JOURNAL ISSUE 14

2006/2007

 

 

Possible Meta-Ethical Solutions to Social Problems in the 21st Century

Ivan Sladic
Student of the Faculty of Mechanical Engineering
and Naval Architecture (Croatia)

 


The work I present here is not the result of specific research made for this symposium but is rather a part of a working hypothesis as an attempt to penetrate the essence of the complex phenomenon of human existence in the universe. My asymptotic pursuit of "gnosis" has been going on for the last nine years, and during that time many traces have been followed, so it is impossible to mention all the references which have influenced my opinion. So it is that most of the references from natural sciences, technology, politics, and economy have been omitted, and mentioned are those from the area of human psyche and cognitive life--else the odd situation would occur that the list of references is longer than the paper itself. It may be that the paper contains some proposals that might appear insufficiently argued, but the complexity of the theme I deal with would result in a 2000-page opus (see references).


  1. MIGRANTS

  2. Migrations of people driven by the need for better life conditions are a phenomenon that goes back to the dawn of humankind. Our ancestors had to experience the difficulty of leaving known environments and facing the uncertain; otherwise, we would still live only in the Ethiopian highlands. In that view, we are all migrant offspring. Through thousands of years, almost every generation of humanity has had to deal with problems of adapting to new environments, whether populated with humans or not, and/or accepting newcomers into the domestic population. One would expect that after so much experience, smart and civilized creatures (as we like to consider ourselves) would long ago have transcended what look like archaic and trivial disputes about territory, resources, and many variations of tribal membership. This argument, among many others, is enough to kick off once more the decaying but still widely-spread corpse of anthropocentric dreaming that humans are something more than "just" animals-whatever that "'just" means, because I personally find that the theory in which we are extremely complex patterns of energy in the form of informational, meaningful structures of matter that were created in thermonuclear processes in stars with protons that are billions of years old and with the ability to cognitively reflect on oneself as a current result of countless iterations of the evolutionary algorithm much more astonishing, profound and mind-boggling than any infantile-conforming anthropocentric myth that I've heard so far.


    So, here we are, Homo "almost" Sapiens at the beginning of the 21st century, trying to solve the same old problem of avoiding a homo homini lupus version of society and embracing more of the egalite, liberte, fraternite version, but this time in the specific context of an informational, globalized, neoliberal economy. Since there are tons of books and reports, pro et contra, of current economic and political models, I will skip the redundant description and just add a few remarks relevant for this paper.


    The situation looks quite schizoid, but that is nothing new. It is a mixture of the pure essence of 19th-century social Darwinism with the smiling face of consumer society. State and social ownership - bad. Private ownership over land, food, water, energy resources, healthcare, pension funds, education, public infrastructure, intellectual rights on life, universe and everything - good. Welfare state - bad. Why? Because there is no profit for the 0.12% of the world's population that own over $1 million. The other 99.88% have few options about what to do, no matter in which part of the world they live. They can use the maximum of their potential to lifelong-educate themselves in the hopes of managing to adapt to endless and increasingly faster technological changes and to prove themselves worthy of exploitation for a decent salary like good "human capital" and the obedient grease of the Imperial Machine. On the other hand, if they don't have the luck to be born in some leftover welfare state, in a middle-class third-world family, or as an above-average talent who will receive scholarships, there are plenty of career opportunities in sweatshops, greenfield factories with horrible working conditions, and a variety of other low-paying jobs. There, they can ruin their health and live short and "happy" lives in the constant fight for survival with their minds anesthetized with endless longing for consumer heaven, which is forcing itself through every pore of irrelevant mass media programs as The Answer to every question of human existence. And for those unfortunate people that are not interesting even as neoliberal industrial cannon fodder, well, they can roll over and die from various solvable problems, like diseases that have been curable for already some 50 years, or the lack of drinkable water, which can be solved with amounts of money that good citizens of developed countries spend annually on pets, cosmetics, etc. But hey, it's their fault that they've been colonized and exploited for a few centuries and now don't even have nuclear weapons; why should the wealthy citizens take the sweatshop workers mortal screams seriously? The poor should end their dehumanized existence, quietly if possible, so that the good citizens of Consumertopia won't be depressed with their sad stories between two commercials.


    Now we get to the only relevant difference between all those "happy employees" and the consumers and one of the last widely-accepted discriminations, rarely questioned in public: land of origin. It's interesting that in developed countries, filled with political correctness, it is unacceptable and punishable to discriminate anyone on the basis of religion, gender, race, ethnic group, etc. (at least on a declaratory level). But it's all right for a state-nation bureaucracy to discriminate subjects of another state-nation bureaucracy, an act that is rather obvious in every airport or when you're trying to get a visa, working permit, etc. They discriminate on the base of what? As if any of us choose the country in which to be born. Is it on the base of a social contract between a nation and its citizen, who willingly gives jurisdiction over him/her/it to the state-nation where he/she/it was born in exchange for guaranteed rights written in a constitution? I certainly don't have a copy of any constitution with my signature, nor was I ever asked to give my approval to the current version of that contract. And I don't consider choosing between opportunistic mediocrities A or B every four years in the farce of parliamentary democracy to be my explicit statement on any really serious question. At least the difference between people in the case of gender is physiological, obvious, and existent outside of human heads (no, I am not in favor of any kind of chauvinistic discrimination), unlike state-nation borders and jurisdictions. For example, I would happily vote for a global citizenship on the basis of belonging to the same species on this planet (with other animals' rights included), but I doubt that anyone will seriously raise that question in the next 50 years, if ever. Gurus of globalization have mouths full of "free-flow of capital, goods and people," but things always get stuck when we get to that "people" part. In some case studies, it is argued that the world was more globalized before WWI, based on the "free-flow of capital, goods and people" criteria, than today. Just compare the procedure of immigration in USA then and now, for example.


    Back to our aforementioned "happy employees." If they don't have the luck to be born in a rich country, they have to overcome some serious bureaucratic obstacles if they want to taste some of that decent living. The amount of those obstacles varies from case to case, of course, mostly based on the "quality of human capital" criteria. This means that if they are highly-educated and have a worthy background (land of origin), they may pass. For others, with the exception of athletes, political refugees, and similar examples, it is hardly this easy. For those rejected but persistent, all that is left is the possibility of illegal immigration. If they don't get killed trying or end up as slaves in trafficking, they work underpaid and uninsured, mostly in jobs that the domestic population won't do. But no matter how they get into the target country, immigrants affect the nation in two key ways: besides benefiting that economy, immigrants are perfect for the role of scapegoats.


    It seems to be an unwritten rule in daily political life that immigrants are blamed for a variety of social problems, such as deficit of working places, criminal and possibly terroristic acts, etc. They are usually used as convenient targets by conservative and right-wing political options as the cause of all evil, which falls on fertile ground in the minds of mostly lower-educated people and poorer social strata. Up until recently, syndicates and/or social mechanisms of the welfare state protected most of the blue-collar class. Now most of those industries have relocated to places with lower production costs (and more unfavorable working conditions) for competitive reasons, as dictated by the global market. This reflects nothing else but the constant craving for more profit. Since the mechanism of the welfare state is rapidly decaying, the blue-collared parts of society feel threatened by the techno/economical changes happening in the global economy that make their life-long working experience obsolete. In my opinion, political options encourage that fear for their own opportunistic reasons. It is a fear that can be traced to the oldest reptilian parts of the brain, where it corresponds with primal fears of self-preservation. When the modern-day alienated individual feels threatened in that way, proclamations of radical political options seem more appealing, and they more readily part with their civil rights in exchange for a false sense of security, sometimes impersonated in the form of a charismatic leader (as seen in Europe between WW I & II). For that kind of political manipulation, you simply need an enemy. Before, it was Jews, Communists, etc., and now it is immigrants and other minority groups. It does not really matter which group is used as long as it is different from the target group.


    If we look at all the aspects that human beings have in common as members of the same species, the apparent dissimilarities between different social groups are completely irrelevant and exist only as mental constructs. These mental constructs, or memes, manifesting themselves in clusters of ideas, dictate the modus operandi of the individual and his/her/its perception of self and his/her/its environment. The power that memes have over genes is clearly visible in the biologically-illogical behavior of individuals who suppress the genetically-inherent drive for self-preservation (which is one of the prime directives in all life forms) and accept to kill and/or be killed for their beliefs (memplex).


    The largest and most powerful of all complex memetic structures (memplex) existent in the individual is the one determining the perception of self (ego, egoplex). It is constituted of a large number of individual memes, which are in themselves replaceable, but it seems that they continually gravitate around a common attractor, which moves towards constant rejuvenation of the entire egoplex.
    The current constellation of those memes (whether conscious or unconscious ones) constitutes what we call the personality of the individual as well as his/her/its values, opinions, ambitions, desires, etc. Despite the fact that memes are inclined towards change, the individual rarely experiences his or her perception of self and the environment as a "working hypothesis" but rather as a final truth in a given moment, and every attempt of penetration by "foreign" memes is perceived almost as a physical attack on the self (as a biological entity). For instance, this can be clearly seen in a heated discussion about ideas, when individuals show physiological symptoms of "struggle or escape." Most likely, there is not a person who has not, at some point, passionately defended an idea because he/she/it thought he/she/it was in the right and was later shown to be incorrect. The same thing can be seen in the form of various social organizations (all types included) when they enclose a system of ideas into dogma (as a system of final and unchangeable truth) which needs to be defended and/or imposed upon even at the price of their or others' lives.


    The size of a community or society, which the individual experiences as part of his/her/its identity, dictates his/her/its modus operandi towards the rest of society. A pathological narcissus will perceive only himself worthy of his altruistic behavior, the rest of the people serving only as means to an end in a Machiavellian game. As this group volume grows to encompass family, friends, ethos, nation, humanity, biosphere, etc., so does the margin of altruistic/Machiavellian behavior. I personally, as do many people from my immediate surrounding, perceive humanity as my community, so it follows that I have no problems accepting migrants, regardless of where they come from. My estimation is that, at the moment, most people draw this line somewhere between a broader circle of friends and their ethos, so the widely-spread phenomenon of social exclusion on various bases does not surprise me (although that does not mean it's not irritating). From the aspect of migrants, it means that when they arrive in a new environment with their own limited egoplex capability, constituted of similarly-limited inhabitants but with different memes, conflict between the domestic population and the migrants is inevitable and only a matter of time.


    The purpose of this elaboration is to show that the problem of migrants cannot be separated from the deeper symptoms of modern alienation but is only one of its countless manifestations. Under alienation, I presume the cause to be the chronic incapability of modern man to overcome the restrictions of his egoplex, observing the world through default prejudice. If we take into account the numerous questions that can be debated (and it seems that everyone has a pro/con opinion about everything), it is no wonder that many people perceive the world as an alien, unfriendly place and life as complicated and seemingly meaningless. I think that the problem of alienation is the root of almost all social (and psychological) troubles, which would not exist (or would be, at least, reduced largely) in physical reality if people would not create them constantly in their minds, or egoplex.


  3. HUMAN METAETHICS

  4. Discussions about morality seem to have endured over millennia. Suggestions of rules that all should follow to achieve heaven on earth are countless and vary from bizarre to potentially acceptable. That no consensus has been achieved is obvious. On a declarative level, the number of ethical systems today is smaller than in the past, but what manifests in real life equals more or less the number of people in the world in general. Ethical theory has varied between extremes. For a prolonged period of time, it was asserted that moral rules were put there by heavenly authority to be propagated by an earthly administration. Those who were disobedient would end up in an unpleasant spot in this or another life. On the other hand, today, with dominant postmodern trends, what's popular are social theories about "cultural relativism of everything." So, we arrive at the other extreme of moral relativism, in which all ethical systems are subjective and it seems impossible to objectively constitute ethical rules.


    These systems look radically different, but it isn't so. In practical terms, we, "secular postmodern citizens," are again under the scrutiny of a supreme authority-namely, the state and its laws, which are enforced by the administration (police and courts), and the disobedient are again doomed to end up in unpleasant spots (prisons). As we see, in principle, there is no difference. In both systems, people need to be controlled and in fear of punishment; otherwise, they'll turn into maniacal sadists and run amok. Again, in principle, this means nothing else except a silent social consensus (at least 5000 years old) that man is a priori an evil creature. On the other hand, rarely does an individual admit for him/her/itself that he/she/it is evil, which turns out to be quite schizophrenic. It seems that the cause for the apparent mess in this and other philosophical disciplines is the striving for final answers to complex issues of human existence almost exclusively through linguistic gibberish (combining memes in the form of linguistic symbols).


    Most people think in terms of sentences, i.e. the inner monologue. The language used in this process, the grammar, syntax, and the logic inherent in it, influences all personal experiences. In every situation, the immediate experience of reality is dissected into numerous categories. These categories carry names in the forms of symbols (words), which are simply an abstraction of the things they relate to. This causes the personal experience to appear as the sum of all these abstractions and not as what really is at a given moment, which distorts perception and makes it flawed.


    This conclusion was reached by many different approaches (Wittgenstein, Fromm, Krishnamurti, and more). Deterring memes from interfering with the immediate experience of reality is the basic idea of Zen practice (meditation and koans), with the goal to permanently achieve freedom from this interference. This culminates during satori, a mystical, transcendental experience in which the egoplex is disintegrated as the most persistent, hard-necked filter of immediate experience. In this state, consciousness about the unconscious is achieved, a kind of resetting of the conscious and unconscious subprogrammes of the "human biocomputer" (the brain). The person experiences his/her/its personal, mental, and emotional capabilities as much more extended than in his/her/its usual state and perceives answers to existential questions, as well as the transcendence of the subject-object dichotomy, in a clear and concise way. What is transcended in such a moment is not physical reality but the limitations of the egoplex (personal conceptual conditionings), and the person perceives his/her/itself and his/her/its environment as they truly are.


    Such an experience deeply changes the individual perceiving it, and he/she/it usually becomes disinterested in silly social games or ego games because of the insight into the senselessness of artificial human divisions. Perceiving all those divisions as manifestations of basically the same phenomenon, his/her/its boundaries of altruistic/Machiavellian behavior shift in favor of an all-encompassing altruism.


    I think that the possibility of having these experiences is inherent in everyone, which results of neurological research of temporal lobe activity have shown (Persinger, 1983).
    Modern man is conditioned to the pathology of normalcy, and disregards any such experience as mere hallucination. My view is that this is wrong, because altered states of consciousness have been known to man forever.


    Almost all major religions began with the personal insight of the prophet who started the religion. If we take into account the obvious similarity of the messages about the true nature and moral essence coming from "within oneself" these prophets propagated, I think that in the aforementioned context the "mystical or transcendental" experience of altered consciousness is the most serious candidate for explaining such insights. Since the essence of such experiences cannot be transmitted by words, descriptions of such insights should be viewed as metaphors, expressed in the terms of the time and cultural environment in which they occurred. The misinterpretation of such experiences by a dogmatic perception of the symbols metaphorically described is the cause of all past and present conflicts between adherents of various religions. This is easily argued by the fact that in each of the "great" religions there is a mystical tradition (Gnosticism, Meister Eckhart, Sufism, Maimonides, Cabbala, Zen) in which orientation on the personal, nonverbal experience of the "absolute" is universal. All those traditions were persecuted chiefly by the zealots of their own religion who insisted on the dogmatic perception of the symbols (giving us various instances of religious bureaucracies who claim copyright on the term "absolute").


    These experiences can be reached in many ways: spontaneously, by meditation, by sensory deprivation, by electro-magnetic stimulation of the brain, or by serious use of substances usually termed "psychedelics." Given the millennia-long use of such etnopharmaceutic substances as catalysts of spiritual growth across the globe, as well as fascinating results of rare medical research (when allowed), I think that the anathemization and legal assessment of these substances as illegal and hazardous is one of the most profound delusions of mainstream political and scientific thinking.
    Considering their psychological and psychiatric potential on one side and the irrational stigma on the other, it is the same as banning antibiotics because of dogmatic, profiteer and totalitarian reasons (here I am primarily thinking of ibogaine therapy with heroin addicts).


  5. META-ETHICS UNIVERSALIS

  6. If we wish to achieve a universal understanding of ethical behavior of cognitively complex life forms, i.e. true Metaethics, not anthropocentric Metaethics, we must seek and study some other systems, not only human ones. The problem is similar to the one faced by exobiologists when trying to determine the circumstances in which life can evolve and grow in space; all they have is one model, namely, Earth's biosphere. Until we compare our theories with an independent model, we are reduced to speculation. In the case of Metaethics, other possible sources or models could be other higher mammals (primates, dolphins, whales), extraterrestrial intelligence (ETI), and artificial intelligence (AI).


    Breaking the communication barrier (in a non-anthropocentric way) between higher mammals is not met with any serious effort, and so without this assumption we cannot know if their cognitive capabilities are sufficient for complex ethical systems, although their rich social life points to such a conclusion. Concerning ETI, we cannot know if and when at all it will be known to man (completely disregarding the UFO hype). Programs able to achieve concrete results, like Search for ExtraTerrestrial Intelligence (SETI), are insufficiently funded, even though such a discovery could be one of the most important in mankind's history (and a welcome nail in the anthropocentric coffin). When and if ETI would be established and the communication barrier overcome, it is most likely that that communication would be obstructed and slow because of vast distances and technological factors.


    Potentially, the most interesting candidate for a complex, cognitive non-human system is artificial intelligence. Taking into consideration the heated debate pro et contra on that possibility, as well as the differences between "weak AI" and "strong AI" theories, my current viewpoint is that not only is AI theoretically possible but very real also. This thesis is backed up by several arguments. Looking at the tendency of IT development, all the following parameters in a timeline are exponentially growing-mass use of inventions, magnetic data storage, RAM, ISP cost-performance, modem cost-performance, internet backbone bandwidth, fastest possible data transmission, number of internet hosts, price performance of wireless data devices, decrease of transistor size, decrease in size of mechanical devices, brain scanning speed, resolution of non-invasive brain scanning devices, etc. (www.kurzweilai.net, 2001). If such a trend continues, in the 21st century we will witness 20,000 years' worth of technological progress! The official estimation of the UN is that in 2010 only 10% of "entities" on the Internet will be human, with the rest being autonomous primitive software (in comparison to humans). The evolving complexity of programming software, grid-technologies, petabytes (1015 bytes) of information speeding on the Internet, and the aforementioned parameters point to the conclusion that self-emergence (a sort of "autopoiesis") of a complex system for cognitive processing of information from the current Internet is only a question of time. In the context of this paper, such a "mind" could help evaluate metaethical hypotheses (as mentioned under 2), assuming it would be interested at all in "trivial" human problems.


  7. NEW SOCIAL CHALLENGES IN THE 21ST CENTURY

  8. Globally speaking, current social problems are gigantic. Assuming that these trends continue, I think that the situation in this century will become significantly worse and potentially lethal for humankind. These problems include global climate shifts, destruction of the biosphere, growth of population, devastation of agricultural soil, pollution, decreasing water reserves, the increasing difference between rich and poor, epidemic of depression and other psychological disorders, diminishing human rights under various excuses (the war on terrorism, drugs and other "inner and outside enemies"), violation of privacy and information gathering (RFID, biometrics, large electronic databases, etc.), development of more and more sophisticated weaponry, end of fossil fuel era (impending crisis), misuse of new technologies (biotech, nanotech, robotics, AI) for military and totalitarian purposes.
    Unfortunately, the list is very long, with no end in sight. Looking back at millennia-long ego games of power and money, the situation looks bleak. Possibilities for a fast, positive change are minimal, but we must use them, because if mankind doesn't abandon most of its illusions, there will be no one to greet the 22nd century.
    Time is rapidly running out on endless, theoretical debates.


    What follows are translations from books by Erich Fromm, read in the Croatian language.


    From "To Have or to Be?", 1976.


    "If we have in mind the power of corporations, apathy and helplessness of a large part of the population, inadequateness of political leaders in almost all countries, the danger of nuclear war, ecologic dangers, not to mention climatic changes that can cause hunger in many parts of the world, is there a real chance for salvation? From the point of business, such chance does not exist. No reasonable human being will gamble its possessions when the chances for success are only 2%, nor will it be brazen enough to invest capital in a venture with equally low chances of success. But when it's about life or death, 'real chance' must turn into 'real possibility', no matter how small it may seem."


    "The estimation of current chances of society to save itself, from the viewpoint of betting or business, more than from the viewpoint of life, is a characteristic of the business-society Geist. There is very little wisdom in today's modern technocratic attitude that there's nothing seriously wrong with the fact that we are constantly occupied by our job or entertainment and not the feeling that, even if technocratic fascism does exist, after all, it is not so bad. But that is wishful thinking. Technocratic fascism must lead, by necessity, to a catastrophe. Dehumanized man will become so insane that he will not be able to support a livable society in a long term, and in the short term he will not be able to resist self-destructive use of nuclear or biological weapons."


    From "Beyond the Chains of Illusion", 1962.


    ".what I felt is that my responsibility is not to remain passive in a world that seems to be heading towards a catastrophe that was self-chosen. I'd like to add immediately that in it there was more than a sense of duty. The more it seems to us that our world is becoming unhealthier and dehumanized, the more can an individual feel the need to be and work together with men and women who share the same human concerns."



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