On Ethics

This piece first appeared on the Scientists for Global Responsibility forum, in response to post that ended with the comment ‘Ethics are never straightforward!’.

Dear Forum,

It does sometimes look like ethics are not straightforward, but I wonder if that is really true?

To me it seems that ethics appear complicated when the search for a solution to an ethical problem is limited to within the system that produced the problem in the first place. I think that real solutions will mostly lie outside of the system that produced the problem.

So far, all large-scale human societies have been based on humans exploiting other humans for material gain. This doesn’t prove that humans are inherently exploitative, though many have come to that conclusion.

A better model might be that a population conditioned into fear, greed and limitations in thinking is both necessary to maintain exploitative societies, and is an inevitable product of those societies. This conditioning has become embedded in our cultures and so has been passed on from generation to generation, mostly without conscious awareness, as if it were a normal part of being human.

Though the rhetoric of competition has dominated much recent thought (because it justifies exploitation), on close examination it’s clear that it is cooperation that has led to the most interesting developments, both in the evolution of complex life and in human progress.

One of the problems with philosophy overall has been that philosophers (and the people who support them and use their ideas) have come almost exclusively from the sections of society that materially benefited from, and identify with, the unjust structures. So Ethics, which should be asking ‘What is the right thing to do?’ has been distorted by an often-unconscious element of ‘What is the best thing possible within confines of the status quo?’

It seems to me that an awful lot of ethical wrangling has come from trying to find solutions from inside the basic assumptions of an exploitative society, which is not possible since those assumptions are logically inconsistent with human rights.

Instead I think it helps to start from the position that any exploitation of any human being for any purpose is unnecessary and mistaken, and has no place in any rational human society.

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