“There will be a new church founded on moral science, at first cold and naked, a babe in a manger again, the algebra and mathematics of ethical law, the church of men to come, without shawms, or psaltery, or sackbut; but it will have heaven and earth for its beams and rafters; science for symbol and illustration; it will fast enough gather beauty, music, picture, poetry. Was never stoicism so stern and exigent as this shall be. It shall send man home to his central solitude, shame these social, supplicating manners, and make him know that much of the time he must have himself to his friend. He shall expect no cooperation, he shall walk with no companion. The nameless Thought, the nameless Power, the superpersonal Heart, — he shall repose alone on that. He needs only his own verdict. No good fame can help, no bad fame can hurt him. The Laws are his consolers, the good Laws themselves are alive, they know if he have kept them, they animate him with the leading of great duty, and an endless horizon. Honor and fortune exist to him who always recognizes the neighborhood of the great, always feels himself in the presence of high causes.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson, Worship
The world is drowning in the sludge of societies that have drifted away from any sense of moral or ethical cohesion. By this, I do not mean the drift away from traditional religions, but the total lack of anything to fill their place. The logic of markets is at odds with the notion of ethics: adaptation to signaling at the margin is a single principle that eliminates all other principles. Real systems of ethics have co-operating principles that create virtuous circles of thought-word-deed without needing to constantly calculate at the margin. One of the benefits of the ethical life, in fact, is avoiding the costs of constantly calculating, not merely the decision itself, but in assessing the consequences of action ex post facto.
Any sense of meaningful life is impossible without the coherence provided by principle-based ethics. Life may be entertaining, or materially prosperous, or publicly successful without them — anyone who masters the means of the material world can have much that life offers without deep guiding principles. Writing about Napoleon, Emerson observes “here was an experiment, under the most favorable conditions, of the powers of intellect without conscience.”
The purely worldly man, who has renounced all claims to an existence beyond the material realm, can have much, and be lauded for it. But we need not look far to see such successes nearly universally marred by the eventual misery of the achiever, the continued striving for an ever-elusive contentment. Every dollar added to his net worth is a new wound to his languishing spirit. This is why so many wealthy and powerful people seek absolution through philanthropy, not dissimilar from purchasing indulgences from the Church before the Reformation — they believe they can buy their way out of existential suffering.
Traditional religion and the State are pseudo-ethical systems that substitute the negative principles of legalism and punishment for the core motivating purpose of having an ethical system: the improvement and betterment of individuals and their community together. The whole purpose of having an ethical system is that the quality of life may be ameliorated, not merely by reducing harm (which is part of it), but also and more importantly, by adding much more good to the whole that can, in a sense, “crowd out” the evil.
No system, political or religious, has ever succeeded in eradicating evil, and no such project could ever possibly succeed. Indeed, every attempt has caused far more harm than good, and in most instances, catastrophic harm. Once-and-for-all approaches to human suffering fail to acknowledge the complexity life, and of the universe. We know from quantum mechanics that there are entire mechanisms of universal law and function that currently defy our understanding. We live in the classical world, and yet this world is an illusion. Yet, all of our perceptions of the quantum realm are mediated by the classical one.
By understanding that we are living in two worlds, the one that we see, and one that we do not see, we can come to an ever-better appreciation for the need of a genuine ethical system. If the world were directly understandable, as a naive, deterministic, reductionist view of classical physics would suggest, it would still present us each day with no reliable way to secure the totality of our desired outcomes.
Material outcomes can be more predictably procured (but not nearly as predictably as we would like to think), and all other types of outcomes will be the result of near-total randomness. But because we are not reducible to our material well-being, and because the pursuit of material well-being creates a penumbra of psychological and physical externalities in the process, there must be more humility with respect to the unseen realm and its influences on our lives.
For ethics to be universally applicable, they must be built around principles rather than rules. Principles are applied, where rules must be followed. Any system of rules, with consequences for breaking them, will necessarily degrade into legalistic interpretation that consistently causes people to put themselves and each other on trial. Rules transform infinitely diverse individuals into ‘simple’, definable objects that must conform them.
Principles must be applied in each instance, carefully balancing various informational inputs, and considering what is the correct course of action, in that particular situation, that does not violate the principles in spirit. Rules can be obeyed and much harm still caused. Indeed, rules-based systems create the problem of politics. If everyone must follow rules exactly the same way, then everyone has an interest in having them written in a manner beneficial to themselves. This creates the impetus for strategic behavior in the social organism that causes so much strife, violence, suffering, and animosity.
We cannot currently imagine an entire society built on a principles-based system of ethics. All of our social systems operate on legalistic paradigms. While we cannot straightforwardly change this quickly, the adoption of principles-based ethics in our private, family, and community, and voluntary economic exchanges is the first step toward such a transition. We must, as individuals, practice applying principles, and interacting with each other in this way, developing the competence to implement such systems to higher order layers of abstraction and complexity.
If we want to have a society dominated by love, we must be willing to love in a society not dominated by it.
What follows in this series is meant to stimulate a broader conversation about how we live, how we live with each other, and how we can improve the whole.
The purpose of an ethical system ought to be to foster, sustain, and affirm life. It is the only conceivable principle that benefits every individual called to live within that system, and thus achieves its universality.
To be life-affirming is not merely to be death-avoiding. Indeed, many death-avoidant ethical systems exist, and cause dire harm because all negative motivational structures are defective. They are defective because, at a certain point of individual defeat, they cease to have any merit.
If a person is at psychological rock bottom, avoiding death will hardly be enough to get them out of bed in the morning and embrace the rough requirements of real life. Life-affirming ethics drive us toward life, not away from death. Life-affirming ethics accept death, in fact, as an inevitability that should be avoided so long as it is possible, but not at any cost.
Ethical living simply makes no direct reference to death at all, but accommodates its presence as part of its dedication to reality, without allowing that acceptance to generate fear, which is our evolutionary tool for avoiding death which must be subjected to the heightened awareness of conscious ethics, lest we be driven (mad) by it.
In the next six weeks, our series will examine what I have formulated as the six basic principles of ethics that can be universally applied regardless of cultural context, minimizing unintended consequences (we must always be humble enough to admit, that however hard we try to preempt anything, our success will be partial at best, and this is simply the sine qua non cost of action).
- Love, the Motivating Principle
- Good Faith, the Organizing Principle
- Humility, the Edifying Principle
- Reciprocity, the Equalizing Principle
- Proportionality, the Measuring Principle
- Forgiveness, the Unifying Principle
To organize ourselves and join our forces to improve the material condition of the world around us, there is no avoiding the prerequisite requirement of adopting systems of decision-making and behavior that allow like-minded, like-hearted people to coordinate across time and space with success. It is what enables us to maintain our relationships and alliances — not to prevent them from breaking down, but minimizing breakdowns and enabling faster, less painful rebuilding.