Some Ideas About Ethics
Published in Gift of Fire #115, May 2000
This essay, written in 1989, has been updated for publication in Gift of Fire. A discussion of e-mail lists has been added and a few minor revisions have been made. This is not a systematic treatise on ethics but a collection of selected topics--which nonetheless has a certain internal unity.
I would like to set forth some ideas about ethics which have been on my mind.
This will not be a particularly "philosophical" essay. I do not wish to get into questions concerning whether meaning exists and whether there is anything worth striving for, nor do I wish to debate the basic premises of human existence--not here; those who have read my various writings know that I have given attention to these subjects elsewhere.
My starting point is the basic obligation to treat one's neighbor as one would wish to be treated oneself, if one were in his position, and to hold up one's end in conserving what is of value in the world.
The principle of total value frequently comes into play. I believe that I have an obligation to pick up a snail on the sidewalk and place him in a safer place, as the hazard of death for the snail far outweighs the minor inconvenience to me, don Juan Matus' opinion to the contrary notwithstanding.
There is a basic obligation to assist one's neighbor to do things he is incapable of doing for himself; this is why one must hold a heavy door for a frail old lady.
One must not subject another to avoidable risk of death or injury. The recklessness of many people on the highways is absolutely inexcusable. Questions of right-of-way are not simply matters of convenience; if a driver cuts a corner, he may collide withh another who, quite rightly, assumes that he has every right to bring his car up to the crosswalk line.
Driving provides many graphic examples of "pure" ethical questions, separated from the complications of ongoing personal relationships.
For example, one must not pull out ahead of another driver into an empty lane, when he has already made a move to pass; he is entitled to his turn, then I may take mine. Of course, a situation in which there is an obstruction ahead is an obvious exception; here everyone's intention to move over to pass the obstacle is presumed and each driver should go strictly in turn.
One has an obligation not to steal others' attention. Sales calls, particularly outside normal business hours, are an imposition on people who may be concentrating or trying to rest. If one reaches a wrong number, one should apologize, not hang up. It is certainly bad manners and unethical to demand to know who has answered the phone before identifying oneself.
Children should be taught from an early age to gauge the interest of those to whom they speak and to shut up when it is clear that their remarks are not appreciated.
I am speaking here of ethical training, not of the place of children in society; children should learn this well, because it applies to everyone. Speech acts engage the attention of the listener and should provide him with some benefit, or, failing this, should be clear requests for aid based on the principle of total value or that of helping the weak, both mentioned above.
Children do have an obligation to take their place into account, as does each person. It is not appreciated if one yells "Cut!" while visiting a movie set. The relevant questions here have to do with competence and responsibility in the sphere of discourse or action relevant in a particular situation. A child should not, generally, having little experience of life, lecture adults on principles of living. One who has no children should not--again, generally, and admitting that there may be exceptions-- pontificate to a parent on child-rearing. (I say this as one who has not raised young children, so I have no axe to grind here.)
The most difficult thing in this area is to be realistic about how often one has turned out to be right in cases subject to relatively objective validation through prediction of observable events. He who is known to have been on target more often has every right to be treated as a greater authority, but no one has the right to assume that others know or care who he is or what his track record might be; the burden of proof is on him.
This leads to the subject of ethics in conversation, an area which is difficult for many people. We don't like to be cut off; we don't like to be patronized; we don't like to have others take offense at what we say.
The most basic rule of conversation, in most situations, is that everyone has a right to speak his piece. Of course, this implies that everyone has an obligation to speak briefly and to the point, so that others may have their turns.
I believe that the best communication takes place when the floor is not too "tight"--when each person gives thought to his or her remarks, with the result that conflicting demands for floor time are minimized. Usually, one person should not speak longer than about a minute at a time; long speeches destroy the feeling of exchange, and one can always amplify one's remarks after allowing others the opportunity to reply.
When a person has been attacked or his ideas have been criticized, he has a right to reply without interruption. He has a duty not to abuse this privilege by counterattacking beyond what is relevant in the sense of redirecting blame for what has been blamed on him.
When someone is attacked unjustly, I believe that one is obliged to go to his aid, if one can do so with a reasonable degree of safety. This is why I have been in the forefront of many battles against oppressive actions by officers of the various high-IQ societies to which I have belonged over the years.
The arising of e-mail listservs as the primary venue for communication in the societies was an unplanned development. No one pointed out in advance that this was about to transform our relationships with one another, at least not over such a short time scale. The new tempo of communication which this technology makes possible has facilitated some very rapid exchanges which have led to advances in understanding all the way round, but it has also given rise to less felicitous consequences. Running battles on an e-mail list can exact a toll in nervous energy from everyone on the list. However, once battle has been joined, there is no really fair way to limit defensive responses; people have a right to defend themselves in a thorough enough way to counteract the force of the attacks to which they are responding, in the same venue through which the attacks were published.
What can be done to mitigate this problem? One solution that may have merit is for the listserv software to be programmed to delay all traffic, or traffic from particular participants, for a certain period of time. Or members of the society could observe an interval before replying, voluntarily or on pain of sanctions. Whatever sanctions are employed, mechanisms need to be developed through which participants can make decisions on them collectively, not delegate them to individuals playing a role in the society in question analogous to that of a policeman.
On an e-mail list, though, many of the problems with ordinary conversation mentioned above do not exist. For example, it is impossible to interrrupt anyone. These lists offer the potential for a high degree of freedom of expression, but the realization of this potential depends on vigilance against the forces seeking to impose censorship, on one pretext or another.
[Polymath Systems Home Page]