Thursday, April 27, 2006

Changing Morality

Thanks to a Ms Rosenberg I now have another reason to doubt the morality of buying a CD – it's wasteful of the Earth's resources – although for me the most compelling one is continuing to support an unfair, moribund and in many ways actually evil system of supposed artist support.

Talk of morality seems to be in the air nowadays, though. But, short of turning to elliptical ancient texts, how are we to truly tell moral from evil? It will be interesting to see what happens in the almost-too-good-to-be-true class action by CD consumers against the major record labels – which claims in essence that they failed in their moral duty to embrace digital outlets such as Napster, instead using their financial and political power against them. We all know that this is indeed what happened, but it's unclear what the long-term consequences would be if the court found in favour of the complainants (that's us). Should an organization be punished for protecting its interests?

In the current vacuum it's understandable that some people are looking to the law for moral guidance. After all, don't politicians see themselves creating laws to rid the world of immoral behaviour (at least to the extent that they are able to kid themselves that this is such laws' real effect)? What other justification could there be for, for example, banning a drug that millions enjoy? But most of us realise that this isn't the whole picture, once backhanders and lobbyists come into play, and that even with the purest of hearts you can't use the might of the police force and prison service to hammer out a more moral world.

So much precedent has been built up, now, that any compainant can probably find something on which to hang their case, whatever it may be; so that Judges have practically a free hand to decide who's right on a given issue, with case law as their guide. Maybe we should ditch laws altogether, and resolve all disputes by jury, with no-blame restitution rather than punishment as the outcome.

We're quite clearly lost, morally: most people in the UK, and I gather many in the US, are still fairly comfortable being led by a man who demonstrably lied – not about his personal business, as is usually the case, but about a decision which cost thousands of lives.

How can a person, a people, become morally lost? Should we blame previous generations for not teaching wrong from right? As far as I know, they tried. But, as the simple CD purchase example shows us, morality is not a fixed thing; or at least its practical implementation is not fixed. We are doing our best, but the goalposts are always moving.

Then there is context to consider: by whom should I do right? This is how Blair and Bush get away with slaughtering Iraqis, by choosing a context that suits. Summon up a supposed threat to your own country, or – better – to democracy itself, and we now appear to be in a framework where 'a few' 'regrettable' 'foreign' 'casualties' seems at the very least like the lesser of two evils.

Maybe a step back will resolve the blurry line between… um, I'm not even sure what the polar opposite of moral is… let's say moral and misguided. I would like to propose a few axioms that might help focus things a little:

  1. We Are One.

    From now on, those by whom I should 'do right' is the entire human population of the Earth. It is no longer acceptable for us to divide ourselves into ghettoes, enclaves, quarters, countries, continents; it is not acceptable to divide us by physical factors (gender, race, sexual orientation, body type); by religion, background, cultural preference, political belief. To act morally, in this age of increased communication and interdependence, is to act with the awareness that we are one people.*

  2. Acceptance.

    To 'do right' is to act without judgement of others. We all know that making mistakes is part of what makes us human. More than that, it is a necessary part of learning; and one of the most important things we all have in common is our flexibility, our ability to adapt. So if I am to act morally I may not deplore, disparage, cast aspersions upon, deride, dismiss or belittle my fellow humans. I must accept their absolute right to be wrong, and treasure my own. And I must acknowledge that I can never be certain when I am right. A corolloary of this is Forgiveness. If I accept that people may make mistakes, I have to accept that sometimes they will do wrong by me. To forgive is to free both parties from guilt associated with past actions, to enable vital learning to take place. This also includes forgiving myself when I fail to act morally.

  3. Knowledge is value-neutral.

    We have an enormous capacity for discovery, a curiosity which has taken us from Pythagoras' Theorem to nuclear physics, from dog breeding to the structure of DNA. To act morally is to seek facts, regardless of their implications, and in the fullest knowledge available to us. It is not acceptable to suppress any fact or line of enquiry, although conversely it is out moral duty to stand up and argue against falsehood masquerading as truth, against malicious propganda, against pseudoscience. Beliefs are temporary conveniences, not absolutes, and to hold on dogmatically to an untenable theory is a very unhealthy state to be in. I must bear in mind, though, that I and others will at various times do just this, and respect is mandated for those with whom I disagree.

  4. Groups are not people.

    It perhaps seems odd to have to say this, but we often treat them as if they are. Groups of people are powerful things, and their founding principles have a tendency to run away with the people involved and outlive their usefulness; a self-preservation instinct which sometimes runs counter to the needs of everyone. While harming a fellow human on purpose is unlikely to prove a sound action, attempting to destroy an institution may become a moral imperative (while of course maintaining a moral attitude towards the actual humans involved). Not an easy task, to put it mildly. No wonder we often lose our moral compass when engaged in political battles.

  5. Trust.

    The most important axiom of all, though I almost didn’t include it. It has become very hard to trust unconditionally, and I'm inclined to think of this as a goal rather than an imperative. If I trust no-one, I am truly alone. Conversely, if we can each find a way to trust every single person on this planet, then we truly will be as one. I do not accept the cliché that trust has to be earned. We may choose to give our trust freely, and expect to receive the same in return. A trusting action is always a moral one, though currently the inverse may not be so. We are only just becoming fully aware of ourselves as part of the most gigantic extended family conceivable. With the arrival of the world wide web, we need never be alone, but the magintude of the family, its diversity, may be overwhelming. If you can't manage trust, go with acceptance.

(Some might wish to include animals in axiom 1, but I beg to differ. At the present juncture it seems to me the priority is to get people thinking in a pro-people way. Consideration towards other beings on our planet is of course important, and recent research has shown us that we're perhaps closer to some animals than we thought we were. Indeed it is possible that some other species may be on the verge of an evolutionary leap not dissimilar to the one which first singled out humans as thinking, communicating, social creatures. We are certainly fortunate that our ancestors had the opportunity to make mistakes and still survive, a luxury not afforded many animals. In time we may well have to adjust or discard these axioms – that is the nature of the changing moral map. But right now, whether we like it or not, we are in charge.)

This is all starting to seem a bit abstract, so a concrete example is probably in order. Consider Google's recent decision to submit to Chinese government censorship. This action has been widely deplored, so the first thing to do is notice that, in accordance with the acceptance axiom, we mustn't judge the humans behind this decsion. (While our moral structure compels us to act in the knowledge that we are all one human race, it allows us to take any position we choose in relation to the non-human entity called Google, which clearly is not the same thing as the people who comprise it.)

It has been widely assumed that the decision to set up was a business decision based on a desire to enter the large and underdeveloped Chinese market, with a justification that – as a company based in a Western democracy – Google is well placed to introduce a less censorious atmosphere in China. If these assumptions are true, did Google's leaders 'do right' by the people of China, by the people of their native America, by the people of the world?

Let's try to put ourselves in the position of those responsible for this policy – presumably Larry Page and Sergey Brin – and consider the axioms. I see no grounds to argue on the basis of Acceptance: China's leaders, for reasons of their own, probably having to do with fear, have seen fit to build the Great Firewall of China, to filter what they see as subversive content; and Google has acknowleged this, while maintaining an anti-censorship position towards the rest of the world.

However, it seems that Page and Brin have fallen woefully short on axioms 1 and 3: they have divided the world into those with full access to the web, and those without, or at least collaborated in this division. All the while Google stood outside the Great Firewall, the lopsided treatment of Chinese citizens was not its responsibility. By entering the ring of fire, it – and more importantly the people of Google – have become party to censorship, which is a clear violation of 3, the knowledge axiom.

How might we approach the purported 'good influence' that Google intends to have on the Chinese authorities? Apparently censored pages will be indicated as such, which will probably make Chinese citizens more aware of their government's interference that they are already. But is this enough? Having already broken two fundamental axioms along the way, key principles of kinship with fellow humans, it's hard to see how the folk behind Google can live with themselves. But perhaps we could still see in a moral light their actions if we knew they had a clear strategy to break down the knowledge division between China and the rest of the world. Without inside knowledge we can go no further, but this will usually be the way with moral questions. Because of axiom 2, each human must ultimately be their own moral arbiter. The principles may be fixed, but their interpretation is up to you. Google itself is a nonhuman, nonsentient entity, so inherently amoral. Only Google insiders can decide if they are acting morally or not. The rest of us may harbour suspicions, we may continue to challenge them, we may organize boycotts and demonstrations, we may build darknets to increase China's access to information, but we may not stand in judgement on Google people. We may not attack them in the street, taunt their children or firebomb their homes.

These axioms are not easy to follow. I am liable to be criticised heavily by people who know me, on the grounds that I regularly break them myself. My transgressions, though, are precisely why I felt the need to write this. I want to live more morally, more in tune with my fellow people. I want to do good. And I so desperately need help in finding true moral North. The axioms weren't so hard to write: I knew them all along, in fact, as I suspect most people do. Morality may be constantly shifting, but not so quickly I think that principles like these are of no use.

Neither do I believe that we can pick and choose the ones we like. Being a fallible human I have almost certainly missed something, perhaps an important touchstone that's just a little too uncomfortable, and as any good netizen should, I invite and welcome amendments, additions, comments and criticism.