Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Ethical Calculus

Change begins with the individual. The goal, of course, is to change the group, the social setting. But why?

Humans are social critters. We like being around others of our kind (sometimes with a dog or cat). We are biologically wired to find joy in companionship. Just ask any hermit.

Sometimes doing something for our benefit benefits the group as well. So many millions of dollars are "lost" each year due to sick days. Eating healthy and getting adequate exercise and sleep show positive results in the individual, and, to a certain extent, in society. A healthy, exuberant person who shows up to work well-rested and well-fed is almost always more likely to perform better than a person who stays up all night eating junk food and watching infomercials. This should be fairly obvious, and other examples abound.

Doing something beneficial for the group often benefits the individual. Paying for schools, roads, hospitals, and fire/police protections has noticeable returns. I know some tax-haters will want to argue, so I'll offer another example. No matter how much you hate society and other people, and no matter how righteous you think you are, you are very unlikely to run a red light in the middle of traffic, or not look before you merge on the highway. Abiding by the rules of the road has obvious benefits. Everyone gets to where they need to be quickly and effectively, and, most of all, safely (or so we would hope).

I understand that there are cases where the group stifles the individual, and where the individual screws the group, but let's just focus on the mutual benefits.

I mean, really focus. Are there certain activities we can do that almost always benefit both group and individual? I would like to think so. I have been examining my actions all the time now, seeing if what I'm doing helps both layers.

A healthy, confident, and knowledeable individual has much to offer society; a healthy, stable, and nurturing society has a great chance of creating such an individual. A society of such individuals would indeed be a wonderful thing. I recognize that we cannot expect society to shape us exactly the way we want to be. That might end up being more for the group benefit, and not necessarily for our own. But the same can be said for the reverse - acheiving personal wealth and power at the expense of society hurts the chances of others to rise to their fullest potential.

We don't want extremes here. Is there a fine line? Can we see it, mark it down, make a path so we can get somewhere in a timely fashion?

It could be said that a roadmap is dangerous in its rigidity, offering little wiggle room for adaptation. Holy books come to mind here. But this is not what I mean. Most religious texts have some inner core of really good memes, gems of thought that really grant the adherent something, instead of hot air. Strip away the fluff, and you end up with some basic ideas. These cannot be lawyerly in their convolutedness. Clear, simple, yet mutually supporting and interconnected. The Golden Rule is a good example. A little tidbit from the book of tao reads:

"A tall, stiff, old tree will break in a strong wind.
A supple and flexible tree will bend in the wind.
Therefore, it is better to be flexible than rigid."

Or something to that effect. You get the idea. I think the founding fathers of America had some good memes they injected into the Constitution and DoI.

A criteria for these little memes is the group/individual mutual benefit. I don't know much about game theory, but I can see how it can be used here. If we worked on it really hard, do you think it would be possible to design a guidebook based on all sorts of game theory interactions that would amount to an ethical calculus - equations that determine the optimum course of action in terms of the individual and the group?

I think so. It'll just take some time.


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