Assuming philosophy should be relevant to the way we choose to live our lives, three questions guide this paper. What are some moral foundations for revolution? Do you realize what is happening? Are you willing to do anything about it?
If we assume that human well-being is at the crux of what makes something a moral or ethical issue we have to clarify what we mean by human well-being (henceforth “flourishing”). A definition of flourishing centering on the individual would lead one to conclude that it is or depends on egoism; correspondingly, a definition focused exclusively on others leads to the conclusion that flourishing is or is dependent on altruism. Also, as Euthryphro’s dilemma showed, we also cannot rely on a higher power to provide a legitimate definition of flourishing for us. However, a glance around at how society functions leads me to believe that flourishing is neither exclusively egoistic nor altruistic. Simply put, the individual and society are interdependent.
A strong form of egoism, characterized by Ayn Rand’s objectivism, can be dismissed as unjustifiable. James Rachels provides a strong argument of refutation. Rachels says that ethical egoism is unacceptably arbitrary in two steps. For the interests of one group to be privileged over others is unacceptably arbitrary without some important justificatory difference between them. Ethical egoism arbitrarily assigns greater importance to the interests of the individual over the interests of others without appealing to a general difference between others and oneself to justify difference in treatment.
Luckily extreme altruism is not the only other option, as Rand would have us believe, because extreme altruism is also unsupportable. Extreme altruism places no value whatsoever on the individual. It is a totalitarian extreme, because under its doctrine no individual would ever be justified in pursuing her/his own self-interest for its own sake. The concept of human rights becomes utterly meaningless, and furthermore it seems to lead directly to the most brutal utilitarian calculus. The state is everything and the individual is nothing. In fact, this was the exact project of Nazi Germany. Every act ordered and undertaken was justified by contributing to the glory of the Third Reich. That Germany was defeated is not proof under this moral doctrine that their choices were morally wrong, only that they were imprudent.
To begin to grasp what human flourishing is, we need to know what kind of creature a human is. A basic starting point is that humans are evolved creatures. Evolution is fundamentally about competition for resources. In this competition there is a very strong impetus for cooperation to develop. Between two individuals competing for a specific resource it is preferable to each to monopolize the resource, but there is a life-threatening risk that they will be left high and dry. The best combined outcome is for both to cooperate and share. Once there is a foundation for cooperation, there is pressure for more and better cooperation because groups that cooperate better and with more individuals can out-compete other groups and so on. Jonathan Haidt pointed out that this is witnessed evolutionarily in the development of chromosomes from single gene replicators, prokaryotic cells to eukaryotic cells, single cellular to multi-cellular organisms, individuals to groups, and—in humans—tribes to armies, nations, and empires. Of course there is a free rider issue that must be addressed, but because of cooperation’s immense benefits it has been relatively successfully combated. For example, see Pojman’s discussions of the types of birds called “Suckers,” “Cheaters” and “Grudgers.”[i] The reason who we are as humans is so important is because ought implies capability, and where this rule is flouted there is significant human cost. We know for example that at the granular level the emotional interdependency we call love creates physical dependency that can cause physical and emotional withdrawal upon its cessation, and behaves in many ways similarly to drug addiction.
To a certain extent then humans can be seen collectively as similar in certain respects to termites and other ultra-social insects. We have evolved to be adapted to a community that we have collectively built and therefore have internal mechanisms (like a conscience) that on average will reward us for mutually beneficial behavior. Once we have realized that “no man is an island” and that the community depends on the individual as the individual depends on the community, we can see that human flourishing or well-being is the egoism that leads to altruism. We are all passengers on “spaceship earth.” Seeing the world through a zero sum lens is ultimately counterproductive and in an increasingly interdependent global community with problems that need to be addressed globally it is only a matter of time until the most efficient and possibly only route to human flourishing is sought and reached: global human cooperation and the end of war.
It is of absolutely fundamental importance for the vast majority of the human species to realize our common humanity. It is not an exaggeration to say that our lives depend on it. As technology continues to give each of us more power, and the corresponding effect that we have on other persons and the world expands, the question of what we choose to do with our freedom will decide more than just the fate of our species, but the biosphere as a whole. Since the Cold War era, it has been within the capability of our species to destroy itself and take most of the planet with us. And we are currently on a path of self-destruction being led by the greatest power on Earth that has been hijacked by elite interests that have succeeded in privatizing profits and externalizing costs at an unfathomable scale.
Of fundamental importance to this project is the virtually total relinquishment of any claims to absolute truth or knowledge. Such claims are false relics from an evolutionary history that valued greater cohesion and solidarity in groups of humans competing with other groups of humans for resources for themselves and their progeny. Religious belief is completely natural, and spirituality is woven into the fabric of what it can mean to be human. However religious or ideological claims that arrogate a monopoly on the truth by definition create divisions between in-groups and out-groups. The in-group must include the entire species as a minimum; history has shown us strife as an alternative and that strife will pale in comparison to the fate that awaits us if we fail to recognize the humanity in each person unconditionally.
The nature of knowledge is fundamentally tentative even with the broadest consensus of rational thought based on evidence, assertions to knowledge beyond that which cannot be verified or evidentially supported must be recognized as speculation, and as such provide no grounds from which to dehumanize or murder another human being. The spread of memes/ideas by force is a sign of intellectual weakness. To the contrary we could recognize that Gödel proved formal systems are fundamentally incapable of completion, and begin to come to grips with beginning to form a world that truly brings the limitations of knowledge to its core. No perfect being exists, every single one of us makes mistakes, and therefore there is nothing more dangerous to approaching the truth than the suppression of dissent.
Some might object that the end of war is unrealistic and idealistic. I would point out first that the next big step in cooperation probably has always seemed inconceivable. I think it is less inconceivable than a nation state must seem to someone in a jungle tribe.
Furthermore, we as a species have developed the ability to literally destroy the entire planet. If war had broken out between the U.S.S.R. and the U.S. it is an open question whether the human race would have survived. If there is one moral issue from whence all others spring it is the survival of the human species (of people to do the moralizing). Ending war seems necessary but insufficient.
Famine relief, for example, has to be about more than minimizing the suffering of humans no different from ourselves, it has to resolve the structural injustices and inequities that are the legacies of racism and colonialism that disadvantage the global south and ethnic minorities within wealthy nations because in addition to the suffering there is a terrific global opportunity cost (even in the economic sense) in concentrating power at the expense of the maximization of opportunity for every human individual. True wealth is created by innovation, innovation requires innovative minds, and innovative minds require the education and leisure to pursue their interests. Maximizing the capabilities of each individual, by definition maximizes the capabilities of society.
Something is a moral matter then when it relates to the interdependence of the human species, the associated fact that the survival of the human species depends on this interdependence, and the maximization of the potential of the human species depends on maximizing the potential of every individual human. Martin Luther King Jr. said it better than anyone else, “We are caught in a an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” But we do no even have to be certain of this.
Acknowledging that dogma cannot provide a non-arbitrary foundation for ethics, is there a place for uncertainty? Indeed, especially if we consider the question of values in general to be an empirical question of the proper way to treat each other according to the growing scientific knowledge about emotional health and wellbeing as Sam Harris would argue. But even without immediately running to the data, accepted and acceptable uncertainty is breathing room. It is the space we need for an open and ongoing discussion about ethics, survival, and the human species. It is freedom from the shackles of our long history of various claims of absolute truth, spiritual and otherwise. Uncertainty is tentativity. If the best understanding of the world by our greatest minds is in constant revision shouldn’t our own understanding of the world be in constant revision? How often do you update your software?
What might “updated software,” so to speak, practically get us? To the extent that as a species some paths are more wise than others, one suggestion is wiki government. Eric Schmidt, Chairman and CEO of Google in his advance praise for the eponymous book says, “The Internet has taught us that good ideas come from everywhere. Wiki Government translates that lesson for policy makers. With a compelling blend of high theory and practical know-how, Beth Noveck explains how political institutions can directly engage the public to solve complex problems and create a better democracy.”
“Using technology to drive law reform is explicitly evolutionary. We can iterate new versions of the social and institutional ‘operating system,’ but instead of Windows 1.0 and 2.0, we are striving to create better decisionmaking practices. The speed with which we can update software—as opposed to the long delays often involved in updating laws—allows us to respond efficiently to empirical data. Technologists believe in rough consensus, running code. Try something, see how it works, iterate, and try again.”[ii]
It should be obvious that the direct participation of relevant knowledgeable citizenry in an active and responsive decisionmaking process would be able to produce better results than the rather anemic intermittent voting for so-called “representatives.” Technology can serve as a bridge to allow public participation to directly create public policy. “Collaborative governance is an idea whose time has come.”[iii]
We can even have good reasons to expect what some of the results of better democracy would look like. We now know for example, and Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett in their book The Spirit Level, make it abundantly clear, that inequality is a common thread in almost the entirety of our set of social problems,
“On almost every index of quality of life, or wellness, or deprivation, there is a gradient showing a strong correlation between a country’s level of economic inequality and its social outcomes. Almost always, Japan and the Scandinavian countries are at the favourable “low” end, and almost always, the UK, the US and Portugal are at the unfavourable “high” end, with Canada, Australasia and continental European countries in between.”[iv]
High inequality results in high numbers for social ills, and low inequality correspondingly leads to significantly fewer social problems. They do discuss in detail how social inequality can be linked to everything from obesity rates to teen pregnancy. However, they do not make any explicit connection between their findings and the degree of meaningful democracy a country possesses. It seems likely that Scandinavian countries are more democratic in general, and the U.S., some of you might have noticed, shows serious signs of having become a banana republic.
The crash has laid bare many unpleasant truths about the United States. One of the most alarming, says a former chief economist of the International Monetary Fund, is that the finance industry has effectively captured our government—a state of affairs that more typically describes emerging markets, and is at the center of many emerging-market crises. If the IMF’s staff could speak freely about the U.S., it would tell us what it tells all countries in this situation: recovery will fail unless we break the financial oligarchy that is blocking essential reform. And if we are to prevent a true depression, we’re running out of time.[v]
So the next step is taking back our country. For those of you in denial of the desperate need to do so consider,
50 million Americans are now living in poverty, which is the highest poverty rate in the industrialized world; 30 million Americans are in need of work; Five million American families foreclosed upon, 15 million expected by 2014; 50% of US children will now use a food stamp during childhood; Soaring budget deficits in states across the country and a record high national debt, with austerity measures on the way; [and] Record-breaking profits and bonuses for [the financial oligarchy].[vi]
Glenn Greenwald quotes The Atlantic,
“‘Squeezing the oligarchs, though, is seldom the strategy of choice among emerging-market governments. Quite the contrary: at the outset of the crisis, the oligarchs are usually among the first to get extra help from the government, such as preferential access to foreign currency, or maybe a nice tax break, or — here’s a classic Kremlin bailout technique — the assumption of private debt obligations by the government. Under duress, generosity toward old friends takes many innovative forms. Meanwhile, needing to squeeze someone, most emerging-market governments look first to ordinary working folk — at least until the riots grow too large.’
The real question is whether the American public is too apathetic and trained into submission for that to ever happen.”[vii]
Elizabeth Warren of Harvard is warning us of the coming collapse of the American middle class. Two income families today have less money after fixed expenses than single income families did a generation ago. We all know families that have dealt with divorce, but we may not have realized that we know more families that have gone through bankruptcy.[viii]
American civic education requires a transformative breakthrough. Current US wars are unlawful to an Orwellian degree. The US economy is transferring unprecedented wealth of trillions of dollars every year to a financial elite within corporate cartels that have captured their government regulators. Civic education in both of these areas is crippled by colluding political and corporate propaganda.
These are factual claims easily verified as objective data, and substantiated by recognized experts within the Harvard community.[ix]
Corporations are not humans, and must be stripped of all human rights. The granting of human rights to a super-human psychopathic artificial intelligence severely diminishes, if not drowns out, the actual human rights of the living and breathing human creatures inhabiting the planet. The ravaging of the peoples and places of the planet is directly related to the artificial maintenance of the economic sphere as the highest power.
People and land and natural resources are not commodities, we have not been created for the market. The market economy has never been as pristine as economic conceptions would indicate. Economics cannot be meaningfully discussed without addressing its relation to socio-political life. The American Dream is a lie. Despite the widespread belief in the United States that each of us is just around the corner from being rich, this nation has markedly less actual social mobility than European countries like Germany, Denmark, or Norway. The American Dream has been built on the backs of slave labor, dependent on continued preservation of desperation to keep wages down and people willing to work for next to nothing, and it is already being replaced by the European Dream. We are in the “jaws of death,” productivity continues to rise and real wages continue to fall. This is not an aspect of China’s that we want to be emulating. The two party stranglehold of political power has for all intents and purposes successfully curtailed real democratic change.
I am not sure how much hope of success we are justified in having in a short enough time frame to stave of the next great depression, especially considering that even Ralph Nader’s most recent book is titled Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us. If that does not pan out, maybe some day super-intelligent robots will save us from ourselves, but of course we cannot count on either. It could be wise to remember that wisdom is a work in progress, but also to remember that sometimes, if we are going to value human life, wisdom requires action.
What are you willing to do? Are you willing to stand up like the Tunisians, to stand up like the Egyptians? What are people waiting for. We have every reason to believe that we are beyond the point of no return in this country. When the political and economic elites are above the law, while its full weight crashes down on the weakest and most downtrodden, and the righteous among us, what has the law become when it is no longer universal?
“[T]o review the contemporary rules governing the Rule of Law in the U.S.:
* If you torture people or eavesdrop on Americans without the warrants required by the criminal law, you receive Look-Forward Imperial Immunity.
* If you shoot and kill unarmed rescuers of the wounded while occupying their country and severely wound their unarmed children sitting in a van — or if you authorize that conduct — your actions are commended.
* If you help wreck the world economy with fraud and cause hundreds of millions of people untold suffering, you collect tens of millions of dollars in bonuses.
* If you disclose to the world evidence of war crimes, government lawbreaking, or serious corruption, or otherwise embarrass the U.S., you will be swiftly prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law and face decades in prison.”[x]
“Imagine a parallel universe where the Great Crash of 2008 was followed by a Tea Party of a very different kind. Enraged citizens gather in every city, week after week—to demand the government finally regulate the behavior of corporations and the superrich, and force them to start paying taxes. The protesters shut down the shops and offices of the companies that have most aggressively ripped off the country. The swelling movement is made up of everyone from teenagers to pensioners. They surround branches of the banks that caused this crash and force them to close, with banners saying, You Caused This Crisis. Now YOU Pay.
As people see their fellow citizens acting in self-defense, these tax-the-rich protests spread to even the most conservative parts of the country. It becomes the most-discussed subject on Twitter. Even right-wing media outlets, sensing a startling effect on the public mood, begin to praise the uprising, and dig up damning facts on the tax dodgers.
Instead of the fake populism of the Tea Party, there is a movement based on real populism. It shows that there is an alternative to making the poor and the middle class pay for a crisis caused by the rich. It shifts the national conversation. Instead of letting the government cut our services and increase our taxes, the people demand that it cut the endless and lavish aid for the rich and make them pay the massive sums they dodge in taxes.
This may sound like a fantasy—but it has all happened. The name of this parallel universe is Britain. As recently as this past fall, people here were asking the same questions liberal Americans have been glumly contemplating: Why is everyone being so passive? Why are we letting ourselves be ripped off? Why are people staying in their homes watching their flat-screens while our politicians strip away services so they can fatten the superrich even more?”[xi]
Let’s do this. Johann Hari even has a ten step guide laid out.[xii] If we aren’t active participants, we are passive observers. As Howard Zinn has explained there is no being neutral on a moving train. Especially when looking ahead makes it clear the tracks are out.
Our species is in a race with itself the stakes of which have truly never been higher. If current trends continue a middle ground will grow less feasible, and we will be dependent on the fulfillment of the singularity hypothesis—that technological development will lead to a society not understandable, even in principle, to the current human society—to avoid one apocalyptic scenario for the possibility of several other technologically oriented apocalyptic scenarios. Be that as it may, a potential apocalypse is better than a certain one. But there are very serious problems with letting a small elite agenda maintain control in the transition to the trans- and post-human future. Just as technology gives everyone more power as it reaches everyone, it gives a disproportionate amount of power, at least temporarily, to those who wield new technologies first. If technological development is truly on an exponential curve, the point will inevitably come in society with a steep social gradient that those in power will achieve first the technological capability to hold the rest of humanity at their whim. The technological issues are really a known, unknown unknown. As we approach the singularity the number of black swan events will approach infinity. For all I know super-human intelligence will save humanity. Whether immanently or externally, by augmented human or by robotic AI, we cannot predict, but any combination of these seem within the realm of possibility.
First we have to survive the current headlong rush toward collective suicide via the destruction of the biosphere’s life support systems. In both cases (the current global crisis and the singularity), it seems the likelihood of survival would increase if power became as decentralized and robust as possible without diminishing the possibility for swift, practical, and unified action; the only form of governance that I could imagine fulfilling this seemingly impossible role would be something along the lines of a wikigovernment, made possible for the first time by technological advances.
This is where I think the practical wisdom of a living philosophy will lead us. Maybe as the Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh says in his book Being Peace, “The most basic precept of all is to be aware of what we do, what we are, each minute. Every other precept will follow from that.”[xiii]
[i] The Moral Life An Introductory Reader in Ethics and Literature. New York: Oxford UP, USA, 2006. Print.
[ii] Noveck, Beth Simone. Wiki Government: How Technology Can Make Government Better, Democracy Stronger, and Citizens More Powerful. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution, 2009. Print.
[iv] “Review: The Spirit Level by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett | Books | The Guardian.” Latest News, Comment and Reviews from the Guardian | Guardian.co.uk. Web. 12 May 2010. <http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2009/mar/13/the-spirit-level>.
[v] Johnson, Simon. “The Quiet Coup.” Atlantic Magazine. Web. 12 May. 2010
[vi] “We, as a population, have been acting against our own interests and fighting amongst ourselves, while the Economic Elite, who control our society and media system, are left unquestioned and unchallenged, operating behind the scenes, beyond the spotlight, above the law, concentrating wealth and resources, at our expense, in unprecedented fashion.
Other than to create and control popular opinion and keep us politically passive, the mainstream media exists to keep people consuming and spending their hard-earned money. That is the bottom line.
Every time you turn on the TV, you have to realize that the entire mass media system is an elaborate psychological operation to keep you passive and make you feel secure in spending your money. That’s why TV pundits and talking heads are paid huge salaries; they are experts in duping us and playing us for fools. We are all being played. We aren’t free citizens; we are indebted wage slaves. That may sound much too harsh for a population that has been propagandized for hours a day, every day of our lives, but it is the truth. As the brilliant John Dewey said, “We live exposed to the greatest flood of mass suggestion that any people has ever experienced.”
Who needs reality when you have American Idol, Disneyland and celebrity sex scandals?
Until we can block out these distractions and face reality, our future and living standards will continue to spiral downward.
. . .
I know the game is rigged against us, but I also know that we ultimately have the power. We are 99% of the population. It’s just a matter of organizing together and exercising our will. It comes down to our ability to inform and inspire our family, friends and neighbors. It comes down to us overcoming our own passive unwillingness to STAND UP for our own rights, which is part of the reason we are in this crisis to begin with. We are at a point in American history where the stakes have never been higher. I wish we could just turn away and ignore it, but I know we can’t. Our very way of life is under attack. It is the very unfortunate reality of our current crisis.
Will we WAKE UP and acknowledge this, or will we continue to sleepwalk in ignorance to a slow death?”http://ampedstatus.com/the-financial-oligarchy-reigns-democracys-death-spiral-from-greece-to-the-united-states
[vii] Greenwald, Glenn. “What Collapsing Empire Looks like – Glenn Greenwald – Salon.com.” Salon.com – Salon.com. 6 Aug. 2010. Web. 16 Feb. 2011. <http://www.salon.com/news/opinion/glenn_greenwald/2010/08/06/collapse>.
[viii] Warren, Elizabeth. “The Coming Collapse of the Middle Class.” Youtube. The Graduate Council Lectures: The Jefferson Memorial Lectures, 31 Jan. 2008. Web. 13 May 2010. <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=akVL7QY0S8A>.
[ix] Carl, Herman. “Open Proposal to US Higher Education: End Unlawful War, Oligarchy Economics with Education.” Examiner.com. 28 Apr. 2010. Web. 13 May 2010. <http://www.examiner.com/x-18425-LA-County-Nonpartisan-Examiner~y2010m4d28-Open-proposal-to-US-higher-education-End-unlawful-war-oligarchy-economics-with-education-1-of-4>.
[x] Greenwald, Glenn. “Rules of America’s Rule of Law – Glenn Greenwald – Salon.com.” Salon.com – Salon.com. 6 July 2010. Web. 16 Feb. 2011. <http://www.salon.com/news/opinion/glenn_greenwald/2010/07/06/law>.
[xi] Hari, Johann. “How to Build a Progressive Tea Party.” The Nation. 3 Feb. 2011. Web. 16 Feb. 2011. <http://www.thenation.com/article/158282/how-build-progressive-tea-party>.
[xii] Hari, Johannn. “A Ten-Step Guide to Launching US Uncut.” The Nation. 3 Feb. 2011. Web. 16 Feb. 2011. <http://www.thenation.com/article/158280/ten-step-guide-launching-us-uncut>.
[xiii] Nhat, Hanh . Being Peace. Berkeley, Calif.: Parallax, 2005. Print.