Thursday, 24 October 2013

The Good, the Moral, and the Ethical

Technically, the words good, moral, and ethical are synonyms. I have no desire to challenge that lack of distinction, however, as a thought experiment a distinction may be drawn by looking at the modern common usage of these words.

Much of what passes for good these days has more to do with individual feelings derived from social conditioning. The good is whatever makes us feel good and the bad is whatever makes us feel bad. According to these criteria, right and wrong actions become arbitrary, whim-based, and easily justifiable or excusable.

While “the good” is feelings-based, the word morality seems to have a more authoritarian tone. In practicality, it does not matter whether this moral authority is religious or political in nature; both demand people to live according to their system of morality. So whether the moralists battle against gay marriage or against smoking cigarettes, both feel justified in their actions because they believe themselves to be aligned to their chosen moral authority.

Ethics is based on reason. It rejects good feelings as indicative of right action and dismisses moral authorities. Instead it looks at the world as it is and attempts to chart a course of action accordingly with the intent of achieving a prosperous outcome even if the road is hard.

The good are encouraged to follow their hearts and to do what feels right. The moral need only follow the rules and then rest assured in their salvation and moral superiority. The ethical must be wise; they learn through study, analysis, experimentation, failure and experience.

The distinctions presented here are of my own observations and are by no means according to Webster (or Oxford), and yet I find them very useful in understanding the world. For example, we might say that people are basically good, but being good is basically evil. Here’s how. People are basically good in that no person sets out to be evil. Some people do what feels good, but inadvertently cause long-term harm because they have not thought through the consequences of their actions.

For example, a person may feel good about themselves by giving money to a beggar completely unaware that this beggar then used the money collected to purchase heroin. This “good” person is in fact supporting the local drug trade. That may seem to be an extreme example, but it does happen on occasion. It may seem that the “good” government is one that provides for the poor, however the current system is one where politicians get elected and become rich by advocating such programs while contributing to a culture of entitlement and dependency among the poor that goes far beyond basic necessities. The long term consequences of being good often have negative outcomes.

Others use goodness justify their actions. Every villain thinks himself the hero – the good guy. Likewise, many evil actions throughout history have been justified by the moral authority that decreed it and the followers who simply obey feeling that they are doing right. The conflicts great and small throughout human history have not been between good and evil, but rather between good and good. Yes, even the Nazis thought they held the moral high-ground.

I believe that one of the great problems of our age is that the vast majority of people are good and many are moral, but relatively few are ethical. People learn to be good through social conditioning and become moral through submission to a belief system as obedient disciples, but being ethical requires reason and this means learning how to think rationally. Unfortunately, ethics education disappeared a hundred years ago with the loss of Classics and Philosophy from school curriculums. Instead, words derived from the study of Ethics such as virtue, vice, and character are now used out of context by the moralists as standards of judgement against non-believers.

In philosophy, Ethics is the study of right action. The goal, as with any study, is to determine a set of governing principles – a code of conduct if you will. So just as science has indentifies basic principles concerning the physical world, ethics seeks to do the same concerning human action. Virtues are positive habits that lead to positive outcomes and vices are negative habits that lead to negative outcomes. These habitual behaviours over time determine a person’s character as basically positive or basically negative.

Virtues, vices, and character are not immediate but incremental. Smoking is an excellent example of a vice. A single cigarette will cause no harm. Smoking over a few years will have little effect. However, a lifetime of smoking will cause serious damage. The good and the moral see the immediate positives but fail to see the long term negative effects of their actions. Likewise, virtue is often unrecognised. There may not be any immediate positives in daily oral hygiene, but a lifetime of this virtue yields great positives. From the standpoint of ethics, things that are immediately good, like a cigarette, can be negative and things that seem a chore, like dental hygiene, are good.

During the 1930’s and 40’s, Western Civilization introduced the modern welfare state. This was an immediate good. The poor were cared for, children were educated, people received healthcare, and the infrastructure was maintained and expanded. Now nearly seventy years later this is instilled into the social consciousness as a good thing, particularly among the good-hearted people of the socio-political left and to an only slightly lesser extent among the moralist right embracing “compassionate conservatisms”. The villains are the ethical people who recognise the welfare state as a vice and therefore “evil”, not because it is not immediately positive, but because the negative outcomes make it unethical. What has happened over the past seventy years has been an increase in the number of welfare beneficiaries, more bureaucracy to administer the programs, greater cost to pay for both of these, and a corrupt political class elected control it. The result is unimaginable and unmanageable national debts that threaten to topple the Western economies and potentially Western Civilization itself. All this could have been avoided because it was predicted during the Nineteenth Century by past leaders trained in Ethics.

The good follow their hearts, the moral follow their laws, the ethical follow their reason, and all three groups see the others as being evil. There is no difference in definition between the good, the moral, and the ethical, but there should be. Perhaps a division is in order so that we might better understand the current conflicts between the good, the moral, and the ethical.

Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Hail Satan – Or Why We Need More Devils

I finally got round to seeing the film World War Z which presented an interesting concept, the idea of the tenth man. Apparently, this is based on truth according this description on-line:

Following the Yom Kippur War (1973) which took Israeli military intelligence by surprise, institutions were put in place to reduce the chances that group think and overly dominant commanders would prevent diverse opinions from reaching decision makers or from being initiated at all. One of these was a unit often referred to as the devil's advocate office.

As describe by Yosef Kupperwasser, who used to head the Research Division of the IDF, in Lesson's From Israel's Intelligence Reforms :

The devil’s advocate office ensures that AMAN’s intelligence assessments are creative and do not fall prey to group think. The office regularly criticizes products coming from the analysis and production divisions, and writes opinion papers that counter these departments’ assessments. The staff in the devil’s advocate office is made up of extremely experienced and talented officers who are known to have a creative, “outside the box” way of thinking. Perhaps as important, they are highly regarded by the analysts. As such, strong consideration is given to their conclusions and their memos  go directly to the office of the Director of Military Intelligence, as well as to all major decision makers. The devil’s advocate office also proactively combats group think and conventional wisdom by writing papers that examine the possibility of a radical and negative change occurring within the security environment. This is done even when the defense establishment does not think that such a development is likely, precisely to explore alternative assumptions and worst-case scenarios.

In the film, it was described as “the duty” of the tenth man to challenge the majority which implies that even if he agrees with the consensus he must oppose them by presenting a thorough investigation and case to the contrary.

The use of the phrase “devil’s advocate” is an interesting one seeing as the word satan in the original Hebrew means to oppose, be against, or accuse. The figure of Satan appears by name only twice in the entire Old Testament. Once is in the book of Job where Satan is apparently on staff in heaven acting as a literal devil’s advocate against God who praises Job’s piety which Satan questions. The second is in the book of Numbers where God sends an adversary to prevent Balaam from acting against his own people. This word translated into English as adversary is the Hebrew word satan. It is not until after the Babylonian Captivity, possibly due to the influence of the Zoroastrian religion, that Satan became elevated to evil prince of darkness we know today.

Once upon a time the field of Science was known as Natural Philosophy. At the core of this philosophy is the scientific method not as the pursuit of truth, but rather the pursuit of falsehood. Humans are by nature believing creatures. Science has brought about the world we enjoy today by chipping away false beliefs, not by building truth. Whatever remains after this process is granted the highest honour of being deemed most likely true. As a result science has brought mankind closer to truth that any other study.

The popular rendering of the tale of Satan was that he was once the angel Lucifer whose arrogance led him to challenge God for which he was cast from heaven into hell. The name Lucifer means “light bringer” and is associated with the morning star, the planet Venus. As such, the name carries the connotation of meaning enlightenment. I prefer to see this story in reverse. By being Satan, challenging accepted beliefs, we achieve enlightenment to become Lucifer.

I appreciate that billions of people throughout the world believe the tale of Lucifer/Satan to be fact and with that have all sorts of associations concerning this source of all evil. However, in this context I am using Satan’s role as an allegory to illustrate that every organisation, even God’s heavenly one, needs a tenth man, a satan if you will, to challenge the leadership, the yes-men, the group think, and the herd mentality be it in politics, business, social life, or even within ourselves.  We all need a little devil inside to challenge our own biases and assumptions.