Morality and Politics

One of the most frustrating parts about modern politics (and perhaps politics throughout history) is that it seems to me that behind the scenes, we are still duking it out over some of the oldest moral debates: is something moral because of its results (what we attribute to it), or is something moral in and of itself? In other words, do we construct moral principles or are moral principles discoverable objects of the universe?

It’s very easy to see this in political discourse. There are some certain groups of people who act purely egoistically, seeking their own personal gain and satisfaction purely, even at the expense of vast numbers of people. Think Charles and David Koch, Wall Street bankers, and a significant number of our politicians (if not all of them). There are other certain groups of people who discuss high-minded idealisms, seeking some sort of end goal in society through their political action. Think Occupy (yeah, I know), the Tea Party (yeah, I know), and all sorts of people across the spectrum who are involved in politics to effect some sort of change change in the system. I want to differentiate these two groups from the outset. The first group is purely selfish: the only change they ever seek is change which improves their own personal lot in life. They are nihilistic in the worst way. The other group, regardless of how you feel about their individual beliefs, is revolutionary. Rather than seeking to benefit only themselves, they seek to reach some end goal that they believe is morally better. It is, at least potentially, an altruistic goal.

I want to set aside the egoists for now. As far as I’m concerned, they should have no say in the political system, because we cannot trust their actions or their words. That’s a discussion for another time, though. Let’s focus on the altruists, who I believe are the majority (numerically speaking; by definition the egoists have more money). Within this group, I believe we find the moral debate I referenced in the first paragraph. You have the top-down ethicists (deontologists) who want to enact change based on a set of principles, regardless of their consequences. On the other hand, you have the bottom-up ethicists (consequentialists) who want to enact change based on results. There have been studies that compare people that have found evidence supporting the idea that we might be naturally deontologists or consquentialists, but that’s another discussion for another time. Moreover, I think studies like that might only lend some small amount of wisdom.

I will try to cut through a lot of the less important information and get to something resembling a point. What I conclude from this observation is that even if we adjust for the fact that moneyed interests (egoists) have influenced our political debate in their favor, it seems to me that change is very difficult to enact. This is because agreement is hard to come by. Those of us who argue for results-based policy have a hard time arguing against those who believe in principled policy, simply because a lot of the time we might want results that conflict with those principles. I do think that there is a way out, though. We need to agree on a new set of principles. Behind the scenes, I think that deontologists and consequentialists are secretly envious of the other side. Sometimes we engage in the other’s tactics in order to get our larger point across. In other words, we’re not as intellectually consistent as we pretend to be. Because of this, I think there’s an opening.

What principles should we agree upon? That’s a matter of debate, but I think there’s one that we must all agree upon. I think it’s non-negotiable. I think that without this principle, we are doomed to continually repeat the cycle of oppression and revolution that has existed throughout history. We must value human life above all else. I don’t mean human life in the categorical sense. I mean each individual human life. We must seek the maximization of every individual person. From this, I believe we get certain resultant principles: people shouldn’t harm one another, people shouldn’t seek personal gain at another’s expense, people should treat each other as equals, etc. I think this satisfies both the deontologists and the consequentialists, and if we argue from these principles (and we argue honestly!), we can reach some conclusions upon which we all agree.

It’s lofty. It’s kind of ridiculous, and it will likely not happen. I think it is at least possible, though, and that hope is worth my time and effort. I want to develop these ideas quite a bit further, but I think they should be considered.

Morality and Politics

“Lying” by Sam Harris

Sam Harris’ essay “Lying” was something about which I did not know how I would feel. As a skeptic and as someone interested in the sciences, I tend to place a high value on truth and the pursuit thereof. However, I, like most people, tend to succumb to the pressure to tell “white lies” here and there, sometimes so much that I feel guilty.

Sam Harris makes the claim that all lies, minor or major, are inherently wrong. If it is a minor lie, it can cause people to mistrust you, can hurt people by giving them a false self-image (“should I lose weight?”), and other consequences that lead to a deteriorating relationship. Sam argues that because lying adds a negative effect to relationships that lying, therefore, must be bad. As a result, it follows that you should not lie to anyone who you do not wish to harm. That is to say, lying is acceptable in situations of war, because destruction is the goal.

When I first started reading this, I was not quite sure what I thought. I felt like there were situations wherein lying seems to be the right thing to do. Improving someone’s self-image and giving them a confidence boost when they ask how their new haircut looks seems like a good idea, but I think I have reversed my thoughts on that. Giving a person a false self-image is far more destructive than giving them the truth. The truth can help them to become motivated to make the changes they need in order to have a better, reality-based self-image. As I said, I struggled with this idea. It seems counterintuitive, but I realized that I have an emotional reason to want to tell these sorts of white lies: it is so much easier. It is easier to tell the lie and not receive potential bad short-term repercussions. As a result, I think that reason that we might give to tell white lies results from the fact that we want to tell them. We want to tell falsities because it requires less effort. There is less short-term risk. When I make an excuse an say that I am trying to improve my friend’s self-confidence, I am really simply rationalizing a behavior that I feel guilty about. I cannot accept that sort of behavior, and I will do my best to stop myself from continuing to display it.

I highly recommend you pick up the PDF of this essay or get the Kindle Single. Definitely worth reading, especially if you are interested in these sorts of moral issues and debates. Sam concisely makes his point in a way that I think is fully convincing.

“Lying” by Sam Harris

Saving the world

Throughout my whole life, regardless of my situation, where I was, and how old I was, I’ve always remembered a single idea being in the forefront of my mind – saving the world. I think that everyone is moved greatly often enough about the tremendous pain that exists in our world, and perhaps wishing, even fervently, that they were Superman, or the scientist who cured cancer or AIDS, or an ambassador to the world. I would think that anyone has those feelings at least a few times throughout their life. It’s not silly – it only means you have emotions and empathy.

Especially lately, I’ve been so greatly affected by the intensity of the lives that people lead. Poverty, hunger, sickness, pain. It’s all out there, and so many of the people who come across this post will be completely separated from it. I know I am. I’m lucky. I don’t think that’s fair.

A common theme in the United States right now has been the idea of taxation and the incredible power that the richest people in our nation possess. The immensity of the wealth of the richest people in our country outweighs that of a significant part of the world. Our richest hold more money than a number of countries. I find that disgusting. People say that there’s nothing wrong with making a profit. I say in this case, there is.

Profit is made at the expense of other people. When I deliver a product or service to another person in exchange for monetary gain, I transferring that person’s wealth to myself. Everyone needs food. Everyone needs water. Everyone needs shelter. Everyone needs health care. (Try however much you want. I’m not wavering on that last point.) These items are not commodities. The most frustrating aspect of our economic system is that food, water, shelter, and health care are traded as though they are luxuries and privileges. They are absolutely not. They are rights.

Before the establishment of the Bill of Rights in the United States, opinions could be punished. Who was most likely to have their opinions voiced? Those with clout and money. Guess who is most likely to have food, water, shelter, and health care? Those with clout and money. This is why one of my favorite documents is Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Second Bill of Rights (Google it, if you’ve never read it. Wonderful stuff.) The items that I have outlined should be rights, not privileges. No discussion.

I think that most people would probably agree with me on those points, or at least to the statement that everyone deserves those things. I want to tie in the idea of the Bill of Rights here. “Rights” to speech, religion, assembly, etc. were once privileges. They were bought and sold in a market of cultural standing and influence. Food, water, shelter, and health care are all items that are currently bought and sold in a market of dollars. It needs to stop.

The very concept of a person’s well being as a commodity is absolutely revolting to me, and it frustrates me that such a thing is the sad state of our existence. It is the reality, and there is something that can be done about it. There are so many problems in the world right now, and I believe that if we are to start anywhere, it needs to be in our integrity. We cannot claim to have integrity while treating natural human rights as though they are privileges. I do not believe there are many options available as to how we can go about implementing these as true rights. My solution is one to be run by a global organization, perhaps overseeing the distribution of these items through branches that are involved in more specific areas. Maybe the United Nations can handle it. Maybe we need to rethink the entire concept of international law, but the situation is unimportant. The implementation is unimportant. There are solutions, and it must be done. We cannot maintain our moral integrity if we don’t.

This requires that the wealthiest nations play their part. They ought to play the only part. We can feed the whole world. It is possible, and there’s science to back it. There are so many complexities involved in increasing the food production adequately, and I am not qualified to make the statements on exactly what needs to be done. Environmental, work, and efficiency concerns must be addressed. (For example, the world cannot sustain the stupidly omnivorous diet that Americans pursue. We eat way too much meat. More emphasis must be placed on plant-based foods.)

I needn’t go though each of my points and explain how each is possible. As I said, I’m not qualified to answer each of the statements, but I have read enough to know that while global population will need to be addressed in some way or another in time, we do have the ability to give food, water, shelter, and health care to everyone in the world. Why not?

Saving the world