To question the innateness of ethics is to question the nature of man. Ideas on harm/care and fairness/reciprocity date back to the earliest social memes and recoded laws. “An eye for an eye” has been codified in written law for millennia and it appears in some form amongst all cultures (including some social animal cultures). More recently, it has been worked out mathematically in tit-for-tat game theory.
The fairness/reciprocity aspects of an eye for an eye justice are obvious. Maybe less obvious is the embedded harm/care aspect. Reciprocal Justice memes clearly serve as a deterrent but they also serve to regulate the severity of the punishment. Personal injuries are felt more severely than offenses that we do onto others. So if punishment is left up to the victim, a “personal reciprocal justice” (based on reciprocal feelings) tends to be ratcheted up, thus escalating a single event into an increasingly severe feud.
An eye for an eye does not leave the whole world blind; it ensures only the aggressors, and of course their victim are blind (and possibly in just one eye). If followed, it limits the harm done in the world by hopefully dampening aggressive individuals rage and by limiting the rage of the victim (and their groups’ rage) when seeking justice.
Aristotle defined ethics as, “giving someone what they deserved”. Applied to harmful circumstances, it is simply another way of stating “an eye for an eye”. Aristotle applied his ideas of reciprocity to positive circumstances as well. He thought the best violin player should be given the best violin. It is an interesting concept whose closest social system would be a Meritocracy. Capitalism as an economic theory may attempt to indirectly make this happen but to directly apply Aristotle’s ideas to economic principles would likely be impossible and fraught with complicated issues regarding who is best at what, who gets to decide on the distribution, etc. Communism in theory makes an attempt at Aristotle’s ideas; of coarse it fails because the concentration in power due to inherent the centralization of resources corrupts people making appropriate distribution of resources improbable and envy a constant corrosive element. Try to define appropriate distribution of anything without creating envy… even a monkey can tell when it is being treated unfairly.
Capitalism in its current form has less to do with ethical principles than with concentration of power; something Adam Smith, a humanist philosopher would likely not be happy with. The distribution of wealth in capitalism will always have foundations in external markets, which is why power tends to wax and wain in Capitalism and there is always some aspect of ethical principles inherent to the system. Unfortunately, nobody has dreamed up a better economic paradigm. I would encourage people to think hard about imagining a new paradigm, or better ways to regulate the excesses of Capitalism, because a model only works well when it matches reality well.
Our human nature has not changed much in millennia, so the parts of Capitalism that relate to human nature likely won’t change. It is due to our nature and our sense of ethical justice that modifications to the current incarnations of Capitalism will have to change however. As Jared Diamond so eloquently noted (and I’m paraphrasing) – When societies are faced with changes to their environment, then tend to double down on the core aspects of their culture which prompted them to success in the past, thus accelerating their demise.
Russell Ackoff studied corporate behavior, design, and failure and he provided good models for social systems that work just as well for government organization as for corporations. His ideas can be applied to any social system. In, Recreating the Corporation, he quoted his army training to bring home the point of the value of a good model, “If the map you have doesn’t match the terrain, then you need a new map”.
Institutions, and the memes they are built on are unfortunately slow to change and they consider the memes they are built on to be sacred. So the typically response to a liberal thinker’s suggestion that they should be evaluated and improved is taken as well as a person smelling someone else and saying, “Hey, you stink. You should take a shower.” Even if the observer is correct, the smelly person will likely take offense, and the mob behind him, while recognizing the smell, will likely defend the smelly person’s “right to stink”.
Which brings us to Rights. How to we define someone’s Right? It is typically derived from cultural rights, i.e. – social memes either written down (law) or understood (social rules of etiquette). Laws are typically enforced the authorities, i.e. people in positions of power within a society. Social memes are enforced by everyone, i.e. people who have internalized the memes (in a very real sense, the memes have authority). It is for the latter reason that memes, i.e. ideas – are very powerful if disseminated and absorbed. Memes quite literally infect and change the behavior of their hosts.
If we desire a set of rights that are not culturally based, i.e. ethically relative, then we need to dig a bit deeper into natural rights. We derive our natural rights, or human rights from our understanding of ethics. Luckily, ethical knowledge is innate. Unfortunately, ethical understanding, like all understanding require education.
Ethics can be self taught – derived from innate ethical knowledge; similar to how Newton derived calculus from innate mathematical principles. Luckily, deriving ethical truth is much easier than deriving calculus; so instead of making people memorize ethical rules like most people learn math, we can teach people how to properly derive ethical truth, which will benefit individuals and society as a whole. Unfortunately, the historical approach has been to make people memorize simple rules, i.e. The Ten Commandments and almost every other rule that followed.
So bringing this rambling divergence into economic justice and personal rights back to core ideas on justice… how to we design better systems of justice? First, we need an educated population who understands how to derive ethical truth.
Does our system of justice need fixing? Yes. Luckily for the human race, western culture appears to be the most advanced economically, militarily, and ethically. Our current systems of government and justice where derived from the principles of justice provided to us from the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment thinkers took us from the 10-yard line to the 90-yard line regarding ethical thinking. Unfortunately, none of them got us to the goal: a universal understanding of ethical principles.
I think the reason they failed to make the touchdown is they were looking for “Thee Rule or Rules” that applied to all circumstances and that was a fools errand. They should have been looking for Thee question – “How would I like it if someone did that to me?” coupled with Thee Proof, “I feel, therefore I know ethics”. Understanding ethics dissolves ethically relativity which allows us to design better models of our world using a foundation in universal ethics.
Unfortunately for the human race, the Enlightenment’s failure to finish with true ethical understanding, led to multiple moral theories – many of which worked well in certain circumstance but none that applied to all. This led to ethical relativity being the place where western culture stopped its progress. The ideas of the Enlightenment have been good tools, but they have been insufficient.
Philosophy as a course of study teaches people to question what they know, which is good. As Mark Twain so wittingly observed, “It’s not what you know [that is the problem], it’s what you think you know that just isn’t so.” That quote should be on every philosophy book. The benefit of an education in philosophy is it get’s people to question what they think is so. The bad part of philosophy as it is currently taught is the tools it provides only allows people to build 90% of a ethical world…. in theory. Quality errors aren’t additive however, they are multiples. If you average: .90 + .95 + .89 + .85 + 99 = .916 and 91.6% is pretty good. If you multiply the same numbers, you get 0.640 and 64.0% is far worse.
Our system of justice is consider sacred because it is the foundation that everything is built on. If it were to crumble, everything would crumble around it. The problem with revolutionary ideas is people fear they will topple the existing social structure. This fear is not irrational but revolutionary ideas don’t have to topple, they can simply transform. Revolutions don’t have to be violent, they can be subtle and push ships onto better paths with incremental force over time (like a tide). The amount of corrective actions and the resistance to said actions are what creates the friction that can heat up the transformation process.
Fundamental ideas and institutions typically surround themselves with walls of purity/sanctity. These walls shielded us from questioning their worth. They also shield the decay of said foundations, sometimes to the point where the foundation gives way and the institution completely fails. Such catastrophic failure is preventable but it requires light to disinfect the rot.
Is it doing a good job? More importantly, how do to we determine if it is doing a good job? Ethical understanding is required to derive the proper answers. Liberal thought is required to simply ask these questions of our sacred institutions which use memes of purity/sanctity to hide behind.
Our systems of justice should be rooted in ethics; not in procedures. If our procedures create unethical outcomes, they diminish our systems of justice. Our laws should have to state the intent of each unique aspect of the law; doing this would allow for ethical understanding of the law and a means of defense based in ethics; not in black and white interpretations of legal text which can be counter to the intent of the law in the first place.
Many of our institutions are smelly…. many need a bath. We don’t need to throw the baby out with the bath water, but the baby certainly needs to be cleaned.