Personhood and Applied Ethics

An application of mathematical principles requires a basic understanding of the purpose of mathematics, and the function of mathematics. But more than that,across-the-universe it requires knowledge of when and where to apply mathematics – to what problems, and to what end. It also requires an almost intuitive understanding that it’s most basic principles correspond to the natural world.

Math is written into the universe; it is a natural law. The system of principles and axioms we call the Science of Mathematics, is in it’s most basic form, a reliable problem solving strategy (for most people, it’s a way to solve problems). When we engage in mathematics, we realize that we are a part of the systems we’re studying – in likeness, and more often than not, in function. Within our awareness is an innate capacity to observe and understand these mathematical truths. This capacity transcends awareness of the science of mathematics: we are able to ‘do math’ without having ever opened a text-book.

The same I believe is true of morality. I believe morality to be a natural law. Unfortunately for the sake of that statement, I cannot reliable draw parallels between morality as a natural law and math as a natural law. Math doesn’t go wrong; the constants of the universe, as we are told repeatedly by theists, are fine-tuned. Certainly there are probably theoretical cases of math going wrong, but my ignorance leads me to believe that if they exist, they are far from common – and probably the result of our own misunderstanding of the antecedent problems from which they apparently arise. Math doesn’t betray us, but morality does.

Morality isn’t written into the universe in the same way that math is; and so it might seem odd that I’m calling it a natural law. Christians believe that morality is written into the fabric of our universe, but the fall of man broke the world and everything in it; man still retains the capacity for libertarian free-will and moral reasoning, but the world doesn’t follow those moral constants in the same way that it follows mathematical ones.

But even with that admission fresh in my memory, I still have no problem saying that morality is a natural law. Morality is, in it’s most basic form, a reliable problem solving strategy. The problem morality solves for is a universal constant: the problem of suffering. We are guaranteed two things in this life: personhood, and suffering. We are aware of our own suffering, and unlike mathematics, which exists without our awareness, morality doesn’t. It may appear that I’ve contradicted myself, but give me a chance to defend my thesis – I have thought about this a great deal.

The moral precept isn’t well-being – it can’t be. Because well-being depends upon something else (functionally, and theoretically). Well-being can be evaluated biologically as flourishing (and in all the other ways, as maximizing potential within a system). Our assessment of well-being, though, requires us to match well-being with suffering. That is to say, it requires us to take an individual, posit the maximal good (flourishing) it could be likely to achieve, and compare that with where it is in the present moment. Or, (and more often than not) it requires us to look at where an individual is, and posit the maximal suffering it could experience. In either case, well-being requires suffering. Going forward then, it makes sense to use suffering as our moral precept. Not only does flourishing require an individual not to suffer, but suffering is a universal constant; the natural constants in our universe predict suffering, always.

Morality functions as a way to get us towards well-being and away from suffering. The big question has never been why, it’s been how. Well, it’s not practically functional to use well-being as the standard qualifier of moral action (that an action is moral if it increases well-being, and ammoral if it does nothing). This is because definitions of well-being can vary wildly between organisms, people, groups – you name it. Secondly, there are different areas to measure well-being. So which area do we give primacy? Is it existential well-being, physical well-being, mental well-being. Or is it all? Thirdly, who decides when well-being is being negatively affected, and when it has been achieved? It can’t be universal, because people have many different expectations of what well-being means. It can’t be left to the individual, because often people may be objectively unaware of what is ‘best for them’. Then you run into the problem of ego (telling someone you know what’s good for them), civil rights, and the potential for abuse. So what, if any, is the alternative?

Well, what if we could still utilize the moral truths given to us by brilliant men like Nietzsche, Kant and Sarte, even though the moral theories they have proposed have fallen out of fashion and haven’t proven to be practically effective – all you have to do is walk outside and talk to a few peole, or even observe, to find out that their hard-work hasn’t been applied very consistently in the lives of most people. I think we can.

So morality is born of a need to combat chance and suffering (the degree of a persons suffering as dependant on who they were born to, where they were born, how most importantly, how other people around them treat this individual person, and what type of environment they create). We combat suffering for ourselves, but the only way to do that, is to combat suffering for everyone (present and future generations; people born, and people not yet born). Suffering is a universal constant. In order to combat suffering, we have to combat all of suffering, for people. Given that you could be born to any person, in any place, you have to be guaranteed that the morality (as a method of combating suffering and chance) will apply to you equally. Luckily, the other natural constants of the universe (the ‘sciences’) work in our favour. We know that every new person can only be born in the future, or in the present. No new person can be born in the past. If they could then it’s possible our morality would fail them (and morality as defined by different means, our morality could theoretically thus be immoral). I haven’t given this a lot of thought, given that this idea just popped into my head, but if we agree that a new person can only be born in the present or the future, than it remains a very meta problem.

So, the moral theory has to apply to persons, not just to ourselves. The moral philosophy applies to person-hood, then; rather than to any individual person. Consequentialism defines moral action based upon the consequences of an action. For example, utilitarians like Mills believe that if the consequence of an action increases the general good (well-being) and provides the most amount of happiness, it is moral. But this theory doesn’t address the underlying issue of chance, because it still views individuals as separate unique entities. We feel justified in eating animals, killing bugs, and generally decreasing the well-being of the earth, because we are so separate and unique from the earth. Similarly, people believe that they are separate and unique from each-other. We are unique and separate, but in ways not determined by chance. Utilitarianism doesn’t address this huge gulf that exists between most conscious people. People think of themselves as entirely separate from other people. That’s not the case – and most rational people, given enough time and enough examples, would agree to this. But that we’re not so different doesn’t disable this thing inside most people telling them that they are. And it’s that belief in some almost metaphysical difference, that ‘I am different than you’, that causes a lot of suffering – and a lot of unethical choices. Furthermore, there’s nothing ultimately protecting you against the existential suffering you feel at the hands of meaningless suffering – the type of suffering utilitarianism allows.

An action is good if it increases well-being, and bad if it doesn’t. But if it’s bad, that really sucks for you – we’ll try and do better next time. For some people, there is no next time. The very fact that some people are born into suffering, and suffer for the duration of their lives, is unjust and re-introduces this need for a more comprehensive moral system – an applied ethics that addresses the very idea of existence, not just bad things that happen after you already exist.

If you haven’t guessed it by now, I’m proposing that we use person-hood as the unit of measurement. That what is moral is moral for all persons, and that what is moral combats against suffering and chance. That chance thing is important. Because we can decide what is moral for a specific action, and a specific situation (like stealing from someone), but doing so without also helping people who have suffering by chance, is immoral and impractical. It’s immoral because we are leaving people to suffer. And it’s impractical, because you could be anyone – you could have been anyone. Our moral theories not only apply to us, they apply to those to come. A moral system has to be consistently effective for everyone.

We are very tied in to our own existence, so it may seem counter intuitive to say something like ‘you could have been anyone’. Strictly, that’s not true, but if you view yourself as having person-hood (being a person, not just being a person), then it does.

Looking from the point of person-hood allows us to apply our moral reasoning to lives other than our own – it allows us to see other types of experiences, and introduces us to many huge problems many people face. As those problems become more familiar, and we start to reflect on what is right and wrong and just, we start to realize that those problems are our problems, and are everyone’s problems. Because if you’ve been fortunate enough not to have been born in a poor country, to incredibly horrible and abusive parents, with a disability, for example, common sense justice and ethics make sense to you. And trying to just ‘put yourself in another persons shoes’ is too difficult and ultimately ineffective – it requires you to find someone specific, talk to them, sift through their suffering with your own bias, and the number of times you can do that is limited, and whatever information you glean is limited to yourself (how can you disseminate it if the method of obtaining it is as important to the new understanding, as the understanding?).

When you separate yourself from your ego, and your well-being, or your suffering, you can see yourself as just one of a type of consciousness. You can see yourself as a person and make moral decisions that apply to person-hood, rather than a (individual, unique) person.

That’s where I stand. That’s something I see as very important to moral understanding. Other moral theories don’t work universally because they don’t take person-hood into account – or that they don’t give it primacy. They apply to groups of people, or individual people, not to the idea of people. We’re guaranteed suffering, and the degree of suffering is largely dependent on chance. You (as acting for someone, or) as someone who could be born in the future, or is being born now, have a very basic need for a way to combat this suffering, and this chance. In order to meet that need, you have to meet that need for every possible person. In order to meet that massive need, you simply have to meet the needs of the idea of a person. From there, you can make rational moral decisions for others, you can act morally in your life, and you can have a way to solve moral problems that arise in the world (whether at random by chance, or by individual people acting in ‘evil’ ways).

Genetically enhancing our genome won’t do. Guaranteeing food supplies and a safe environment for individual people won’t do. We can’t just make a world where everyone who may come into it, has an equal chance, without acting for person-hood, rather than meeting the needs of every single possible person as they come and as those needs arise.

I’m afraid I may be doing a poor job explaining, so I will come back to this again. If it doesn’t make sense, just think about it. We’ve all had intuitions, thoughts like ‘why did I have to be born to you. I don’t think that we have a soul. I just think that humans are very similar. We don’t have the gap between us that we have between other animals – not really. That gap that we see exists in our minds (as a product of religious teaching, ignorance, social and cultural factors etc…). We are capable of putting ourselves in others shoes, because we are capable of putting ourselves in all ‘shoes’. Given the right circumstances, you could find yourself in many, many unpleasant situations. And you could find yourself developing into someone you would never picture yourself as – given the right conditions. An ethical theory that serves the fortunate first, and the consequences of our actions second, ultimately serves nobody.

We see this in the world – you just have to walk outside, talk with someone, or observe. The world is broken, but we have a contingency to generally safeguard against massively immoral actions. We don’t have a contingency to safeguard against chance – or at least, to guard against meaningless suffering. The hardest part about seeing suffering isn’t  the fact that due to our biology (mirror neurons, memories etc…) we can experience others’ suffering, it’s an unconscious recognition that ‘this is how it’s always going to be’. That recognition, braids meaninglessness into life. It’s that meaninglessness, that unncessary yet somehow unavoidable suffering that produces what I believe to be the worst feeling we could possibly feel. People sometimes say that emotions are relative – citing some post-singularity sci-fi A.I. conscious logic machines as reference to living within a world of suffering unnaffected. But I don’t believe that; I don’t think it’s possible not to feel something when confronted with that thought that some suffering is meaningless. But for the first time in my life, I don’t feel that way. It’s a tragedy that people have died so unjustly – not just people, but animals, and species, and things we never could have imagined. Because there is an answer. That answer is rational, and applies always. We don’t need a God to have absolute Justice, or to defend us against the fortunate, strong, hard-evil Chance and suffering occasionally create. We just need the idea of person-hood, and people. So long as there are people, there will be morality and justice.

I was just watching the second season of House of Cards. In a moment of sincerity Francis Underwood turns to the Camera – a personification of his psychotic ego-self – and says ‘… for those of us climbing to the top of the food chain, there can be no mercy. There is but one rule: hunt or be hunted’. The message is alarmingly clear, and it’s one we hear all of the time. The fortunate elite who resist any ethic of compassion or empathy, betray themselves. The need to hunt is a product of being hunted. You hunt, because you fear being hunted. Others hunt, because they recognize you’re hunting, and fear being hunted. Which in turn, affirms the belief. What they take as sophistication and superiority, is just impractical and ineffective weakness – and immoral. They all have their emotions, their own suffering. Sustaining a sadistic self-centered ethic is impossible; what they end up effecting, is a broken shadow of the theme they marry with their story. Anything that is ‘immoral’, that hurts others, can be broken down and demonstrated as false. Replacing what is broken is the hard part – and knowledge of a replacement almost always needed before most people will even consider taking on these power structures (eat or be eating ethics and their real-life benefactors).

These power structures exist as ideas too; they are ideals and the people who follow them always fall short. It’s the ideal that keeps them afloat; the idea.

Morality is a natural law not because it’s as obvious and consistently observable as physical constants, but because it fits perfectly with the physical constants that shape our universe.

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