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ETHICS -

The foundation of Civilisation


 

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What is ethics?

    

Why bother with ethics?

 

Ethical dilemmas

The Prisoners' Dilemma
The whistle-blower's dilemma
The Commuters' Dilemma
The repentant polluter's dilemma

 Ethics and Laws

 

 The human universe is always potentially infinite

 Ethical revolution

 Ethical leadership and vision

 

 Indonesia

 Israel and Palestine The new apartheid

 Ethics versus tribalism and cult
[more on ethics versus morality] 

 Ethics and "Intelligence"
 [will the Aliens love us?]

 

 Footnotes

     

 

What is ethics? Navigate page

 

Here I take "ethics" to mean the study of right and wrong, the search for systematic ways of working out what we ought to do in any given situation. I take morality to be what comes out of such study if it is pursued with sufficient vigour and honesty. 

In my experience the word morality has tended to mean the assertion of propositions or descriptions of what we ought to do. The word ethics seems to be used in a broader sense of studying the whole range of possible scenarios that can give rise to moral dilemmas. More particularly the word morality seems to have a greater association with the moral prescriptions of established religion and as such to be tainted with an implication that the "laws" have already been given with divine authority, [e.g. the Ten Commandments] so cannot legitimately be reviewed.

To those who feel that my characterising the words this way is wrong - my apologies. Maybe in the past it was true that the words ethics and morality were identical in meaning and scope but, with the advent of scientific method into human culture, there is room for the distinction. The point is that the greatest challenge facing us humans on this planet now is to develop non-religious ethics, to discover non-religious, moral principles that are sufficiently simple, clear and reasonable that the majority of any population anywhere on Earth will accept them.

 

Why bother with ethics? Navigate this page

Ethics is important because the mere fact of living in society brings us into conflict with others, yet the benefits we all normally obtain from cooperating with others are much greater than the rewards of not cooperating. Failing to cooperate with others in many [if not most] cases actually brings us harm. 
I am assuming here that, for most people most of the time, the most basic moral imperative is to act in such a way as not to bring immediate or foreseeable harm to oneself. [Do you think this is a fair assumption?]

It is not always obvious, however, why a particular way of doing something is better than another because the real, good consequences of the action only manifest later on whereas doing the more obviously self interested thing is often either easier or immediately rewarded with some apparent gain. Examples are easy to find: taking your waste paper [e.g. lunch wrappers] to a proper rubbish bin rather than just throwing them in the gutter or behind the nearest bush; obeying the speed limits and other laws on public roads; doing a quality job at work rather than goofing off when the boss is not looking; paying the correct amount of tax.

In these examples if the majority of people do not do the right thing then after a little while everybody will suffer directly or be threatened. One lunch wrapper may seem like nothing but hundreds of thousands of lunch wrappers will harbour all manner of disease carrying pests as well as catching fire. [I understand that a fatal fire in a London underground station took hold because waste paper had accumulated under an escalator which started to give off sparks.] 
One person speeding past other traffic can generally get away with it because the rest of us are doing the right thing - so the motions of most vehicles in sight are reasonably predictable and under control. If everybody drives beyond the allowed speed and disobeys other rules, then chaos follows and people die or are maimed in the crashes that result. 
One person may get away with shirking his or her job but if everybody in an organisation goofs off then the company will go bust and everybody will lose their jobs. 

Put simply, we each owe a debt of care to all the people around us and in this modern world there is no easy way to distinguish a lesser requirement of care towards people who are more distant either physically or ethnically. I say there is no moral basis for discriminating against people merely because of distance because our world is so complicated and the actions of any person now can affect the well being of others anywhere on the planet. This principle is easiest to understand in relation to the effects our actions can have on the ecology of our world.

Consider chloroflurocarbons used as aerosol propellant and fridge/air conditioner fluids and the effect these have on the ozone layer! CFC released anywhere on the planet will eventually make its way to the stratosphere and a certain amount will end up over the poles where it will decompose ozone and thus allow vastly increased levels of ultra-violet radiation to reach ground level. 
Similarly, toxic waste gasses entering the lower atmosphere travel across geographic and national borders and toxic liquid wastes drained into rivers eventually reach the oceans. 
There is only one atmosphere and really only one ocean. There is only one biosphere. There is only one Earth: a spaceship which is big but not infinite, and which has no lifeboats.

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There is only one human race and we are all related. We are all in this together and if we don't recognise this soon then
we will lose the human race. That will be the end of the story, which would be a pity.

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The big question is how much and when we need to forgo our own immediate benefits and goals so that the needs of others can be adequately fulfilled. This question is not trivial because we humans are very much creatures of habit and imitation. In other words:
most of what we do is automatic and largely unconscious so we need to make sure we are doing the right things when we are on automatic, and 
we will tend to do what we see others doing so if each of us starts doing more things that are not good then those who watch us will pick up our bad habits as we are willy-nilly picking up theirs. The whole society can thus be tipped into a negative spiral which feeds on itself until all civility is gone and rioting and tribal warfare become the norm. Do you really think "It couldn't happen here"? History shows, I think, that it can happen anywhere. This is why I say ethics is the foundation of civilisation in the modern era.

It is not possible here to analyse all the angles of our daily moral quandary but here are a few examples of decisions that confront us which we make by default if we pretend that we have 'no choice'.

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The Whistle Blower's Dilemma Navigate this page

This one is easy to understand. The whistle blower is someone who works in an organisation who finds out that others in the same organisation are breaking the law. The dilemma is that he/she puts his/her job on the line if he/she decides to expose the fraud/ embezzlement/ or what ever dirty tricks the bad guys are doing. Depending on how high up in the organisation the corruption goes, and the size of the illegal gains, the whistle blower may be risking more than just his/her job!

 

 

The Commuters' Dilemma Navigate this page

 

One the many strange things happening in the world today is the practise of commuting using private cars. The object is to get "X" thousands of people from home to their place of work and then back again at the end of the day. [In your city it may be X millions but in Perth WA where I live "X" is a number in the hundreds.] So if we were all smart we would be moving this many human bodies around in the most effective, efficient and sustainable way we could. But what do we actually do? Something really dumb! We individually wrap each person in nearly a tonne of metal and plastic and make them take the whole lot from home to work and back!

The are enormous costs involved in all this; for the individual it is thousands of dollars per year. But for someone who wants to opt out of the stupidity the practical dilemma is very real. If he or she decides to commute by bike or bus the cars of all the others are still blocking the roads and polluting the air, and public transport is often very inconvenient because infrequent and doesn't go where the individual wants it to. If she/he is prepared to risk biking it there will be significant monetary benefit and big improvement to personal fitness. No single individual acting alone can expect to reap the fullest benefit however.

If the majority of people changed, there would be a huge benefit to all: decrease in pollution leading to decreased cost of public health system, decreased costs of cleaning property, decreased costs of maintaining roads and bridges, etc.. This cannot come about however unless the majority make the change together and this cannot happen because there are not enough buses, trains, cycle paths and other infrastructure. These would all cost money "we" are not currently prepared to spend.

    The ethical dimension here includes the following.

1. car commuting is contributing significantly to environmental degradation such as particulate air pollution, polluted run-off from road surfaces, pollution from disposal of used parts, oil, etc., and greenhouse gas emission [of which as much occurs in the manufacture of cars as in their use] . Much of this pollution has effects on the health of people other than the commuters which adds extra cost to public health systems in addition to the obvious direct costs of caring for accident victims. The extra costs of maintaining and repairing the environment and the extra costs to the health systems divert resources away from alternative uses such as funding for education, arts, scientific research and public recreational facilities.
2. car commuting uses fossil resources which would otherwise be available for use for centuries to come in the manufacture of recyclable plastics, carbon fibres, and other things. We are simply burning the future.

 

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Ethics and Laws  Navigate this page

 

Ethics without law will be powerless accept in the smallest of communities where everybody knows every body else and their business. Law without ethics will be corrupt and the instrument of tyrany.

The fundamental problem facing all of us, whether or not we realise how important is ethical decision making, is that even if the majority of people in a society realise the value of cooperation there will always be some who cannot resist the temptation to cheat. As I heard once from a pulpit - and this is one of the few things I heard from a Christian pulpit that seemed truly insightful -
" I'm just a human being; I can resist everything ..... except temptation!"

The real insight is that most of us, if given the choice between doing something we have been told is "the right thing to do" because it is good for everybody and doing something else with an immediate private advantage, will be strongly inclined to do the latter. If we know that we can do what we want rather than what we "should" and we can get away with it, then it is most likely that we will do what is to our private advantage rather than what is to the public good.

This is perfectly rational in a situation where everybody else is in the same position. It is the prisoner's dilemma writ large because each individual is confronted with the very high probability that she would be the only one giving up the private advantage. This is true even though each person might know - and they may have all agreed - that the best outcome is for all of them to do the other thing because they all know that at least some will cheat and nobody wants to be "the bunny". The converse is that most of us are willing to do the right thing [or at least say we are] if we can "be sure that everyone else is doing the right thing".
When I worked as an auditor I often heard clients say precisely this and I believe they meant it. The question of taxation is almost the archetypal example of this situation. Many essential public "goods" like roads, bridges, harbours and lighthouses, impartial policing, and national defence, are all things that benefit the majority yet which no single person or small group could afford to create and maintain even if they were so inclined. Nobody's altruism could stretch that far so if a community is to benefit from cooperative action, mutual aid and mutual protection then there has to be a system for ensuring that, by and large, most people will do the right thing.

To be sure that "everyone else is doing the right thing" requires the creation, imposition and administation of good laws [ie "government"]. To be good, laws must be effective, ie they must be about the right issues, must be easily understood, must be relatively easy to comply with and they must be fairly and efficiently administered. Of particular importance is that penalties for non compliance should be appropriate and the probability of being caught in cases of non compliance should be very high. It is not effective to have hideously harsh penalties which are only applied to an occasional few who are caught whilst many others get away with the wrong doing.  As things stand currently in most jurisdictions around the world, the "war against drugs" fails for precisely this reason. Drugs of addiction are the perfect capitalist commodity because they more or less create their own market and for so long as they remain illegal there is a concommitant restriction on the number of suppliers therefore the potential profits are great for those prepared to take the necessary risks.

 

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The human universe is always potentially infinite,
for so long as it exists, and we believe it to be so.
Previously pronounced: "Where there is life there is hope." Navigate this page

and this is a solid foundation for reasonable optimism.

 

Why? For two reasons.

Firstly because the world we see is a construction, a set of descriptions one's brain has learned which establish order amongst our perceptions. This is the subjective aspect and it entails the realisation that what we see is not necessarily what must be. We are able to conceive of alternatives, to dream and to design and plan better ways of doing things.

Secondly because humans have attained the ability to manipulate our physical and ecological environments sufficiently to be able to supply all our needs for ever. In principle at least. This is a necessary implication of my theory of "things". Call this the objective aspect. It gives us excellent grounds for hope for the future. It also carries the necessary implication that what we do now will affect the world our decedents will inhabit. [Hardly a new thought, [grin] but now it is true as never before.]

Our biggest enemy is now us! It is our fear, our ignorance, and our greed which stand in the way of universal sufficiency. To be sure, entropy can never be banished so there will always be intrusions of the unexpected into our illusions of control. Hubris and excessive pride will always lead to a fall. But it is neither hubris nor excessive pride to say that we have now the means available to supply clean piped water to everybody on Earth who wants it, and deep sewerage, and reasonable levels of electric power, and appropriate sustainable transport, and adequate and appropriate communication tools, and adequate primary health care, and adequate and appropriate primary, secondary and tertiary education.

So why have half the world's people never used a telephone? Why are there still women and children starving to death or at least starving into permanent physical and mental infirmity? And this happening whilst an ever increasing proportion of the people in so-called developed countries are suffering from obesity and cardiovascular diseases resulting from too much food with not enough exercise? Why are the rich minority burning fossil hydrocarbons for basically trivial purposes at a rate millions of times faster than nature created them, when those resources could provide a source of raw materials for our descendants to use in making essential recyclable goods for thousands of years to come?

If we subscribe to the concept of free will [1] and personal responsibility then the answer has to be "abuse of power!" The rich and powerful elites in the self proclaimed "developed world" already have all the technological know-how and the financial means to bring about the changes necessary to provide for the needs of the poor people of this planet. So what stops them?

Answer: Greed and Fear. It will need a radical change of self concept so the next "stage" of human history has to be an ethical revolution. The rich will have to acknowledge some responsibility for the poverty of the poor. The labour theory of value clearly points to this responsibility because it is the process of diverting and concentrating surplus value and transferring it permanently out of reach of the original creators - the workers - which is what makes rich people "rich".

What it needs is a process of real audit and accounting in which all the so called "externalities" of production and consumption are recorded and the labour inputs of unpaid workers such as mothers and volunteers are also accounted for. This will show how wealth is being transferred. Of course the elites in poor countries are also guilty of ripping off their own people, and they will continue to do so until they are made accountable for their sordid abuses. This will only come about with democratic revolution.

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 Ethical Leadership and Vision  Navigate this page

 

What is needed is ethical leadership and ethical vision. It is not that you and I need someone to tell us how to think, far from it, our sceptical method fufills that need. What we do need to see and here is people in positions of significant status, power and authority explaining why ethics is of central importance to them for bringing meaning and value to their lives and for solving practical problems in personal, civic and business relationships. A major feature of our time however is the decided absence of such leadership.

  • Elected governments are still more interested in party politics and making promises they have no intentions to keep than in honest representation of the needs and wishes of their constituants.
  • Religious organisations of all denominations are still acting as if they inhabit some kind of moral high ground, with most still unable to see that they are an industry [the provision of personal advice] in need of regulation just like every other industry.

 

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Indonesia Navigate this page

 

I started writing this item in June 1999 when the Indonesian peoples were counting the votes in the first post Suharto election. Please note: I have visited Indonesia twice, in 1975 and 1981, and found most of the people I met to be very friendly and generous and hospitable to strangers. I was privileged to meet and accept the hospitality of many people including both some of the poorest I have ever encountered - who offered me coconut milk in the only glass drinking vessel they possessed - and the richest - who showed me something of how the bourgeois elite live .  My complaint is about the corrupt way the Generals in Indonesia have been ripping off the common people for decades under the pretext of protecting them from themselves.It will be interesting, for example, to see if the generals who have ruled Indonesia as quasi feudal warlords under Suharto will give real power over to an elected civilian government. [Don't hold your breath!]

[And, as at 27 September 1999:] The results of the Indonesian national election [June 1999] seem to have been invalidated and ignored once it became apparent that the GOLKAR party - the party representing the military and the status quo - did not have a majority. The abjectly despicable way in which the people of East Timor have been treated by the Indonesian army and army-controlled militias under Generals Wiranto and Kiri Syahnakri, after the people of the "province" chose independence from Indonesia in the referendum of 30 August, should leave nobody in doubt what these obscenely rich, rip-off merchants will do to anybody else who gets in the way of their business fiefdoms. Don't be tempted to believe pretty mouth pieces of the Indo. military like Dr Dewi Fortuna Anwar; the murdering, raping, and pillaging of East Timorese people were not carried out by "rogue elements" of the army or militia, they were systematic and premeditated and announced by Kiri Syahnakri in February of 1999. More than One Hundred Thousand East Timorese people have been removed at gunpoint from their homes in East Timor to "live" in refugee camps in west Timor.

[And more than a year later, in January 2001] We see the military still have the upper hand. Sure, Abdulrahman Wahid or "Gustur" has been president for a year and a half but large numbers of East Timorese refugees in west Timor still want to go back but can't, the peoples of Acheh and West Papua want independence but can't even have regional autonomy. If the military wanted to get the East Timorese in the camps back to East Timor they could just do it. This would be the compassionate thing to do. [Of course those who were members and relatives of the pro-Indonesian militias should not have to return if they don't want to.]

 [And in late 2001] With the almost impeachment and eventual resignation of Abdulrahman Wahid and the accession of Megawati Soekarnoputri to the presidency it will be interesting to see just how much leeway the generals will give her.

 

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 Israel and Palestine  Navigate this page

 

If ever there was a situation which seemed to exemplify my thesis that the strength of religious belief is inversly proportional to psychological insight this is surely it. On the face of it we seem now [June 2002] to have the Israeli government and its army at war with the Palestinian people. This would be the way Palestinians see it anyway.

It seems that most Palestinians have now come to accept that Israel will never "go away" but they cannot accept that Israel should assert hegemony over them, or that Israeli settlers should occupy the West Bank. If the Palestinians and all the leaders of the surrounding countries want the Israelis to pull back to their borders as they were before the war in 1967 then that is what the Israelis should do. There might be a valid argument for retention for some areas of crucial strategic defence potential - parts of the Gollan heights for example - but there is no excuse for allowing bands of 'settlers' to encroach on Palestinian lands in fortified camps in the West Bank as in a piecemeal [but not peaceful] invasion they act out the fantasies of their ethnic dream time.

[And March 2006, things have not improved] The Israelis are clearly bent on a total implementation of apartheid. I have seen recent newsreel footage of Israeli settlers being removed from Gazza. One documentary followed the exploits of a particular group who had been trying to set up a Jewish enclave after hearing about Ariel Sharon's plan to remove settlers from some parts of the occupied territories. During several of the interviews the main "movers and shakers" of this party of dissidents made it clear that they fully believed 'the promises that God made to Abraham, and Moses and all the other icons of Jewish hagiography. The husband in particular was going on about 'Greater Israel' which, in his imagination at least, seemed to stretch from the Mediterranean at least half way to the Persian Gulf.

A rather sickening feature of these Jewish 'settlers' was the way they were training their children to believe that the only good Palestinian is a dead one. The boy was about 10 years old, maybe. The girl was a lot younger. They both were recorded, if I remember rightly, as expressing an opinion that if Palestinians caused them any trouble, the Palestinians should be shot.

It would be interesting, albeit horrifying, to know just how many of these so called settlers there are. The people from Gazza were eventually evicted, but they will go to another settlement in the so called 'West Bank'. The dogged, determined, bone-headed approach to life on a frontier which they displayed seems reminiscent of the Boers, the Dutch people who settled in Southern Africa and set about dominating the local people as they took over the land. The Boers eventually forced millions of native Africans to leave their home villages and move into Bantustans - segregated enclaves out of which they could not travel without security passes. The system was called 'Apartheid', and when eventually it became so sickeningly obvious how unjust it was the rest of the world very slowly took action to force the the Boers, the Verkrampters, to stop it. But that took well over a decade. The oppressed native South Africans kept suffering all along, as the economic effect of international boycots caused all manner of shortages and the white Bossmen became ever more peeved and revengeful as they perceived the whole world to be turning against them.

The Israelis are building walls to separate the Palestinians from Israeli territory. The official story is that the wall will keep out the suicide bombers and that is its primary purpose, but actually the wall is being built always on and in Palestinian territory, and the Israelis are dividing up the Palestinian countryside with "Settlers' roads" which are roads that only Israelis are allowed to use at will. As far as I have read, and seen on documentaries, the Israelis NEVER compensate Palestinian people for farm land and orchards that are taken over to build the walls, barbed wire fences, Settlers Roads and army camps. Furthermore the Israeli army constantly harasses Palestinians as the latter try to go about their business in their own country. The Israelis have every appearance of waging a systematic campaign of attrition against the Palestinians; and a system of apartheid. There really is no other word for it.

My uneasy prediction about the Israeli-Palestinian situation is that the majority of Israelis have decided that the only good Palestinian is either a serf, living under paternalistic subjugation, or a foreigner, living thousands of kilometres away, or dead.

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 Ethics versus tribalism and cult. Navigate this page

 

One way to understand our propensity to be both moral and hideously immoral is the following.

Evolutionary theory is all about replicators finding the best strategy for survival, i.e. the most effective and efficient ways of getting replicated. Cooperation with other replicators can be extremely beneficial in the short and long term. This is after all the basis for the evolution of multi-celled organisms. So one major question in any situation is whether cooperation with others is beneficial or harmful. This provides a whole dimension of possible game plan variations.

Cooperation can be extremely beneficial in the short and long term but is most likely in human social situations where the protagonists are known to each other and will meet again. As nobody knows the future we have to say that they need to have good evidence that they will interact again, and this evidence can only come from the personal histories. Cooperation can still be beneficial where the protagonists have not met before but in such a situation each one would experience reasonable doubt about the other because there may be great short term benefit to either from defecting, ie cheating, after the other has committed himself altruistically. This is what leads to the saying "Never trust a stranger!"

Many subtle variations become possible as the population of protagonists increases and the likelihood of future interaction becomes less and less, but let's just look at the basic situation of "them and us". Here "them" is the strangers and "us" is our family or tribe. Members of "us" will habitually cooperate because we ARE going to meet again, tomorrow if not in the next five minutes, and someone who doesn't cooperate will acquire a bad reputation and will be ostracised thus losing the benefits of cooperation. Members of "them", a potentially infinite set, are either unknown to us or interact infrequently so there is no history of cooperative relationship and the temptation on either side to "cheat" is very real. Because if things can happen they will, at least some of the time, members of "us" have experienced defection by members of "them" in the past [or have perpetrated the same]. This makes it advantageous for "us" to be able to identify members of "us" and readily distinguish ourselves from "them".

This has been going of for many millions of years in the biological realm and many thousands of years in the cultural realm, so the propensity to distinguish strongly between us the family or tribe and them the strangers has evolved in genetic and memetic replicators. This is the basis of tribalism, ancient and modern. It is perfectly "natural" and can be seen as the default state of human social groups in times of general insecurity. Another way to put this is that cults, gangs and mafia type organisations are not aberrations but rather manifestations of evolutionary stable strategies which have developed to protect the interests of relatively small groups of cooperating individuals - who are very often genetically related - amongst a population of "strangers".

This does not mean that cults and tribalism is the best way for people to be, far from it in fact, because the productive potential of societies can increase exponentially where large work organisations are able to specialise and gain economies of scale. This is obviously demonstrated by the industrial revolution but was also true in many pre-industrial societies able to create large scale irrigation systems, roadways, sailing ships, castles, etc. The problem is to ensure that in large populations where individuals must interact with many "strangers" each day, it actually IS to the benefit of protagonists to cooperate rather than to cheat for fear of being cheated, and that the benefits are readily apparent.

Part of my burden in building this web site is precisely to demonstrate that cooperation is rational because so beneficial and that the benefits are increased personal security and freedom from fear, better health, more wealth allowing a more interesting existence with more opportunities for decision, action, and the forming of relationships, and generally more fun.

As I see it, morality in general is the traditional rules meant to govern members of populations of "us" but not necessarily with regard to "them" the strangers. Populations of "us" can be tribes, clubs, nations or work organisations. Ethics on the other hand is the study of how "us" AND "them" can interact to the maximum advantage of all concerned where this is discernable or else the minimum of harm to all concerned.

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 Ethics and "Intelligence" Navigate this page

 

This is my argument for why any sentient aliens our species eventually meets, will probably be more ethical than we are.

The general case

The basic underlying assumption is that people anywhere, by and large, will want to benefit themselves and their friends as much as possible. I rely also on the apparent fact that people working together for common or mutually supportive goals can achieve far more, in the way of creating far more value, than if they were working in isolation or in opposition to each other.

The crucial point is the realisation that various kinds of behaviour are counter productive and therefore in the long run self defeating even though they seem at first sight to be beneficial to the perpetrator. One example is the attainment of obviously excessive wealth - i.e. far more than one really needs - when others do not have enough. This becomes counter productive when those who lack the resources they need act in ways detrimental to the common good as a consequence of the lack. Examples of this occur when poor people do not have access to sufficient education or necessary information to allow them to make the right decisions about their own health and hygiene; bad outcomes include the generation of drug resistant bacteria or the development of avoidable conditions which are far more expensive to cure than to prevent bring the threat or reality of harm to rich and poor alike.

A different type of scenario with equally bad consequences for all is where those driven by greed and the ideology of self enrichment "at all costs" resort to tax evasion and unethical or exploitative business practices, in other words they cheat the rest of us. As they seek to rationalise their behaviour to others, or their selfish practices become know through various kinds of investigation, they poison the well of creativity in each person who hears about it by causing doubt about the virtues of honesty, trust, fairness and just reward and by spreading rumours that cheats are prospering. In such a poisoned social climate the quality of work will suffer and excessive resources will be squandered on tax evasion and hair-brained schemes for tax minimisation or on equally foolish attempts to get rich quick rather than on rational development of new types of art, science and techniques of production. If the rot is bad enough the whole society becomes riddled with corruption followed by economic failure and some kind of large scale disturbance or maybe even a revolution if the country is not a democracy.

You might object that many countries - the current "Western" countries, particularly the USA but including Japan, Singapore, Brazil, various other South American states, hopefully Taiwan and Korea, and in the future India - all these countries seem to show that you can have an elite class composed of those who are obscenely rich and excessively powerful and still maintain a stable social order. My response is that the show isn't over yet. Our Western style of consumer capitalism in which the dissatisfaction of the working class [speaking loosely] is diverted and bought off by consumer goods, "entertainment" and gambling, is not sustainable in its current form. We depend utterly on petroleum which is a finite resource yet being consumed a million times faster than it was created, and we are accruing an enormous environmental debt. This is because our processes of production and consumption are based on a exploitative capitalist system that channels surplus value and its control into the hands of the elite who use it for personal aggrandisement and the creation of status symbols. It should be used instead for the development of the science and technology needed to solve the environmental issues and for the development of art and media needed to help solve deeply entrenched social problems.

Stephen Lehar's Extreme Case Aliens - The ultimate defectors
[follow the link to get his prediction about the ultimate 'Trojan Horse']

 The following excerpt from his essay contains the gist of his idea:
 "As the transmissions from the early days of radio propagate into space in an ever expanding sphere, outposts on distant planetary systems will begin to detect those transmissions and send us back carefully engineered 'commercials' that depict themselves as everything that we desire of an alien intelligence; that they are benevolent, wise, and deeply concerned for our welfare. They will then give us instructions on how to build a machine that will cure all the problems of the world and make us all happy. When the machine is complete, it will 'disinfect' the planet of competing life forms and begin to scan the skies from earth in search of further nascent planets."

This nightmare scenario would appear to be feasible and at first there seems to be a quite compelling logic to it. After some careful thinking however, I came to the conclusion that Steve's scenario [in its strongest form] rests on several questionable assumptions.

My countervailing argument is along the following lines:

Some issues:

  1. there is a strong theoretical basis for believing that the kind of versatility manifest in and by truly intelligent entities necessarily entails the modelling of their environment, indeed, as I keep on saying, there has to be a model of self in the world. Furthermore, for a variety of practical reasons I think it is probable that truly intelligent entities will not necessarily amalgamate into one large distributed identity. Whether I can also say that such entities will *necessarily not* amalgamate, is a bit harder. Suffice it to say that the ability to create truly different points of view and then communicate these view points is, I think, intrinsically more robust than any autocratic system which seeks unity of thought and expression to the exclusion of creative differences. So I think that evolution favours diversity and systems - such as species and quasi species - in which non identical sets of replicators are embodied in populations of individuals [gene and meme machines]. I think the implication is that wherever memetic evolution triumphs, be it carbon or silicon based, dominance will be achieved by populations of self-reflective individuals.
  2. From this arises the necessity for ethics. Whether for carbon and water based entities like us or for electro mechanical beings based on silicon, life is always going to be far more complicated than any mere set of formal rules can handle, so the ability to learn, interpret, create and implement cooperative behaviours is going to be a major advantage. This is because it is virtually always more productive to cooperate rather than engage in destructive competition. At the same time of course it is always going to be necessary to detect deception and destructive cheating. Hence the need for ethics: the careful study and practice of how to minimise harm. Out of this arises, pretty much as a necessary entailment of conscious existence, the 'tit for tat' interaction strategy.
  3. This leads to the realisation that any policy of employing genocidal blitzkrieg carries within itself the seeds of total self-annihilation. The reason for this is that such a policy has to be totally successful, always. It cannot afford to fail even once because intelligent beings who survive the discovery that they are being stalked by an enemy set implacably on their destruction, will turn their full attention to defence and proactive counter strike. They will realise that their ultimate survival depends on this. It will not matter how many light years away the threat came from. The survivors will know that they can never be safe until the source of the threat is eliminated. Star Wars indeed!
  4. Tying these threads together, it seems very reasonable to me that all sufficiently intelligent species will realise this. All intelligent beings know that they cannot know everything, and certainly they cannot know *future* knowledge. [This is where Murphy's Law is on the side of the angels :-] Therefore all truly intelligent beings will know they *cannot* guarantee that lies and deceptive trickery broadcast to the sky will inevitably exterminate native populations. It follows from this that a much better strategy is to be cooperative but careful; not to suffer fools gladly and certainly not to always 'turn the other cheek'. In what is to all intents and purposes an infinite universe, a policy of careful engagement and cooperation stands the greatest chance of working out right. Intelligent aliens will know this. I wish that more Earthlings did!

 

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Footnotes
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1

The concept of "free will" is of course fraught with complications. It is actually a concept from the pre scientific universe. Today we are much safer if we think of ourselves as having the ability and strong propensity to make decisions as necessary in our lives. This leaves intact the scientifically acceptable assertion that everything significant about our mental processes is determined by what has gone before.

This does not mean that what a person is going to do or be aware of next can always be reliably predicted - far from it! It is not possible for anybody either,
1 - to know what has been all of the experience of another person, or
2 - to be able to represent within their brain all the possible thought processes within the brain of the other. This will be true no matter how big the "brain" of the observer and would-be predictor, therefore each of us will always be a source of surprise to others, no matter how much we kid ourselves that we "know" what the next person is going to do.
As well as this within the human brain many processes use some of their outputs as re-entrant inputs which makes the relationship between inputs and outputs non-linear and unpredictable. This makes human beings inherently unpredictable even if it were possible to know everything about what any particular person had previously experienced. [These statements are true for even a purported G/god/ess because the thoughts of any being must BE somewhere in the universe and must consist of structural features of some medium that represents the object being contemplated. All such representations have limits to their accuracy which make them sensitively dependent on initial conditions.]
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