Utopia, Part One: Can science take us beyond the unavoidable subjectivity and relativism of ethics?

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There is no reason to think that Donald Trump doesn’t see himself as the very model of an ethical person. A core of similar ethical principles, rules and behaviours is to be found in all societies, cultures and groups. This holds true not only worldwide but since the beginning of recorded history. Regardless of the source to which these ethical codes are attributed, they all share a markedly similar centre.

This is Part One of a two-part series

It takes a Don Pinnock to write, and a Daily Maverick to publish, “It’s time to rethink our connection to the planet” (24 October 2020). 

Pinnock begins his piece with a challenge: “Why should we care about the welfare of other creatures, rivers, mountains or the sea?” He ends it, after several other searing challenges to the ways we live, with an invitation:

“We’re overdue for a serious rethink that goes far beyond our traditional religious and philosophical storerooms of correct behaviour… To build a new story of our existence, we must experience the cosmos, both scientifically and emotionally, as an intimate immensity of which we, through natural selection, are privileged to be a part… We need… nothing less than a new story.”

As if to help us begin this “new story”, he reminds us:

“Caring is an ethical issue… Science urgently needs to develop an ethical, more integrated view of existence.”

Inspired by Don Pinnock, let’s be more daring than even him. Let’s see where science might take us if we go beyond ethics, as an optional “ought”, as though all of us are free to make our own individual selection from a gigantic menu. 

Might science be able to take us beyond the unavoidable subjectivity and relativism of ethics? 

Just consider: no one has ever gone to war without claiming to be acting from the highest of moral principles. To be sure, wars are fought by people who not only claim to be acting ethically, but are at war with the other only because of their fealty to values over which they mistakenly claim exclusive ownership. 

Religious wars throughout the ages and in all parts of the world are, for instance, often fought in the name of the same god, or, if different gods, the same divinely inspired, ethical codes.

There is no reason to think that Donald Trump, similarly, doesn’t see himself as the very model of an ethical person. A more local reminder of the almost limitless flexibly of ethics are the apostles of apartheid who invoked no less a source of moral probity than the Bible to assure themselves of their morality.

The challenge is not to replace the ethical “ought” with an externally imposed “must”. Might internally chosen decisions based on science be a realistic alternative? Like someone with a known food allergy able to draw on science when making menu selections, might science offer us something similar when confronting ethical choices?

The answer possibly begins with the recognition that the choices are not boundless. Indeed, a core of similar ethical principles, rules and behaviours is to be found in all societies, cultures and groups. This holds true not only worldwide but since the beginning of recorded history. 

Regardless of the source to which these ethical codes are attributed, they all share a markedly similar centre. Besides taboos against things such as murder and various prohibitions against, for instance, theft, values such as fairness, justice, honesty, virtue, solidarity, empathy, sympathy, caring and trust are common to all societies and cut across all the diversities of language, race, religion, nationality and the plethora of identities that divide us now, no less than the past. 

The universality and timelessness of this ethical core – best represented by the Golden Rule, a principle found in all ethical systems: treat/don’t treat other people as you would like/not like them to treat you – is so striking that it simply can’t be coincidental.

Let’s pause here for further consideration of this essential step along the road to a science-assisted ethics. 

When people who symbolise the unethical evoke this ethical core, we are being alerted to the power of these core values. Two recent examples, from two quite different circumstances, give added evidence to what I am suggesting is the omnipresence of these values and principles. 

Trump provides the first example, when he addressed the nation from the White House two days after the election. Lost by the commentators who were quick to draw attention to his multiple lies, which caused several US news networks to cut their feeds of his 16-minute speech, is the ethical basis of his outrage. Listen to him:

“If you count the legal votes, I easily win. If you count the illegal votes, they can try to steal the election from us [emphasis added].”

Hear him invoking fairness, justice and honesty and then, on those grounds, inciting his followers to take action against the turpitude of his opponents!

And then turn your attention to Dudu Myeni, the former chairperson of SAA and the person a South African court declared to be a “delinquent” and therefore barred from being a director of any company for life. 

Appearing before the Zondo Commission into State Capture to counter evidence from multiple sources of her being a leading pirate, she invoked some of those same core values and principles in her defence. Her outrage was what for her was the unspeakable injustice she was suffering. “I am here as an innocent person,” she proclaimed. Yet, she continued, in terms of the “media narrative”, “I am a liar, I am a criminal and I have a moral inferiority complex” [my emphasis].

When two of the most notoriously unethical people invoke the same core ethical values, then it seems safe to offer them as evidence of something most profound about us – us as people everywhere worldwide – about something deep inside us regardless of who we are, or when and where we might live.

Our human nature hiding in our ethical core

The something highlighted by our ethical core can be nothing less than our human nature. 

Our ethics indeed speak to the positives of our human nature, notwithstanding the ironies involved. Our human nature is usually invoked as evidence of how unalterably bad we are! 

A litany of our supposedly natural sins is invariably cited to explain why progress is not possible; our natural badness becomes a defence against people who suggest that a better world is possible. 

Like I’m doing here!

We will address our human “weaknesses” in due course. For now, let’s look more closely at the implications of the shared ethics that unite us. Tellingly, we recognise the reality of our ethical human nature. We do this by giving it a name; a name, moreover, recognised mutatis mutandis everywhere and by all people: Humanity! 

The character or quality of being human is applied to everyone on Earth. The word humanity is from the Latin humanitas meaning “human nature”.

We all have a human nature yet none of us are born with it. So, what do we all share that might account for us all ending up with a recognisable human nature? The only nature bequeathed as a birthright is our natural nature, that is, a nature given us by our genes after life on Earth’s own natural history of at least 3.5 billion years. 

No one comes with a ready-made human nature. Each one of us has to acquire it. Yet, we all do, despite the specificities of individual differences and the repeated reproductions of ourselves over the generations of hundreds of thousands of years since our emergence as a new species.  

Acquiring our humanity begins from the moment each one of us is born and continues mainly during the first few years of our infancy. This is when we are utterly dependent on others for our physical survival. 

It is this unavoidable dependency and the complex of myriad interactions with others, mainly caregivers, that alone nurtures the emergence of our humanity and, more especially, our consciousness, our awareness of ourselves as individuals and of our separateness from those who sustain us. 

The further development of our consciousness additionally makes us aware that all the people we’ve come to know well are separate from a still larger whole and that this is greatly enlarged. Everyone is part of a still larger natural world and people-made environment that seemingly exercises dominion over all life forms.

Consciousness gives us our ideas, and the language with which we use them in speech. Consciousness makes us aware of having the ability – always limited, albeit with a shrinking limitation – to control what we think and say and do and don’t think and say and do. 

Consciousness, having alerted us to being active individuals, provides us with an awareness of our power of agency; of our ability to control ourselves and what we do in the world. 

This ability includes the capacity of changing the environment and shaping it according to our will. The environment that makes us is also made by us as it becomes an expression of our individual and collective agency.

The nature of our human nature is central to why Utopia is not utopian; not a cruel dream, a longing that can never be realised. This is why it is necessary to say still more about what makes us human; about why we are enabled to achieve what we can imagine.

Having come to human nature via ethics, the next stop on this exploration is our specifically human needs. It is these most intimate of personal needs – needs which we feel individually as ours but are globally shared ones despite all their differences across time and place – that merit much closer attention. 

They might be a window to the essence of our human nature. The subject of speculation for aeons: the needs under discussion here must be compatible with neuroscience and psychology, especially the findings of child development. 

We know that our brains mediate all our needs, thoughts, feelings and drives and that these mediations work as both cause and effect in constant interaction with each other. 

As my elaborations seek to be scientific, this necessitates that my premises are not only clearly stated and logically developed, but that the whole content of the argument is emphatically material, concrete and amenable to empirical observation and assessment. 

Above all, the materiality must be rooted in real people, not as “instincts” but as corollaries of consciousness that must be located in the living body of each person. This means our known neurophysiological mediations and processes. 

All this is essential because I’m positing an ontological human nature that (as will be shown) if not respected – if denied, ignored, stunted or otherwise distorted – results in our humanity becoming our experience of our inhumanity.

Drawing principally on the works of Abraham Maslow, John Bowlby and Erich Fromm, and excluding physiological needs such as food, water and shelter, the broad scientific consensus is that our needs can be grouped under three headings: 1) Love, social support and belonging needs; 2) Esteem needs; and 3) Self-actualisation and autonomy needs.

All these needs meet my aforementioned criteria. 

Locating them in real people, however, means locating the people in specific times and places because the concrete forms taken by these universal and timeless needs are countless in their differences. 

Maslow’s needs, for instance, are narrowly located in the mid-20th century US. Even the findings of Ed Diener and Louis Tay, who put Maslow’s ideas to the test with data collected from 60,865 participants in 123 countries, are deeply time-bound to the present.

Among the variables they tested – having enough money, feeling safe when walking alone and not having been assaulted in the previous year – have meaning only in today’s world, and even then not everywhere in the world or even everywhere in the same country. 

However, their conclusion that Maslow was essentially right, notwithstanding cultural differences, highlights the fact that, while the needs are both fixed and universal, the specificities of time and place determine the concrete form they take. This is to say, our ontological needs are expressed and can be known to us only historically. 

Our humanity consists of fixed needs that express themselves only with the variability of time and place. This variability is all the more important, as we will see, when our humanity expresses itself negatively, as our inhumanity.

The missing need – other people

Humanistic psychology, like most other psychological schools, is centred on and around the individual. What makes it different from other approaches is its focus on mental wellbeing rather than illness. Explorations into essential human needs is integral to this focus. 

Abraham Maslow is probably best known for his “hierarchy of needs”. He not only made a major contribution to identifying these needs scientifically but, having done so, he ranked them according to five different levels of importance. 

Notably absent from this hierarchy – as is the case with most other humanistic psychologists – is the most fundamental of all human needs, and, hence, the mother of morality: other people. This omission is much more than a mere oversight; a failure to make explicit the obvious. A very different understanding of humanity emerges from a different starting point: there is no I without there also being a You.

“You” signifies other people and other people alert us to the fact that we live collectively, in groups that enlarge to become societies. The connection between individuals and society is still hugely controversial. 

The longstanding hegemonic view is implicitly one of a social contract in which, for pragmatic reasons, individuals choose to become part of and thus be bound by the restrictions of society. As we have already seen, there is no choice in this matter. 

We need other people just to survive infancy. This is because of our natural nature. But we additionally need other people for our human nature. 

Without other people we have no consciousness and its attendant needs and ethics. Other people are an essential precondition for our very humanity. Individuals and society cannot be separated. 

As an indivisible whole, the one implies the other. The reality is a single entity – the social individual. 

The separation between the two, which is usually understood as a conflictual one, is indeed the very essence of what I have called our inhumanity. DM


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