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A universal ethic - starting from first principles

Is it possible to come up with a universal ethic, a lowest common denominator if you will, for ethics that can be used as a guide to action? In the face of 3000 years of philosophical thinking I am going to try (Note: A Universal Ethic?).

First; we have a brain with the power of abstract thought

Second; we look around us and observe the world using our self-awareness

What do we see and what do we make of it? Here are the thinking steps to a pragmatic lowest common denominator form of ethics which is one of the foundations for an alternative political economy. Even though we base a new politics on emerging knowledge of cooperation in evolution we cannot escape values (Note: No Escaping Values). Back to yin-yang, others will continue to emphasise competition, the case for collaboration cannot just appeal to its emerging factual base - what we have lost is dynamic tension and balance.

Self Awareness

I find myself to be here, I didn’t ask to be but here I am so I might as well make the best of it.

  • Oh look there are others like me, and (empathetically) I see that they didn’t ask to be here either.
  • I observe that life is short and the world is beautiful. 

Now lets consider the choices from a number of viewpoints; 

  • Altruistic; I am lucky others are not, I will (do what I can/dedicate my life) to the service of others. A side effect will be that I will achieve happiness and enjoy my gift of life.
  • Benign; I deduce that, because I want to enjoy my life, and they are like me, they want to enjoy their life as well, what else is the time for. I conclude that I (should) act freely so long as it doesn’t interfere with their freedom to do the same
  • Enlightened Self Interest; I deduce that, because I want to enjoy my life, and they are like me, they want to enjoy their life as well, what else is the time for? I observe that homo-sapiens can be  very violent creatures, at some point I may have to fight to keep more if they have less. If we make it equitable I am more likely to have a good life as well.
  • Selfish and rich; I am a lucky (Roman), and/or hard working deserving (meritocratic therefore deserving capitalist), and what I have I intend to hold.
  • Selfish and poor; I am deprived so I am going to grab some of this whilst and if I can. I don’t mind who I take it from.
  • Credulous; I might get rich if I work hard and follow the rules 

Dedicating ones life to the service of others is both extreme and rare; we immediately think of Mother Theresa. The benign view is lazy and has no answer in the face of violence and greed. Selfish views seem to be predominating; the question is, in the light of what we know from science, why? 

Enlightened self-interest is a potentially rational transaction. If I treat others, as I want to be treated (widely known as the golden rule) then there is less chance I’ll be murdered in my bed. It has been argued for in history and philosophy, why is it not more widely accepted? The answer of course is that society can be managed in favour of power and wealth relationships that are blatantly selfish using power and a surprisingly large number of losers can be tolerated so long as they remain demoralised, defeated, and preoccupied with just getting by. 

However it is worth point in out 

  • That when there was a justifiable perception of secure jobs and security of tenure, when things were improving for everyone, following the rules was not just and easy choice, it was logical. It turns into unenlightened self interest when the system that delivers it has wider damaging consequences that will harm our descendants. To combat that we we need a story of custodianship and passing on a world that is as good as, if not better than the one we inherited - which is difficult to make without a so-called compelling event. It looks as if climate volatility will soon be delivering that.
  • When the social contract breaks down and large numbers of people are deliberately excluded, marginalised and have less chances then their forebears the logic of following the rules breaks down - it becomes a matter of how much stress the system can take before this results in social disruption. See Part 2 Assess, Timeline, The Present, Limited Participation and Disengagement - The structure of disengagement.

Rather than just ask why the golden rule not adopted, a more nuanced approach is needed. The idea of enlightened self interest needs to be extended to our descendants and for now the critical issue is what sort of actions can we take takes to embed the golden rule in our politics, how do we effect such a change? 

In the vision of holistic political economy the golden rule is a foundational principle. In the practical politics of hope balancing of ends and means becomes the key to calibrated action which will take it forward. By exemplifying its fundamental underlying values and showing that they work in practice, progress will be made. See Part 3 Consider, What can be done?

What our ability to think and engage in abstract rational thought means for holistic political economy is discussed in The Products of Mind - Implications