The Paradox of Ethical Advocacy

True fulfillment comes from pursuing something larger than yourself, something of eternal worth, something of greater objective importance than anything else. Oh, I feel so sick writing these words. It’s such a contradictory way to promote ethics. The way I see it, the pursuit of self-interest is the opposite of ethics. Thus, if I tell people that they will not reach true fulfillment unless they devote their lives to an ethical mission, then I’m using the opposite of ethics to promote ethics. But then how do you promote something without appealing to people’s desires? You don’t! Even the desire to be ethical is just that: a desire. People will be ethical because they want to. It’s as simple as that. And yes, I want people to want to be ethical, just like Coca-Cola wants you to want Coca-Cola. No, I will not gain financial profit from it like Coca-Cola would, but I will gain the pleasure of knowing that we’re that much closer to the world I yearn to live in. Look, here’s the bottom line: we all operate from self-interest, it’s just that some gain pleasure from being ethical and some gain pleasure from other sources. Really, all the prior type of person can tell the latter is “don’t you want to be ethical?”

I oversimplified that last sentence. One can actually do a great deal to help the other consider ethics in new ways. One can teach the other about ethics and the meaning of life. One can ask questions that will cause the other to question deep-seeded motivations. One can expose the other to historical periods of deep injustice and the individuals who devoted their lives to righting those wrongs. However, ultimately it’s up to the individual to decide whether ethics is valuable to them. One cannot convince another to be ethical. If it’s there, you can help them discover it. If it’s not, then you know who to watch out for😉

Emerging from the Ideological Slumber

Many would agree that American politics is an absurdity. But what is at the root of this sad circumstance? I believe it is a lack of understanding of what politics ought to be. What we see on the political stage–as well as off it–are individuals battling over whose ideology is right. In the name of freedom we have individuals fighting against taxation and government services. In the name of the common good we have other individuals fighting to maintain or increase taxation and government services. The first group wants self-reliance and small government, while the second group wants government to step in to counteract society’s inequalities. And so the two groups take turns yelling at each other, convincing no one in the process.

The problem is that the paradigm within which these two groups are operating is flawed. Each side is trying to win rather than arrive at ethical and scientific  truth–the proper purpose of politics. Politics ought to be about ethical philosophy and social science. First we must engage in ethical philosophy to determine what our goal ought to be. Once that is established, we ought then engage in social science to determine how we may reach our goal.

There is no need for political ideologies. There is no need for socialism or conservatism or libertarianism. Instead we should identify ourselves through our ethical philosophies–Kantianism, utilitarianism, humanism, or of course some personal hybrid.

When it comes to social science, we must simply aim to be objective. After all, we need to know the truth in order to be successful fulfilling our ethical principles. Thus, we must recognize the reality that both biological and environmental factors play a role in human behavior. We should view an individual’s biology as a filter through which thon experiences the world.  We should inquire into the distribution of various biological traits instead of making the unsophisticated assumption that “humans are naturally selfish” or that “humans are born good and corrupted by society”. Let’s carefully look into the various factors influencing human society. Let’s respect the difficulty in differentiating inborn from learned traits. Let’s pursue as full a perspective as we can muster, while respecting our analytical limits.

Through a true devotion to the ethical, we can produce much progress. We need only the vision to see  why this is imperative, the courage to critically inquire into our own beliefs, and the strength to endure the uncomfortable feeling that will result.

The Humanist Manifesto

No two humans are born identically. As time goes on and humans gain life experience, the differences only increase. Each human being represents a completely unique life experience. Two people can watch the same movie, but not from the same place at the same time through the same lens. Given these differences amongst us, it is highly problematic to assume that a system of equal opportunity can be devised. How can we have a system of equal opportunity when no one is equal? Naturally, any form of evaluation will be more favorable to some than others. Those with the characteristics sought out by the evaluation will excel, while those with a different mix of characteristics will flounder.

The point ought not be to rank, but to get the most potential out of each human being. We can measure this by the contribution the individual makes toward collective human happiness. However, we must keep in mind that one’s contribution is dependent on what others are doing. Each individual is only one link in the system, so we must view contribution as a collective process. For example, if a farmer grows a whole bunch of nutritious food, but there is already an overabundance of nutritious food in the market, is the farmer making a positive contribution to collective human happiness? The solution would be for some to switch tasks in order to reduce the surplus.

Ideally, everyone would be doing activities that 1) they find enjoyable, and 2) contribute as much as possible to the collective happiness of humanity. Modern society has the most trouble with the first element. Mainstream modern institutions teach people to complete the tasks assigned to them whether they like it or not. There is no serious attempt to match individuals to the tasks they find most enjoyable. Nor is there an attempt to alter the tasks so as to become enjoyable. Nor is there an attempt to teach the individuals to approach the tasks in an alternative way that will make the process enjoyable. Instead the bureaucrats focus on accomplishing their assigned institutional ends, viewing the human beings they must deal with as little more than means toward those ends.

In order to progress, we must construct a flexible society. We must put an end to institutions that provide only one or a few paths to success. We must cultivate an attitude that views each human being as full of potential. And we must also design and construct ecosystems offering resources for the development of every type of human being.

No one should be a victim of their environment. Whether one grows up in a Chinese village or an elite Massachusetts college town, one must have access to the full range of resources for human development.

The Knowledge I Seek

I am thinking hard about this question of what knowledge I seek. What exactly do I need to know in order to make the changes in the world I am pursuing? What exact knowledge do I need to seek out? There are many academic disciplines in existence. Which contain the information I need? If none do, which are best equipped to create that information?

At core I want a world where deep and critical thinking abounds and where institutions are humanistic. What are the barriers to this? Are they economic, political, psychological, or cultural? Or do barriers exist within each of these realms? Certainly these realms are all interrelated, but where does that leave me? I don’t think this implies that the entirety of the answer lies in systems theory. As for what it does imply, I don’t yet know. Perhaps the key is simply to promote deep and critical thinking and humanistic institutions. Knowledge can be pursued as practice necessitates. Is this indeed the right strategy?

For a long time I’ve had the idea that eventually all of the key pieces of knowledge I’ve gained throughout my life will coalesce into The Answer. Perhaps this idea has unnecessarily led me toward many of the episodes of stress I’ve experienced. But, on the other hand, hard work toward The Answer does sometimes pay off. For example, there is Kant’s Categorical Imperative, Keynes’ General Theory, and Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. But who says I have to quit my theoretical work while I do my practical work? Matthew Arnold inspected schools while he developed his ideas. John Stuart Mill worked for the East India Company. These are two of my biggest heroes. If they mixed the practical with the theoretical, I don’t see what danger there is in my doing the same.

Knowledge and Ego

It is a common trap to religiously pursue knowledge. We believe we are doing a virtuous thing: we are becoming wise; we are understanding the world at a greater depth. But this pursuit of the greatest understanding is both impossible and a mask wherein the pursuit of superiority is hidden.

The non-egocentric pursuit of knowledge aims at either self-fulfillment or a practical end such as the improvement of a machine or the improvement of a society. Nevertheless, we must be careful because these motives can be intertwined with the egocentric motive. This intertwining makes the destructive egocentric motive much harder to spot. We must therefore keep our awareness sharp in order to defend ourselves against this ego-seducing trap.

The Next Step in the Path to Progress

It should be clear to everyone that a fundamental problem in our society is narrow thinking. Kenneth Boulding called this problem “suboptimization,” meaning the phenomenon of figuring out how to most efficiently do something we shouldn’t be doing at all. What we need as a response to this tendency is holistic thinking. We need to fully take into consideration the externalities of our endeavors. We need to spend our time figuring out how to fulfill our desires without burdening anyone. Work doesn’t have to be by nature something we dread. Or am I being too Utopian? Do too many boring jobs need to be done regardless of the circumstances? Is biting the bullet inevitable? I don’t know, but certainly the economic situation could be much improved. However, human emotion cannot be ignored if we intend to make a substantial gain. We must strive to maximize net per capita happiness, not per capita income. But since the conditions influencing a human’s mental state are so complex we must work much more collaboratively and strive toward a fully holistic perspective through these interdisciplinary collaborations.

How much will the world change if we start acting on the basis of these just mentioned principles? It’s hard to say, but it’s no stretch to believe that out ways of life could drastically change. Perhaps a mass migration might occur in order to better meet our needs. Perhaps organizational structures will be transformed. Perhaps the nation-state system will disintegrate. I cannot predict the future. What I am working toward right now is simply getting these interdisciplinary collaborations together.

But what will these collaborations actually lead to in the short to medium term? I imagine they will lead to new organizational structures and projects to create the conditions that will enable the citizens to play the roles they must play in order to make this vision of substantive social progress a concrete reality. So surely media resources will have to be made available to the people to enable them to vote, shop, and work intelligently. These resources would also have to facilitate the establishment of alternatives to the old ways of doing things. I am confident that people want alternatives; it is largely the lack of a reliable mechanism for creating alternatives that has been keeping us back. But this can all change. And if my comrades and I have our way, it will change very soon.

The Importance of Desires

Our desires are of utmost importance; for desire is the most significant factor in determining outcomes. The key insight behind this has to do with the ideas that pop into our heads. Where do they come from? Can we claim responsibility for them if they seemingly come about magically? I mean, in building a car there are steps we can take that will result in a car. With thinking we can try all sorts of strategies and still nothing is guaranteed. The only coordination then that remains is that of desire to outcome: the more we want something the more likely we are to attain it.

There is, however, one other important factor, which may or may not be positively correlated with desire. This factor is the ability to “ask the right questions.” If we want to get from point A to point Z, but totally ignore B through Y, we are most likely not going to get far. To start, we must ask why we desire what we desire. If we desire a large home in the country we must think about why. If we desire economic equality we must ask why? Is it the thing itself that we want or instead the feeling associated with attaining the thing? The answer is the latter. We ultimately want to be happy and certain things tend to make us happy, but still it is the feeling of happiness we are ultimately after and not actually the things.

This has giant implications for public debate and policy development. Currently the dominant mode of thinking is not one that views the ultimate purpose as that of achieving the greatest level of happiness. Instead we have people totally focused on achieving particular things. What we need is a change in thinking toward treating the achievement of things as a means toward an end (the only legitimate end being a higher level of net per capita happiness). So the key is in thinking how certain policies will increase happiness. And on the personal level, how will particular things make one happy? And further, why will a particular thing make one happy? We need to really think about why anything elicits happiness within us. Deep thought on this question should get one quite far down the right path.