Politics and Ethics: Coupled or Contradictory?

It seems like society is having a pretty tough time at the moment. The pessimism, disappointment and anger are almost palpable these days. I’d rattle off a list of problems for you, but you know what they are.

Assuming you subscribe to the negative sentiments of our current social and political situation, how would you answer the question: Are our politics unethical? Keep in mind that I’m not asking if our politicians are unethical. Corruption is par for the course and any social or political progress must happen despite it. What I’m asking is: Is the way in which political choices are made unethical? Is the system itself unethical?

Ethics in society as a whole are often confused with whatever ethical position is held by the individual evaluator. To put it another way, even if you feel something is unethical, your society might not. If enough people individually feel a certain way of doing things is unethical, then society changes.

Here, we touch on our responsibility. And given the circumstances, we could argue that our current social/political system is both ethical and unethical.

How and why is it ethical? 

Clearly, the system persists because enough of us accept it. Even those of us who do not participate in politics—who shut our eyes and plug our ears—are allowing the current way of things to continue.

Our ethical positions en masse, considered in a very broad sense, set the context for our political system. What and how much can politicians get away with? It depends on how we view our ethical system. Our current system is pluralistic, so it is accepted that groups will assert their interests, jockey for power and influence and compete for resources, legislation, regulation, money, etc.

Here’s an example: Is it unethical for public service unions (such as bus drivers or trash collectors) to strike, even if their actions negatively impact the public?

In our current system, this is considered perfectly ethical. You might not like it, you might be inconvenienced or you might object to unions in general. But it is unlikely that to argue against this on ethical grounds would garner much support. We all understand that this union is a group asserting its interests in society. There may come a time when subverting the interests of the larger group for the interests of a small group is no longer an accepted social ethic. But for now, we reap the benefits and pay the costs.

One fairly hefty cost is the emergence of government as interest group. Our governments have been co-opted by “members” (politicians and bureaucrats) who view the entire apparatus as a tool for their own interest group. A huge portion of the power and wealth of society isn’t enough for them and government becomes their mechanism for competing with other groups for what’s left. The people—who theoretically are the government in a democracy—are viewed as a competing group. Using every tool at their disposal (completely “ethical” given the circumstances) such as a police force, military, legislation, technology, regulation, subterfuge, empty promises, distraction, clout, money and more, governments throw their weight against their own people. You could say something quite similar about large corporations as well, which at this point seem to simply be the business branch of government—or the government is the governing division of the corporate world. It’s difficult to tell at this point.

At any rate, it’s a rather lopsided competition if the public is to continue to play by established ethical rules. If the outrage surrounding the revelations that governments don’t just spy on each other, but their own constituents proves anything, it’s that the people don’t really like this game, which brings me to…

How and why is it not ethical? 

Refer to the opening section of this blog. We’re not very happy about the road our society is on. Our view of this way of doing things is changing as we realize that certain interest groups have grown too powerful and most of us are being robbed of our opportunities and liberties as a result.

This is a society maturing. It is a society taking responsibility for its own circumstances. Clearly, leaving our well being up to an interest group (government) with only its own, often sordid interests in mind isn’t going to work out. We are almost to a point where we can say that the overall ethic has changed. Only one barrier remains to be overcome—the idea that this is all that can ever exist.

How do we give it that one, little push? 

In one word? Effort. Have a look at Egypt at the moment. It’s obvious that Egyptians don’t want just a symbolic change. They don’t simply want appeasement and more pretty words. They ousted one president, elected another. They didn’t like the way he arrogated power for himself and his own group, so they ousted him as well. They did it with sustained protests, millions of people in the streets and a willingness to take a bit of a beating in the process. We don’t know what will happen next, but one thing seems certain: Egyptians won’t stop until they are satisfied.

If the U.S. and Europe want something beyond symbolic change—which I think they do—we will have to do the same thing. No leaving it up to activists this time. The West will have to absolutely erupt in defiance. It will have to be enough to overpower the inevitable paramilitary pushback. It will have to see through the distraction and appeasement government will throw up. We will have to do no less than literally scare our power structures straight. It won’t be pleasant, but our ethics will demand it.

The Artificial Intelligence Quandary and a Potential Way Forward

Within the domains of science and technology, no field grapples with philosophical problems more than artificial intelligence. AI research attempts to physically express human attributes such as intelligence, the mind, decision making, interaction, a self and so on. In doing so, they have inadvertently made the greatest recent strides in ontology and the philosophy of mind. That’s great! But there are still many miles to go.

“Intelligence” is turning out to be a remarkably more complex concept than originally thought—which isn’t a huge surprise. But AI researchers have proven themselves quite capable of working with complexity. The problems lie in other, more difficult descriptors of human intelligence such as, say, ambiguous, fluid, enigmatic, diffuse, contextual and idiomatic.

Cut to the emergence of another popular field of scientific study at the moment: neuroscience. Here, many scientists have concluded that humanity is nothing more than neurons firing. We are machines. We are flesh and bone rather than steel and silicon but we are machines nonetheless.

Naturally, this is an appealing idea to many AI researchers. They hope that as neuroscience’s mechanistic materialist worldview advances, it will prop up the sinking foundation of Artificial Intelligence. Spurred on by this, many AI researchers’ answer to any hurdle is simply: more computing power! More code! Currently, the amount of computing power required to approach an infinitesimal speck of all that it is to be human becomes ever more astronomical despite shrinking, faster processors and more efficient memory technology. This alone is almost enough evidence to support the notion that “the mind” and “the self,” though certainly aware and a part of the physical world, are still distinct from it somehow.

None of this is to say that a comprehensive ontology cannot be structured—quite the opposite, actually. AI researchers are simply approaching it from the wrong angle. Their first step should be to acknowledge a reality emerging from the physical, something my TOP colleagues and I call psychosocial reality. This will be difficult for them, and understandably so. Scientists and technologists’ domain is the physical world. And their philosophy that the physical is all that exists has found a rather strong foothold in the social consciousness (slightly ironic as this is, itself, a psychosocial entity). Opposing views in the sciences are often rejected outright, (see Rupert Sheldrake’s censored TED talk) making funding and social support in short supply for those who might like to inquire into anything counter to mechanistic materialism.

Beyond that, it would take a realistic inquiry into what it is to be human, as being human is the necessary infrastructure and context. But mechanistic materialists have constructed a completely inaccurate facsimile of what human intelligence is. Nor will they acknowledge that intelligence cannot be taken out of context of other features of living. Furthermore, we still seem to be mired in the thinking that “intelligence” is the ability to think logically and mathematically, which it is not.

Perhaps it would be best for AI to supplement their notion of intelligence. Perhaps it would be better for pioneers in the field of artificial intelligence to consider something more like artificial intuition—another nearly synonymous phrase would be “artificial awareness.” Aware machines are what we’re after, isn’t it?

Intuition and subconscious understanding of context; the ability to change one’s frame of reference based the changing situation; making decisions despite a lack of information—or fuzzy information; the ability to interact with and respond to emotions; to understand values—or not understand them; to seek out or understand hidden agendas and subtext—or the truth that is not shown—and scores of other similar everyday phenomena are what constitute human intelligence. It can be difficult for humans, as self-aware as we are, to understand these things for ourselves. Making a machine that can do it seems a near-impossible task.

It isn’t as though AI researchers have completely avoided or neglected to take these things into consideration. Have a look at Wikipedia’s entry on Artificial Intelligence. Brief synopses of the challenges facing AI research are given, including common sense, planning, learning, language processing, perception, social intelligence and creativity. And some encouraging advances have been made in artificial general intelligence, which according to Wikipedia, “does not attempt to simulate the full range of human cognitive abilities.”

Still, more understanding of psychosocial reality is needed. It is the reality inhabited by the mind. The Taxonomy of Human Elements in Endeavour (THEE) has already done a good bit of the legwork here. Giant steps have been taken to structure psychosocial reality, to order and group and show the relationship between the thousands of elements that combine and interact to make up what it is to be human beyond the physical. AI research would most certainly have to interact with a structure of this sort to grasp what has eluded it all this time. We certainly hope they will.

Scientific inquiries into the nature of THEE’s structures have only just begun, though more patterns emerge all the time and a wider view becomes more possible every day. For AI to make use of THEE, it will likely be necessary that THEE architecture be better understood. Perhaps a combined effort would produce results and THEE and AI can evolve together. We welcome any input.

The Artist and the Canvas

“Conviction means weaving yourself mentally into critical features of your creative efforts.” –The Taxonomy of Human Elements in Endeavor 

True art is inextricable from the artist. Even those famous ancient cave paintings peppered across the Iberian Peninsula, the creators of which we can never know, portray a powerful, simple image of the artists’ lives and endeavors. We see reenactments of the hunt, religious symbols and we’re allowed to experience, each of us in our own way, those ancient social situations. These unnamed artists showed us their world, as it was to them, in the best way they knew how.

In the modern era, artistic movements reflect not only the social context from which they emerged but the minds, mentalities, thoughts and feelings of the artist. What emerges is an extension of the world these artists’ inhabited, their psychosocial reality. But why do some works still intrigue us hundreds of years after their completion?

According to Benedetto Croce, Croce, whose work is the measuring stick for all aesthetic philosophy, the best art conveys conviction. These artists gave themselves fully to their work; they’ve sunk all of the available creative energy within themselves into their creation. So, this seemingly abstract thread that connects the fluid realism of ancient Greek sculpture with the geometric functionalism of Bauhaus architecture to the eerie distortions within Surrealist painting to the subjectivity of abstract and modern art isn’t technical skill, or originality, or an accurate representation of physical reality, or time or money spent—it’s the conviction of the artist who created it.

Every artist knows this in his or her own way. They realize how their work must reflect their inner self. They understand how they must do their best, cultivate their talents, work hard and courageously present their self—in a very real way—to the scrutiny and harsh gaze of the outside world. In short, they must be authentic.

Artists are a unique group whose quest is the bringing into existence something new. These concepts of authenticity and conviction do not apply only to artists. One of the most fundamental truths of being human is that, as such, we all create our own reality. Grappling with limits placed upon us by our societies and the physical world, we toil and struggle to bring about the fruition of our endeavors, pursue our purposes, express our values in thought and action and achieve. It’s hard. It’s really hard. Again and again, life throws up challenges and we muster the courage to rise to them. Our success or failure depends largely upon how authentic we are throughout, how willing we are to stay positive and the conviction with which we face our challenges.

The lives lived that we look to throughout history for study and inspiration, be they religious figures, political leaders, conquerors, artists or otherwise share the same traits the great works of art do. They were lives created with conviction.

This is not to say that the billions of human lives that have come and gone or that exist today are Salieri to these great historical figures’ Mozart—condemned to mediocrity. Think of those you know that have left a positive impression on your life: your father, a teacher, a mentor or friend. What qualities do these people possess? Most likely, at the root, these people approach their lives with courage, conviction and authenticity. Every day, most people live these things.

What about you?

You are a potential always in readiness. Your family, your job, your hobbies, friendships and even your society are your canvas. You and everyone else is a creative being imbued with all the necessary elements with which to create a masterpiece. All that is required is that you commit wholeheartedly to being yourself, your better self, your best self.

Disputing the Dalai Lama

Many years ago, I had the pleasure of being in a crowded outdoor amphitheater during a beautiful day in Salt Lake City, Utah where the Dalai Lama spoke. I was sitting high in the stands and from my vantage point, he was little more than a dot in the distance. Still, I felt a certain peaceful energy in his presence. He greeted the crowd in broken English before deferring his remarks to a translator. I don’t remember anything he said save for one thing: “It is not wise to change one’s religion. If you and your family are a part of any religion, it is best that you stay a part of that religion.”

This struck me. I was in my early 20s at the time and had only recently emancipated myself from the religion of my family. For whatever reason, their faith didn’t sit well with me and I was, at the time, in the early stages of finding my own way. I wondered about what the Dalai Lama had said and I thought about how difficult my choice had been for my parents, my extended family and some of our shared social circles. I wondered if this suffering was the reason the Dalai Lama advised against rejecting the religion of one’s upbringing.

By now, this episode is a closed chapter of my life story. It’s rare that I even give it much thought anymore. But I do occasionally think about the advice the Dalai Lama gave to the crowd that day, and when I do, I wonder if I had made a mistake.

Then, as I was reading about Humanity’s Codes on the THEE website, I stumbled across something that eased any residual doubts I had.

But before I get to the point, a little background information:

Each of us must find our own purpose in life—that’s easy enough to accept. And though there are seven broad “Quests,” each of us must find our own way of expressing or pursuing them. This is one of THEE’s most basic principles. While it may look on the surface that THEE places us in a series of pre-defined categories, so much more comes into play—one’s frame of reference, one’s social context, the limits of one’s abilities, the traditions of one’s family and culture, the mixture and interplay of mentalities within one’s identity, and more. Only we can truly realize who we are, what we want, and more to the point, what our purpose might be. (There has been some speculation among TOP team members that realizing one’s Quest is actually quite difficult and may not come until later than life, but I think the thee-online website facilitates this realization.)

Still, despite context, these quests drive our ambitions toward personal fulfillment.

Now, on to the point.

The account of Humanity’s Codes highlights how religion came about in history to counteract the potentially destructive forces of humanity’s innate animal nature. In doing so, the connection between fundamental aspects of many of the major religions and each of the aforementioned Quests is exposed. I couldn’t write it better myself, so I've adapted the original text:

  • Taoism is mysterious and focuses on Spirituality so it naturally supports those on the Spirituality Quest 

  • Islam is controlling and focuses on Obedience so it naturally supports those on the Obedience Quest 

  • Christianity is sin-preoccupied and focuses on Salvation so it naturally supports those on the Salvation Quest 

  • Buddhism is atheistic and focuses on Enlightenment so it naturally supports those on the Enlightenment Quest 

  • Judaism is practical and focuses on Meaning so it naturally supports those on the Meaning Quest 

It is pointed out that no major religion seems to focus on the Creation Quest or the Pleasure Quest, though certain philosophical movements such as Epicureanism do glorify pleasure in a certain way. 

What this meant for me was perhaps I had not made a mistake. I must follow my own path, and I did. The one laid out before me was Christian. But I’m sure not on a Salvation Quest. If anything, (I think) I’m on a Creation Quest.

And so, begrudgingly I must dispute the wisdom of the Dalai Lama in this particular matter; because it is imperative that I, and you, and everyone is authentic and true to themselves. A little bit of hardship is to be expected.