Crawl Across the Ocean

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

66. Dimensions of Morality

Note: This post is the sixty-sixth in a series about government and commercial ethics. Click here for the full listing of the series. The first post in the series has more detail on the book 'Systems of Survival' by Jane Jacobs which inspired this series.

In his book, Morals by Agreement' David Gauthier defined a 'moral' as an 'impartial constraint' but it wasn't always clear what it was a restraint on

Asked this question, some might say that morals are a constraint on self-interest, a requirement to, say (for example) 'do unto others as you would have done onto you.'

There's no doubt that behaviour towards other people is a part of morality, but it can't be the only part.

Recall, from many posts back, Francis Fukuyama describing Max Weber's Protestant Ethic,
"The capacity for hard work, frugality, rationality, innovativeness, and openness to risk are all entrepreneurial virtues that apply to individuals and could be exercised by Robinson Crusoe on his proverbial desert island. But there is also a set of social virtues, like honesty, reliability, cooperativeness and a sense of duty to others, that are essentially social in nature."

This distinction of the morals making up the 'protestant work ethic' coincides fairly well with the division of the commercial syndrome ethics described by Jane Jacobs into two blocks, as described in an earlier post: A block containing virtues such as honesty and non-violence which is social in nature and which ensures that transactions are win-win, and a block containing virtues such as innovativeness, efficiency and industriousness that can mostly be practiced on one's own.

The first block is indeed constraints on the pursuit of self-interest while the second block is clearly a constraint on something else - in my view the primary constraint there is the constraint imposed on our tendency to place too much weight on the present and not enough on the future.

What about the guardian syndrome?

Many of the guardian syndrome ethics relate to other people, but they diverge depending on whether those 'other people' are part of a person's group or not.

Virtues such as 'exert prowess' and 'deceit for the sake of the task' and 'take vengeance' are generally directed at those who are not considered part of the group, while virtues such as ' be loyal' 'be obedient' and 'dispense largesse' are clearly directed at those who are considered part of the group.

There are a few guardian virtues that don't directly involve other people, and these 'make rich use of leisure' 'adhere to tradition' and 'be fatalistic' These seem generally designed, as far as I can tell, to counteract a desire of one person to get ahead of others via working extra hard, or innovating or imagining a better way of doing things, so perhaps there is an indirect relationship with other people there as well.

So what's my point?

My point is that what I feel we need in our quest to get to the bottom of the systems of survival is a middle ground between, on the one hand, the sort of attitude expressed by Dierdre McCloskey in 'The Bourgeois Virtues' (as covered earlier) - an attitude that says that all the different virtues are a dimension onto themselves that can't be compared to other virtues or made commensurate with them in any way, and on the other hand, an attitude that everything can be reduced to a single axis, for example, that ethics is solely about the denial (or proper role) of self-interest.

The two primary dimensions that are represented in the ethics listed by Jane Jacobs in Systems of Survival, are self vs. others and current self. vs. later self.

Within the guardian system, the dimension of self vs. others in turn seems to be further divided depending on whether the others are part of our group or part of an enemy group.

Within the commercial system, groups don't seem to play a role, and others are just others, with neither a need to treat them as hostile (with deceit and force) but neither a need to treat them with sympathy (via loyalty, obedience and generosity).

No, I didn't really cover any new ground here, just trying to organize my thoughts a little before continuing onwards.

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