Ethics, Philosophy, Principle and our minds

When I worked at Finisar and wrote essays I tried to make many of them on subjects relating to optical and high-speed networking. But inside Small World Group, I am free to range more broadly in what you see here.

Lately, I have been thinking long about how we are approaching a crisis in terms of the moral framework in which we make decisions. Let me give you a modern example pulled from the pages of today’s newspapers.

Our government, George Bush and those that work directly for him have a large number of detainees down in a US naval base on a tip of Cuba. Some of these people have been subjected to extreme forms of questioning that may have been torture (1), (2), (3), (4). In one recent book, the author goes so far as to suggest that if President Bush were to travel to a foreign country, like France or England, after his term in office, that he should be arrested and tried as a war criminal!

The problem is that the argument has substance and it also suggests a moral dilemma.

Let’s suppose that through non-lethal and non-long term harmful torture US interrogators were able to find out the details of a plot similar to 911, one where the loss of life and property would be measured in the 1000s or even millions of people. And by this torture this loss or life would be prevented. Is the torture ethical? Does the end justify the means?

How do our citizens think through this matter?

In the past the world laws that are embodied in things like the Geneva Convention have governed many aspects of war from the treatment of wounded on the battlefield to the treatment of prisoners. And today this specifically calls for there to be no torture used on prisoners.

But when these laws were adopted, the range of damage that was possible was much smaller than it is today where there are weapons of mass destruction and where the opportunity for harm can be exported so far from the site of the conflict. Do these world laws and conventions of behavior fairly assign the rights and protections to the people both combatants and civilians?

If you like thinking about such matters, there are some interesting sites that present similar stories where the ethical or moral dilemma is put with simplicity and stark contrast. Take a look and see what you would do. Remember you have to make a choice, even doing nothing as your choice has consequences.

Small World Group is beginning work to define a new philanthropic effort called “The 12” and through this group we will be providing non-profit funds for people who will act as social venture capitalists. The investments they will hopefully make will be in areas of knowledge creation that will expand our critical thinking and practices in many of these areas. You can link to The 12 on SWG’s home page and watch as the group definitions and first members get started.

By putting ethics into our efforts to cause change and in the broadest possible meaning we will come under potentially much criticism. But we need to progress in our understanding of ethics. There are so many ways that we compromise ethical thinking –

  • a recent article in Scientific American on the ethics of climate change highlighted a weakness in that we have little means to think through an extinction level change. What if global warming would release methane from the permafrost so that temperatures rose 20 degrees or more. That would surely cause loss of nearly all or fully all human life. But current science only judges this to be a 5% probability. How much sacrifice do we ask from current living people to save the lives of those not even born based on a 5% chance?
  • there will always be differences between people so differences in wealth are probably natural in some sense as well. How much is ethical though? Am I worth more than all others? But I have probably done more philanthropy than most others as well. Would difficult philanthropy ever get done with out accumulation of wealth? How do we understand wealth in a future where uneven distribution may very directly relate to ability to survive extreme conditions brought on by our own excesses?
  • What is the value to our world of a very challenged human. Do we keep a very bad criminal (known bad) alive at the expense of much poorer education for large numbers of children?
  • Do we continue to allow religion to define so much of what happens on our planet. In a time when weapons are so powerful, can we allow the survival of a religion that teaches the full inhumanity of all non-believers and therefore total disrespect for their lives and beliefs?
  • Can democracy work in a time when the voting masses may not be able to understand a global life-death level decision because the lack the technical and mental ability to understand the arguments? Can we survive if people vote for much better lives now at the sacrifice of the future lives of many or all?

Anyway, I am so convinced that we need new modes of thought, science, living, respect for one another and our planet. We need ideas as sweeping in ethics and philosophy as quantum mechanics and general relativity were to science 100 years ago. Before these to key pillars of all modern technology, many believed all that would be discovered had been discovered.

And now for 2000+ years we have not evolved far in ethical thought areas so we believe that religion and Greek philosophy define the center and circumference of what we need for ethics, morals, philosophy. Moreover, we lack systems of thought that even make change in these areas possible.

In science there are mechanisms for helping sift truth from false ideas. Even then there are major challenges to making changes. But in religion, once an idea has been part of such an organization of humans for more than 100 years, it becomes the word of God and then cannot be challenged by any human. Change then takes 1000s of years not 10s of years. We may not have such a period of time …

Posted in Essays, Green Perspectives, Spiritual Threads

  1. Christina says:

    Though science may have the mechanism for sifting truth from falsehoods, there are many theories that have become religon. And there are non-scientific spiritual precepts that are true.
    Moral dilemma seems party due to tying together the unrelated. Why, for example, should the cost of prisoners be related to the lack of resources for our childrens education? Why should the wealth of conservative spenders be tied to the poverty of overspenders.
    I heartily agree with your call for new thoughts on living and society and I am really glad you are willing to step out and think about these things Frank!

  2. Glenn Gleason says:


    I thought of you when I read this post from Gary Becker. I enjoyed your post from June 21st on “Ethics, Philosophy, Principle and our minds” and I thought some of the perspectives you might find of interest.

    I think the concept and implementation of “The 12” is fantastic. I would love to learn some more about it.

    Another good read on this front is “The Ethicist” by Randy Cohen every Sunday in the New York Times Magazine.

    All the best – Glenn Gleason

  3. Uwe Daniel says:

    I would like to introduce two lines of thought to your ideas above:
    First: We are all human beings and as such individuals with responsibility for our deeds. An army officer who carries out water banking is responsible for his/her act of torture (and for those who believe in Karma a relation between torturer and victim is created which will need to be balanced in the future – between the two human beings, not between army and terror organisation). It is probably the biggest cause of un-ethical behaviour that people hide behind their roles or organisations instead of taking personal responsibility. But – you must reach a state of mind where you are really free to decide, as long as one follows others rules (driven by fear, greed, hate etc) he/she is not free. The main reason why we usually not act like this is that we think the bad boys get away with it – which is not true if there is a spiritual world behind the material world.
    Second: We can probably change our political, social and economical systems to foster freedom of individuals hence giving them the chance to act ethically without fear of repression: it is a division of society into three independent domains: economy, legal system, science.
    Science (including ethic/spiritual development/education of people) must be free of commercial pressures, the legal framework concentrates on “each human must be equal under the law” and in the economic domain free trade without political influence is key. This is a very short description of Rudolf Steiners concept, there are many books on it and it is not trivial to understand and achive, but the best model I’ve come across.
    I love to see that people like “the 12” start by taking personal responsibility serious. Your “zero energy” house is a logical step in the same direction.

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