The Value of Gold: ethics and world views

by E. Alan Meece (Eric A. Meece)

In ethics, there is one concept that is taught universally in all religions: the golden rule. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Treat others as you would wish to be treated. A few months ago, my minister quoted the golden rule as formulated by about 15 different religions, and each one sounded almost identical.

The question arises: how do we wish to be treated? What would we have others do unto us? If we wish to kill ourselves, the rule isnít too useful. The golden rule assumes that we wish ourselves to be well treated. We have to want to be treated well, before we know how we wish others to treat us. This implies that, for the golden rule to work, we must care about ourselves.

Then we must go further. We must put ourselves in the other personís shoes. We need to imagine how the other person would feel if (s)he were us, and to see things from the otherís point of view. That way, we can care about the other person, just as we care about ourselves.

The philosopher Kant put the golden rule in a language that appeals to philosophers, and it was called the categorical imperative. "Act only according to that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law" which "must hold for all rational beings." To paraphrase, it says to act according to a rule that you would have all sensible people observe. Obviously, sensible people probably donít commit suicide. In other words, act according to a rule that you would have others act according to. Eventually the imperative is transmuted into the following form: consider humans as ends, not as means only. In other words, human beings are intrinsically valuable. Kant says we are to care about human beings for their own sake, not for how they may be used for some ulterior motive. (Kant, Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals, Bobbs-Merrill, pp.39, 43, 47 (422, 425,427)

The question becomes, if the golden rule is the primary basis for ethical conduct, how should it affect how we conduct business? Are there other ethical principles that are more relevant and useful? Letís assume that the golden rule in its several forms is enough to guide ethical conduct. It should be evident that this is a demanding standard for American free enterprise, because its governing principle is quite contrary.

The governing principle of American business is, according to generally accepted accounting priinciples: do whatever is necessary to provide a profitable return for the owners or stockholders. This is the bottom line. It is a rule of gold, rather than a golden rule. Whatever serves this bottom line is right and proper conduct. Treat others, as the owners demand they be treated, so that the owners receive a profit.

Quite clearly, the rule of gold may often conflict with the golden rule. As owners, we may have to treat others as means to the end-- the bottom line. We may have to do things to people that we would not like to have them do to us. For example, we may have to fire them if our company needs to downsize to cut expenses and maintain its profit margin. We may have to run our competitors out of business by undercharging them in the marketplace. We may not be able to afford all the wages, safety standards, working conditions, and health insurance for our workers, that we would like to have if we were the workers ourselves.

In other respects, however, the golden rule may complement the rule of gold. If we offer a product which we ourselves would wish to buy, then we might do good business. If we treat our customers with respect, they might enjoy doing business with us. If we provide as much as we can for our employees, they might not look elsewhere for better opportunities.

However, we might decide to let the rule of gold operate separately from the golden rule. For example, we might rely on clever sales techniques to convince people to buy poor products. If it works, we would make money, and still not have to spend too much on making a good product that lives up to the sales pitch. This might not work if pushed too far, or too long. Yet we all know how fully American business relies on advertising to sell us products year after year that we would not otherwise buy, and which are not good for us. Or we might decide to use some clever bookkeeping to create assets that donít really exist, in order to boost the value of our companyís stock far beyond its true worth. Then we could cash in by selling our stock before the truth gets out, and leave our employees holding the bag with worthless shares. Or we might leverage our wealth to buy the votes of politicians to enact a deregulation scheme that allows us to charge ridiculously high prices. These tactics might lead our company to ruin, if we get caught; but for a while at least they would be extremely profitable.

In addition, what if we provide a product that people want, but which destroys the environment and gobbles up needed resources. Take SUVs, for example. They are roomier and more powerful. But they use more of our resources, and pollute more air. In the long run, to fully apply the golden rule, we would have to consider not only how our customers might like our products, but also how the environment they all depend on might be affected. As business owners observing the golden rule, we not only have to consider how our customers wish to be treated, but how all the people in society wish to be treated. For example, nearby residents to a chemical plant donít wish to have their air and water polluted. Inevitably, however, following the golden rule means violating the rule of gold, because it costs money to do whatís right, and most businesses still prefer to follow only the rule of gold unless society steps in; unless they can be convinced that the golden rule is actually more profitable in the long run than the rule of gold. Perhaps the very nature of the golden rule not only requires the ability to see from anotherís point of view, but also the ability to see from the long view.

The more controversial philosophical question I want to bring into the discussion is this: how do our prevalent world views affect ethical conduct? Do some world views or metaphysical outlooks facilitate observance of the golden rule better than others? An even more difficult question is this: should world views be evaluated on the basis of whether they facilitate ethical conduct, or solely on the basis of whether they are true and verifiable? Is ethics itself based on principles which are true, as Kant thought, or is ethics based solely on our preferences and wishes? Also, should we be concerned that people might feel insulted if we criticize their world view, because this view doesnít in our opinion facilitate ethical conduct? Could there even be a danger that world views thought to be "mmoral" could be repressed, and people holding them silenced or imprisoned? In short, could evaluating world views ethically, itself lead to unethical conduct?

There are two world views which predominate in our society today. The first might be called the traditional world view, and the second the modernist world view. The first is based on religion. At first glance, this view might seem preferable from an ethical point of view, because after all it is the source of the golden rule. Yet it has problems which we all know about. As often interpreted, it sets itself up as the one truth, and the one morality, both never to be questioned. This can lead to intolerance, and to the violation of its own golden rule. We donít wish to be burned at the stake, or even preached at, because we believe the wrong religion. Many of us also wish to be free to determine the truth using our own faculties of reason and observation, rather than be fed the truth through dogma one is told to accept. At least, this applies to all those who wish to live in a free society, which depends on people deciding for themselves what the truth is, and what should be done, rather than just deferring to the authorities to decide these questions as if they always knew best.

The second or modernist world view is based on science. This view at least has the advantage that it depends on our reasoning and observing abilities that religion often ignores. However, as often interpreted, the scientific world view also poses ethical problems. The goal of science is, simply put, objectivity. Truth in science is what can be replicated and predicted to occur for more than one observer. The problem with objectivity, is that it is an impossible standard to meet; it can only be approached. This is because science always depends on subjective observers. In the drive to meet the goal, however, one often forgets this, and it becomes easy to believe that one can construct a theory that would be true, even if noone observed it to be true. Everything is thus thought to be fully explainable in objective terms.

Such interpretations of science are called "reductionist," meaning that all knowledge must be reduced to the most objective possible view. It is this reductionism that has serious ethical problems. The actual observer, the human being, becomes irrelevant, and the world is seen as composed of objects. If you can only examine objects, and not yourself, then it becomes impossible to know how you wish to be treated, and thereís no basis for the golden rule. Whatís worse, if the world is composed of objects, then it becomes impossible to view other people as subjects, because they too are objects.

In some circles this doctrine is almost unquestioned. For example, human consciousness, thought and behavior are reduced to observable objects such as genes and brain chemistry. Because everything, including humans, are seen to be objects by science, this has become common sense and permeates our culture. But if human beings are objects, then they can be seen as commodities. Customers are not people with real needs and aspirations, but numbers on a balance sheet. Workers become cogs in the assembly line, or blips on a computer screen. Individuals donít count; only trends or statistics that can be measured objectively. Human beings become means, and not ends in themselves. In fact, the very question of ends is seen to be meaningless by some interpreters of this world view. Morals and values are seen as merely arbitrary, because there is no objectively observable and replicable experiment that can establish them.

If this critique is correct, then the behavior of American business is shaped in part by this world view. It becomes easier to view human beings as commodities, and to move and shuffle them around without regard to their wishes as individuals. People become, in fact, seen as objects to be used, not ends in themselves. An individualís value is determined by their usefulness in the marketplace, and net worth is substituted for self worth. People succumb to the pressure to make money, rather than follow their wishes and dreams. They become incapable of observing themselves and looking within. They can no longer know what they really want; only what society wants. If the unexamined life is not worth living, then clearly the lives of many people today are not worth living.

Clearly then, there are some problems with the scientific world view, in its reductionist interpretation. It violates the golden rule, because most of us do not wish to be seen as mere objects, and certainly not treated as such. Furthermore, like religion, it can conflict with our desire for a free society. In science, truth is what is replicable in repeated observations, and the goal is to be able to predict the behavior of objects. But if human behavior can be understood as predictable, then it cannot be free. A society that continually seeks to describe and treat people as predictable objects, cannot in the long run maintain its freedom.

I am what is described as a cultural creative, which means that my world view is neither traditional, nor modernist. Probably it is not post-modernist either, depending on your definition of post-modernism. Instead I am interested in helping to create a new culture based on a new world view. One key to the direction this new culture is going, is indicated in how I described the problems with the old world views. It is not religion or science itself that are the problem, but the ways they are often interpreted. Specifically, the problems arise when they are interpreted as the only truth, which is too limiting and conflicts with our desire for freedom. For the cultural creative, religion need not be seen as dogma to be believed, but as truth to be experienced for ourselves. We know and experience ourselves and the world as divine, and informed by a divine presence.

In the same way, science need not be reductionist. There is no problem with creating objective models to describe behavior. We may derive useful and important knowledge this way. The problem arises when these models are seen as comprehensive. The question then becomes, is reductionism true, as so often alleged? If so, the modernists claim, it doesnít matter whether it is ethical or not. Science can only concern itself with what is objectively verifiable, not with our desires and preferences in how we wish to be treated.

This question cannot be resolved in a short essay, but in brief, I do not believe reductionism to be true. It makes a fundamental category mistake, by seeking to explain the subjective by means of the objective. For example, explaining pleasure by means of the pleasure center in the brain, omits the fact that we must still ask a living subject whether (s)he is experiencing pleasure, in order to verify this explanation. There are no objects without subjects, and all scientific observations are made by subjective observers.

In addition, we experience ourselves as free as well as conscious subjects. We might construct elaborate scientific theories in which this freedom is explained as determined by unconscious causes, external to ourselves as subjects. But such explanations themselves require prior causes, and one never reaches the first cause in the chain. What this proves is not that God exists as the first cause of the chain, but that the chain is absurd to begin with. Our behavior in each moment is ultimately free and unpredictable. What scientific models can describe, are those aspects of behavior that are not free, but which can be described through probabilities and statistics. It can also estimate the extent to which its models can be applied to behavior. It need not, therefore, assume that the models describe behavior completely, because there is always a degree of freedom and unpredictability which the models cannot grasp. Using this approach, there is no ethical problem with the scientific view.

But what if my analysis is incorrect? What if reductionism is true? How can it be criticized on moral or ethical grounds alone? In fact, it cannot be so criticized. Science must be allowed to follow its own methods to their conclusion. However, science does not live in a moral vaccuum. Standing outside the method, we can observe that a particular theory may have unethical consequences, both in how it is applied, and how it shapes our perceptions of the world and each other. This can serve as motivation among scientists, not to reject the theory, but to reexamine it rather than take it for granted. Scientists often take their theories for granted, even if they are not supposed to. Scientific revolutions are rare and difficult. Scientists, just like the rest of us, are reluctant to abandon a theory or world view that seems to be serving them well.

Some maintain, however, that science does indeed live in a moral vaccuum, and that its theories and worldviews are just ideas and have no consequences. They disagree that scientific ideas can shape our perceptions of reality, and that this might influence our behavior. Against this I can cite a few obvious and extreme examples. Those who honestly believe that science proves certain races biologically superior to others, have used this belief to oppress or destroy other races. Those who believe that the fittest organisms survive, use their belief to defend unfettered competition in the marketplace, leading to its domination by a wealthy few. Those who believe that economic forces and collective entities are real, and individuals only their products, use this belief to wipe out individual freedoms and tranform society into a gigantic machine. Those who believe that humans are mere biological objects, may deny all motivations besides biological survival, thus justifying greed as the only viable motive for human conduct. Those who believe that the world is composed of objects see no problem in using these objects for our own survival, rather than see them as valuable for their own sake, and this leads to environmental destruction and degradation.

We could wait for science to disprove these theories as untrue. Meanwhile though, perhaps it is better to be on our guard against reductionist theories, and view them skeptically. On the other hand, do such reductionist views necessarily lead to unethical interpretations? Is a totally objective world, a world of objects, inherently devoid of value? Some say that we can still treat others and ourselves as we wish to be treated, while still seeing them as objects. Living objects, for example, are valuable because they have elaborate and complex nervous systems. They may be appreciated for their beauty. Indeed, gold is valuable. So are precious works of art. Mountains and rivers are held sacred.

I would say, on the contrary, that as beautiful and valuable as objects may be, they acquire their worth because they are held valuable by living, conscious beings. Human beings set the value of gold. And if human beings are to be valued merely as complex nervous systems, then they have the same value as a computer. However highly developed artificial intelligence may become, as long as it cannot plug itself in, it will remain a machine-- valuable only because of its usefulness to human beings. To hold other beings and the world sacred, then, they must be seen as free, conscious and alive; or at least not reducible to objects devoid of life and freedom. Martin Buberís "I-Thou" relationship seems indispensible to me. It is a moral truth. If we see others as Thou, we treat them better than if we see them as It. We thus see them as subjects, valuable in themselves, just as we see ourselves as subjects. We are more likely to follow Kantís advice to treat others as ends rather than means. Our fellow beings, and the golden rule, are more valuable than gold.

The final problem I shall try to deal with in this essay is this: is it ethical to criticize other peopleís worldview? How can we raise these issues without insulting people, or seeming to threaten their right to their opinions? There are several ways to approach this problem. People may believe for example that humans can be reduced to biological machines, yet still believe strongly in ethical principles like the golden rule. Not everyone is consistent in their beliefs; consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds. The two ideas may thus cancel each other out. However, a person might still be insulted by being told that he canít think consistently.

Another way to look at this is to admit that reductionist views might themselves have some moral advantages. One may feel more compassion, for example, for people in pain. Materialist reductionism might in this case lead to a desire to help, because the person's pain is believed to be caused by something beyond their control, and thus cannot help themselves. A more spiritualist or non-reductionist attitude, on the other hand, might lead to a belief that since the person created their own pain, they should be able to deal with it themselves without any help. If a worldview really leads a person to ethical conduct such as compassion for pain, I canít really criticize the person for his worldview, whatever I think of it. On the other hand, there are problems with seeing people as helpless victims, because we may not respect a personís ability. You might be asked by a reductionist to submit to what the state or the doctor orders, because they know whatís good for you. You therefore lose your own voice and your own rights in how your pain is treated.

What is necessary, therefore, is not to condemn any one worldview as always wrong, but to be willing honestly and fairly to examine the ethical implications of our views. Reasonable people can differ on this question, and more than one view may be correct, depending on the circumstances. This is not moral relativism, but moral concern, enlightened by breadth of insight into the different ethical effects that different ideas and worldviews can have.

Whenever I can, then, I can approach the question in terms of how world views work for me. I feel empowered and enlivened when I think of others as Thou rather than It, and I feel more confident that I will do the right thing. I also feel empowered when I respect my abilities. The greater the freedom I allow to others, whether they follow my wishes or not, the less tension I feel within myself because of my desire to impose my will on them. But I donít look at myself or others as all-powerful either, because we are all in this business together. We are co-creators. For me, to be a cultural creative is empowering and liberating. And I am confident that this is the way forward to a more ethical society. I invite you to join me, if you wish.

Clarifying Ethical Issues by E. Alan Meece, based on a paper not accepted for SJSU Philosophy Conference
Philosophy on a Circle by E. Alan Meece
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