The Vector: A Post-Theist Moral Framework
A while back, E.D. asked me to write an essay on the morality of the Panopticon. Luckily, I had been kicking around an essay defining morality in the absence of a God/architect for a while and so I was able to throw together a mashup essay. The first part explores morality and the middle explores moral imperatives that follow — odd ones, if you ask me, being godless, but one has no choice but to follow one’s path (this is a joke that will be a lot funnier in retrospect). Having explored both of those, it’s fairly simple to finish off exploring Bentham’s Panopticon and how it is not only not good, but how in practice it’s actively evil.
And so we get to begin at the beginning.
It seems to me that the issue of “morality” is really a discussion of choices. In a situation where you can choose X or Y, you pick one or the other (or X or Y or Z, or X or Y or Z or A, or so on and so forth). At the very base is the ability to choose this over that — indeed, if there is no free will, discussions of morality become moot, they’re just discussions we had no choice but to engage in.
Uncovering this atomic issue found in morality, we have to ask: “what makes X a more moral choice than Y?”
Deontology says that there are rules. Good consists of following the rules. This leads to the question “who made the rules?” which generally gets one of two answers:
2) Shut up.
Utilitarianism says that we define good by outcomes and that we come up with “rules” based on what is most likely to end up with the best outcomes. There are a host of problems with this route as well: Who judges the outcomes? What about second-order outcomes? Third-order outcomes? Fourth-order outcomes? Umpteenth-order outcomes? So-and-so broke up with such-and-such and such-and-such’s ex married who-and-who and they gave birth to whom-and-whom, who went on to play Asa Trenchard in Our American Cousin the night that Lincon was shot (now you know the rest of the story). Once you get far enough away, surely you can say “well, that didn’t cause this”… but then, who gets to judge? The judge whose judgments lead to the best outcomes? Who is the judge of that?
Which brings us back to answer 2).
Now, one definition of morality I’ve seen is based on long-term good of society rather than the individual. The theory comes down to the closeness to the moral actor relative to society. If one picks immediate gratification (“I want to eat that bread, fuck that woman, take that candy”), one is generally considered “evil”.
People who think only of themselves but are longer-term in their thinking tend to get called “selfish”. People who consider only their immediate family are a little better. People who consider their extended family (but no further) tend to get classified as “tribal”. Up through “country” gets to another level of “morality”. The people who say “it’s all about the planet! It’s a brotherhood of man!” tend to be considered the most “moral”.
Some people see us as commonly descended from God (which, of course, ties us into more than just the planet but the universe) and some get there through the common ancestry from Lucy (or whomever) in Africa. Others yet make a claim to “the ecosystem” (and, sometimes, you see them making claim beyond it by pointing out that humans shouldn’t pollute Mars the way they did the Earth). The further the edge of one’s sphere is from one personally, the more “moral” society (or one’s sub-society) tends to categorize one.
But, in a nutshell, the further one says the edge of one’s sphere is from one, translates, generally, into how moral one is perceived to be… so long, of course, as one doesn’t go on to screw the proverbial pooch (or the literal one, depending on one’s proclivities).
I don’t really hold with this theory, myself… though I do see how it makes sense on a couple of levels. The obvious problems are the problems like “he is claiming to be a Universalist but he acts like a Tribalist!” and problems that stem from whose morality actually extends further (I.e. “The Sermon on the mount talks about rewards, rewards, rewards!!! It’s not moral! It’s little more than enlightened self-interest! It’s an opiate!”). I dislike the almost complete absence of focus of choice. It’s just automatically assumed that the less self-interested you are, the more moral you are. I can see how that morality might be useful to those in power, but I don’t see how, in practice, it has worked out on large scales (or medium ones, for that matter).
Both of these strike me as having fundamental problems with the whole “well, who gets to judge?” element, as well as the whole “why is this judge better than that judge?” element, which brings us back to another host of recursivity problems leading us in a wide arching circle, inexorably towards… you guessed it:
2) Shut up
This regression brings me once again to the atomic unit of morality: choice. Having experienced situations where I deliberately chose between this and that and having experienced situations (in retrospect, mostly) where I did not choose anything but merely reacted to stimuli, the focus on morality seems like it ought to be on the ability to choose.
In this regard, I think Buddhist Philosophy/Religion (not the only one, of course, but the first to come to mind) has a tremendous insight. One should endeavor to constantly be in a state of moral awareness. One should never merely react, one should always act.
Using that insight as an atom, I think we can then attempt to build molecules: What is Good? What is Evil? The mere reaction to stimuli, is amorality, of course.But what of Immorality?
If morality consists of the ability to make choices, it strikes me that “good” is a vector rather than a particular achievement… and evil is a direction in the opposite of that vector.The first obstacle to overcome for any given person would be to become a moral agent rather than a mere automaton. Instead of responding to stimuli, looking at any given situation and choosing X or Y (or Z, or what have you).
This leads us, of course, on to the much harder, but much more essential question: What is Good?
Well, it seems that Good is that which results in more Moral Agency (as opposed to more automation).Instead of mere reaction, one can choose between X and Y. Becoming more of a moral agent means that one can chooce between X and Y and Zed. And then Aleph. And so on.
Conversely, evil would, it seems to me, lead down a path of X and Y and Zed and Aleph (and so on) to an ability to only choose between X and Y and Zed. And then only X and Y.
An example can be found in a recent story posted to Drudge… a little girl in Russia was horribly neglected for years. You can read the story here. Now, this child was allowed to return to a feral state; millennium of culture, accumulated habits, language… gone. The child is probably close to amoral… but the fact that this was allowed to happen is wickedness in the first place.The sense of revulsion one feels when one reads that story does a good job of explaining evil as according to the proposed system. Good would, of course, have been raising the child to be able to interact and make moral choices of her own.
Using this framework, we can see why it’s wrong to kill another person: because you are taking away their moral agency. Interestingly, at the same time, it allows for killing someone in self-defense and even allows for an argument that capital punishment can sometimes be allowed (we’re putting the criminal to death to prevent recidivism, for example).
Other atrocities fit into the matrix as well: rape is wrong as it removes the moral agency from another (while the removal is temporary, the echoes from the act linger long and choices made in the future can be hampered due to this violation). Slavery is atrocious as well. Even as we go down the list of sins, the skeleton stands.This is why stealing is wrong, for example. It takes options away from someone, and yet we see how a “Robin Hood” situation makes us waver. Robbing from the rich and giving to the poor also increases decision-making ability.
Which brings us back to the idea that this is a vector, rather than a destination. A given situation that grows agency is better than that one, but this situation is not, in itself, good if (or when) it stagnates. The vector must continue.
For a historical example, we can look at “Patriarchy”. One can see what the alternatives were. Patriarchy was a stepping stone up from howling barbarism. As time went on, however, the issue was not one of Patriarchy allowing howling barbarians to become Moral Agents, but one where an imposed societal structure was deliberately acting to prevent women from becoming Moral Agents. It was something good, insofar as it allowed (and even pushed) for more Choices to be made rather than responses to stimuli, but when it actively started making choices that resulted in less Moral Agency, it became Evil.
The ability to choose is better than the inability to be anything but a bundle of responses to stimuli, but it is not the final destination (perhaps there is no final destination). The point is to constantly be moving along the vector while each individual decision maker strives to be in a state of constant moral awareness… which will allow for further distance along the vector.
Side note: I have a disdain for Religion’s tendencies to oppose such things as Gay Marriage (something I support, so long as the two folks love each other, and have a relationship founded on mutual respect, etc) but I have to admit that religion did a good job of helping many move from autonomous behavior to a state of moral agency and then, from there, did a good job of helping those inclined to be automatons to respond to stimuli as if they were choosing the good. Insofar as it has done that (and pockets of it have done a fairly decent job of that, historically), I dig religion.
However, any time that religion has hindered Moral Agency on the part of its practitioners, I’m somewhat opposed in counter-relation to how well it has trained its practitioners to respond to stimuli as if they were choosing the good. I mean, maybe there are people out there who aren’t as capable of making good decisions as others, but it’s good to train these people to at least act good so that they can facilitate (if that’s too high a bar, not hinder) the moral decisions being made around them. When, however, the decisions being made result in practitioners’ own individual Moral Agency atrophying, it becomes wicked, perhaps even moving along on the vector is too much to ask. Perhaps asking that we not backslide might be good enough… but that’s another essay in and of itself.
I’d now like to explore “society” and how it ought to govern itself and others.
It strikes me that Liberty must be at the foundation of a Moral government. To allow the citizen to make decisions is Moral, and the more decisions the better. As a matter of fact, the government ought step in only when the decision making of another will be damaged (murder, rape, slavery, robbery, etc), but other areas ought to be left open.
When the government starts making decisions on the part of its citizens without allowing Moral Agency to grow, it will, eventually, be populated only with perpetual adolescents with atrophied abilities to actually make a Moral choice. Corruption follows this path. You get guardians who follow laws written by another people for another people who don’t remember why the laws were passed in the first place and don’t care, they’re just following protocol, reacting… and throwing people into the Panopticon for breaking laws that no one cares about.
Which, you may have noticed, brings us (finally!) to Bentham’s Panopticon. The idea behind Bentham’s Panopticon is a simple and elegant one. Create a prison where every prisoner can be seen at all times (no privacy) and guard houses where the prisoner can see the houses, but have no idea whether the guards are present or not. When the prisoner begins to habitually act, at all times, like he knows he is being watched, the prisoner is ready to rejoin society.
Well, the Panopticon doesn’t really work like that, does it? It’s chock to overflowing with alpha-male primate behavior, gangs, and, yep, rape. Hell, it’s even become a topic that makes for comedy fodder, but what is really going on? We are taking people who break this or that law (passed before they were born, most likely) and putting them in a building where they will most likely be raped (taking away their moral agency, perhaps repeatedly, and doing damage that is likely to last a lifetime).And the worst offenders can be locked into a cell until he achieves old age and dies.
What are the alternatives? Well, there’s exile, whipping, medical tech, and the death penalty.
Exile may have been an option once (Australia!) but, anymore, there is no place to put people that we, as a society, have decided have sinned sufficiently. Sadly, it would seem that exile is not an option (though, I suspect, it is the most moral option, removing the villain from society while, at the same time, allowing him/her to keep his own Moral Agency).
Whipping, surprisingly to my sensibilities, seems to not be as offensive as I thought it would when I first started thinking about this. Given that Evil was earlier defined as, “most likely, reacting rather than acting,” creating a negative externality could act as a disincentive from doing wrong. Plus, it has the added benefit of being over quickly (as opposed to years and years in the Panopticon).
Surgery (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) might be an option for the most vicious repeat offenders. If someone demonstrates that they will, in fact, be a multiple rapist, the idea of chemical castration seems far, far less offensive than killing the person or locking him in a room until he dies of old age (or merely achieves an age old enough where time castrates him chemically).
The Death Penalty is, of course, the most irreversible of all of these and something that gives me enough misgivings in the first place to make me say that it shouldn’t be an option at all. But if we could assume enough competence on the part of the State to not merely arrest people for laws that predate anyone in the courtroom because the prosecutor wanted a headline, it strikes me that the death penalty could even be preferable to putting a person in the Panopticon to become a rape victim and/or rapist.
Now, of course, there are problems with each and every one of these, the biggest counter-arguments that I think of with regards to whipping are, first, whether it counts as “cruel/unusual” with regards to the 8th Amendment and, of course, the racism issue where, if crime statistics mirror current ones, young African-American males will be whipped by agents of The State creating a simile to the slavery that existed in this country 150 years ago. And these are arguments that have very, very valid points that make me hesitant to argue for this particular punishment as anything but as step up from the Panopticon as it exists today.
All that is to say that I don’t know what we ought to do when it comes to morality, immorality, crime, and punishment. But I know that what we are doing now is wrong and we ought to stop.
What we are doing now is not creating more moral agents, but damaging people with (presumably) impaired agency already and turning them from (in the case of the drug war) fairly harmless automatons into victims of actively wicked people or, worse, putting them in situations where they will have to choose between being a victim or being an actively wicked person. We need to stop this. Not doing anything would be preferable to this.
If we cannot do good we need, at least, to stop being evil.