21 February 2013

The Reality About Ethics

The world is not black and white but our feeble minds tend to simplify the world around us in order to accelerate our interaction with it. Similar to how lowering the graphics in computer games results in a faster game but a less accurate picture. The fact that religion is still so prevalent in society is evidence that our societal GPU is woefully underpowered and is producing a poor reality.

I'm going to start out by saying that there is no such thing as evil. Some religious folk will run for the hills because the bible says the devil will try convince you that there is no evil. Some other religious folk might say that evil is simply an absence of good. I agree with the latter; every action's level of "goodness" can be measured and in two dimensions as well.

This immediately creates a world with many shades of grey. In addition to this; any action can be considered both good and evil, perspective decides whether that pixel is black or white when viewed, lets call it Schrödinger's ethical pixel ;)

The first dimension on the ethics graph is the number of people that benefit from the action and the second dimension is the time frame in which the benefits are felt. Additionally, the benefits axis could potentially go into the negatives (hurting more people than it helps).

In today's free market rat-race, actions taken are generally for the benefit of one person (the self) and occasionally branch out to friends and family and possibly one's immediate community. The only people who really have an effect on society as a whole are the rich. This is not because of some inherent selfishness in humans, it's simply a result of the environment we've built for ourselves.

I think most people would come to the conclusion that an action that benefits the largest amount of people for the longest amount of time would be the best definition of "good". Zero would be neutral and anything with the bulk in the negative would be "evil".

So if an action dips into the negative briefly but is then in the positive for a relatively large amount of time. The overall result would be positive. Lets take Hitler's idea of making everyone look the same and speak the same language as an example. If it were achieved it would arguable have moderate benefit for a very long period of time, however in order to achieve it you'd have to dip deeply into the negative initially. All that horrible violence might still not overpower the lengthy amount of benefit and the overall result could be in the positive suggesting that what Hitler tried to do could have ultimately been "good".

Perspective now comes into play and if your scope only spans the 100 odd years it'll take to eradicate all but one race then this is undeniably evil. This is of course not a good example because the negative effects of violence have a tendency to linger in society for thousands of years, reducing that moderate benefit to negligible benefit. But i think this demonstrates that scope affects the outcome when trying to simplify an action down to good or evil.

Additionally, if you restrict your scope along the "number of people benefiting" axis you'll find the same effect taking place. For example if i steal money for my family, there are a number of people benefiting but obviously i'd be neglecting those that are negatively affected and importantly; how much they are affected relative to my benefit.

Benefit itself is also made up of many shades of grey because it is subject to relativity. For example; i buy a TV for $100 and it's stolen and sold for $20. That seems like a major loss in exchange for minimal benefit making it obviously unethical. However if that $100 is 1% of my annual earnings and that $20 is 2% of the thief's annual earnings then the benefit outweighs the loss. Furthermore, the effort involved in earning that money needs to be taken into consideration, including the benefit which that effort provides beyond this situation.

I'm not suggesting that everyone should be considering every variable when taking any action, i'm simply saying that when judging an action, consider the environment that determines the individual's perspective. Every action that has ever been taken by any individual, has been the "right" action as far as that individual is concerned at that point in time. Addressing people's basic needs and providing access to information is the only way to promote a general increase in ethics and reduce "crime". Prisons, fines and any kind of fear based attempts create societal disparity and further fuels justification of unethical behavior.