politics, morality and evolution

by Hugh

I started writing about this ages ago, but have not finished yet… but in a discussion with Michael, the idea came up again, and I wrote a long comment there, which I’ll reproduce here (slightly redacted):

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my theory of morality is this: moral ideas are cultural constructs that sink or swim based on their ability to “improve” lives & societies, where improve means: makes it easier for a bigger number of people to be well-provided-for, to solve problems they want to solve, and generally to be more happy.

here is a thought experiment: what if increasing individual liberty, abolishing slavery, providing public education (etc) resulted in: mass pandemics, death, misery, and a collapse in the economy. would we see liberty & public education etc as morally good? i’d argue no.

if you read the bible (and, I presume most religious texts), you realize that much of it concerns very practical rules of life (how to build things, how to eat things etc), in addition to more abstract spiritual things … those “rules” are helpful for keeping a society functioning smoothly, and well, and helps us continue to solve problems we want to solve.

so while making “moral” choices is important, to me the compelling argument (in politics) is that “moral” choices are actually ones that tend to improve lives, and be effective. (i think this is part of why the religious right is so strong in the USA: our “free” (and empty) society has resulted in people being unhappy … and a set of moral rules (work hard, be honest, help others, be true to your wife etc) helps you get better at doing the things that, over the past 3000 years, have proven to help make people happier, on balance).

Much of this theory comes out of watching LibriVox evolve, where free-form anarchy is employed only to the extent that it helps us make audiobooks, and not for abstract reasons. so when we decide on issues, we measure against making audiobooks, and not against abstract notions of freedom etc. This, i believe, is how societies and morality develop over time…rules of behaviour that are “helpful” become codified as morally preferable traits: honesty, courage, kindness etc.

regarding democracy & political engagement, my personal feeling is that i can accomplish much more outside of the political system right now. the political system is very rigid (like academia). it’s “better” than fascism, but it could/should become even more responsive to people’s needs, i think, by adopting more small-a-anarchist approaches to problems. i believe eventually i might become re-engaged in the system, i hope in ways that help the democratic system start playing with some of these ideas, to see what could be helpful, and what not. that is, i do not believe anarchist projects are good because they are anarchist, but only if they can be proven to help people do things they want to do (manage a health system, education system, environment etc).

civicaccess.ca is a perfect example of this: idea is: big groups of people with access to data over the net may be better at solving some problems than the government is, and the government should be responsive to exploring where these areas might be, and supporting movements/technologies/ideas that help bring decision-making tools into the hands of citizens, rather than keeping them in the rigid and compromised government systems as they exist now.

as for representative over direct democracy, again, i have no particular preference, except to the extent that one or the other can better address problems I see with the world; which includes protecting small groups from the abuse of big groups.