Wednesday, October 06, 2004

The Grand Myth of Objective Ethics

During campaign time, many of us may note that the words "ethics," "values", and "morality" are continually bandied about, by both left and right, as if we all agreed on what they meant. None of the political moralists ask the meta-ethical question: Why should we be moral? And what does morality really consist of? Obviously, it is in some people's interest to be moral (and to have others be moral); it is in some people's interest to be "immoral" (and to have others be what we might term "immoral," or act immorally). The needs of the moralists and immoralists are certainly going to clash sometimes. Imagine the requirements and goals of the following groups: teetotalers vs. bar owners and brewery owners; vegetarians vs. cattlemen; Kern residents subjected to refinery air pollution vs. petroleum executives; schoolteachers vs. pornographers, etc.


Moreover, does Corporate America (or international capitalism ) operate on moral grounds? I think not. In fact it's debatable that those of us counted among the marginalized have a duty to respect the law. It certainly is not pragmatic to hack say a personnel database and get the SS#'s and DOBs of state employees and then open credit accounts in their name, but it might be in some sense justifiable. Robbing say Larry Flynt OR Bill Gates or Harvey Weinstein does not seem, in principle, unethical.

Morality is not simply about being nice or even respectful; it's about creating an ethical society based on entitlement, on the notion that everyone--except perhaps for criminal psychopaths--has a right to participate in the economy, to the best of their abilities. Malthus and Darwin would have something to say about this as well, however--what is the status of values and morality during a famine, or plague, or warfare? Little to no status, to be sure.

Expecting humans to all suddenly become ethical (or rational) is about equivalent to expecting the barons and baronesses on the Forbes 400 list to start doling out cash, with no strings attached, to the millions of needy and impoverished.
I think it was Bertrand Russell who said that teaching people to be "moral" is nearly impossible, but teaching logic and rationality is possible; therefore, we should focus on developing intelligence rather than simply do-goodism, and with that intelligence hopefully morality will increase as well. But someone like VI Lenin certainly had some pragmatic strategies for bringing about a more economically-just society. So did, say, John Dillinger....

Deep thought for the day: humans, even ones that can program computers, spin integrals, or compose symphonies, are far more animalistic (and acquisitive, hungry, greedy, lustful, etc.) than any traditional ethics or philosophy portray them as, and any attempts at rational ethics are most likely doomed. The great liberal myth of the "rational man" is a sentimental fiction, useful to justify capitalism and greed.

"Political power comes out of the barrel of a gun." Mao


J said...

Economics--what does that term entail? It entails much, but first and foremost, it is a field of study concerned with the essential services--commodities, industries, corporations, etc.--pertaining to human animals; having to do with food, shelter, employment, and money to purchase those essential needs.

Some sentimentalists might object and make (or hint at) some metaphysical argument, that human mind and consciousness are unique and that we are spiritual beings first and foremost or something of that sort, but I assert that any cultural, intellectual, and/or spiritual constructs are predicated upon human needs, instincts, and desires, which are biological in nature.

Ethics as well as economics must consider or be based on these biological needs. This is economic materialism if you will, but not exactly marxism--I don't identify all values with the proletariat.

Again, morality is then not simply about being nice or even respectful; it's about creating an ethical society based on entitlement, on the notion that every citizen has a right to participate in the economy, and thus obtain those items essential to survival: food, shelter, employment at the very least.

Anonymous said...

My basic and perhaps obvious point is that citizens are entitled to participate in the economy, and not just be subject to the whims of the market. Thus I guess I am arguing for a far more planned economy of some sort, not to sound too pompous. I think the stock markets, commodity markets, finance in general are quite questionable ethically, and that many economic practices we take for granted are injust--interest rates for example, or making it harder for people with bad or no credit to get loans, whereas millionaires can take out millions every day.

I advocate seizing the capital, if not the property, of the very wealthy. A great doctor making a few hundred thousand a year is understandable; when a retard like Michael Dell is making a few million bucks a month something is horribly wrong. A Bill Gates' obscene wealth is to me as immoral as serial murder.

So there is within the social contract that we are born into, at least as US citizens, an obligation upon the part of educators, businesses, bureaucracies to train everyone for decent jobs, and then hire them. Poor kids should not just be left out because of their parents or whatever, though I realize that now many kids drop out or join gangs. I am not a bleeding heart, and I feel if kids refuse to work, refuse to learn how to read, write or do math, they should be put to work as laborers. Or unfortunately, soldiers. I think sports--except for some forms of PE--and arts and fluffy subjects (yeah bye bye Shakespeare) should be eliminated from the public school curriculum, even at college level. A more European style of education and economy is needed I think, where students either learn vocations very well or are prepared for science or professional jobs, though I think law, much of writing, journalism, are mostly bogus, and scientific training, programming, math should be given, freely, to all citizens continuously.

There are problems, as Marx knew, with the division of labor--are some people allowed to be groovy computer programmers, doctors, professors, entertainers, and others required to be janitors or field hands? What if the field hands can do calculus as well as the professors? That is a problem that many people, including academics and economists, never address. IN a planned economy, collectivization, there may be some dirty work for everyone. Without embracing the marxist program in full
(there are quite a few problems with it, such as the assumed class struggle), I do feel an ethical society would require major alterations to finance, to corporate America, and to capitalism as a whole: pretty much overturned, in fact.

How is that going to happen? Most likely Not by voting or reforms. The USA middle class is far too comfortable for any real major alterations of capitalism. But look what happened in Venezuela recently. Obviously there are racial lines as well, and it's doubtful that poor US whites will join with hispanics or poor blacks in some sort of socialist union, or that working class types will join with urban hipsters, or gays, or teachers, or out of work programmers.

Nonetheless we should work towards economic entitlement: an ethical society based on recognition of biological needs as well as rights of humans not to be harmed as they achieve their goals (as long as those goals are ethical). And yes we should put those who have led priviledged cushy lives (celebrities, financiers, IT millionaire barons, Professors tenured for life) out to work in the fields.

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