Towards an Ethical Tripod

Past, present, future. Without overtaxing the metaphor, they can at least be seen to provide an initial grouping of some very different foundations which contend for priority in defining a broad ethical framework.

The past, the world, especially the life world, which nurtured and nurtures us must continue to be able to do so, not just for us and for its own sake, but also for the sake of others it may yet nurture.

The present, the human project, both in its billions on intentional individuals and its plethora of not just constructions but moreso constructional forms, must be ever more strongly guided by "Do unto others ...".

But it is our ethical responsibility to a future which might be more than human and more than natural which is the component crying out loud for better balance. Neo liberal propaganda would have us entrust all that might be to the dead hand of business aka markets.

(Post) Modernity is increasingly dominated by exponential expansion of both communications and of instrumental observation. Humans can see details we have never seen before, but each step is grounded ever more firmly on that which can be expressed in human language, language which is not just forever overasking "Why?" but which also instinctively demands atomic answers. Fight or flight?

We talk of "the system" rather than admit the plethora of human systems, let alone those natural systems which are most only noticed when they generate what insurance legalism insightfully classes as "Acts of God".

A systemic perspective sees, instead, a vast interplay of complex systems at all scales. It sees the absolute dependence of all that we hold valuable on the very existence of sufficient complexity and diversity. It recognises standardisation as a productive process in specific situations but never as an end in itself.

At the heart of the challenge is the large small scale of the life world, of planet Earth itself, and of the human project's slice of time. Smaller still, but ever larger in its reach, is the place and time of each individual human.

Yet almost all of what is happening, even if we restict our attention to the observable cosmos, is not happening anywhere near Earth. Even our only nearby star, the Sun, sends two billion times as much energy into the depths of space as it sends to this ball of rock.

While not without many devils in the detail, the need for ethics to address that "present" (our dealings with other humans) and to address that "past" (our dealings with the natural world) is well understood. Less so the ethics of the future to which we will return.

Humanity: the present

At the most basic level, we should be able to agree that life is a precious gift, even while we accept that there are many claimants for the role of "giver". Just accepting that life is a precious gift should be enough to suggest that each life should be treasured as at least the potential great work that many do become.

Even when we recognise that the planet is suffering a plague of humans, there is no reason to cheapen human life, moreso as we better understand how nature and nurture separately and together make each life very unique.[1]

Of the many noble ideals and good intentions that compete for second place behind "Thou shalt not kill", our capacity for intentional action, for reflection and for sharing ideas through language, allows us at least to strive to do no harm, in particular not to our fellow humans nor to whatever is precious to them.

Those heightened human abilities, intentionality, reflection and sharing, all grounded in our complex grammars, underpin the need for us to talk about responsibilities as the foundation for whatever rights we would afford ourselves.

On those foundations of "no harm" and responsibility, civil society can be built in many flavours, both in practice and in utopian idealism. The options can and should be cause for vigorous debate, because even if we want to become religious about "equal opportunity" there is no way that all ideas are created equal.

The point here is not to get lost in the rich debate about human ethics, but rather to ground that debate, not just on its relationship with environmental ethics, but moreso on the interplay of human, environmental and posthuman considerations.

Life: the past

Maybe not since its invention of photosynthesis has life directly impacted the Earth in the way our industrial scale production is now impacting it.

"Conservation", "ecology", "environment", "humane" and "sustainable" label major, not always complementary, ethical frameworks for our dealings with the life world. About the only thing all flavours agree on is that it does matter.

Even moreso than in our dealings with our fellow humans, our dealings with the life world are mired in traditions which vary from gratitude and awe to harvesting and stewardship and on to subdue and exploit. The natural world is often a shared resource, but increasingly ownership over parts of it is granted to humans (or their agencies). Then it can be fenced.

A lot of (mis)anthropising fuels debate here. The more closely we look at particularly the mammals and birds with whom we share the Earth, the less we find that marks an individual human as somehow different from all other creatures, although we should not let that dull our sense of the immense differences between collective humanity and the natural world.

Peter Singer wants to grant citizenship to the surviving few thousand (other) great apes, while there is no doubt that the practical actions of civil society rightly grant greater value to an individual elephant or orca than to an anonymous human. We also demand they understand our language while neglecting the greater challenge of trying to look inside their minds.

It is almost trite to remind ourselves that every other life form has its own place at the (current) top of evolution's tree, even while our ability to empathise grows generally weaker with distance across that tree. While some of us might admit we have something in common with a marine turtle, a manta ray or even an octopus, what common ground can we find as a basis for ethical dealings with eusocial insects, reef building corals or mature trees.

Leaving aside smart/cute poster species, much of the debate over our dealings with the life world focuses on systemic issues, especially as the rich tapestries of interdependence become ever more visible. Aside from some limited conservation work, human systems, our most persistent legacy, have not yet been granted the kinds of ethical status that ecosystems have.

Our Heirs: the future

There is today no more of a boundary between humanity and those products of humanity which have lives of their own than there was yesterday between humanity and the life world.

From cities to ideologies, from entertainment to commerce, from science to government, from money to art, from charities to the Internet and much much more, those products of humanity each have their own emergent dynamics which constrain us, no matter how much we want to believe that they are under their human creators' control.

No matter how those emergent dynamics might feel to us, no matter how natural if feels to go along with the legal fiction that they are a special kind of person (company), they clearly differ from humans in the form of any intentionality that they might possess.[2]

For the sake of this discussion, look at humanity as being transitional. Pretty much everything around us is at least to some degree transitional, though the timetables vary. What is important here is to recognise that humanity is not necessarily the end game, and that, if anything, that makes humanity even more significant.

Of course the poster child of the posthuman world is the autonomous robot, the ongoing quest for which continues to provide many unexpected insights into the human condition. At the heart of the problem is our sense (illusion) of self, our capacity to form intentions. While the historic evidence is that this is a hard problem, we should allow that it could be subject to a Copernican style revolution at some stage, especially as we necessarily entrust robots with more and more responsibility to explore the solar system as our proxies.

For solid theoretical and technical reasons the idea of a "hive mind" has gained currency. For embodied humans, trying to think like a termite colony is quite a challenge. Yet if you have to deal with a nest of eusocial insects, their intentions, their determination and their resilience are very clear. But could the emergence of hive minds in cyberspace actually trigger Vernor Vinge's Singularity?

If the transitional juggernaut does not run aground, there should be plenty of room in cyberspace to reincarnate all our stories, both historic and creative.[3]

Our lives are enriched by the legacies left us by others, be these intellectual or infrastuctural legacies, so there is an ethical imperative to leave the world better for having lived. The human project is a construction project, albeit one in which most posthuman construction should be recycled, in cyberspace or in outer space, with its unbounded energy and materials, and where the ubiquity of bacterial ecosystems is likely to deprecate their conservation value relative to complex life on Earth.

When our heirs depart for the galaxy, for cyberspace, or to explore other as yet unthoughtof possibilities, the meek should indeed inherit the Earth.

Throughout the long history of life on Earth and the short history of human affairs, the creative dynamics of complex systems has explored more and more organisational possibilities. An ethical future will enable life and humans and posthumans to all continue to explore possibilities in their own ways.

[1] Before the pedants get on their high horses, "very" here is justified because of the much greater differences between individual lives than between other things we happily label "unique".

[2] Richard Dawkins's Selfish Gene metaphor similarly grants a form of intentionality to DNA, but that too is very different to human intentionality.

[3] The reasons for assuming that we are not already living in The Matrix are outside the scope here, save to say our reincarnates are surely going to have access to the information that they have been reincarnated.

Tony Smith

Stable band formed from stairstep hexonimo in Tube of circumference 6n

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