After thinking about the “great questions” about the meaning of life and what this is all about, I’ve felt greater and greater inclination to believe that all I’ve been talking about on this blog is really just the extension of one fundamental ethical principle. For the sake of nomenclature, I call this principle the Prime Directive- not for Star Trek fans (because the Star Trek Prime Directive is complete bullshit and is used to rationalize anything up to genocide), but to highlight that this principle is perhaps the one directive or duty that we must all follow above all else.
This Directive can be expressed in all sorts of ways, some more precise and complete than others. I think the most precise and complete way would be “do not impose harm.” Harm means physical injury or mental damage. To impose means to burden someone without their consent.
We must also add to this the concept of risk: to expose someone to the possibility of harm without their consent is by extension also evil. To make an analogy, if murder is evil, then rigging a machine to have a 10% chance of exploding and killing whoever uses it, and then leaving it there lying around without warning, is equally evil, even though it is a risk that is not directed at anyone in particular. It still ultimately leads to murder.
The concept of consent is central to this principle. Without consent, everything is an imposition by definition. Therefore, any system which does not function under the premise of consent goes against this principle. We can go further and talk about free agency, the freedom to think and bring one’s thoughts into action, which is itself predicated on consent. The common thread is that of using other people as a means to an end, which is a fundamental evil, and this “usage,” this “consumption” of human beings, always takes the form of some kind of harm.
I also include not lying on the blog subtitle, mainly because “do not impose harm” by itself seemed too short. Lying and control go hand in hand, and the control mentality is how we get people to view each other as evil and worthy of harm. Ultimately, only by massively lying, and getting lies incorporated into the culture, can the people who impose harm get away scot-free. People who promote irrationality, no matter how well-intentioned, are the front line troops for those who wish to do violence, murder, and kill people’s capacity for free agency. Reason and compassion put together lead to the love mentality and to a society which minimizes harm. Irrationality or lack of compassion can only lead to greater and greater harm.
It should be easy to see how Anarchism is a consequence of the Directive. Anarchism is the rejection of hierarchies, and hierarchies are defined by relations which are made without consent and which aim to further attack the free agency of the individual. Hierarchical institutions impose harm and the risk of harm on other people in order to further institutional values (religious doctrines impose harm, laws impose harm, economic power imposes harm, bigotry imposes harm, crime imposes harm, incarceration imposes harm, schools impose harm, and so on). Any institution which does not seek to impose harm wouldn’t need to be arranged in a hierarchical structure in the first place! That’s the whole purpose of it.
It is said that there’s nothing like religion to make good people do evil things, but that’s really true of all hierarchies. I could look at each hierarchy in turn here and point out the gigantic amounts of harm that they impose on people, but I think you get the idea.
Atheism, if seen from an ethical standpoint, also furthers the directive, insofar as religion is just another form of hierarchy: of God as superior to man, of the priest as superior to the believer, and of the believer as superior to the unbeliever. Religion imposes harm by demanding that people follow an irrational, elitist model of the world and of human beings, which creates wars, oppression, exploitation and forced insanity. By portraying humans as innately evil, it makes people act in an evil manner towards each other.
And now for antinatalism, which is actually what got me thinking about the directive in the first place. One of the central arguments of antinatalism is precisely that bringing new human beings into the world inevitably causes harm (Benatar’s asymmetry argument). But furthermore, bringing new human beings into the world is necessarily an action which entails treating potential children as means to an end (since they have no values that one can act towards), with all that this implies.
Incidentally, I do not intend for antinatalism to become the focus of this blog. To me, it is a topic no more or less relevant as the others. If I am to be an ethical person, talking about ethical principles as they relate to the Directive, then I must necessarily include antinatalism as part of the discussion. I know this is unlikely to please anyone, as antinatalism is a reviled topic and not likely to attract readers, but I would be dishonest and pandering if I refused to talk about it on that basis.
I know that each side doesn’t like the other (with maybe the exception of Anarchists and antinatalists being generally friendly towards atheism, which is after all the most narrow ideology of the three), but to me each of these ideologies is a natural consequence of the Directive. If it is wrong to impose harm, then it is wrong to impose harm through religion, it is wrong to impose harm through any hierarchy, and it is wrong to impose harm by creating new human beings.
One interesting argument I’ve gotten from antinatalism, but which applies to all opponents of the Directive, is the “how much suffering is it worth?” argument. How many deaths are gasoline or bananas worth? How many deaths are a social program worth? How many deaths of innocents is the police worth? How many deaths and wars is religion worth?
It’s not really an argument as much as it is a way to prod the opposition into impaling itself on a dilemma. If they answer zero, then they cannot coherently continue to defend their ideology. If they answer any number greater than zero, then they have to justify their disregard for human life, as well as their arbitrary choice of a number.
I come from a deontological position, and I reject utilitarianism completely and absolutely. It is wrong to inflict harm on one human being to pleasure or benefit any number. not even for something we consider “necessary.” It is absolute evil to inflict a terrible death on someone to give billions a bit of well-being, and we are morally required to give up anything that entails such deaths, even if it’s something overall positive for society as a whole.
Because the principle of not imposing harm is a fundamental ethical principle, opponents must bear the burden of proof. A drunk driver is not allowed to demand that we prove every single time that driving drunk is a bad idea, and driving drunk once without any incident does not disprove the assertion that drunk driving is wrong. Rather, it is the drunk driver who must justify his behaviour, because he is the one imposing the risk of harm on others. Anyone who seeks to impose harm on another human being must justify this imposition. Anyone who would impose any hierarchy, however fluid or however voluntary, on anyone else has the burden of proof.
Why “do not impose harm”? Why not “do unto others” or “love one another”? I’ve talked a great deal about love, and it would certainly fit the bill, but most people’s idea of love is so narrow and aberrated that there’s no point in trying to convince people of it. As for “do unto others,” it is merely a dysfunctional, self-oriented version of not imposing harm, insofar as if we do not wish to receive harm (which is a reasonable assumption), then we should not inflict harm on others either.
Also, watch out for my reaming of Richard Dawkins and humanism on July 1st. Hooray!