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Ethics For The Future

By John Scales Avery

23 September, 2013

In the long run, because of the enormously destructive weapons, which have been produced through the misuse of science, the survival of civilization can only be ensured if we are able to abolish the institution of war. We must also stop destroying our planet through unlimited growth of industry and population.

Science and technology have shown themselves to be double-edged, capable of doing great good or of producing great harm, depending on the way in which we use the enormous power over nature, which science has given to us. For this reason, ethical thought is needed now more than ever before. The wisdom of the world's religions, the traditional wisdom of humankind, can help us as we try to ensure that our overwhelming material progress will be beneficial rather than disastrous.

The crisis of civilization, which we face today, has been produced by the rapidity with which science and technology have developed. Our institutions and ideas adjust too slowly to the change. The great challenge which history has given to our generation is the task of building new international political structures, which will be in harmony with modern technology. We must abolish war and stabilize the global population. At the same time, we must develop a new global ethic, which will replace our narrow loyalties by loyalty to humanity as a whole.

Abolition of the institution of war will require the construction of structures of international government and law to replace our present anarchy at the global level. Today's technology has shrunken the distances, which once separated nations; and our present system of absolutely sovereign nation-states has become both obsolete and dangerous.

Besides a humane, democratic and just framework of international law and governance, we urgently need a new global ethic, an ethic where loyalty to family, community and nation will be supplemented by a strong sense of the brotherhood of all humans, regardless of race, religion or nationality. Schiller expressed this feeling in his “Ode to Joy”, the text of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. Hearing Beethoven's music and Schiller's words, most of us experience an emotion of resonance and unity with its message: All humans are brothers and sisters - not just some - all! It is almost a national anthem of humanity. The feelings which the music and words provoke are similar to patriotism, but broader. It is this sense of a universal human family, which we need to cultivate in education, in the mass media, and in religion.

Educational reforms are urgently needed, particularly in the teaching of history. As it is taught today, history is a chronicle of power struggles and war, told from a biased national standpoint. Our own race or religion is superior; our own country is always heroic and in the right.

We urgently need to replace this indoctrination in chauvinism by a reformed view of history, where the slow development of human culture is described, giving adequate credit to all those who have contributed. Our modern civilization is built on the achievements of ancient cultures. China, India, Mesopotamia, ancient Egypt, Greece, the Islamic world, Christian Europe, and Jewish intellectual traditions all have contributed. Potatoes, corn and squash are gifts from the American Indians. Human culture, gradually built up over thousands of years by the patient work of millions of hands and minds, should be presented to students of history as a precious heritage: far too precious to be risked in a thermonuclear war.

Tribalism, cultural evolution and ethics

Our remote ancestors, 100,000 years ago, lived in small, genetically homogeneous tribes, competing for territory on the grasslands of Africa. It was during this period that human emotions were formed. Since marriage was far more common within a tribe than outside it, the members of a tribe shared a common gene pool, and the tribe as a whole was the unit upon which the forces of natural selection acted. The tribe as a whole either survived or perished. This fact can explain the pattern of altruism and aggression that we observe in human emotional behavior. Humans show great altruism and loyalty to members of their own group, but they can show terrible aggression to outsiders if they believe that their own group is threatened by them.

The rapid and constantly accelerating speed of cultural evolution of humans has changed the way of life of our hunter-gatherer ancestors beyond recognition. As the pace of cultural information accumulation quickened, genetic change could no longer keep up. Genetically we are almost identical with our Neolithic ancestors; but their world has been replaced by a world of quantum theory, relativity, supercomputers, antibiotics, genetic engineering and space telescopes; unfortunately also a world of nuclear weapons and nerve-gas. Because of the slowness of genetic evolution in comparison to the rapid and constantly-accelerating rate of cultural change, our bodies and emotions are not adapted to our new way of life. They still reflect the way of life of our hunter-gatherer ancestors.

Fortunately humans show a great capacity for overwriting primitive emotions with learned ethical behavior. Many of the great ethical teachers of history lived at a time when cultural evolution was changing humans from hunter-gatherers and pastoral peoples to farmers and city dwellers. To live and cooperate in larger groups, humans needed to overwrite their instinctive behavior patterns with culturally-determined behavior involving a wider range of cooperation than previously. This period of change is marked by the lives and ideas of a number of great ethical teachers: Moses, Buddha, Lao Tse, Confucius, Socrates, Aristotle, Jesus, and Saint Paul. Muhammad lived at a slightly later period, but it was still a period of transition for the Arab peoples, a period during which their range cooperation needed to be enlarged.

Today, the world is divided into sovereign nation-states, whose leaders appeal to our primitive tribal emotions to create quasi-religious cults of nationalism. However, because of the terrible destructive power of modern weapons, which are capable of destroying human civilization and much of the biosphere, nationalism has today become a dangerous anachronism. We urgently need a higher ethic, an ethic for the future, where nationalism is replaced by loyalty to humanity as a whole. It must also be an ethic where we strongly feel a duty to protect all living creatures and the earth's environment.

The world's religions

There is a remarkable agreement on ethical principles between the major religions of the world. The central ethical principles of Christianity can be found in the Sermon on the Mount and in the Parable of the Good Samaritan. In the Sermon on the Mount, we are told that we must not only love our neighbors as much as we love ourselves; we must also love and forgive our enemies. This seemingly impractical advice is in fact of great practicality, since escalatory cycles of revenge and counter-revenge can only be ended by unilateral acts of kindness.

In the Parable of the Good Samaritan, we are told that our neighbor, whom we must love, is not necessarily a member of our own ethnic group. Our neighbor may live on the other side of the world and belong to an entirely different race or culture; but he or she still deserves our love and care.

It is an interesting fact that the Golden Rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”, appears in various forms in all of the world's major religions. The Wikipedia article on the Golden Rule gives an impressive and fascinating list of the forms in which the rule appears in many cultures and religions. For example, in ancient China, both Confucius and Laozi express the Golden Rule, but they do it slightly differently: Zi Gong asked, saying, ”Is there one word that may serve as a rule of practice for all one's life?” The Master said, “Is not reciprocity such a word?” (Confucius) and “The sage has no interest of his own, but takes the interests of the people as his own. He is kind to the kind; he is also kind to the unkind: for Virtue is kind. He is faithful to the faithful; he is also faithful to the unfaithful: for Virtue is faithful.” (Laozi)

In the Jewish tradition, we have “The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Leviticus)

In Islam: A Bedouin came to the prophet, grabbed the stirrup of his camel and said: O the messenger of God! Teach me something to go to heaven with. The Prophet said: “As you would have people do to you, do to them; and what you dislike to be done to you, don't do to them. This maxim is enough for you; go and act in accordance with it!” (Kitab al-Kafi, vol. 2, p. 146)

These fundamental ethical principles, shared by all of the world's major religions, would be enough to make war impossible if they were only followed. But too often, religion has emphasized the differences between ethnic groups rather than appealing for comprehensive human solidarity. Too often, religion has been a source of conflict and war, rather than a force which would make war impossible. Too often, religion has been part of the problem, rather than the solution, but it could potentially be the solution. Every week, in churches, mosques, temples and synagogues, congregations listen to sermons which could potentially carry the message of peace, abolition of war, abolition of nuclear weapons and also the message of universal human brotherhood. If our religious leaders do not use this opportunity, they will be failing humanity at a time of mortal danger.

Can ethical principles be derived from science?

It is often said that ethical principles cannot be derived from science, that they must come from somewhere else. Nevertheless, when nature is viewed through the eyes of modern science, we obtain some insights which seem almost ethical in character. Biology at the molecular level has shown us the complexity and beauty of even the most humble living organisms, and the interrelatedness of all life on earth. Looking through the eyes of contemporary biochemistry, we can see that even the single cell of an amoeba is a structure of miraculous complexity and precision, worthy of our respect and wonder.

Knowledge of the second law of thermodynamics , the statistical law favoring disorder over order, reminds us that life is always balanced like a tight-rope walker over an abyss of chaos and destruction. Living organisms distill their order and complexity from the flood of thermodynamic information which reaches the earth from the sun. In this way, they create local order; but life remains a fugitive from the second law of thermodynamics. Disorder, chaos, and destruction remain statistically favored over order, construction, and complexity.

It is easier to burn down a house than to build one, easier to kill a human than to raise and educate one, easier to force a species into extinction than to replace it once it is gone, easier to burn the Great Library of Alexandria than to accumulate the knowledge that once filled it, and easier to destroy a civilization in a thermonuclear war than to rebuild it from the radioactive ashes. Knowing this, we can form an almost ethical insight: To be on the side of order, construction, and complexity, is to be on the side of life. To be on the side of destruction, disorder, chaos and war is to be against life, a traitor to life, an ally of death. Knowing the precariousness of life, knowing the statistical laws that favor disorder and chaos, we should resolve to be loyal to the principle of long continued construction upon which life depends.

War is based on destruction, destruction of living persons, destruction of homes, destruction of infrastructure, and destruction of the biosphere. If we are on the side of life, if we are not traitors to life and allies of death, we must oppose the institution of war. We must oppose the military-industrial complex. We must oppose the mass media when they whip up war-fever. We must oppose politicians who vote for obscenely enormous military budgets at a time of financial crisis. We must oppose these things by working with dedication, as though our lives depended on it. In fact, they do.

The need for a new system of economics

Our present economic system is one of the main causes of war, and one of the main reasons why we are destroying the earth's environment. We need a new economic system, which will have both a social conscience and an environmental conscience.

According to the great classical economist Adam Smith (1723-1790), self-interest (even greed) is a sufficient guide to human economic actions. The passage of time has shown that Smith was right in many respects. The free market, which he advocated, has turned out to be the optimum prescription for economic growth. However, history has also shown that there is something horribly wrong or incomplete about the idea that individual self-interest alone, uninfluenced by ethical and ecological considerations, and totally free from governmental intervention, can be the main motivating force of a happy and just society. There has also proved to be something terribly wrong with the concept of unlimited economic growth.

During the early phases of the Industrial Revolution, the landowners of Scotland were unquestionably following self-interest as they burned the cottages of their crofters because it was more profitable to have sheep on the land; and self-interest motivated overseers as they whipped half-starved child workers in England's mills. Adam Smith's “invisible hand” no doubt guided their actions in such a way as to maximize production. But the result was a society with enormous contrasts between rich and poor, a society in which a large fraction of the population lived in conditions of gross injustice and terrible suffering. Self-interest alone was not enough.

A society following purely economic laws, a society where selfishness is exalted as the mainspring for action, lacks both the ethical and ecological dimensions that are needed for social justice, widespread happiness, and sustainability. That is true today, just as it was during the early phases of the Industrial Revolution. In fact, Adam Smith himself would have accepted this criticism of his enthronement of self-interest as the central principle of society. He believed that his “invisible hand” would not work for the betterment of society except within the context of governmental regulation. His modern Neoliberal admirers, however, forget this aspect of Smith's philosophy, and maintain that market forces alone can achieve a desirable result.

Today, in many countries, gigantic corporations control governments, and they act not only to promote “resource wars”, but also to promote the unlimited economic growth that is destroying the global environment. The idea that growth can continue forever on a finite planet is an absurdity. Therefore we urgently need a new form of economics: Ecological Economics or Steady-State Economics.

When possessions are used for the purpose of social competition, demand has no natural upper limit; it is then limited only by the size of the human ego, which, as we know, is boundless. This would be all to the good if unlimited industrial growth were desirable; but today, when further industrial growth implies future collapse, western society urgently needs to find new values to replace our worship of power, our restless chase after excitement, and our admiration of excessive consumption. We must stop using material goods for the purpose of social competition.

In the world of the future, a future of changed values, women with take their places beside men in positions of responsibility, children will be educated rather than exploited, non-material human qualities, such as kindness, politeness, knowledge and musical and artistic ability will be valued more highly, and people will derive a larger part of their pleasure from conversation and from the appreciation of unspoiled nature. These are the values that we need for the future, a future that belongs not only to ourselves, but to our children and grandchildren.

In the world as it is today, 1.7 trillion dollars are wasted on armaments each year; and while this is going on, children in the developing countries sift through garbage dumps searching for scraps of food. In today's world, the competition for jobs and for material possessions makes part of the population of the industrial countries work so hard that they damage their health and neglect their families; and while this is going on, another part of the population suffers from unemployment, becoming vulnerable to depression, mental illness, alcoholism, drug abuse and crime.

In the world of the future, which we now must build, the institution of war will be abolished, and the enormous resources now wasted on war will be used constructively. In the future world as it can be if we work to make it so, a stable population of moderate size will live without waste or luxury, but in comfort and security, free from the fear of hunger or unemployment. The world which we want will be a world of changed values, where human qualities will be valued more than material possessions. Let us try to combine wisdom and religious ethics from humanity's past with today's technology to build a sustainable, livable and equitable future world.

John Avery received a B.Sc. in theoretical physics from MIT and an M.Sc. from the University of Chicago. He later studied theoretical chemistry at the University of London, and was awarded a Ph.D. there in 1965. He is now Lektor Emeritus, Associate Professor, at the Department of Chemistry, University of Copenhagen. Fellowships, memberships in societies: Since 1990 he has been the Contact Person in Denmark for Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs. In 1995, this group received the Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts. He was the Member of the Danish Peace Commission of 1998. Technical Advisor, World Health Organization, Regional Office for Europe (1988- 1997). Chairman of the Danish Peace Academy, April 2004. http://www.fredsakademiet.dk/ordbog/aord/a220.htm. He can be reached at avery.john.s@gmail.com


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