Social beings, then damaging Community Integrity could, in a sense, inviolate one’s Humanity. The situation and the intent must be considered carefully. We must try to adhere to the rules as if they are absolutes, but there are always exceptions. The essence of these Ethics is to preserve the Social Structure, our culture.
Another aspect of ethics, also portrayed in Star Trek and other futurist speculations is the changing nature of ethics as our Society evolves. As our world changes, we encounter new and unique ethical challenges that we must face as a community. As our understanding of the world becomes clearer, we are forced to re-evaluate our previous ethical standards.
For instance, in the case of slavery, as our understanding of race relations evolved, the practice of subjugating other human beings became abhorrent. An improved “theory of mind,” or understanding that other races are also human beings with thoughts of their own overtook the traditional standards of inequality. Although the Bible finds nothing wrong with slavery, so long as it is humane, our understanding of the practice has advanced to rule out the possibility altogether.
Scientific advancements bring the greatest ethical conundrums. The Human Genome Project’s completion brought the potential for institutions to conduct DNA screening for undesirable genes. In response, more than 40 States in the U.S. passed genetic non-discrimination bills. File-sharing networks, allowing their users to violate copyright laws, have simultaneously prompted disputation of what constitutes stealing and raised questions about the abuse of copyright monopolies, such as Disney’s perpetual hold on Mickey Mouse, a character that would have entered the public domain decades ago were it not for legislative extensions.
Debates such as abortion, stem cell research, animal testing, and genetic engineering also challenge our traditional understandings of life and equality, which affect the ethics of killing and exploitation. To resolve these, we are forced to determine specifics such as when life begins and the sentience of different animals.
“Truth may be the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow, but our understanding of truth is not the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow.”
– Huston Smith
Virtues: The “Do’s”
Virtues, not self-control, is what truly separates us from the animals. Pack and herd animals do not kill, lie, or steal from one another in their species unless resources are scarce, and then they only take what they need. Instinct, preserving the flock, herd, pride, pack, whatever keeps them relatively civil to one another. It is merely our misperceived exceptionalism that prompts us to distinguish ourselves from the rest of the animal kingdom in this way.
Humans are distinguished from the rest of the animal kingdom in our capacity to seek improvement over our current state. Our large cerebral cortex gives us enormous power over our reptilian brain. The effect can be to incredibly improve our situations or affect them adversely on drastic scales.
While adherence to Ethical Principals will prevent actions with deleterious affects on our lives, Virtues tell us how to positively enhance them. These are the “Do’s” of social living, positive actions we should seek to emulate. These behaviors improve the quality of life for ourselves and everyone around us, because the two are intertwined.
The Short List
This virtue concerns keeping an accurate perspective of yourself in the universe. This does not only mean that we should not live beyond our stature as a single human being, but we must also live up to the stature of a single human being as well.
We must remember that our mind feels like an entire universe unto itself. It contains your concept of the self, and feels separate from the body, but this is only a perceptual illusion. The brain does the thinking (“I”), which creates the mind (“i”). The scope of your brain defines the scope of your mind. “‘I’ think, therefore ‘i’ am” is a self-referential argument.
Failing to keep yourself in perspective, inflating your perceptions beyond supportable reality will lead to failures for which you will not comprehend the reasons. Living in your mind will do nothing for yourself or have any effect on the world around you. You will only have yourself to work with. Being true to yourself means recognizing your limits, and also pushing them.
You are a single human being, but as social animals we must also recognize our neighbors as separate and equal human beings. In science, this is having a “theory of mind” and it is expressed to varying degrees in the animal kingdom. Cats, Dogs, and Ravens are capable of recognizing other beings have minds and perceptions as well.
Keeping your perspective in the Universe means keeping your perspective in Society as well. We are all cells in a communal organism. If we do not contribute to the benefit of that creature, we will all die.
This is where the concept of Philanthropy comes into play. We may play our role in society, fulfill our responsibilities by going to work, paying our taxes, letting the forces of Capitalism and Socialism provide for the community, but we also have the ability to go beyond what is expected of us. We may donate to charities or perform volunteer work to improve the local or global standard of living. When you raise the standard of living for your community, you raise it for yourself as well.
Be true to yourself, be true to others, and be true to the Cosmos. Seek truth in all things. When we see the world as it really is, we are able to function more effectively in it, we are able to define our purpose in it more clearly. When confronted with a fact that contradicts our hypotheses, we must always accept the fact.
We must also practice truthfulness with those around us. Openness, sincerity, and forthrightness are all crucial to establishing secure social bonds with our fellow human beings. Mutual trustworthiness means we waste less time searching through a morass of false perceptions.
When the facts are subject to interpretation and “gray areas” in knowledge result, we must practice fairness. We must encourage discussion, challenge our perceptions to hone them into an accurate world view. We must entertain all ideas.
We must be devoted to the truth. We must pursue it. We must conform to it.
A World of Infinite Virtues
There are a multitude of virtues beyond these three. We live in a vast, complex world, and there are infinite Virtues to help us face it. There are Virtues in pursuing Emotional Maturity, virtues in maintaining Physical Fitness, in Managing Money, Intellectual Pursuits, on and on, subcategories within categories, all interrelated.
As our understanding of the Cosmos increases, the bodies of knowledge in which we may reveal the truth expand as well. While our understanding of ethics grows more specific and refined with our advancement, the understanding of virtues expands the horizon of ways in which we may improve ourselves. No matter how apt at virtues we become, we can always improve.
From evolution, as biological, social, technological, and intellectual, we know that one of the purposes of life is to grow and improve Virtues are keys to such progress. They apply to ourselves as a single beings and to our social animal. They are a means to an unknown end, but the benefits of improvement are apparent everywhere.
Vision: Why All This?
What are We Striving For? Why all the Ethics to preserve Society? Why all the Virtues to improve ourselves? Where is all of this leading?
The answer is that we do not know, and that is what makes the voyage so wonderful. If we know the destination or even know for certain that there even is a destination, it would limit the scope of the game. Currently we have a universe of infinite possibilities. We may think we see the edge of it, but we also know there may be neighboring Universes beyond that.
Not knowing anything with certainty does not mean that we cannot draw the trends we see into something coherent enough to inspire us, yet abstract enough so as not to intimidate us. We are like the single-celled organisms that unknowingly embarked on the voyage to becoming the human race. Imagine if such organisms had known this destination, and that it was going to take 3 Billion years and that progress was going to be painstakingly slow. Understanding these things would take all the enjoyment out of it.
Better to merely swim in the primordial ooze, serving the now by fulfilling its simple purposes to survive and reproduce.
The Three Core Aspects of vision
As outlined by Dr. Huston Smith:
Existence, we’re all in it together. Reality is One. We all share it. If there is alien life in a galaxy on the opposite end of the Cosmos, it is dealing with the same laws of physics and chemistry we are.
We constantly seek to refine this unified understanding of reality as a Society. No two people will have the same perspective on it, but reality and its truth are still there and immutable. Through disputation, testing and retesting the data, and refinement, we will edge closer and closer to a clearer comprehension of everything.
From inanimate matter, to single cells, to multi-cells, to fill the oceans, to cover the lands, to the Billions of years of process that brought us here today. Life gradually climbs to greater heights. We may have our hindrances, our minor lapses into recidivism, but we always strive in the direction of better.
Perfection is the goal. We strive for an ultimate understanding, a destination. We want to know everything. Is this possible?
The mystery of life is like walking toward the horizon, you see more and more of the world around you, but the horizon always stays the same distance away. There is always another, smaller particle. There is always another digit in the perfect ratios of Pi or Phi. There is always more to know.
There are two types of mystery in life, the “Known Unknown” and the “Unknown Unknown”. The next digit of Pi is the “Known Unknown,” because we know that it is there, waiting to be discovered. The “Unknown Unknown” are all of the surprises waiting for us over the horizon that we cannot even guess at. The “Known Unknown” is the carrot dangling before our noses that leads us to the next “Unknown Unknown” that will keep existence new and fresh.
We have physical bodies, opposable thumbs, big brains, and Massive Collaborations that enable us to discover our Cosmos.
So you accept and adhere to the core Ethical principles. You are practicing and refining your application of the Virtues. You understand the Vision and let it guide you. What else is there?
Only to live, enjoy life, the good and the bad parts of it. The more you accept your world, the clearer you see it, the less the bad moments will hurt you and the more you will enjoy the good ones.
Remember that single-celled organism? Brimming with genes of varying usefulness, its only purpose is to survive and pass on those genes. We humans are like that, brimming with memes of varying truthfulness. Except we have the power to improve our memes. We actively propagate them through our good deeds and the demonstrable success of our works. The more prevalent the good memes become, overtaking the bad, the better all our lives will be in the future.
So simply live, do no harm, and spread your good memes.
Enjoy the ride.