By Roland Watson

In the series on institutional control, I criticized the different values that social institutions promote, including that you should submit to them and accept your station in life; and also - inconsistently - that competition and winning are our supreme goals. However, this leaves open the question, if our institutional values are flawed, then what values should we have? This, fortunately, is not as difficult as it sounds.

The values that we seek are known as ethics, or at least they start with and derive from ethics. For example, I have already referred to a number of positive values in other articles, including honesty, and patience and tolerance, and a love of nature.

It is important to note, though, that the existence of ethics presumes that we have free will: that we have a choice in how we behave. If we are wholly determined, then they do not exist. But, given the many arguments I have made about this, I will assume that we do have free will, and therefore that we can have ethics.

What are ethics?

Viewed simply, ethics are behavioral screens. They are a set of principles - not tactics! - to guide your behavior in all possible situations. This begins with taking responsibility for your actions and their consequences. In other words, before you do something you should ask yourself what the consequences will be. Will your behavior harm other people in some way, or the environment, or even your culture or nation?

Your first concern should not always be to satisfy yourself. In this way, ethics function as a check on, as a defense against, our innate human selfishness.

I have further described how the types of problems that people cause have occurred again and again throughout history, and, I reviewed the many different types and sources of our bad behavior. To the extent that this behavior can be controlled, the means by which this will be achieved will be ethics - not prisons.

Ethics and evolution

Human society is not now, and quite possibly has never truly been, ethical. The question is, why is this the case, and the answer is that these different unethical behaviors have passed the test of time. They have passed the evolutionary test, and been selected as the fittest to survive. In other words, they work! Ruthlessness and selfishness are effective!

As the band Pearl Jam says in their song Do the Evolution: "I'm a thief. I'm a liar. There's a chance I sing in the choir."

There are many challenges with ethics, and of these the greatest is that they seek to alter behavior that has proven itself in the context of traditional human circumstances. We come from, and in many ways still inhabit, the world of kill or be killed.

Because of this, we have the ethics of wild animals, which I have already described as natural law. In this world self-interest is the only ideal, and in the pursuit of self-interest anything goes. There is no such thing as good, or evil, at least in a broader social context, or as such terms might relate to anything we do. They only exist to describe things other people do, and their impact relative to us; what is good or bad for us.

However, humans, in a very important sense, are no longer wild animals. We have been able to rise above our genetic programming. We have a conscience, although it is of course a complicated question where it comes from. Again, like anything human, it is derived in part from reason, will power, and education, and in part from form, particularly social form. Because of this, we are in limbo, between natural law and a more civilized system, with some other basis.

Also, once again, it is not as if this has not been recognized. People throughout the ages have been trying to construct such an alternative basis. The starting point in this search has been our existential condition. The unfathomability of the universe and the certainty of death are in fact the logical foundations of natural law. If there is no way we can know if there is an overriding purpose to our existence, there would appear to be no way, no fundamental way, to judge our behavior.

Conversely, if we knew what our purpose was, we could easily - presumably - tailor our behavior to satisfy it.

The problem is that without such a foundation, everything inexorably leads to a subjectivist, or supportive of personal selfishness, conclusion. If there is no overall purpose, then your existential goal reduces to your purpose, whatever you choose it to be.

The need for ethics

Nevertheless, we have a need for ethics. We are social animals, and there have to be tradeoffs and compromises between people. We cannot get everything that we want. We therefore need guidelines that will tell us how to act when we are confronted with these tradeoffs, and more generally in all social interactions.

For instance, and as I pointed out in one of the introductory articles, there is a tradeoff between freedom and equality. We want both, but if we focus on equality then we have to give up a few freedoms, although fortunately these are very few and largely unethical, such as the freedom to kill other people. On the other hand, if we focus on freedom, including the freedom to compete, win and conquer, which traditionally has been the case, we now understand that this means we will never be able to achieve real equality.

Also, whenever possible we want to design our guidelines such that we avoid what is known as "zero-sum." This is where when one person wins, or gets what he or she wants, another person - at least one - necessarily does not. Therefore, an underlying ethic of cooperation, where everyone gets some of what they want, is better than competition, where one person gets everything and the others get nothing at all.

I can also add that we have a crucial ethical need regarding our responsibility for the planet. We must manage our behavior so that we reduce, and then reverse, the environmental problems that we create.

Religious ethics

The foremost - or at least the first - of the alternatives to natural law are ethical systems based on religion. Most religions do not in fact accept my contention of universal unknowability. To them, universal and human purpose is known, and human behavior is regulated by God's Law.

But, it turns out that if you look at the history of human religious traditions there have actually been two different types of ethical systems that have been forwarded. The first is that to do right you must follow God's Law - as revealed by prophets and saviors - or be punished. The second is that God is Life is Truth, and that the ethic of life therefore is to understand and assist it.

It is notable that the first system has a negative component, of punishment - although there is also the promise of salvation, while the second is wholly positive. The first also tends to dogma and inflexibility. The Word of God necessarily is perfect, and therefore can never be changed.

On the other hand, the second encourages education, and allows for the revision of views as appropriate. It has further led to a demonstrable reduction in suffering, hence it has had a uniformly positive consequence.

It of course gets much more complicated than this. There are many different consequences of religious ethical systems, both positive and negative. I will examine these in Part 3 of the website in the series on religious form.

Social ethics

The next basis for ethics derives from our social circumstances, although there are a number of different, and divergent, elements of this. The first, which is usually positive, is the ethical standard implied, and taught, by our mother's care for us as an infant, and more broadly from the lifelong support that we receive from our family.

Our parents and family help us, and we accept this as natural, and by extension we consider it normal to help other people as well. Indeed, you could almost consider this innate, particularly since it - at least the first part, motherly care - also occurs with many other species of life.

The problem is, this is countered, and in many cases overcome, by either an instinct or a need to compete with other people. I would argue that this in fact represents a need, and even then that it exists only in some circumstances.

When resources are abundant communities of many species, including humans, have shown no desire to compete at all, and instead share and cooperate. What we term the competitive instinct arises only in situations with limited resources and, as we have seen, when it is fueled by social forms.

Indeed, you could ask the question: would you rather enjoy a sociable cup of tea with someone, or fight them to death? Absent all social conditioning, consistently choosing one or the other would constitute an innate ethic.

Of course, it is impossible to escape all social conditioning, so the choice cannot be made - although I would hope it is the former. But, the fact that people regularly do not choose tea over a fight - cooperation over competition - clearly reflects social conditioning.

However, and in conclusion, there are situations where competition does appear to be ingrained, such as between siblings for food and parental affection. In such cases social conditioning reinforces this competition.

Also, both cooperation and competition, and conditioning, reflect the continual struggle that is part of life. To repeat the above point, in situations of abundant resources we regularly choose cooperation over competition. But, in situations where the resources are limited, we get so caught up in the struggle that we do not even see that the first alternative, the cup of tea, or cooperation, sharing and peace, is available. This begs the question: how and when will we ever learn that this is an option?

Do we need to be controlled?

This difficulty, our continued attachment to natural law, leads to the next means by which society takes a role in our ethics. Society often acts as if we are primitive animals that need to be controlled. And this, of course, is a restatement of the challenge. Can we develop and rise above our history as selfish animals, or do we need society in this way? Is this in fact its ultimate purpose: to control us?

I hope not.

In the next article, I will examine the prevalence of ethical confusion, which is a critical factor underlying our failure to establish a fair and just society.

© Roland Watson 2014