From morality to ethics… [part 2/3]

Now to talk about ethics proper. So far, I have kept my language as general as possible, and made it clear that I did not argue for one specific worldview or system over others, because I was talking about general logical consequences, not at all about implementation. But now it’s time to start talking about implementation, based on the principles derived.

Ethics concerns itself directly with the rules which we believe should regulate society or sub-groups of society (in the latter case, we use a specific term such as bioethics, medical ethics, business ethics, legal ethics, animal rights, etc). However, social rules dictate the kind of institutions and structures that exist in that society, and the institutions and structures that exist dictate the kind of rules that persist within a society. So there is a direct link between the two: we are also talking about ethics when we look at the desirable structure of society.

The role of an ethical system is to provide the context within which our values can (or cannot, as may be the case) be fulfilled more or less fully. This is why it may be a little complicated to distinguish our individual actions from the greater social context, because our actions are always informed by the rules of society. There is a huge difference between “why should we not permit people to hurt each other?” and “how is it not in your interest to hurt others?”, but the former question informs the latter one, because institutions and structures dictate what is in the person’s self-interest. In a society where you are allowed to gain power over others, it becomes in your personal self-interest to try to gain that power, and then keep it, regardless of how badly it hurts others or society as a whole. So there is a conflict between one’s values and what is good for society when that society is structured in a way such as to permit or encourage the existence and accumulation of power. One’s conception of ethics and one’s normative views on economics, politics, justice, education, and so on, are really reducible to each other.

When we talk about ethics, we are absolutely certain to run into relativist arguments, so it’s important to clarify that issue. People will say that, for instance, culture is the only ethical factor that they recognize: whatever is part of the culture is right. But that’s an authoritarian statement, not really a relativist statement at all, since “culture” in our societies is ultimately determined by the people who have the power to dictate what people must or must not do, which ideas are acceptable and which ideas lie beyond the margins of reasonable discourse, where the “culture” begins and ends. So we’re actually not talking about relativism at all.

But even looking beyond that, we find that the argument only holds weight if we posit that ethical evaluations must be detached from their maker. Obviously all thoughts are relative insofar as they are dependent on a specific mind which has a specific nature. All the thoughts we have are our own thoughts, and only make sense within the context of our mind or a mind similar to ours. Ethical evaluations are thoughts, like any other proposition that exists, and as such are not excluded from that necessity. When I say (or any individual says), therefore, that forced circumcision on newborns, racism, sexism, the wearing of the burka, the brutal and stullifying treatment of children, are wrong, I am necessarily saying this on the basis of our own personal values, not anyone else’s values. How could it be otherwise? Any statement of knowledge is innately personal.

But it would do no good for the relativist to reply that my evaluations are thereby invalid because “they do not apply to that culture, only to your culture.” For one thing, the values we are talking about at such a level are universal: we are talking about things which bring physiological or psychological pain, mental or moral retardation, social or economic inequality, which are all verifiable facts, not about one’s opinion about the best ice cream. For another, it is not at all clear that what I have said so far is culturally accepted: after all, the backbone of my argument is that the desire for freedom and equality necessarily leads to Anarchism, and very few people in my “culture” would agree with me. And finally, this sort of objection participates to a common fallacy which I can describe most simply as “people disagree, therefore there is no actual fact of the matter.” But this is always a non sequitur. The fact that people disagree about something does not mean it has no universal validity. People are divided about such issues as evolution, economics, the germ theory of disease, whether UFOs are alien spacecrafts, and so on. There are even people who still argue that the Earth is flat. And yet it is unreasonable to claim that there must therefore be no actual fact of the matter in any of these cases.

It is not cultural norms or cultural preferences as a whole that are the problem here. There are a great number of cultural norms or cultural preferences which are not violent and which respect the freedom of the individual; the ones I have listed, don’t. Of course, one can always reply that I value non-violence and freedom for cultural reasons, and that therefore my evaluation is worthless. This can go on and on forever, because whatever I bring up, no matter how universal, can be dismissed as “an artefact of culture.” This is just nay-saying, not an argument. If it can be proven that my specific arguments originate in “culture” alone, then there might be an argument to be made. Without this, cultural relativism cannot get off the ground.

I said before that hierarchies have already been disproven by many of the principles I’ve established. I have already defined a hierarchy as being any system where control (force, the threat of force, indoctrination, manipulation, etc) is systemic and directed. This includes virtually all of our institutions and many relational modes. The net result of any hierarchy is to subordinate the freedom of the individual for the good of the elite within that hierarchy; they therefore are opposite to the principles of freedom, equality and liberty that we have already established. Therefore Anarchism, which is defined as the belief that all hierarchies are undesirable, is validated.

Note that this does not mean that people who are subjects to those hierarchies believe they are not free or equal. Of course it is always in the interest of the elites to make their subjects believe that they are free and equal. But it can never be the case that the subjects of a hierarchy, no matter what it is, are free and equal; it is a logical impossibility. There is no such thing as a free citizen, a free consumer or a free worker, a free religious believer, a free child, a free student or a free prisoner (well, that last one is pretty self-evident). All are subject to restrictions on their freedom, which they generally accept based on a belief in some imaginary higher good or under the threat of force, and none of them are the equals of the elite in the hierarchy.

Another sort of objection, that mostly comes from the voluntaryist and “anarcho-capitalist” people, is the “aren’t people free to join hierarchies?” argument. They think that invalidating hierarchies means that one is arguing against freedom in some way. But this is like arguing that people should be free to punch each other in the face; when it’s consensual, it’s called boxing, but when it’s not, it’s called assault. In our current society, there is no possibility of consent to hierarchies, because we depend on obeying them for our survival and our social status (or in the case of religion, used to).

On the other hand, if some people in an Anarchist society are absolutely nostalgic about being ordered around and being under constant threat, they can reproduce the experience in an egalitarian society, as long as everyone consents and does not try to involve anyone else in their weird domination and submission games. It is doubtful that many would participate, unless they had some serious psychological issues. In an Anarchist society, the hierarchies we know today would become the equivalent of BDSM: crap people used to do in earnest but which today looks more disturbing than anything else, and which speaks badly of the participants’ psyche.

Since all hierarchies are wrong, this includes capitalism as well, since the foundation of capitalism is the hierarchy between employers (who own the means of production and centrally plan production) and employees. Not all features of capitalism are directly hierarchical, although they may be disproven in other ways. Usury, for instance, goes against the principle of equality by being founded on the belief that some people (the owners of capital) should be rewarded without providing any labor. And if usury is invalid, then so are property rights, since property rights include usury by definition.

Some Anarchists rave about “direct democracy,” or somesuch, as being better than the representative democracy we have today. But both are totalizing processes, reducing all decision-making to the action of voting, and reducing the complexities of the structure or society to a popularity contest which renders rational discourse irrelevant. All democracies eventually have to nullify consent in some fashion; a consensual democratic system is necessarily unstable because it cannot rationally deal with disagreements, and must rely on coercion to maintain itself. No individual would ever put up with his desires being invalidated two-thirds or more of the time (in a democracy, even if you vote for the winning side, you seldom get what you wanted) if he can just go to another, similar organization where his desires are always taken into account and rarely invalidated.

Now, of course an organization is allowed to have stated goals and general policies, and to exclude people who disagree with them. In a society, for instance, these general policies would be the rights of the individual. But if a person, who agrees with these goals and policies, disagrees with a decision of the group, he should not be forced to either walk in lockstep or get kicked out. That would completely nullify the concept of consent and destroy the point of an egalitarian organization, which is that people can decide for themselves what they want to do, in unmediated relations, with everyone able to look at each other eye to eye, instead of having to walk in lockstep with some kooky leader who controls everyone. Whatever its flavor, democracy is just a somewhat less coercive way, but more mentally damaging way, of controlling people.

Continue to part 3.

One thought on “From morality to ethics… [part 2/3]

  1. […] Continue to part 2. This entry was posted in Left feed, Morality, The principles of freedom. Bookmark the permalink. ← Illegitimate self-management?: A response to free-marketeers From morality to ethics… [part 2/3] → LikeBe the first to like this post. […]

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