Category Archives: Ethics

Does Everyone Deserve Freedom?

Aristotle once wrote that there are such things as “natural slaves” (he said that slavery can only be justified with tell me what to donatural slaves, and not those who desire to make their own choices and pursue their own goals), and I have often said that in reality there are few people who want nothing more than to be told what to do (discounting those who prefer being told what to do simply because they have had to grow accustomed to it). And yet I cannot help but think that it depends on how this concept is interpreted.

In theory we could one day realize that complete economic freedom which we seem to be striving towards i.e. freedom from the necessity of human economic productivity, whereby machines would do all of our work. But how would human society respond? Some people would excel in such a world of freedom. They would become happier, more learned, more creative, more physically active, more charitable, and more socially productive. However, it seems quite likely that most would completely flounder.

How many people are socially productive in the spare time? How many people want to be if given the choice? Would Man as a Thinking Creaturea world of academics, sportspeople, artists, writers etc realistically come to pass? Or would we have a world of Hedonists, bent more towards personal short term pleasure than anything else? Combined with the forces of conservativism, which would remind people about how big a cause of depression economic unemployment has been, jobs may continue to exist solely for creative reasons, and the peer pressure for people to get an economic as opposed to social job may in fact stay.

Just as children need rules, do some adults need to be controlled (I’m not talking about criminals here, or the extent to which freedom for one person can restrict the freedom of another so please don’t open this topic in the reply)?aristotle_on_slavery Perhaps you think that we all need to be controlled, and that our efforts to ask for guidance from God(s) are just an example of this. In other words, in a world of economic freedom:

  1. Would all people (as a collective) be happier with freedom?
  2. Would they be happier if all people still had to work, but a reduced number of hours?
  3. Or would they be happier if people could obtain freedom in order to pursue socially productive, but not personally productive, goals?

P.S. To see some other recent blog posts about freedom please see the below:

“Never believe that a few caring people can’t change the world. For, indeed, that’s all who ever have.” Is she right?

Margaret MeadMargaret Mead was a twentieth century anthropologist, whose work greatly influenced those campaigning for equal rights in the sixties and seventies. The above quote is perhaps her most famous, and in recent years this message has appeared all over popular media, and throughout much of twenty first century culture.

The 2006 music video for “If Everyone Cared” by Nickelback ends with her quote. It’s used in the TV series the West Wing. And it was essentially the central philosophy of Barrack Obama’s presidential campaign: “Yes we can. Change we can believe in. Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.”

Yet when we’re thinking about these quotes, we’re not thinking about the sorts of changes that President Obama has managed to realise (don’t misunderstand me here; I’m a huge Obama fan). We’re thinking about pivotal changes in human history; the sort that historians are likely to refer back to. In this modern world, can such momentous changes still be realised by a “few caring people”?

As an example, Liberal Interventionism has been one of the hottest topics in the media throughout this century. In 1999 the UK Prime Minister Tony Blair, in his Chicago speech, outlined his doctrine of Liberal Interventionism. And a Liberal Interventionyear later the UK’s intervention in the Sierra Leone Civil War was seen as a great success. Furthermore, orders for intervention in Sierra Leone did not come from a huge collective government, but in fact from a renegade Brigadier David Richards, who saw the chance to intervene, and took it without permission. So you could even argue that a few, or even one person, really did change the world here. Subsequent interventions have also been justified on moral grounds e.g. Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, with much less consensus as to the success of these missions. But more to the point, there has been a common thread throughout each of these interventions. And that thread of logic echoes the thought of American pragmatists, of Japanese leaders during WW2, of Napoleon during the Napoleonic Wars, and even right back to the works of Thucydides, an ancient Greek historian who wrote the History of the Peloponnesian War, and is also cited as an intellectual forbearer of ‘realpolitik’. That thread of thought is quite simply, the importance, and dominance, of power.

Hobbes’ method of reasoning provides a good example of this realist motivation for intervention. He started his argument, in his famous work ‘Leviathan’, with a kind of Cartesian thinking. Similar to the way Descartes started with his base assumption that thought proves existence, Hobbes said that as little as we can be sure of, we can at least be sure that humans are attracted to pleasure, and repelled by pain. As we can be sure of this much, said Hobbes, it goes to reason that what we all seek, and will always continue to seek, is the power to act on these attractions and repulsions. It is why he reasoned that in a state of nature life would be “nasty, brutish and short”, since without any kind of civilisation we would all be out to increase our own power.

Why do I use these examples? Because the world’s focus on Ukraine is indicative of all the above. The message from western interveners is that the Russian intervention and referendum in the Crimea was illegitimate, and abused Ukrainian sovereignty i.e. we want to help people, and we believe that we can change the world and make it more peaceful. In reality however, such intervention is both an example of power politics, and also quite frankly playground politics. The Russian intervention bears a lot of similarities to recent Western interventions. It is debatably legal in terms of international law. And although the referendum in Crimea should have been organised in different times, and under the supervision of the UN, I have not heard Westerners suggest this. Instead, they simply reject any sort of referendum, and in a blatantly childish manner, simply assume that what’s needed is a good old fashioned, gun-slinging approach of anti-appeasement i.e. if we show we’re the stronger party, we’ll win; life is a competition and we want to be the biggest bully in the playground.

It’s unlikely much of this is blatant, or even realised. The simple fact that the EU managed to achieve unanimity in deciding that they would impose sanctions on Russia goes to show that Western decision makers do believe they are in the right, and are acting morally. But our resources, and our ability to act, is finite. And what about the places where we can really help? How many children need to be decapitated in the Central African Republic before we intervene there? The UN says there is a real risk of genocide. But how many rapes are needed? How many mutations and acts of torture? How many murders are needed before we even start to think in such a way?

We can't changeThere is no power to gain in the Central African Republic. There is in re-igniting old Cold War tensions. So what would it take for us to change this much? What would it take for countries to actually intervene for moral reasons, as opposed to reasons of power? If Margaret Mead is right, then a few caring people can achieve such a change in international relations, and perhaps, depending on whether you agree with Hobbes, even a change in human nature. Do you think she was right? Are these changes really possible?

Can life be valued?

It’s difficult to choose between 2 projects if one saves lives and the other does not. Can/should you quantify such things? Can/should a value be placed on life? And if so can/should further values be attributed to preventing injuries?

And if you want to take it even further still then imagine this scenario: you’re forced to choose only 5 countries that will survive a terrible apocalypse. Would you place equal value on each life and choose the most populous countries? Or would you reason otherwise? Might you for example reason that if you’re thinking about the living then it’s best to save the 5 happiest countries, so that the future is a better world? Would love to hear your thoughts.

The moral and the intellectual

Is it a reflection on modern day society that shows designed to make people think are so popular? I like to think so. I know for a fact that we respect intelligence. You could even say we have an obsession with it. But what about the moral?
My political involvement has largely been propelled by the desire to see more compassion. But in a world of slogans and catchphrases the word compassion is rarely used. Why?
Ancient Greek philosophers were obsessed and fascinated both with human morality. How is it, they questioned, that we can have instinctive moral reactions to something, even before learning any theories of justice? Especially when humans are almost alone in the animal world in our ability to do this. Ethics formed the basis of aristotle’s work, and aristotelianism formed the basis of western liberal socio-political culture.
So where has our fascination with morality gone? Has it disappeared?

Are humans the only people?

This article (http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2012/feb/21/whales-dolphins-legal-rights) reports on an increasingly popular argument that whales and dolphins are intelligent enough for us to grant them formalised rights, such as the right to life.
This raises several important and interesting points. It premises that human rights are based on intelligence. And it also suggests that some people are starting to group other species along with humans into an intelligent bracket. We can’t call these species Earthlings, since obviously that would also incorporate are rather less intelligent relatives as well. But is it time for us to stop thinking we’re special? Is it time for humans to recognise the rights of species other than themselves?

« Older Entries