Monday, December 20, 2010

Ethics to/and Politics

We get the word "political" from the Greek word "polis," meaning "city." Politics thus originally dealt with the relations people should have with each other in order to live among a large number of strangers. Certainly, if this is what politics is about, then the nature of ethics must be raised. This suggests that ethics and politics are in fact deeply intertwined and cannot be so easily separated. One's ethics affect one's politics, and vice versa. Or, at least, one can learn much about another's ethics by understanding their politics, and vice versa.

1. Is and Ought -- The Fallacy of the Naturalistic Fallacy

Whatever is natural is not necessarily good. Beginning with this statement, people derive the naturalistic fallacy. However, if the naturalistic fallacy is true, then how does one derive ethics from an evolutionary model? There has to be an "is" or a set of what is from which ethics emerges if humans evolved. Thus, one has to address what it means to be human.

First, humans are a social species of ape. This in fact gives us a wide range of social structures: chimpanzees with their male-dominated political hierarchies, bonobos with their somewhat female-dominated make love not war heterarchies, gorillas with their male-dominated harems, and orangutans with their isolated living. And where do humans fit into all of this? We seem to fall somewhere between chimpanzees and bonobos, leaning a bit toward the chimpanzees. At the same time, the degree to which we do lean toward bonobo behavior is the degree to which we have developed human ethical behavior (one could argue that our politics more resembles chimpanzee politics). Bonobos treat each other more equally; chimpanzees have clear hierarchies which are, nevertheless, changeable through power struggles.

And what of humans? Well, at the tribal level, it seems that ethics and politics are practically inseparable. There is a great deal of equitable treatment at the tribal level. Of course, at the same time, other tribes are considered mortal enemies who should probably be killed on sight. However, humans share with chimpanzees the tendency of young females to immigrate to other groups. Among chimpanzees, that is that, and the female is now a member of that other troop, and an enemy. However, among humans,familial ties are not broken, and thus friendly relations are established with the local tribes to which one's daughters have gone. This is reinforced through trade -- something we see at a very high level of development in bonobos as well. A consequence is the spread of ethical behavior.

Of course, I still haven't said what ethical behavior is. Ethical behavior involves treating non-family as we would treat our families. When it comes to our families, we do not murder them, steal from them, rape them, or lie to benefit ourselves at their expense (the true meaning of "bear false witness"). Each of these things breaks our bonds with them -- and as a social mammal, we have to have strong social bonds. A human by himself on the savanna is as good as dead. Man cooperates to hunt and find food, to protect himself, and to raise offspring. This is an evolved strategy very common among mammals. Indeed, social behavior is more common than are isolated individuals. Various behaviors are quite common to mammals for this very reason: grooming/touch is very important to well-being, and induces the production of stress-reduction hormones; rituals to avoid harmful conflict to resolve territorial disputes and mating rights; cooperation to find food, which then includes sharing of food. We see all of these in humans, developed into a wide range of behaviors. Human ethical behavior thus encompasses all of these, and can result in a wide variety of behaviors that one would call ethical.

I have discussed the issue of murder and capital punishment before, and while I happen to think that we should not have capital punishment for a variety of reasons, at the same time, I cannot agree with those who argue that it is "murder," for the very reasons given in my previous post. We should have a discussion regarding the legitimacy of the ritual, the fact that the presence of the death penalty creates a culture of death, which is unhealthy for society (and unethical, as it break social bonds), and one can even, if you want to get purely practical about it, talk about how it does not deter anyone from doing anything, and that it costs more. There is nothing to recommend it other than as revenge, being handed out by the state. And while revenge makes for good theater and opera, it doesn't make for good ethics. Indeed, note that most revenge stories are in fact revenge tragedies.

Humans are full of evolved behaviors, all of which are designed to ensure our survival as a social ape on the African savanna. However, as our population grew, and we came into more and more contact with strangers, some of those behaviors became better used in such a social situation, while others were better discarded. Collectivist notions, such as tribalism, racism, nationalism, and, more and more, statism, have had to fall by the wayside precisely because they made us judge people as other than individuals, which weakened our social bonds with them. At the same time, one could argue that the strong bonds of those groups we used to belong to have weakened greatly. Indeed, that has happened to some extent. But which would you prefer: a set of really close-knit group of racists who really like each other within the group and know each other very well, or a society of relatively unknown individuals who don't care what race, religion, etc. you are and thus believe in live and let live? It is the latter which allows us to live together in cities, nations, and globally. Consider how amazing it is that practically anyone from anyplace can travel anywhere in relative safety (or at least no more danger than the locals). This is precisely because of our evolving ethics. We are a social species that extends to everyone the gift of being "in our tribe." It comes about because we can trust strangers, and that trust coincidentally, comes about through trade. If we thus go back, we can see how there has been a ratcheting up of mankind throughout history: women marrying outside the tribe gave rise to friendlier relations with other tribes, strengthened through trading, which helped create even more trust, which resulted in yet more trading, and more trust, and further expansion of who is "in our tribe." Over time, this resulted in the creation of cities. And then something interesting happened.

Humans started acting more like chimpanzees than bonobos. More hierarchical forms of government formed as certain people learned they could take advantage of the city's citizens, threatening to use force if the citizens did not allow them to protect them. This behavior is much like that of dominant male chimpanzees, who form gangs who terrorize the group into submission, threaten the weak, and go on hunting expeditions and raids. The majority of chimpanzees may not be in the gang, but the violence and threat of violence from the gang keeps the rest in line (unless a new coalition forms to overthrow the lead chimpanzee). If this sounds like how most governments act and have acted, well, it is because humans are just naked, bipedal chimpanzees. With the rise of cities, the social conditions were such that more chimpanzee-like rather than bonobo-like behavior could come to dominate. However, as social complexity increased and more and more people came into contact with more and more people (and ideas), such behavior becomes less and less adaptive. In the end, for a species which is social like humans are social, chimpanzee behavior is sociopathic. Such behaviors break social bonds for personal gain. This is the very definition of sociopathic behavior. Sociopathic behavior is thus unethical -- and it is unethical regardless of stated intentions.

2. Intentions, means, and ends.

There is a great deal of confusion in ethics because too many people think that good intentions are good enough. However, Adam Smith showed that one does not even have to have good intentions, be civic-minded, or care one whit about anyone other than oneself in order to behave in such a way that one is behaving ethically, contributing to society, creating social bonds, and creating wealth to improve everyone's lives. So in a sense, good intentions may not even be necessary to have a good society. Worse, good intentions combined with bad means can be (and has proven to be in practically every case) destructive. Further, there are unintended consequences. One may intend to help the poor, but act to keep them impoverished. One may intend to grow rich, not caring about anyone else, but act to improve others lives by providing a service or product they want and which makes their lives better. Of course, even in this case, one has to have a certain idea of strengthening -- or, at least, not weakening -- social bonds in order to grow wealthy. One person may certainly grow wealthy by providing a good others want, yet another may grow wealthy by threatening to take away one good unless another is given up (your money or you life, for example).

In "Human Action," Mises argues that praxeology is interested only in human action, in what means one must undertake if you are going to reach your goal. Thus, it has nothing to do with ethics per se. One does not judge the value of the goal to understand the best way to achieve the goal. While this understanding may itself have nothing to do with ethics per se, avoiding as it does any kind of judgment regarding the goals -- it is not entirely divorced from morality. Consider the fact that praxeology tries to understand what actions are good for achieving a certain goal. Note that "good" and "bad" have to come into play here. One way to achieve the goal is good, another is bad. The first is good because one will actually be able to achieve the goal in question; the second is bad because one will not actually be able to achieve the goal in question.

What, then, of the goal? Well, the goal too involves good and bad (and evil too, perhaps, as I have explained in a different context). But good and bad for what? A sociopath's goals are all good -- for him. But they are likely to be bad for everyone else. For one's goal to be ethical, then, it has to be good for the maintenance of social bonds, and not just for oneself (though it can be both). As we have seen, though, this changes depending on whether you live in a tribe, an ancient city-state, an empire, are a member of a particular religion (which extends bonds to many unknown others, but at the expense of keeping out others who may be either known or unknown -- consider Medieval Europe where a Christian stranger would be treated better than a Jewish neighbor), live in a nation-state, or consider oneself a global citizen. A person who creates a business (benefiting himself and others) is ethical; a person who gives money away (benefiting others at none his own expense) is ethical; a person who steals from Peter to give to Paul (benefiting one at the expense of another) is unethical. Note, then, that one can be ethical while depriving oneself, but not if one deprives others, as the latter weakens or breaks social bonds. Whatever else one's goals may be, they cannot be ethical if they weaken of break social bonds. If social bonds are weakened or destroyed, then no matter what your intentions, your actions are unethical. To be ethical, then, one's means have to align with one's ends. We seem to have forgotten what the road to Hell is paved with.

3. Nonzerosumness

Another way to understand ethics is through the kinds of games one's behaviors can be defined as. There are zero sum games, positive sum games, and negative sum games. In a zero sum game, you have someone who wins as much as another loses. This is the nature of certain kinds of sport competitions. In a baseball game, one team wins, another loses. The team that wins probably feels as good as the team that loses feels bad, and the same is probably true of the fans. Zero sum all around. (This is of course a simplification, as it is really a positive sum game, since everyone enjoyed watching the game while it was being played, thus improving everyone who loves baseball's lives for being played.)

My last parenthetical actually points to the reality of the world. I suspect that in reality there is no such thing as a truly zero sum game. There are either positive sum or negative sum games. In a positive sum game, if I do well, you do well. That is an ethical interaction. That is the nature of all voluntary trade. Economic transactions are all positive sum games. Even a conversation, where both people benefit, could thus be seen as an ethical transaction. Social bonds are strengthened in a positive sum game. Yet, the opposite is true in negative sum games. In a negative sum game, there is a net loss. If I rob you, this is not a zero sum game (I win and you lose the same amount of money); it is a negative sum game, because by robbing you, I am making you less trustful, more wary of others -- thus weakening social bonds. You will likely change your behaviors, perhaps spend money on things to prevent getting robbed, etc. There is a net loss. Certainly this doesn't address other arguments one can make against robbery (or murder, rape, etc.) -- but it is something we should consider. Especially as it has everything to do with my conclusions.

4. Cosmic Ethics

The tendency of the universe is toward ever-greater complexity. Energy become simple atoms, which become complex atoms, which become molecules, which become chemical cycles, which become living organisms, which evolve complex behaviors through the evolution of complex neural networks, which includes the human brain/mind and our social structures. Humans too have evolved ever-greater complexity of social organization. We increasingly move into cities, which become increasingly complex.

In our behaviors, are we contributing to this inherent tendency of the universe to create ever-greater complexity, or are we working against it? This of course opens up all kinds of questions. If there is a murderer, one has to ensure the murderer does not commit any (more) murders, as his actions reduce the complexity of the world. While one may argue that the state killing him through capital punishment in fact reduces the world's complexity, since they could just lock him up, one can certainly also argue that if the police officer trying to arrest him has to kill the murderer, the police officer has not acted unethically (naturally, the police officer would have to believe his own life to be in danger to legitimately kill the murderer in question). Further, how does this relate to any number of behaviors we might engage in? And what about political action?

Certainly we should be able to see the role of nonzerosumness in this equation. The more connections a network has, the more complex the network. Under positive sum conditions, more connections are made in a network. This is thus a complex systems/process approach to ethics.

In the end, there is an interaction between our evolved evolutionary psychology and the complex social systems in which we live. I make this argument here (on pg. 3), where I basically argue, with Hayek, that

moral instincts --> moral spontaneous order --> moral reasoning

Of course, once moral reasoning emerges, it in turn informs the moral spontaneous order. The moral instincts remain as a tether, keeping the spontaneous order within bounds. It may not be impossible that after a while a moral spontaneous order would affect the moral instincts, as those whose moral instincts allow them to fit well into the order in question might have a selective advantage (and those who do not would of course have a selective disadvantage). In fact, we would expect a changing environment to have a biological, evolutionary effect on those living in and making up the environment. But that's on a longer time scale, of course, meaning slower, and acting as a foundation in relation to the faster-evolving spontaneous order.
This treatise here, then, is the moral reasoning which necessarily comes after the fact of my instincts interesting in the moral order.

So where does this leave politics? Well, if as I argued that the political is necessarily ethical as well -- and this is consistent with my argument that ethical action strengthens social bonds -- then there is a necessary consequence for political action. The first thing we should expect from government would be "first, do no harm." Do nothing that would decrease the number of or weaken social bonds. If a policy is seen to do that, it must go. Intentions do not matter -- consequences matter. Does a policy strengthen social bonds? Create greater complexity (which is completely different from complicating things, which bureaucratic government does almost by definition)? Ignorance is no excuse. More, ignorance of our necessary ignorance is no excuse. If our lives become better as the world becomes more complex (and I believe it does), then we should understand 1) that that means we are necessarily ignorant of how the world actually works, 2) interventions will have unintended consequences which we cannot predict, 3) those unintended consequences are more likely than not to be bond-breaking/weakening, 4) complicated rules result in the breakdown of systems, while simple rules create complexity, and 5) power destroys social bonds, but trade creates them. My politics are thus a natural extension of my ethics -- or, to be more accurate, the two are necessarily intertwined (as are yours).

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