Monday, April 18, 2016

Standards for Civilization

No supernatural beings decreed the rules of human conduct; the evolutionary survivors learned them from their survival experiences and passed them on through social encoding and likely via genetics as well. The shaman recovering from starvation hallucinations may have proclaimed that the tribal gods decreed that murder was wrong long before any scribe chiseled “Thou Shall Not Murder” onto any tablets. Losing a productive member of your extended family meant that there was less labor available for hunting or digging up roots or fighting off competing tribes. Likewise, killing angered the relatives of the deceased, which often lead to more killing. Even if fratricide was contained, it would negatively impact the cohesion and cooperation necessary for the survival of the group and, by extension, endangered every individual. Social behavior requires regulation in order for extended groups to survive. Human regulation requires agreement on social principles even if there is no one immediately available and strong enough to enforce them.

The popular stereotype for these rules is of course “The Ten Commandments” of Abrahamic lore, although the historically inclined may reference the Code of Hammurabi from around 1754 BC. Different societies have different formats and rules (in fact, there are several variations in statement of the Ten Commandments among the Abrahamics), often including local prejudices presented as “universal,” i.e., “deity-ordained” rules. Regardless, most of them contain some common elements regarding murder, familial roles, and property. (The religious edicts of course include how people are expected to demonstrate their fealty to the preferred supernatural personality who is presented as the Ultimate Enforcer.)

Secular society does not (officially) worship at the altar of any specific god and develops its own laws through debate, negotiation, and legislation addressing social needs – and preferred prejudices. History tells us that societies with their rules and prejudices all too often come into conflict with the agendas of other groups, and then there is conflict until there is a winner or a compromise. Too often that involves significant suffering, and this appears to clash with what appears to be another innate trait called “the Theory of Mind,”  the supposition that ‘another person who looks similar to me may feel and act as I do.’ If I can feel hunger, so can they. If this would cause me pain, it may cause them pain. Therefrom arises the philosophical admonition of The Golden Rule, “Do not do to another that which you would not have done to you.”

Societies who violate these precepts are often considered Primitive or Barbaric. Certainly the terrorism arising from the current actions of militant Jihad is identified as such, but it should be noted that even “civilized societies” behave contrary to their purported ideals in both aggressive ways (the firebombing of Dresden) as well as in a more “passive” manner (disposing of toxic First-world waste in powerless Third-world countries).

If we wish to be critical about the failures of societies – and I think that we should -- and attempt to advance civilization (which is not synonymous with “technology”), we need to examine what standards we do so by. Many people have tried to re-write the Ten Commandments, but I think that is a stifling effort. “Commandment” also suggests Imposition From Above, and is contrary to the idea that we need entirely human internalized rules of behavioral conduct that we can apply on a variety of human levels, from an interpersonal exchange, in one’s community and institutional relationships, and on to International concerns. I think the term “Standard” is more appropriate as a measure of how successfully or not these concepts are met. Following are my personal meditations on what are at least the minimal standards that result in healthy and productive societies that endure beyond the edge of mere survival if not advancing toward higher concepts that benefit not only the societies as a whole, but the maximum number of individuals that comprise them. I have tried to write them down as general principles instead of agonizing over minutia noting “except in this case, or under those particular circumstances.” That, I think, is the role of legislative law.

Your thoughts regarding additions and revisions are welcome.

- No person or group of people may own another person or group of people and force them into involuntary servitude

-All reasonable efforts will be made to avoid killing other people except in actual self-defense.

-No one should be subject to abuse, mistreatment, or unnecessary pain for the satisfaction of another, and lessening pain and injustice serves to advance a healthy society.

-No one may be denied access to the basic resources necessary to sustain their lives.

-Religious or philosophical beliefs will not be imposed on people of other beliefs in a civilized society.

-The local and planetary environments will be maintained in a manner that will insure the
maximal health of all life and to provide sufficient resources for successive generations.

-All children are entitled to education and training to enable them to accurately record events and experiences, effectively communicate them, and develop the skills that will give them the opportunity to sustain and reasonably advance themselves, their families, and their societies.

-All capable individuals and their congregate enterprises must contribute a negotiated portion of their productivity toward the development, maintenance, and expansion of civilization's infrastructure.

- Mutually agreed-upon rules of conduct will serve as the formal basis of dispute resolution.