Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Guarantees and opportunities

John Rawls was a contemporary philosopher that put his own spin on the social contract theory -- that of the "veil of ignorance". In short, his idea was that if we were all disembodied spirits in space and not yet humans on earth, would we choose to live in a society that put restrictions on women or minorities, or inhibited peoples by class? He poses that we would not support such ideas, as we could very well end up with the short end of that individual freedom stick once we were assigned an earthly body. He believed that we would all sit down and script a social contract with equality for all.

But he mentioned class in his illustration. Does he mean that the wealth should all be distributed equally, or simply give the opportunity equally to everyone to pursue wealth? The differece is fairly profound, I argue.

If he meant to support equal distribution of wealth, then one could argue that a successful social contract means little more than setting up a socialist or communist government, designed primarily to control the wealth of the people and distribute it evenly. If he meant to support the idea that every person has the same rights to pursue individual wealth, then arguing for a free market society and capitalism is the way to go.

But even if we take political application out of the equation and remove all labels, then let's just look at the primary difference between "equal wealth" vs. "equal opportunity":

To simplify this idea in terms of survival, let's pretend that there are only 10 of us on earth, and we live together in our own village. Let's say I go out and gather 2 pounds of berries, another guy hunts down 1 rabbit, and our village has some chickens that laid 5 eggs today.

With equal wealth, if just two of us gathered or hunted any food, it doesn't matter, for we all will get some of the loot. That means that the village divides the 2 pounds of berries, 1 rabbit, and 5 eggs between us. We each get 3.2 oz of berries, 1/10 of the rabbit, and half an egg a piece. Without even arguing over who gets the pelt or how it's equally shared, what about the different body types? Should age or health matter in the distribution of the food? If there's a small child that doesn't eat that much or a large warrior that requires more than that to keep his strength, or a sick person that needs additional nutrition... what do we do? Our social contract insists we share it all equally. While members of the village may decide to share above and beyond their own wealth, they are not required to, so there is no guarantees in the social contract for it. And what about the people that actually did all the work? Do they deserve no reward for carrying the whole of the village on their back? And what about those that did nothing? Should they be rewarded for their laziness? These are but some of the many difficult questions that arise from the idea of equal wealth.

Equal opportunity, on the other hand, would allow for every member of the village to go out and hunt or gather, regardless of sex, age, color of skin, etc, and would allow them to keep their rewards. The result is that while luck and skill would play a part in daily fluctuations of bounty, there would be no limit to the possibility that a member of the community had to gain wealth, and thus it is often argued that the village would be inspired to work hard to pursue their own wealth. In this system there is no guaranteed foodstuffs to be distributed at the end of the day, but it is argued that people would be generous with their neighbors when their neighbors tried hard and fell short, as they would want such generosity to be returned to them in tough times.

While equal wealth is a more Kantian approach to a social contract -- by this I mean the village would be doing good because it is their duty to do so -- it also does not encourage anyone to go out and try harder than any other, because even not hunting and gathering at all will still result in being given bounty. It could be argued that nothing besides hunger would ever drive any member out to hunt and gather. Such base needs would not warrant a generous spirit when doling out equal portions to any one else, when instead they would wish only to fill their own bellies. Perhaps such starvation could drive a member of the community to steal from the others by eating out in the field and not bringing back the whole bounty to the others. Perhaps they would begin to wish members of the community to die or be killed off to lessen the burden.

In the equal opportunity, a person could become discouraged that others go out and successfully bring home more bounty than another, but an encouraged person could desire to try harder, learn better methods, improve efficiency. Perhaps a person who has no luck could desire to quit trying, or harbor grudges against the successful members of the village, wishing to kill the successful members off and steal their wealth. It is here where the social contract becomes so important, as a social contract -- as per Hobbes's definition -- exists to unite warring persons in that they agree to live under a set of rules because the rules are better than the lawlessness and anarchy that would otherwise exist.

Is one system better than another? Yes, in my opinion. But it's going to take more than just my opinion to work towards any sort of social contract that transcends the political strife we bathe in in this country. It's far easier to talk about how things should be than do anything to create a better community; and if you don't do anything at all, but promise to do everything, you can keep getting re-elected on the grounds that you still have work to do. HA!

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Have you thought about this lately?

"Abandoning an absolute ethical moral standard leads irresistibly to the absence of ethics and morality. Each person determines his own ethical/moral code. That's anarchy. Humans become their own gods and decide, each in his own way, what is good and what is evil. Evil becomes good -- good becomes evil. Upside down morality! Good is ridiculed!! Evil is dignified!" - Richard Halverson, former chaplain of the U.S. Senate

Can you say he's wrong? For those of you that just blurted out "yes", think about all the times that "good Samaritans" are punished for doing good works. Some are sued because they are not doctors or EMT's and pulled an accident victim from a burning car but causing bodily damage by not using accepted emergency procedures. You've heard of these horror stories, don't make me look them up; my time is valuable and if you're that big of a curmudgeon, then I will be wasting my efforts proving my points to you.

So we as a country struggle with cultural relativism (the idea that no culture is more "right" or "wrong" than another, and that all aspects of that culture -- including its ethics and morality -- are no more right or wrong than any other, and that furthermore no one has the right to judge another culture. Basically, it says that "what's right for me is right for me, and what's right for you is right for you".

Take the Ik tribe of Central Africa. They "acknowledge no moral or social obligation to anyone or anything. Their standard of value is the self; their rule of life, to do whatever they wish. At age 3, children are put out of their parents' huts and thereafter sleep in the open, rain or shine. To survive, they gather in bands and form not friendships but temporary alliances, which are betrayed whenever convenience dictates... children learn to cry tears of malice, anger, or hate, butnever of sorrow.... The Ik's sexual expression typically is adulterous and is driven less by passion than by the desire to profit at someone else's expense. A neighbor's suffering evokes not pity or kindness but malicious glee. (observations by anthropologist Colin Turnbull, from his field study in the mid-1960's)*".

To tie this all together, according to cultural relativism, the Ik have the right to continue to behave as they do, treating others as they do, and no one else has the right to tell them that they are in the moral wrong to do so. Halverson would say that this is anarchy and reprehensible, and he might even liken this sort of dignifying of "evil" to issues we see arise in our own country, as so many criminals get off on some technicality or another, thus invalidating the point that they committed a crime and owe reparations to society.

The Ik live -- as described by Turnbull -- without any sort of moral conditions tying them to one another nor any other group. They are the basest culture I've ever heard of, where pleasure comes solely from enjoying the pain experienced by another. "They live without love, and they die alone*".

I argue that this is the inevitable end of people who cannot or will not "draw lines in the sand" for what is right and what is wrong. I argue that even if a 5 year old steals something, and that it is successfully argued that "she didn't know any better", that the crime of stealing remains unchanged, and that reparations to society are still appropriate.

Here's where I become unpopular in my thinking, but bear with me dear reader! It is only here that the details of the case should be considered. Only in judgement, not in deciding whether or not there was a crime committed. If something is stolen, it remains stolen regardless if a toddler took it, a seasoned criminal, or a forest animal. Even if it is successfully argued that Big Foot himself stole, the argument is not whether or not something was taken, but WHO took it.

Before we get way off track, let's get back to the thieving toddler. Should the toddler have her hand chopped off as might happen in some cultures as penance for stealing? No, that would be overkill. Should she be forced to serve time in prison? Nah. Should she be forced to return the item she stole? Sure, that's appropriate. I'd even go so far to say that she could spend an hour of her life in service to the person from whom she stole.

I personally that it is admirable to punish according to crimes. That upholds a standard and a consistency in society that would give the members of the society something they can count on, and a moral base by which they can decide their actions. This crazy society we have, where pleas of insanity often are used as some form of excuse, where deals are made to catch bigger fish or simply plea bargain to a lesser sentence, where repeat offenders do not necessarily receive stricter sentencing with each offense... this to me is anarchy. This is a lack of moral structure and substance. While everyone is fighting for individual rights, the "greater good" is completely forgotten or shoved aside. Cultural relativism is winning, and yet the result is that we have no culture.

For according to its own definition, we have no right to judge or be judged by another culture. So who wins? No one. It has no choice but to exist as "every man for himself". Slowly we are slipping into looser and looser cultural morality. I dread the days when I'm old enough to sit on the front porch and talk about the "good ole days". I fear that I've alredy seen the best this country has to offer its citizens, if things continue to progress as they have been.

If you disagree with me, I'd like to hear a detailed account as to why. I could use some cheering up.

*source: Vincent Ryan Ruggiero, Thinking Critically About Ethical Issues, 7th ed. pg. 52-53