Treating people [more] equally
If we are to endure we probably have no other choice
I was re-watching Sam Harris' 2010 TED talk about the moral landscape just few days before the hostilities began and I've noticed a fine line that he danced around but didn't quite cross. I believe that fine line is of utmost importance for us today.
In case you didn't see the talk, I do recommend it. Yes, TED is a mixed bag but come on, this is Sam Harris. As a writer and speaker on a subject of morality, Harris is probably doing something right. Even if you disagree with him on principle or just generally hate his guts, it is worth knowing what the principle is about.
To summarise, like many moral objectivists before him, he proposes that ethics is not subjective. He believes science can voice objective opinions on morality like it does on the matters of physics. That means that somebody like the Taliban, he names them specifically multiple times, could be objectively morally wrong.
Like many utilitarians before him, he proposes a simple test: if the action leads to more well-being, it's morally good and if not, well, it isn't. There are two important avenues for thought he avoids in his argument. I am not blaming him, he only had 18 minutes. But from what I gather, quite a lot of people avoid these avenues. I will try to explore them here.
The first question is: well-being for whom? Humans are notoriously tribalistic. For better or worse, we are wired to favour well-being of close kin over strangers in case there's conflict. I'm not saying "armed conflict" even, any trivial conflict will do. If I have a spare shirt there's no question I will give it to my friends over strangers in West Africa.
The whole problem with Ukraine is about certain (and quite substantial, one has to admit) percentage of Russians prioritising Russia-leaning people of the East of Ukraine over a much larger number of EU-leaning Ukrainians simply because they don't feel enough affinity towards the latter. Donbass are neighbours, so love thy neighbour. People in Kiev are not neighbours. Bomb them.
Very few people are immune to this bias. I've recently collected three boxes of stuff I no longer need as a part of a major house clean-up. What do I do with these boxes? My priorities are clear: 1) sell it 2) give it away to my friends 3) give it away to strangers or donate to charity 4) recycle 5) throw into the bin. In that exact order. I am not going to give to the strangers anything I can sell, unless the trouble of selling (which is substantial) exceeds the selling price. By the same token I'm not gonna give to strangers anything I can give to my friends. Granted, I don't bomb strangers, but these things are not quite as remote as many people seem to believe.
That is an obvious problem. Many utilitarians tried to solve it. Joshua Greene in Moral Tribes proposed that we have to evolve away from Homo Justlikeus and to learn to value well-being of all people equally. Or else. We live in an interconnected world awash with weapons of mass destruction, let's not not forget about that for a second. Every conflict, even about three boxes of stuff can escalate to a global nuclear war over a course of a few years. Evolve or die, that's the choice. But for better or worse, evolution is not something you have a lot of control over. Evolution just works in its mysterious ways. For a lot of species dying out was an easier choice.
A neat mental trick is to try and adopt "a point of view of the Universe". This is the name of the book co-authored by another leading utilitarian philosopher of our time, Peters Singer (and which I confess, didn't read). Look at it from the perspective of the Universe, here's the argument in a nutshell. Objectivity requires distance. If you look from above, everybody is equal. Trouble with this idea is that not only everybody and everything is equal, but also equally unimportant and inconsequential. Even nuclear Holocaust on Earth is just a tiny flicker in The Dao, the eternal toing and froing of the Universe.
If that is a bit too far, then what's the optimal distance? There's no answer to that. Major religions were trying to answer this for ages without a lot of success. When people talk about the final judgement, the eternal life in heaven/hell, about infinite reincarnations, it is more or less the same talk. They are trying to keep some human values (heaven is clearly good while hell is not) while abstracting from some of the others. Which values should we keep? Every religion has a different view on what "the point of view of the Universe" is, exactly. There's little universal (forgive the pun) agreement between religion over who goes to hell, and who — to heaven.
Also, what is well-being, anyway? There's no answer to that either. It's not physical comfort, it's not even lack of suffering. Suffering can be morally good. This is why fasting and abstinence from the pleasures of life is good. This is what martyrdom is all about. You suffer and then you're saved. The Christ suffered and precepted that for us, or so they say in my Mother Russia. Religion did not evolve to maximise individual well-being, at least not in any future one can foresee.
This is what our misunderstanding with Taliban is all about. You don't force women to wear veils because it maximises their regular, garden-variety well-being in this life. You force them because it maximises spiritual well-being for everyone (sic!) in the version of heaven members of Taliban espouse.
And you can't go, "oh by well-being we mean individual well-being in this life". Morals, likely, didn't evolve to maximise well-being of individuals but rather survival of the group in the long run. And that "long run" is much longer than any individual life. WAY longer.
So, what do we do? We can't define well-being, people have different values. That’s inescapable. We can't un-love our friends and relatives, and so we can't treat everybody equally. If you can only save only one person from a burning building I would still suggest the moral obligation is to save your mother, not a random stranger or even a philosophy professor with interesting ideas.
But what if you can save two strangers over your mother? Three? A thousand? I would argue that genocide begins when the exchange coefficient of "your people" to "other people" exceeds roughly five. If you're willing to sacrifice five people or more to save one person you like — that makes you a moral monster. Why five? I don't know. Maybe three. This is not a number born out of complex calculations. It's just a feeing. I don't believe this problem has a clear mathematical solution, anyway.
Trouble is not that some people want revenge over what happened to their friends and relatives. Well, this is troublesome, but relatable. The real trouble is a total loss of proportion. Let's kill ten times the number. This is bonkers. One cannot justify that. Killing "a lot of them" to save "a few of us" is the essence of war and genocide. This is what must be stopped. I know, it’s hard to stop, especially when “a lot of them” are trying to kill “a lot of us”. Still.
I don't suggest that as individuals, we should treat people equally. I also don't suggest that as a society, we should equalise all outcomes. This is nether possible, nor desirable. But I do suggest we treat people MORE equally. Discriminating is easy. It happens mostly by itself. You can not not discriminate. Treating people more equally requires an effort. Perhaps we should try and do this. Perhaps if we are to endure as a civilisation capable of inventing nuclear weapons, we have no other choice.
If I am to follow this idea in my own life, by the end of it I will not have a few close friends or relatives I'm fiercely loyal to. I will have a lot of semi-strangers I sympathise with. Would this be a good situation? Is this what I want? I don't know. I think this is where I reach the limit of my ignorance, for now at least. Thank you for reading.