Tuesday, February 22, 2011

How can we encourage the ethics of caring?

I am writing this because I think people have a tendency to talk past one another when they talk about the ethics of social cooperation and caring. For example, some may think that I am denying the goodness of human nature and the importance of traditional ethical teachings when I support the view that the basis for social cooperation among strangers is a symbiotic relationship between the benefits of mutually beneficial exchanges and respect for the person and property of other people. (A lot of other people would not have any idea what I am talking about. It is quite simple. Trade between strangers is unlikely to take place unless both the buyer and seller benefit from it. If one party steals from the other, that erodes the incentive for trade. So, in order to obtain the longer-term benefits of a trading relationship, each party has an incentive to respect the rights of the other and so assist the development of norms of respect.)

The other side of the picture is that if I were to advocate loudly that society should become more caring, some of my friends might be concerned that I might have in mind government policies that would put incentives for wealth creation further at risk. The problem is that talk about society becoming more caring often seems like code for taking more income away from people who earn it and giving it to people who do not deserve it.

It would be strange if our ethics was unable to recognize that to respect the rights of others out of regard for own self-interest is ethically superior to failure to respect their rights, while also acknowledging that feeling empathy towards them as fellow humans is ethically superior to just respecting their rights. We know that humans are normally motivated to some extent by narrow self-interest, but we also know that they normally feel some empathy towards other humans.

Robert Nozick suggested that we should think of ethics as consisting of four layers, with the pursuit of higher layers building on the norms of lower layers rather than violating them (or violating them to a minimal extent). It may be helpful to think of the layers as depicted below.

Nozick’s Layers of Ethics

The most fundamental layer - the ethics of respect - mandates respect for the life and property of other people.

The second layer – the ethics of responsiveness – mandates acting in a way that is responsive to the inherent value of others, enhancing and supporting it, and enabling it to flourish.

The third layer – the ethics of caring – ranges from concern and tenderness to deeper compassion, ahimsa and love to all people (perhaps to all living creatures).

The top layer – the ethics of Light – calls for being a vessel and vehicle of truth, beauty, goodness and holiness. Few people have attained that level.

As far as public policy is concerned, the important issue is the extent to which any level of ethics should be enforced or imposed. It is easy enough for people to agree that every society should demand adherence to the ethics of respect and that it is not possible for any society to demand that everyone should behave like saints. To varying extents, modern societies require individuals to act in ways that are responsive to the inherent value of others e.g. by paying taxes to provide better opportunities to those in need of help.

Invariances: The Structure of the Objective WorldIn his discussion of these issues in ‘Invariances’, Nozick argued that the ethics of respect was the most important level because it was necessary for non-violent relations. On that basis, he argued that rights of non-interference should be ‘most strongly mandated and enforced, thereby preserving room for people to pursue their own ends and goals’ (p.282). In this book, however, Nozick seems to have refrained from making the point explicitly that the use of the coercive power of governments to impose the ethic of responsiveness involves violation of the ethics of respect.

It would be difficult for anyone to maintain that governments should never under any circumstances violate the ethics of respect. There may be nearly unanimous support for requiring people to pay some taxes additional to those required to support the core functions of the state in order, for example, to ensure that all children have certain minimal opportunities to flourish.

However, such ethical considerations cannot explain much of the redistribution that governments undertake. In my view governments tend to pay too little attention to the ethics of respect in taking from citizens and too little attention to the ethics of responsiveness in the way they distribute what they take. Hopefully, one day our politics will focus more effectively on how existing redistributions should be modified to enable more children to be given the minimal opportunities they need to flourish.


Thought Bubble Ten said...

'to respect the rights of others out of regard for own self-interest is ethically superior to failure to respect their rights, while also acknowledging that feeling empathy towards them as fellow humans is ethically superior to just respecting their rights.'

How true is this! Except, of course, that I would prefer to avoid the word 'superior' because it clearly has elitist (and absolutist) connotations (intended or not).

Instead, I would use the word 'useful' where usefulness is a relative measure against a stated goal.

'The top layer – the ethics of Light – calls for being a vessel and vehicle of truth, beauty, goodness and holiness. Few people have attained that level.'

Winton, what if, as I believe (and as most spiritual traditions try to teach us), we are already at that level and that it is our socializing/conditioning that masks this natural state of being from us?

Wouldn't that completely shift (and turn the pyramid on its head :)) the way we educate our children and conduct our business?

Rather than work out of a deficit model from which we are almost futilely attempting to gain or become something unattainable (or just about), we would operate from a consciousness of awareness of the *highest* nature within ourselves and others.

Respect would be unnecessary when you already see the intrinsic greatness and goodness in yourself and others.

In fact, I would say that it is because we do not see this intrinsic greatness and goodness within ourselves and others (because our default perception has been reset by our social conditioning), that we see a need to survive at the expense of others, whether we do this intentionally or from *blissful* ignorance!

For starters, it would stop us from *capitalizing* (and that is not a pun) from the basic needs of others such as food, water, shelter/housing, health care, education etc.

Winton Bates said...

I appreciate your comments, TBT.
Regarding superior/ inferior, I don't think I ever say that about a person. I suppose that if we were talking about two people there wouldn't be any harm in saying that one was the superior athlete, for example. I imagine that you wouldn't see a problem in expressing an opinion that one wine is superior to another, so I don't really see a problem in saying that one behaviour is superior or one motivation is superior. But I wouldn't want to be thought of as elitist :)

It might make sense to say that one motivation is more useful. I will come back to that point.

Your next point challenges me - because I to agree with you! I often use the term self-actualization, which implies realization of potential. These days I tend to think in fairly concrete human terms although I was brought up in the belief that we all have unlimited potential for expression of good qualities. I retain that belief (although for a long time I would not acknowledge it even to myself.) It does me good to remind myself that the expression of such qualities does not cause them to be depleted. These spiritual resources are available in abundance.
Even so, if we observe the ethics that people practice, most people seem to find it a struggle to even be civil to one another, let alone to be humane or to behave with loving kindness. So I think the reality is that there is a heirarchy of behaviour, with a lot of people a lot closer to realizing their potential than I am.

Now, let us come back to the point about one motivation being more useful than another for different purposes. First, when we are talking about social cooperation - living in peace and prosperity - then just about everyone agrees that the rights of individuals should be respected and that individuals should be defended against threats to their person and property.

Second, if we are talking about how an individual can become a better person, then you and I would agree that the best way is for them to come to an understanding that they already have an abundance of good qualities that they can express. It seems to me that that involves developing a different sense of identity to the one they have carried around in the past - so that they obtain satisfaction from acting differently.

Winton Bates said...

TBT: I just wanted to add something about acceptance of feelings. The problem I have these days with the idea that we are all already vessels of truth, goodness etc is that it can lead to denial of current feelings i.e the sick idea that I can't be feeling what I am currently feeling because my true identity would not feel like that. That kind of radical denial of feelings did not help me at all as a young man. It is much better to accept all the sensations and emotions that arise, maintaining a frame of mind that acknowledges that they are impermanent. That acceptance helps us to move on i.e. to focus on intentions and the abundance of resources available to become the persons we want to be. But I have a feeling that you already know more about that than I do :)

Thought Bubble Ten said...

Hey Winton, for me, you've said it all here:

'developing a different sense of identity to the one they have carried around in the past - so that they obtain satisfaction from acting differently.'

If we can experience this identity, preferably with more ease rather than struggle and more joy rather than suffering, that would be great!

The superiority thing - I do understand what you mean, however, I have found it useful to think in terms of what's useful wrt a particular goal/outcome rather than what's superior.

I also understand what you mean by the risk of denying our feelings because we are 'supposed to be above all that' or 'other than all that'.

As you've discovered, that kind of thinking comes from a false understanding of the intrinsic SELF in relation to the personalized self.

I believe, we are replete with infinite potential - potential which can be used constructively or destructively.

That said, with the right guidance/education, I also believe that the *already am* approach is naturally/intuitively more appealing and consistent with who/what we truly are.

Whether we start with that perspective or arrive at it, if we experience more rather than less joy, more rather than less peace, more rather than less freedom, more rather than less love along the way, that's the one I'd be encouraging :)

Winton Bates said...

TBT: We are almost on the same page :)
I don't know if you would have heard of Tim Gallwey, a sports coach who has written various books with 'The inner game ...' in their title. Anyhow, he has a formula which I find very useful in thinking about the relationship between potential and performance.
The formula is: Performance = Potential minus Interference.
The interference is of various kinds including failure to trust yourself (excessive self-instruction about what what you shouldn't be doing) worrying about what others are thinking and letting ego get in the way.
I find this very helpful in many aspects of life.
If you google my name and "inner game" you will find something I wrote about this a few years ago.

Thought Bubble Ten said...

Winton, I've just finished reading your paper and your experiences pre and post Tim Gallwey.

I read it with great interest in and appreciation of your particular dilemma and am so with Tim Gallwey (at least what you've shared of his ideas/suggestions)on this.

I too use all these techniques when I want to manifest anything I desire, sometimes with greater and more rapid success than at other times.

And, yes, that formula about Performance, Potential and Interference is spot on :)

One of the more interesting points you mentioned in your paper was wrt knowing what qualities you wish to express.

I too encounter this situation in relation to my writing, singing, playing guitar and drawing.

Often I find that there are so many different styles/qualities that I like and would like to express and the interference is the belief that it's neither possible nor desirable to express them all. Consequently, there is a need to narrow down the choice.

I am still reflecting on how best to adjust my perspective and either unpack and change or bypass the underlying limiting beliefs.

Hmmm...I'd better stop here or this comment might never end :)

But, before I do, thanks for sharing that paper and good onya for presenting it and for overcoming your set of interferences wrt speaking :) Yee Ha!!!! :)

Winton Bates said...

Thanks TBT :)