Re: Ethics in a void (Re: meaning of life (RE: (repost) ))

Date: Thu Jan 25 2001 - 07:35:10 MST

Books like Richard Pipes' "Property and Freedom" which I recently reviewed
here, Francis Fukuyama's "Trust" (which I also highly commend) and Hernando
de Soto's "The Mystery of Capital" (which has been recommended to me in
response to my review of Pipes' book) all point to a core connection between
deep cultural histories of respect for individual and property rights and
contemporary success for those societies that possess such histories. My
almost-daily dose of BBC radio news, with its reporting on the dismal reality
of politics in the developing world, leads me to a near-constant rumination
on the question of how such deeply flawed societies can find a path out of
their current traps of corruption and self-inflicted violence.

The standard libertarian response that developing countries need to discard
powerful state controls to liberate the power of individual self-governance
and enterprise don't satisfy me as anything like a complete prescription for
the on-going, slow-motion disaster that is the equatorial world's response to
the challenges of modernity. Both Pipes and Fukuyama (and apparently de
Soto) make it clear that the chronically poor regions of the world continue
to be so because they lack a broad and deep culture of respect for individual
autonomy and property rights and possess cultures which discourage the kind
of voluntary bonds of trust upon which development can build. The reflexive
surrender to authority, be it at a tribal or ethnic level or at a "national"
level to leaders like Saddam Hussein or religious zealots like the Taliban
spiritual thugs who now rule Afghanistan, seems to be driven by deep cultural
tendencies that predate any simple notion of "state control". The problem is
clearly both more complex and more memetically ingrained than the modern idea
or practice of state authority.

To ask Lenin's question, "what is to be done"? Addressing this problem,
which afflicts the vast majority of human beings alive right now, seems to me
to be a challenge that transhumanists in general and extropians in particular
can't avoid. The prospect of equipping people driven by tribal ethnic
passions and who do not possess ingrained cultural restraints derived from
respect for individual autonomy and private property with the technologies of
the mid-21st century is surely the greatest threat to our survival, whether
"we" are conceived as the human species as it is, as it may be, or simply as
individuals who want to experience the wonders that lie ahead.

I don't presume to have an answer to this question, but one thing I know
won't help us find solutions is the more potent form of "cultural
relativism", which prohibits the passing of judgments on cultures different
from our own. I'm all for debating and exploring the foundations of moral
judgment and, as I've written here before, have ideas of my own about how it
can be that a person can rigorously make moral judgments that have real
effect in the real world. Without the time to get into a full-fledged
description of those ideas, suffice it to say I believe that the power of
18th century - really 17th century - "natural law" theories can be salvaged
from any foundation in supernatural authority. Instead, I think that
game-theoretic insights gained from structures like the iterated prisoners'
dilemma provide a path to a potent new formulation of natural law and a
theory of natural rights.

In this connection, I'm currently reading Richard Epstein's book "Principles
for a Free Society: Reconciling Individual Liberty with the Common Good",
which seems to be pointing to a consequentialist, utilitarian rationale for
the basic moral foundations upon which the original natural law theorists
grounded their ideas. His discussion of the prisoners' dilemma unfortunately
seems to be an afterthought, rather than a fundamental analytical tool. It
seems he is unaware of the powerful insights provided from iteration of the
classical prisoners' dilemma, although he ALMOST works it out on his own. At
this point, I would look to his analysis as a happy consequence of
application of "natural" respect for individual autonomy and property rights,
rather than a sustainable theoretic foundation.

Theoretical concerns aside, I believe that the weakness engendered by
cultural relativism poses a fundamental threat to survival over the coming
decades. Some cultural values and practices WORK in the modern world and
others don't. Some tend toward peace and prosperity, and others tend toward
violence and poverty. Not only do we have to be able to SAY this, we have to
be able to ACT on this realization.

       Greg Burch <>----<>
      Attorney ::: Vice President, Extropy Institute ::: Wilderness Guide -or-
                                           ICQ # 61112550
        "We never stop investigating. We are never satisfied that we know
        enough to get by. Every question we answer leads on to another
       question. This has become the greatest survival trick of our species."
                                          -- Desmond Morris

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