Towards Universal Ethics.

Recently I finished a very interesting book. Worth reading if only for the crash course in science it gives. Psychology, astronomy, physics and biology are just some of the fields covered. The book is “Developing a Universal Religion” by David Hockey. If I have one issue with this book it is probably the title. “Religion” is likely to repel as many potential readers as it intrigues. What the author chooses to call “universal religion” is probably better thought of as a universal ethical environment or context. Think of it as a sort of Hippocratic oath that not only doctors are held accountable to.
Some of you may answer that your faith already provides you with an ethical environment and that something better is not needed. If so, you might consider how it is that even people of the same faiths and denominations arrive at such very different answers to the same moral problems.
Whatever your beliefs, I would recommend giving Hockey’s book a read. Some sections may contradict your currently held beliefs, but I urge you to push through to the end to understand the full context.
Here is a short extract of one of the early chapters. Interesting stuff!:
Of course we all, scientists, mathematicians or laypersons, solve many problems every day. While most of these are addressed and resolved routinely and efficiently, the speed and accuracy of our problem solving depends almost entirely upon one factor—how well we understand the background situation, i.e., the “environment” (examples discussed below will shortly clarify and extend this term) that contains and presents the problem we are trying to solve. Everyday problems are solved very quickly, often without realizing a problem is being addressed, because we generally know a lot about the various environments we inhabit. On the other hand, scientific and mathematical problems not infrequently take a long time to solve; this is usually because those working on the problem do not yet have sufficient information about their problem’s environment.
To correctly solve any problem then, we must correctly understand its “environment.” This is because a problem is only properly solved when its solution can be used within (or is accepted by) the relevant environment, without causing additional problems. Luckily, each problem’s environment also invariably contains the criteria which the problem’s solution must satisfy…(snip)
…Moral problems are actually very similar to mathematical problems. Like math problems (which have their origins in the abstract mathematical environment that defines them), moral problems arise from their own abstract moral environment. And we must understand the true nature of this environment in order to find satisfactory solutions. Moreover, the more difficult the problem is, the more we have to understand about its environment. Moral problems ask the mind to decide which solutions are “right” rather than “wrong,” and which behaviours might be deemed to be “good” rather than “bad.” Now, as we have seen, the criteria needed to select the right answers for practical problems are found by examining the environment that presents the problem. But what environment actually presents moral problems? From where do they stem? This would be the rightful place to find the criteria sought, but this presents a dilemma: the universe contains no practical, concrete, “real” or verifiable moral environment waiting to be found and consulted.
Moral problems arise solely within the mind, and it is therefore the mind itself that both defines the moral environment and contains the criteria that solutions must meet to be deemed satisfactory. Everything that makes some particular concern a “moral problem” to a person is contained wholly within that person’s mind. Thus, it is the mind-set of the customer at the checkout counter that determines if being undercharged presents a moral problem, and it is this mind-set that provides the frame of reference that is drawn upon when the decision to speak up or remain silent is made.
We should stop here to consider what this means, and what we typically do about it. If a person is a practising member of a religion, then they almost certainly possess an appropriate mental environment which they can consult when contemplating moral issues, and usually nothing stops the problem-solving process for them at this point. The most important function of any religion is to build such a mental environment, to teach followers what to believe and how to behave (that is, to provide solutions that resolve various kinds of moral problems). The “religious environment,” the neural networks constituting memories that those following a religion have spent time building within their minds, is available for exactly these occasions. It is rare (although perhaps now becoming more common) to encounter a moral problem that has not been already solved by others within the doctrine, but, if ever this does occur, then the adherent is expected to think about what has been written in religious texts, taught by their religious teachers, or said by a religious leader. The devout likely solve most of the moral problems they encounter by referring to one or more of these sources. More complicated issues might involve talking to a theologian or other respected authority. But there exists, for people following a religion, a relevant environment to consult, in which can be found the criteria to judge which solutions are acceptable, as well as the valued purpose that provides reasons for making the “correct” choice.
(However, it may be that many moral problems are not actually solved this way today, even by the devout. Perhaps some, or even most, everyday “moral” problems are in fact solved by recourse to the individual’s social or cultural environment. In other words, perhaps when a person wants to know the “right thing to do,” they [possibly quite subconsciously] might think along these lines; “now, what does society sanction?” Or, “what would my group expect of me?” They might even think, “what can I get away with?” Or, “how far can I go without being caught?” The last two examples might be a little extreme, but they serve to make a point: that in many situations today we may actually be obtaining our values, our standards, the criteria we use to judge which solutions are morally acceptable, from the social sub-set we inhabit, not from our religion. I suspect that, to the extent that this may be true, it is mostly so because our religions are failing to keep up with the changing times.)
So be it for those who have a religion to follow, or those who can be satisfied by adopting their society’s criteria of what a “good person” should do. People with these ideologies can make decisions (and feel or be certain that they have behaved morally) by consulting their knowledge of these constructed environments. But, what about those who have no mental religious environment to guide their decisions and disdain the vagaries of social standards? How can these people solve moral problems? Admittedly, there may be relatively few such people today, but there must have been many pondering such dilemmas before religions became common features of social life. Since we will shortly be investigating the emergence of religions, it is particularly important to explore what such people might do.
Presumably, some who have thought about such issues will have worked out their own value system, perhaps one based upon standards drawn piecemeal from one or more existing religions or societies they know about, but personalized in some manner. Others might just “play things by ear,” letting their emotions and feelings tell them how to behave as each situation unfolds. But a few, surely, would not be satisfied by such methods, and would want to work out solutions in a careful and rational manner. Where are these individuals to obtain the criteria they need to make moral choices? The physical environment holds none. The social environment has been ruled insignificant. Every religious source has been deemed artificial or irrelevant. And, they lack an appropriate internal, or mental, environment. How can such individuals solve moral issues rationally, and make decisions they can live with? We are not quite ready to answer such questions yet but will do so in Chapter Three, where we explore how decisions are made. Before then, there are a couple of other issues that should be addressed. The first has to do with what people consider to be moral problems; the second asks why such problems arise…(snip)
…The second question we should touch upon before moving on is: what prompts the appearance of “moral” problems? If individuals possess no inherent mental “religious” environment and have to be taught in order to construct one, then why would any “moral” problem have arisen in the first place? What would have prompted its appearance?
This question is easy to answer. Moral problems arise simply because the mind has the words and language that makes posing such problems possible. It is our mind’s ability to manipulate words that causes it to ask, “is it right to do this?” Humans are so used to mentally seeking the best course of action to take when practical alternatives arise that it is done automatically whenever more than one choice is offered. To put it crudely, we simply daydream moralistic alternatives, and then become stuck when trying to decide, “what is the right thing to do now?”
Without the mental ability to pose and answer questions (i.e., to note and solve problems) we could not ask ourselves if anything were right or wrong. In short, we don’t agonize over moral problems because we must, we do so simply because our mental ability with languages makes it possible, as the “moral” problems presented earlier in this section demonstrate. Our daily requirement to decide how to behave (together with the fact that religions have made the words “moral” and “ethical” part of most people’s vocabulary) is all that is needed to prompt such inquiries.
We are now well equipped to investigate the nature of decision making. Doing so will provide answers to the questions asked earlier: how can individuals solve moral issues rationally, and make decisions they can live with, if they lack a relevant (possibly religious) mental environment?”