"The time has come," the Walrus said,
"To talk of many things."
Let's start with an easy one, shall we?
Let's generate the standard for perfect ethical behavior. Then, after lunch, we'll discuss how to apply it.
First, we have to be sure we are working from the same definitions. For a topic like this, we must be able to speak with precision. It takes a sharp scalpel to hew close to the truth.
Morality--a code of behavior based on external authority, a priest, shaman, god(ess), etc.
Ethics-- a code of behavior based upon observable and predictable effects of that behavior.
Instinct--impulses to behavior genetically encoded through evolution
Knowledge--impulses to behavior learned from experience
Spirit--impulses to behavior from all other sources
Postulate--Assumption which is impossible to prove, but is not contradicted by known facts and is useful in describing and predicting future data.
Evolution--speciation through the combination of random mutation and natural selection
Behavioral evolution--differential ideation through natural selection
All right, that should be enough to get us started.
First, I reject morality as a useful concept, as it is based on authority, rather than knowledge, and as such is hampered by two major flaws. First, it is subjective, relying on the biases and perceptions of the authority figure. This flaw is usually addressed by attributing the authority figure with infallibility (Christianity), or by looking at the universe as arbitrary and capricious (Greco-Roman multitheism, Paganism). The second flaw is that authority is derived from the application of force, either individually, in the case of a tyranny, or in groups, in the case of a democracy. In either case, these flaws lead to internally contradictory moral codes, which make ethical consistency exceptionally difficult.
Second, while I do not reject the spiritual, it is undefinable, unverifiable, and unpredictable, and therefore not a sound basis to found a code of behavior. However, it may not not be entirely co-incidental that there are core principles which do not vary much from faith to faith. As brief example, re-incarnation is often looked at as a profound difference between Eastern and Western mysticism, when in truth, re-incarnation forms the basis for both belief systems. Born again? Resurrection? Life After Death? Aren’t these all different ways to say re-incarnation? But I digress….
So,I look to the ethical mode to determine my behavior. But how exactly do we apply this mode? Isn’t it just as arbitrary as morality? After all, if each person is free to determine the ethics of their own actions, couldn’t we still have a multitude of codes? Apparently we need to determine a sound basis for our ethical construct, one which is rational, observable, and stable. While we still may derive different answers, depending on the weights we ascribe to the factors involved, in most cases, the answers will be close enough that the differences will be tolerable.
Well, first we have to decide what we are trying to achieve.
Is it fairness?
Well, let’s see….anybody care to take a stab at defining any one of those concepts?
No? (God, I love a bully pulpit!*grin*)
And well you shouldn’t because they are null concepts. There is no objective foundation for any of these concepts because man artificially imposes them on the world around him. Is it ‘fair’ for the cheetah to eat the gazelle? Is it justice when a good man’s house burns to the ground, killing his family while he watches, helpless? Is it equality that I sit here at a computer, well fed, well rested while there are other people on the globe starving, wasting away with disease? Of course not. Perhaps later in the discussion, when we have laid a foundation, we can re-examine these concepts, and see if we can find a basis for them, but as a primary objective, they are useless.
So, what do we have left?
Let’s reduce life down to the basics. We need to eat, sleep, and make babies, just like every other form of life on the planet. Everything else springs from these primal urges, and even these three urges can be boiled down into one more basic drive: our old friend survival. Every organism has encoded within its DNA the drive to endure, to survive. On the most elemental level, this is what makes us tick. Since survival is at the foundation of all of our behaviors, clearly, it should also form the foundation of our ethics as well.
There are two types of behavior. Those that tend towards survival, and those which tend towards extinction. Organisms that adopt behaviors tending towards extinction go the way of the dinosaur, removing those behaviors from consideration. By elimination then, ethical behaviors are those that tend towards survival. Now, does this mean an attitude of “I’ve got mine, screw you!” is the height of ethical behavior? We'll examine that next time.