21st Century Philosophy
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A series of books present important topics in psychology, neuroscience and philosophy. These books form an integrated series, designed for students and the general reader who wants a salient, up to date review of the most important topics for humans studying themselves and others.

Printed books and EBook downloads are available from Alpha Online.

Author  Stephen J. Gislason


Ethics are about rules of conduct or, more precisely, ethicists attempt to decide what good and reasonable behavior is.  In practice, ethicists are employed by universities, academic hospitals and some professional organizations; they do best by examining specific situations and engaging the people involved in conversations about choices. When behavior and/or decisions are questionable but laws are not involved, ethics committees substitute for judges or juries and deliver advice or judgments. The value of ethics decreases as issues become of more general importance or are issues of law. Often, religious dogma are the basis of ethics; stern rules and severe punishments based on obsolete beliefs replace knowledge, reasoning and negotiation.

If you take a planet view of ethics, the landscape is very uneven. In some locations such as my community, ethical issues often involve fine points and disputes of minor significance. In other places on the planet, atrocities are common place; the most deplorable acts are accepted or ignored.

Ethics can be appreciated as an abstract exercise in description and reasoning that may fail to appreciate the deep determinants of human feelings, beliefs and conduct. This book is about human nature, complete with descriptions of its imbedded social regulation and morality. An understanding of all these discussions is required for meaningful ethical discourse. I sometimes read ethic statements that, in essence, suggest that humans should not act like humans. While I agree that it would be better of some aspects of human nature were permanently changed, that is improbable. A realistic human puts fantasy aside and deals with the really real. Humans are not always nice, reasonable or fair. Sometimes, humans are brutal savages. Oppression and even brutality based on religious beliefs can appear in the disguise of ethics and morality.

   Group Dynamics     

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There are two kinds of ethical statements: the first and most common is a more or less dogmatic rule that must be obeyed. Rules proliferate as the kinds of human interactions proliferate. The second kind of ethical statement is a deeply felt, personal expression of caring, concern, justice and freedom. There is a deep and archetypal sense of freedom, goodness and fair play. Any lasting ethics must be congruent with this deep but undifferentiated sense of good which can be called “morality”. The natural, moral part of an ethical system involves bargaining with others in an effort to achieve the most benefit for the people you care about. A true moral sense is transcendent of local beliefs and conditions; whereas ethics and laws are expressions of local beliefs and conditions.

Ethical questions gravitate toward the interfaces between individual freedoms and group discipline. Humans are caught in a tense dialectic between self-interest and group interest. Individual interests are often best served by advancing the interests of a group, since many if not most human activities require more than individual effort.  Individuals are usually locked into  quasi-cooperative networks leaving some choices about who does what to whom but most arrangements that support human infrastructures are not voluntary or even optional.

In my discussion of the inevitability of error, I suggested that a complex fantasy of superhuman performance emerges in every culture that supports the delusion that humans do better than they actually do. Insisting that others always obey a high standard makes it easy to shame, blame and discredit others. Even the smartest, nicest humans have important limitations. When Jesus' childhood sweetheart, Mary, was to be stoned to death by neighbors who disapproved of her occupation (sex trade worker), Jesus defended her saying:" Let the person who is without sin, cast the first stone."  A reasonable ethicist realizes the truth of this pragmatic claim. All humans break rules and have imperfect performance. All humans judge others more harshly than they judge themselves. The punishment delivered to others is greater than the punishment you would wish for yourself. Indeed, the best defense is offense.

You could argue that “morality” is a term that needs to be rescued or abandoned. Some use the term to describe a measure of how well ethics are formulated and how diligently ethics are implemented. Or you could argue that the best ethics are expressions of a deeper moral sense of right and wrong. The deeper sense of morality emerges from innate tendencies that are always manifest in human interactions and need not be articulated as a system of rules. Obvious moral injunctions are not to steal, cheat or kill others. An obvious moral incentive is to become a good person who does no harm. However, it turns out there exceptions to every inclination to be good and rules are often ignored.

Some speak of morals as inner objects that they possess. Some claim they have “good morals” when they obey the rules of the local group. There is talk about “moral reasoning and morality" ” as if a separate kind of cognition deals with interactions among humans.  Of course, a well informed person knows that cognition is all about human interactions. 

When rules are adopted formally, ethics are replaced by laws. Judges are concerned with the proper enforcement of laws and obey metarules that regulate their own conduct. An “ethical judge” will obey both the laws and judicial metarules but may not satisfy a more universal moral standard. Laws may be written by sociopathic politicians or dictators. Laws may be written by people of privilege and may discriminate against people with lower social status. Laws may be otherwise arbitrary and biased. Ethical judges who enforce bad laws cooperate in creating social injustice.

Ethicists realize that human behavior is about competing needs, desires, rules and exceptions to rules. Humans are always negotiating with each other to get the best possible deal. If you are trying to answer ethical questions, get ready to negotiate or to arbitrate. Dogma is often preferred over reason and negotiation. Ethical debates are about vested interests and no two individual have entirely congruent interests and will seldom agree about what good and reasonable behavior is. The only certainty about human ethics is that ethical debates will seldom be resolved with a single policy or rule.

The medical profession, for example, intends to help others and to do no harm. Increasingly, the profession has adopted more dogmatic, rule-based versions of ethics that demand compliance with relatively trivial rules and at the same time requires an unusually high standard of self-sacrifice. Dogmatic ethics leave little room for self-determination and make no provision for a golden rule kind of reciprocity. Physicians  may be abused by patients, hospital administrators and government bureaucracies but are expected to behave in an exemplary manner.  A more practical arrangement requires that physicians, patients, hospital administrators and government bureaucrats treat each other with the same kindness and respect.

In contrast, soldiers are hired and trained to kill people. They have ethics and rules of conduct that control their behavior within military organizations. There are also “rules of war” that are often ignored in combat situations. An ethical soldier may do great harm to other humans as long as he protects his comrades and follows orders. He usually cannot or does not act morally and does not spare the property and lives of innocent civilians who get in his way. Soldiers are rewarded for destroying property and killing other humans; they cannot make independent evaluations based on deeply felt, personal expressions of caring, concern, justice and freedom. While you could argue that soldiers are basically good people who commit socially sanctioned crimes, there is an equal argument that soldiers are the agents of evil and cannot be excused when they kill others. Policeman in polite society carry guns but seldom shoot and are held accountable when they kill another human. In a perfect world there would be no soldiers, no guns or bombs and killing would be an extreme aberration -- almost unheard of.

You will notice that whenever people with arbitrary beliefs meet to negotiate ethics, no one will emerge satisfied with a compromise policy. Dogmatic ethical positions that prevail have usually been advocated by religious organizations who claim moral authority that they have not earned. Islam and Christian leaders, for example  promote laws prohibiting women’s rights, sexual freedoms, right to abortion, interracial marriage, divorce and many other expressions of freedom that have been slowly and painfully established in more advanced countries during the century past.  A well-informed citizen will know that the defense of freedom, individual rights, and indeed, all social progress has depended on the defeat of dogmatic and authoritarian ethics.

The founding fathers of the USA were correct to insist on a separation of religion and the state; however it has taken the US three centuries to actually implement some basic freedoms in opposition to despotic religious dogma. US politics in the first decade of the 21st century suggests that progress toward basic freedoms and civil rights can quickly reverse. Policies, procedures and laws are routinely decided by elite groups and imposed on others.  In the future to become and remain free, a society must be secular, rational, democratic and humanitarian. Freedom means that individuals make choices and decide their fate, not the government or religious organizations. Elite, authoritarian groups continue to seek control over others, however. Civil societies moderate and conceal the influence of elite groups but do not remove power brokering.

In democratic public forums, hotly contested ethical issues get stalled because agreement among diverse vested interests is impossible.  We are all afraid that an alien group will seize power, disapprove of us and deprive us of happiness, liberty and life. This is human history and evil discrimination recurs inevitably.

The goal of 21st Century Philosophy is to pursue a wise and compassionate integration of human understanding beyond local beliefs, specific disciplines, polemics and sectarian disputes.  The book, Existence and the Human Mind by Stephen Gislason was first published in 2004 and has evolved into several books published by Persona Digital Books.

eBooks are downloaded from Alpha Online and can be delivered to any destination on the planet. Persona Digital is located at Sechelt, British Columbia, Canada. In business since 1984. Online since 1995. Printed book orders are submitted to Alpha Online; physical shipments are limited to destinations in Canada and the USA.

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Human Nature
The Good Person
Pieces of the Puzzle (Free)
The Sound of Music
Surviving Human Nature
Language and Thinking
I and Thou
Emotions and Feelings
Neuroscience Notes
Human Brain in Health and Disease
Children and Family
Intelligence and Learning
Religion for 21st Century


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