Part of a four-part series of essays on human nature:
Introduction: Fear, Need, and the ‘Meaning of Life’
Free Will: Fact or Wishful Thinking?
Belief: Are We Just Fooling Ourselves?
Ethics: Do They Work Anymore? (you are here)
Ethics: Do They Work Anymore?
(Click here for related posts on ethics)
Notions of ‘Free will’ raise questions about ethics and mature judgment
Civilization pushes ethics as a front line defense against irresponsible and destructive behavior. The question is, do ethics work? History demonstrates humanity’s ongoing lapses in ethical behavior and sound judgment. Nevertheless, humanity has generally fared fairly well to this point; we have avoided nuclear winter, anyway. The consequences wrought by lapses in ethics and judgement in the coming years are another matter. Think genetic engineering.
Modern information and technologies are raising the stakes. Before the 20th century, “pushing the button” meant nothing special and tweaking DNA was unimaginable. The exponential increase in information and technology has now opened a Pandora’s Box. Our modern world begs for a commensurate increase in ethical behavior and wisdom. Simply put, we need a society of mature, ethical people. How is that going to happen? We cannot teach people to be mature as we teach them information and technology. Such qualities of character come slowly as we mature! Even teaching ethics, while possible, has become more problematic.
Mature judgment increases gradually over one’s lifetime. Older people recognize they are wiser now than they were as youngsters. Age doesn’t play as much of a role in ethical behavior however. It is empirically obvious that we are or are not ethical according to how closely connected we feel to our social family group. We are much less likely to cheat a friend than a complete stranger. The closer we feel to our group, the more likely we want to conform to its ethical norms. In practice, these norms appear to arise out of a group consensus of what is and is not permissible. This has varied widely throughout history and culture.
As society becomes more mobile, we cannot help but feel increasing social isolation. When we lose the intimacy and security of a close-knit group, “do your own thing” fills the void. We adapt by shifting our ethical rudder to favor individual rights. Our paradigm shifts to support a stanch belief in ‘free will’ and in the virtue of independence and free choice. This more self-centric ideal, at the extreme, leads to a worldview that feels “my way is the right way” or “my way or the highway”.
I hear people decry the downfall of morality brought about by the descent of traditional ethics into a kind of ethical relativism. In truth, ethical relativism isn’t causing our problems. Rather, this relativism is a symptom of an ongoing social disconnection that has been deepening over the last few hundred years, but especially from the 19th century onward. As a result, folks are now independent of their group enough to see how arbitrary and relative ethics actually is! Increasing numbers of people no longer believe that God dictated ethics on clay tablets or that ‘he’ created the cosmos in seven days.
I’ve no doubt that basic ethical values reflect humanity’s egalitarian social instincts, ‘natural law’ so to speak. The fairness research mentioned in Free Will: Fact or Wishful Thinking gives two good examples of this. Such instincts govern our ethical behavior when social unity is solid. Alas, the advent of civilization necessary for the Agricultural Revolution disrupted much of humanity’s ancestral social unity. See the Who are you? series of posts and Genus Homo’s Evolutionary Trade-off for a deeper look at this.
The harsh truth is that much of what we think of as ethics is relative and arises out of cultural consensus. When most of a civilization’s citizens believe their ethics valid and normal, they abide by them and pillory or banish anyone who deviates.
The extent to which civilization-induced ethics can deviate from natural law exemplifies its subjective fluidity. For example, what is more natural than a mother breast-feeding her baby? Yet, there are ethical taboos on breast-feeding in public. Other examples, either past or present, include the ethics concerning homosexuality, sex before marriage, using alcohol and tobacco, etc. A prime example of how totally arbitrary ethics can become, completely at odds with natural law, is slavery. Slavery was held to be ethical for millennia in a wide range of cultures because the civilized inhabitants believed it was. Note: slavery is one of the outcomes of the Agricultural Revolution and its ensuing need for civilization.
The individuality and social detachment of the ‘me’ generation is eroding many of our traditional ethical norms, while reinforcing those that affect the individual, such as ‘my’ right to privacy. Increasingly, the importance of any specific ethic depends on how it affects ‘me’ or with what ‘I’ empathize. As self-identity increases, group/tribal identity and the comfort it affords declines. As a social species, we cannot thrive with increasing social detachment. Sure, we join churches, political parties, sports teams, and so on to recover some of that tribal solidarity, but the profound primal intimacy of the tribe is lost. It is the price of civilization.
Enforced vs. unenforced ethics
Compliance with ethical standards has always been one of civilization’s most pressing issues. Religious ethics have always taken the lead in attempting to instill righteousness in people. The result, by and large, has always been an outward show of morality overlying an ocean of hypocrisy. Natural ethics, on the other hand, arises intuitively in intimate social settings where both children and adults feel connected to the egalitarian paradigm of their family and tribe. This is one reason why elders and ancestors have always served an important social role in the group. Symptomatic of our cultures’ break with these ancient dynamics is how modern culture idolizes its youth and devalues its elders.
In small hunter-gatherer tribes of a dozen or so individuals, there would be no need for enforced ethics. The birth-to-death tribal environment provided such an intuitive sense of inter-dependence and connection to all members that, in most cases, they naturally behaved ethically, intuitively following the customs of the tribe. The advent of agriculture allowed more people to form into larger and larger social groups. The larger the group, the less each individual feels connected to all of the individuals outside his immediate and extended family. When a population’s individuals fail to feel intimately connected, natural intuitive ethics do not form as deeply, if at all.
As the tribal opportunity for natural ethical behavior subsides, a culture-wide need for teachable and enforceable ethics arises to maintain social order. Among other things, we invoke a pseudo ‘alpha male tribal elder’ — god, emperor, priest — to validate the ethical standards we deem necessary. We then chisel these commandments in stone for everyone to see. Finally, breaking these laws comes with some form of reprimand, anything from shaming to beheading.
Beyond ethics and free will
Ethics has not solved our irresponsible and destructive behaviors, both for reasons covered above, and because of the ways we attempt to fix these problems. Our ‘find the cause and fix it’ urge is probably an instinctive reaction to difficulty, e.g., “Ouch, a thorn! I’ll stay away from those.” This proactive approach won’t work if civilization itself is responsible for our woes.
Many of our difficulties arise from innate animal nature, our biology, operating within civilization’s tool-using circumstances. There are numerous examples, but here are two. Our innate attraction to high-caloric food was a survival advantage in the wild, but with civilization’s abundance of refined rich food, this innate healthy attraction can lead to obesity and illness. Our innate tribal instincts helped Stone Age people compete in their struggle for survival in the wild, but in settings of large, civilized and tool using populations, it often fosters ritualized and entrenched warfare, slavery, racism and other exploitative behaviors.
Civilization affords us comfort and security through our mastery over nature. We then idealize our civilized existence as superior to that of ‘lower’ instinct-driven animals. This belief in the superiority of civilization blinds us to its pervasive dark side. Instead, we single out little pieces of civilization we deem villainous. It is those religions, those politicians, those corporations, those ______ (fill in your favorite villain). There is a bonus too… faulting others makes us feel even more superior. Lastly, we point the finger at mankind’s sinful animal nature. “Don’t be an animal,” we implore. Indeed, we believe the solution to our woes is even more civilization to tame the nasty old beast within.
This cripples us in our attempts to deal with reality – the unintended consequences of civilization. As technology increases, the consequences of our blindness are becoming inconceivably serious. Why are we not able to pull our superior heads out of the sand and take an honest look at ourselves from a primate point of view? If we actually had free will, we probably could…and would.
There may be a silver lining
I propose that as the median age of a population increases, so does its median level of wisdom. In other words, the longer each of us attends the school of life, the more we experience humbling losses and failures. Humility and wisdom also deepen as we face our own mortality and ultimate ignorance (1). A wiser and humbler population cannot help but produce a more mature and ethical culture.
In 1900, the median age in the United States was 23 years; now it is 38. The median age of the world’s population was estimated to be 28 years in 2010, ranging from a low of 15 years for some countries in Africa, to a high of 46 for Japan and Germany. More to the point, the world median age is estimated to rise to 37 by 2050. With the exponential advances in modern medicine, how much will it rise by the year 2100, 2200, 2300…? Humanity can’t help but think and act differently as the median age continues to climb. It is only a matter of time.
A falling birth rate also moves a population’s median age upward. Wealthy populations have declining birth rates, so let’s spread the wealth! Overall, things are looking up, and not a moment too soon!
(1) Two aspects in particular make ignorance interesting in its own right. The first is a reference in chapter 65, Of ancients adept in the way, none ever use it to enlighten people, They will use it in order to fool them. How can one avoid ‘being fooled’? The second was my realization awhile back that we only truly understand what we already intuitively know. What does it take to ‘already intuitively know’?
Overall, this suggests that while being a positive aspect, getting older is no panacea. ‘Being fooled’ has a lot to do with what we need or fear. A con artist uses his patsy’s own desires or worries (needs or fears) to swindle his victim. More fundamentally, this is how the bio-hoodwink works. To ‘already intuitively know’ obviously requires time — one’s lifetime. Life experience affords us the opportunity to overcome fears and have our plans and expectations turn to dust. As chapter 40 hints,
And speaking of having plans and expectations turn to dust, chapter 56 hints,
For this reason,
Unobtainable and intimate,
Unobtainable and distant
Unobtainable and favorable
Unobtainable and fearful
Unobtainable and noble
Unobtainable and humble
For this reason all under heaven value it.