The Ethics of Progress

So we can say that behaving ethically enough to meet universal needs – food, shelter, clothing, safety, health and community – is commendable on principle, since suffering, the main contributing factor to animosity and social disorder, would be more widely kept to a minimum, making sustainable cultural contexts in which communality is both desired and optimally possible.  But how sensible are these principles?  It is equally plausible as a pure hypothetical that with shrewd decision-making, affluent countries and classes may be able to hold onto their much greater wealth, actualizing the pleasures of more comfortable lives without regard for the effects of suffering on a global or even national scale.  Are financial strategies and proficient militaries sufficient to turn logistically complex suffering-management into a voluntary commitment, of superfluous relevance?  Or do not just feelings of conscience but dispassionate reasons exist for devoting ourselves to working towards an ethical world, beyond serving personal inclinations of charitable empathy and concern for the suffering that is troubling to think about but perhaps not strictly necessary to address as a civic imperative?

Firstly, we should acknowledge that for all citizens, life is not always smooth sailing.  Classes and subcultures set themselves apart, living with a buffer that shelters them from other demographics.  There are places the upper class cannot go, and likewise for lower classes, which is also the case for ethnicities and additional segments of the population.  When these boundaries are crossed, danger can ensue.  The increased potential for suffering to which those living close to poverty as well as with insecure employment are subjected, and conversely the common avoidance of involvement with risks faced by the less well off, make society a divisive, even paranoia-inducing place.  Apathy or ill will are a sometimes subtle detriment to the quality of at least our cognitive and emotional lives, further a corruptive force that in practice consistently eats away at our ideals of cooperation, achievement, and enjoyable freedom.

We cannot count on perpetually submerging uneasiness while proceeding with our day-to-day lives unscathed, but must often face the hazards of a subculturally divided society head-on when crises of all kinds inevitably happen.  A corporate CEO’s family must go to the emergency room and wait their turn like everyone else while having a health problem, the poor go to the same place when in need of treatment, those not in the upper class are more vulnerable to natural disasters and epidemics than the president of the United States, but presidents are held responsible for events that no one could have had control over while required to justify every crisis management decision they make to an intensely scrutinizing populace comprised of thousands of citizens who hate them with a passion, pouncing on even the slightest negative publicity, which rival politicians are all too ready to exploit, and this reputationally and occupationally threatening politicization of social relationships is in effect almost everywhere on a smaller scale.  In a truly ethical society such as has not yet been achieved, all of these perils, discontents and frictions are a nonissue, while in an unethical one, mobilizing coordinated response to predicaments of safety, health and basic survival is characterized by compounded inefficiency, bitter disagreements, even havoc.  Furthermore, in cultures of average integrity, crime waves, riots, revolts, oppression and institutional unreliability arise as dilemmas that would be nonexistent in a population committed to ethical behavior.

Even in civilized societies that are not particularly motivated to uphold ethical standards, someone must be responsible for dealing with logistics that would fall within the purview of ethics-based choice if virtuousness was favored, legislating and maintaining law and order as well as allocating funds in ways appropriate to the basic necessities of a system.  In an ethics-deficient culture where law is only respected and complex cooperative behavior carried out if it is coerced, serves one’s own interests or appeals to herdlike mentality, the task of nurturing social movements and attaining collective goals depends on power hierarchies that rely on a small cadre of top-ranked organizers to enact the most important logistical choices.

Leaning heavily on a small group of authorities exposes society to endless problems.  For starters, leaders may come to view themselves as elites possessing prerogative to act with impunity.  Emperor Nero of ancient Rome is a famous instance, performing outrages such as setting fire to his capital in secret as a pretext for assigning blame to subcultural rivals, the upstart Christians.  Sometimes the psyches of high-ranking officials degenerate into a toxic combination of megalomania and delusional paranoia due to intense vulnerabilities of their position, loss of a private life, feigned unctuousness of those around them, and perhaps also a degree of isolation from social supports.  This may have been the case with Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin, who’s secret police executed eight million of his imaginary political enemies and who was known to contemplate purging associates because he disliked their tone.  Sometimes those with power have privileged information that generates a temptation to manipulate individuals for personal gain.  A 21st century example is the influential financier Bernie Madoff, who was for a time one of the most successful investors in the United States, but is notorious for stealing billions from clients over the course of decades in a Ponzi scheme.  Defensiveness is not unwarranted: Nero committed suicide after being officially designated a “public enemy” by the Roman Senate and sentenced to death, while Madoff was convicted in a highly publicized trial and given a life sentence.  These were of course very different individuals in very different circumstances, but the excesses of power destroyed both.                                                                     

Often it is not abuse of power but rather incompetence that makes supreme authority a liability to populations.  President Napoleon III of late 19th century France alienated Great Britain over minor colonial issues, allowed Germany to woo Russia into a pact that fully protected its Eastern border, underestimated Germany’s military, and met the ignominious fate of capture and imprisonment as he unnecessarily accompanied his armies into battle during the disastrous Franco-Prussian war of 1870.  Chancellor Bismarck of Germany, who masterminded this unexpected victory over the French and skillfully architected European peace for a couple decades, resigned under pressure from the Kaiser Wilhelm II in 1890, a couple of years after this young monarch was crowned.  Wilhelm II gave saber rattling speeches that alienated the British among others, was instrumental in an abandonment of Germany’s Russian treaty that led to Russia’s realignment as an ally of France, and altogether made WW1 unwinnable for the most economically powerful nation in mainland Europe.  Ill-advised moves by only two sovereigns in Germany and France cost many thousands of European lives and reparations soaring into the hundred billions, as well as instigating deep-seated vengefulness in defeated citizenries that was precipitating war almost a century later.  Even Bismarck, one of the most successful leaders in modern history, who receives most of the credit for welding internationally insignificant German principalities into the most powerful country in Europe, had engendered a planet that was extremely complex diplomatically, in which peace amongst nationalism could not be sustained long-term without his personal aptitude.  The 20th century aftermath was two world wars, millions of battle casualties, and many millions of genocidal deaths.

We can contrast this with what is possible when humans commit to collaborating rather than fighting each other, with the period of peace among the most powerful countries of Europe between the Franco-Prussian War and WW1, 1871-1914, providing a textbook example.  While avoiding major conflicts, the Europeanized world made huge strides towards a more advanced technological society, called the Second Industrial Revolution.  Mainland Europe was still in an arms race that drained much of its resources, but formation of an integrated Germany with a booming peacetime economy allowed some innovations to take place, notably invention of both the first automobile and the internal combustion engine by German scientists.  Over the course of the 19th century, Great Britain had adopted a policy of not interfering in the affairs of European governments, culminating in commitment to a turn of the century “Splendid Isolation” by top officials.  As British financing was diverted away from military buildup and towards civilian innovations, some scientific progress occurred: invention of photoelectric cells (solar panels), the light switch, construction of the first wireless station for radio transmission, discovery of the electron, and research into electroluminescence that is the principle behind LED’s (light-emitting diodes) eventually used for displaying user interfaces in electronic gadgets.  In the U.S., immigration and urbanization picked up during this era of political accord, and together with minimal risk of invasive war due to the country’s distance from Europe’s modernized militaries, a huge developmental surge in civilian technology was effectuated: invention of the telephone, light bulb, handheld camera, air conditioning, airplane, typewriter, elevator, phonograph, motion picture, electric generator for large appliances such as refrigerators and washing machines, along with railroad and steel mill improvements all materialized on American soil.

Regardless of how avoidable or unavoidable war has been historically, it is clear that the greater cooperation possible while at peace is ideal.  In the 19th and 20th century West, attempts at progress during war were hampered by the need for austerity in civilian sectors of the economy as well as massive destruction of property and human life.  Astronomical sums of money ineffectually shifted around as reparations; citizenries became lastingly embittered at rivals in other nations or their own logistically failed authorities, with derivative unrest; restrictions on travel, immigration, and general social mobility took effect.  Though some limited headway was expedited that probably would have happened anyway, for instance canned food and better surgical methods, culture was inhibited.  Turn of the 20th century peace, by contrast, allowed European civilization to initiate a new age in a mere four decades, setting off vast improvement in the material conditions of human life, a rapid sequence of technological breakthroughs that even lurking militaristic and totalitarian tendencies have not thwarted.  When we are inclined to pursue social goals with war, even the most promising movements such as the American Revolution can get swallowed up by reactionary hysteria as unforeseen complications and setbacks devolve into devastating chaos and discarded continuity of purpose, as demonstrated by conversion of France’s democratic revolution into an aggressive dictatorship.  It is of course a given that harmony is not accessible to all individuals and nations at all times, but favorable conditions of peace are when the human race is at its most potent, with ruinous circumstances of war disfortunate delays.

So far, modernity has been lucky enough to avoid the collapse of civilization: apocalyptic nuclear war did not happen, invasive dictatorialism has never fully sabotaged the world’s most influential institutions, and natural disasters have not taxed our resources severely enough that preservation of overall law and order became a challenge.  But what if one day a genuine global crisis occurs, not one of our man-made dabblings in the high-octane stimulations of social hellishness, but a threat to our whole way of life?  The closest we have recently come to a predicament such as this is the Great Depression of the 1930’s, when shallow understanding of how economies function led to a breakdown in the world’s financial system.  As per humanity’s usual gravitation towards belligerence, the outcome was political isolationism, the biggest war in history accompanied by near destruction of representative government in Europe, and transition in various countries from politics as a matter of public welfare to reorgs that spawned oppression, aftereffects which some regions have not been able to extricate themselves from for going on a full century.  

In the Information Age, we have the logistical means to empower every single human individual on the planet to reach his or her potential, but what if we continue to underachieve ethically until the worst kinds of cataclysm threaten, a supervolcano eruption, a meteor strike, a major pandemic, or a change in atmospheric circulation that rapidly shifts the planet’s climate, as they undoubtedly will someday?  If we, as organisms who have the opportunity to actualize every member of the species fail to do so, and this lack of collective actualization destroys us, as it certainly would under conditions that are likely to obtain eventually within the next few hundred years, we will be laughing stalks of the universe, a race that sacrificed more than ten thousand years of progress, all its greatest triumphs, for at best fleeting moments of insignificant pleasure and at worst unsustainable sadomasochism, which meant nothing in the long run and could have easily been replaced by elevating the entire species to new heights almost completely absent violation of human life.  It should be reemphasized that we do not even have to forfeit our pleasure, we must merely divert the quest for pleasure towards inclusion of our neighbors, which is what most want anyway in various degrees, to belong, to be regarded as a success.  Major progress does not happen instantly, and in some domains maybe not even in a single lifetime, but if the whole human race commits to furthering collective causes while keeping our divisive ones at a real minimum, bringing quality of life to the next level every four decades or less while skirting nearly all conflict is a practical ideal.

So an ethical life is preferable, giving us the worthy goal of reducing physical and emotional suffering in both others and ourselves by devotion to meeting universal needs, as well as attaining the rational objective of preventing what is an otherwise inevitable end of civilization due to acute discord when disasters that severely affect the whole planet strike.  Institutions, the orchestrators of collective behavior, should be designed for putting this ethical approach towards life into practice, addressing universal needs so all humans can engage in constructive rather than wasted use of their time, making available to everyone a life of fulfilling pleasures sufficient to ward off conflict while averting societal collapse.  We can channel our lives into philanthropic pursuits that grant greater purpose, actualizing ourselves while we also help our neighbors and by extension the whole human race, making a legacy of positive prospects for our progeny possible.  

These are not really new ideas, as millions already make commitments to working for the betterment of human existence and insuring the species against social crash and burn, but should be formulated in the most universal way so our reflections on the topic can be held in common, as collective as the behaviors that must be carried out to consummate them.  This does not so much necessitate an alteration to social structures as a subtle change in problem-solving focus whatever the institutional environment, putting relatively more stress on providing for universal essentials and less on activity that is expendable either because of its nonessentiality or nonuniversality.  It would be pragmatically ethical to more highly regard what is essential for everyone and consign ourselves less to a life that revolves around nonessential wants and experiences.       

Assertions that we should motivate ourselves towards collectively meeting the most universal and indispensable needs, thereby raising entire populations to new heights and fashioning a civilization impervious to collapse is easy enough to say, but in practice it gets complicated.  Different institutional settings raise discrepant issues, and it is especially true that differing demographics face varying issues in trying to integrate with a philanthropic culture.  The poor are obviously not as able to contribute financially as the rich, and if the ability to concentrate wealth is compromised, it could be insuperably difficult to tackle the largest public welfare challenges.  Precise solutions for the world’s huge range of circumstances requires careful analysis by those closest to the action, for we all know our own lives much better than anyone else.  Still, it is possible to draw some generalizations that at least get the ball rolling.                           

The most crucial aspect of this collective project is education, for principled behavior of any kind depends on adequately informed intelligence, the utilization of teaching methods and learning in general to build a citizenry that competently commits to meeting its culture’s requisites.  If we are going to have a society that is ethical in conjunction with the previously specified criteria of universal and essential need, which is the only kind empowered to construct itself towards optimization, and the only kind that has a long-term future, we must spend considerable effort instilling these values throughout the population.  This does not mean that all or even most of our thinking has to obsess over profound issues, but with some mimetic encouragement, the vast majority would be more than able to reflect upon their philanthropic role at times such that some definite approaches would come together in most minds.  If ethical behavior is given widespread relevance, it will begin to work strongly upon the human unconscious, and even when citizens are carrying out mundane tasks during their day, casually socializing, even vegging out in front of the T.V., any stimulus at all can kindle ideas, just as our love of money and success turns on capitalist light bulbs, and our love of positive feedback from relationships electrifies light bulbs of a memetic nature.  Thought patterns and lifestyles do not have to change as a sudden self-denial; all we need is for the seeds of ethical concept to be planted in effective ways slightly more often, and changes will follow which over the course of generations can add up to a huge shift in global perspective.

How to effectively incentivize ethical values and behavior is not an easy matter.  Overbearing moralism sours citizens to the whole project, and a barrage of shallow soundbites or slogans can desensitize, cheapen the whole movement, and be equally annoying.  Just as in marketing, the key is to find memes that work, except the task is more difficult in the case of ethical reasoning because culture is not simply conditioning preferences of individuals as expressed in snap decisions, but rather attempting to compel moments of substantive, creative thought that form new beliefs and convince ponderers to revise deeply entrenched complacencies.  

Again, educational techniques are key, for citizens have to be trained towards wanting to brainstorm about collective issues in the first place if problem-solving is going to happen.  School is the core of educating, but kids are not going to single-handedly change their families in most cases; the values of classrooms and school assemblies, which are frequently crafted to inspire enthusiasm for progressive causes and readily lead to reflection upon social welfare, must be reinforced with tutelary support for independent study and opportunities for community involvement.  Youth-oriented culture in modern societies can too often be based around vapid entertainment, together with aloof tolerance for impressionability or in the worst cases an irresponsible manipulation of it, degrading to both adults and kids alike.  Overcoming apathy about personal roles in large-scale collectivity is a struggle, but relevant enough that we should be participating in reasoned, collaborative planning for the purpose on a daily basis.  Those who can must consistently labor for this cause when the occasion arises, or at some inevitable date, perhaps sooner than later, the human future will be jeopardized by a crisis that society is not ethically equipped to handle and everything we have ever done may be for nothing.

Generating the memes that get ethical society going is a task publicity experts are more than ready to handle, but a brief preliminary might be instructive.  If there is a most effective memetic motivator, it is probably the notion of reciprocation to one’s own wants and needs.  Subcultures have been fighting to get their fair share since before Christ, an interminable string of riotous rebellions and coups brought about by disgruntled popular sentiment, from ancient Athenian scuffles with tyrants, to the European-wide uprisings of 1848, to Venezuelan unrest in the 21st century.  In this vein, the United States is revealing, for issues of exploitation in distant countries have only minor impact on the overall consciousness of a public that is relatively comfortable financially, whereas citizens’ equal right to vote on the structure of their government turned into a multibillion dollar industry of promotion that garners months of nationwide media attention, and an annual month-long celebration of the fight for African-American equality has been in place for decades.  Figuring out how to effectively impel citizens towards caring about adoption of an ethical lifestyle demands much investment of time, energy, and probably also some wealth, but if the idea can be presented in such a way that implications for quality of life – everyone’s personal and subcultural good – are crystal clear, it is more likely to gain support.  The most powerful meme, whatever particular form it takes, is probably belief in the benefits of what someone else does to one’s own well-being, and a close second is the perceived value of our own actions for those around us.

The quandary of coordinating the innumerable roles of demographics seems on its surface to be impenetrable, for the wide range of class and subcultural types throughout the world defies generalization.  But if we peer deeper than the nuts and bolts of social structures, a simple psychological interpretation stands out amongst all the diversity.  Almost every mature human being falls into two categories of societal role, wherever they are located in the cultural strata: both an authoritative leader and a subordinate advocate, a top-down as well as bottom-up organizer.  Parents supervise their children and follow the rules of the workplace, corporate ownership dictates a company’s financial strategy and must navigate national and international law, and government officials legislate the policies of their countries while catering to citizenries’ needs.  Insofar as individuals function with authoritative leadership, a certain rationale regarding philanthropic ethics obtains, and likewise for the function of grassroots activism by subordinates.                           

First of all, those who know they are capable of taking the lead in spearheading progressive betterment of humanity should proactively do so.  This can be as a spokesperson, an organizer, or someone who simply provides an incidental example by performing ethical actions from out of independent initiative.  As for philanthropic leadership of a financial kind, it should start with the safest bets in similarity to any successful business enterprise, with provision for essential universals that initially focuses on communities most accessible, in need, and likely to commit to the project themselves subsequent to aid.  It might be the case that a charitable venturist would be more successful or competent in his or her own region to start with rather than some remote part of the world, which narrows down the realistic options quite a bit.  Those living in poverty, dangerous circumstances, poor health, or with a lack of social supports are obviously in greater need, and philanthropy should consider helping these individuals first if possible, as it for the most part does already.  If a potential recipient does not want assistance or a prohibitive response of hostility would occur, as is the case in relation to some totalitarian regimes around the world, we should not attempt to pour money into a problematic situation, especially if it will only be exacerbated, but surrounding entities that are willing to cooperate can be helped, which will eventually exert strong pressure towards integrating into a charitable mainstream.  

This is all essentially common sense, maximizing benefit while minimizing the risk of failure, but sets forth an important principle, in line with the cruciality of philanthropy previously outlined, that prioritization of ethics-driven aid should be carried out with practical considerations in mind, not merely for personal or reputational gratifications.  This is a long-term endeavor: the whole philosophy is that we should not only help but also further the rational values that motivate us, empowering those we help to do likewise once mobilized, so that ethical behavior spreads to wider swaths of the population in an exponential way, slowly overcoming inertia at the beginning to rapidly remake culture globally.  We must spend effort in any effective way to render the universalizable reasons for what we are doing clear, a rationale which should be explicitly integrated with our whole approach to charity.    

Those not in a position to lead financially or ideologically are no less powerful.  Citizens should be confident that self-organizing will bring about huge progress no matter how small-scale their contributions.  Modest commitments by many millions of individuals who spend some time looking into the best available philanthropic options via some basic research and then communicate this information along with their decisions to acquaintances are equivalent in influence to the most prestigious financiers.  If its not possible for someone to pursue ethical charitability, its not possible, but a moment of potential is bound to surface for almost everyone at some point, even if it is only transmission of the ideal to someone else, and we should be ready to make the most of our opportunities whenever they arise.  If we commit to working from both angles, the top and base of the system, doing whatever we can whether large or small, it may dawn on humanity one unforecasted day, though no one will know the totality of how we reached our goal, that society is for all intents and purposes utopian, very nearly an ethical perfection.

The individual psychology that makes this ethical paradigm for behavior compelling is no more complex than our clarification of social roles.  Any human beings who are unwilling to reciprocate the universal needs of humanity have for all intents and purposes consented to the collapse of civilization and obliteration of everything they have ever accomplished.  If we do not commit to this project, we will almost certainly lose it all: wealth we have amassed will one day no longer be of any worth because much if not all the economic infrastructure that granted it value has disintegrated, and everything we have constructed will decay to ruins.  Looked at from a long-term perspective, if we do not make whatever effort we can to engender an ethical society, we might as well spend our spare time stockpiling weapons, because that is the only temporary insurance our legacy will have in the advent of large-scale calamity.  At the same time, those with the means to contribute in major ways cannot be expected to lose current possessions, status and livelihood because of their commitments.  We must hold our own selves to high standards, but also be tolerant of those who do not yet want to participate, along with the limitations that everyone faces, and we should not take from others without giving what we can in return.  As previously specified, one of the criteria for determining how philanthropic effort should be allotted is the likelihood that those receiving assistance will pledge to this project of ethical universalization themselves, and so the uncooperative will soon find they are reaping less benefit, which can over the course of generations bring many subcultures to change their tune.

Preexisting corruption is a big obstacle: many concentrations of influence and ways of life are designed to promote their own interests at the expense of society as a whole, the antithesis of expanded provision for universal need.  The project will require a lot of initial time and exertion before substantial progress is made; it cannot be rushed, and we must be patient.  To the extent that corruptiveness can be countered directly, this is probably practicable by committing to three principles.  

First, experimentalism: we must permit reallocation of resources and backpedaling from some arrangements, a tweaking of approach as we discover which strategies do and do not work, while gradually diverting assistance away from demographics who no longer need as much help, equipped to contribute themselves.  

Second, downplaying reputation: assigning credit for successes and blame for failures should be a subsidiary concern unless it furthers the project via publicization or provides a check on irresponsibility.  This is not so much a matter of organizational changes as a somewhat subtle shift in personal perspective, for the more individuals that are determined to utilize institutions of incentive and justice, whatever form they take in a culture, as an instrument of collectivity rather than a symbol of self-worth, the less prone group commitments will be to disruptive ambition and power struggle.  

And third, rolling back oppression: coercion is so integral to the outlooks of most current societies that we cannot expect to further the philanthropic project by revolutionary systems of legality, which will degenerate into more coercion, but we can make many minor reforms towards more autonomous and financially secure citizenries as we proceed, something many parts of the world have already been occasionally accomplishing for centuries, founding organizations and developing programs based on philanthropic values whenever possible.  Inclement conditions will no doubt throw a wrench in the operation at times, but these setbacks can be more than compensated by the irrepressible force of thousands and eventually many millions of citizens who keep the simple quest for a rationally ethical world in view while fostering their values whenever they can.  Commitment from the base of a culture is as crucial as the integrity of leadership; in fact, institutions are probably incapable of avoiding degeneration if those who are more subordinate than authoritative fail to exercise their collective prerogative and remain vigilant about abuse of power.  Keeping tabs on political happenings and world events as presented by media is not ineffectual, but if the most ordinary citizens are unwilling to go beyond mere observance by adopting a deeply ethical existence, and the most culturally elite are unwilling to nurture conditions that make this possible for large populations, we will one day once again be violently fighting both with and against each other for our very survival as natural disaster or catastrophic corruption make the status quo unsustainable.  Humanity’s good fortune over the last several thousand years and especially the previous few centuries might be obscuring a sobering fact: in an unethical civilization, regressions due to social discontents along with eventual collapse are unavoidable.

During this multigenerational transition towards an ethical society, the nature of spontaneous activism would be all-important.  Citizens must seek to proactively self-organize regardless of their class or financial means, identifying those who have assimilated similar values and then facilitating maturation and actualization of the mutual ideal as embodied in each individual’s personal goals however possible.  In order to better society, one has to understand it, so a primary facet of the process will be boosting knowledge by providing safe resources and forums for furthering independent research on the part of individuals as well as all kinds of collectives.  Those who desire reform must first accept institutional structure as it is, seeking a genuine understanding of why current arrangements prevail, which depends heavily on comprehending how the past generated precedents of the present.  Memetically coercing some kind of ideology should not be our purpose, for the basic concept of ethical philanthropy is so simple and pure that casual conversations about practical issues along with intimation by popular literature are enough to instill it.  We should not bother laboring towards yet one more overgeneralizing, onerous, mind-controlling, absolutist myth for critics to mock as overbearing and hypocritical, but rather convey the undeniable, indispensable importance of charitable values by the quality of our reasoning and personal sincerity.  Everyone encounters plenty of apathy in association with any cause, but those committed to this project will sometimes prevail in planting seeds of an ethical mindset with their pragmatic good sense when pertinent, and also begin to find each other, so that collaborative supports take shape.

The economy is likely to work against this effort at the beginning, as financial progress has traditionally been gauged with profit models based on exponential expansion in quantitative assets, feeding into a culture of monopolistic takeover rather than cooperation, disregard for collateral damages to quality of life, and rampant personal or subcultural selfishness.  Our world capitalist system in principle works better if average individuals are managing to competently invest, using the market as a tool for supplementing their incomes, but even with vigilance by millions of reasonably skilled financial actors, modern economies are such an unpredictably intricate flux at ground level that making tolerable the risks faced by those of ordinary income depends on decisions made by professional financiers and intelligentsia analyzing the market as their life’s vocation, and this currently noncircumventable concentrating of influence in upper echelons leads to all the usual conundrums of power: self-serving greed and deception, collusion at the public’s expense, as well as elitist attitudes.  

Remedying this situation will not be possible until those with the knowledge and eminence to craft investment mechanisms have been imbued with a concern for social welfare, but even the noneconomist can figure some stuff out.  Consider cancer research, for instance: one hundred research projects require an investment of about fifty million dollars, and out of those hundred, only one project is likely to result in a successful drug that reaches the market, which can take as long as ten years to garner monetary return as extensive testing, technically abstruse promotion, and the educating of medical practitioners is necessary (Lo, Adaptive Markets).  This is prohibitive for all but the very richest investors, and even with billionaires, who of course do not maintain their stature in the business world by finding opportunities to incur massive losses, it amounts to no better than a donation in terms of conventional standards for profitability, also probably a stain on their reputations.  But if one billion individuals contribute just one hundred dollars every ten years to cancer research and more besides, that is one hundred billion dollars demanding no monetary recoup, analogous to a temporary, not-for-profit country.  Organizing unconventional investments of this kind would be a major challenge, as corruption is always a possibility any time that much money is on the move, so some type of elaborate oversight would need to be tasked with close monitoring, but it is at least something to think about.

We must contemplate the following: what conditions exist that make ethical behavior unjustifiable despite the ideal, and how do we cope with them?  Regardless of any conviction that we should sacrifice at least some of our own pleasures in order to meet universal needs of fellow human beings and help them make their way to a more ethical life, countries must defend their interests, citizens must be protected from crime, and we will have to compromise idealistic aims at times for the sake of health or safety.  What can we do about ever-present dilemmas induced by the unethicality infused into every corner of society?

As already alluded to, our institutions are in place for a reason, even if it is a misguided or antiquated reason, and we must seek to understand these reasons if we wish to accurately conceptualize what is possible, getting our opinions as near what really is as we can.  Our thinking must make an optimal approximation of the motives and environments that lead citizens to accept and sustain institutions, both historically and in contemporary society.  Many of these causal vectors are unconscious, inherently arational, but we can progressively rationalize them as we theorize our vast and growing body of information, instructing ourselves into a deepening knowledge of reality’s nature.     

In our era, there are circumstances we must regrettably resign ourselves to for the moment.  Prejudicial stereotyping is out of control.  Governments and corporations must guard their interests unethically much of the time.  Justice systems prey upon some demographics.  Mistreatment of animals is integral to our way of life.  Many subcultures and organizations limit access to information or spread disinformation to such an extent that cutting edge research is impotent to effect its full potential for improving society.  These are massive obstacles, but everyone has thousands of both big and small opportunities per lifetime to choose constructive rational integrity over meaninglessly malignant irresponsibility in ways that present no real risk of harm to us and do not significantly diminish our pleasure.  If we want to fashion the kind of ethical civilization capable of making ourselves legendary on a cosmic scale, we have to start somewhere.

A free download of the book Standards for Behavioral Commitments: Philosophy of Humanism, also available for preview below.  Topics covered include chemistry, biology, genetics, neuroscience, epistemology, the history of Western philosophy, cultural evolution, theory of cognition, ethics and much more.

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