3.4 Global or Natural Ethics
Notes added, revised 11/2013, last revised, edited 6/2015, 11/2016, 7/2017. By Heinz and Walter Aeschbach
3.4.0 Summary I, II 11/2016, edited 4,7/2017, 9,10/2018, 10/2019
3.4.1 Introductory remarks; meanings of “good” and “bad” revised 7,9/2014, 2/2015. 6/2015, 11/2016, 7/2017
3.4.2 Points most relevant in ethical decision-making revised 8/2014, 2/2015 6/2015, 11/2016, 7/2017
3.4.3 Natural ethics: relevant research issues revised 6/2015, 11/2016, 7/2017
3.4.4 Universal basis of ethics revised 6/2015, 7/2017
3.4.5 Summary: individuals versus institutions, free will revised 6/2015
3.4.6 Ethical allocation of resources; altruism; extreme poverty
3.4.7 ‘Us-versus-them’ thinking [group dynamics]; broad empathy
3.4.8 Aggression; associating fulfillment of instincts; fascination with suffering and cruelties revised 11/2014
3.4.9 Abuse-addiction behaviors
3.4.10 Unethical thoughts, observing unethical acts, victimization
3.4.11 Basic social values and reciprocity; utilitarian thinking (honesty, property, roles of people)
3.4.12 Natural conflicts, egoism versus altruism, free will, and ethics
3.4.13 Mental health, ethics and the pursuit of happiness
3.4.14 Natural and cultural biases; cognitive errors
3.4.15 Steps and guidelines to practice natural ethics revised 6,2015
3.4.A1 Appendix 1: Religion and abortion added 12/2016, edited 9/2017
3.4.A2 Appendix 2: Crime prevention, teaching empathy
3.4.A3 Appendix 3: Thoughts about compassion, sentient nature of beings; modern technological developments
3.4.0 Summary 11/2016, edited 4,7/2017, 9,10/2018
I Central in ethics is pursuing quality of life and wellbeing for all; unavoidable suffering should be minor and perceived as meaningful.
The premise and basic principle of natural, biology/ethology-based ethics is: people must learn to observe, abide by and pursue what humans inherently, universally consider good, or preferable, mainly
– peace, non-violence, avoidance of harm, tolerant and loving attitude; better or best possible conditions for future generations; also generosity, forgiveness, cooperation, responsibility, and honesty;
– helping other people and other sentient beings (which generally feels good); finding pleasure and satisfaction from meaningful ethical living;
as opposed to
– violence, intolerance, hatred, vengeance, hostile competition, stinginess, unnecessarily causing any form of harm, abuse-addiction behaviors,
– causing other people and other sentient beings pain, suffering, unremitting conflicts; etc.
To approach global ethical objectives, humans have to identify and strengthen instincts and their cultural adaptations that guide us towards these goals while weakening and/or modifying expressions of instincts that oppose goals of global ethics. In addition, people have to practice mindfulness in decision-making and learn to halt progression towards unethical behaviors, taking, as feasible, the time needed to review learned ethics considerations. Individuals have to develop a personal culture and also work in any possible way towards improving traditions and institutions.
Ethics addresses how to deal with conflicts between self and others, and between egoistic unethical urges, versus social-ethical emotions, the pursuit of instincts and values that are considerate of others. However, ethics is not primarily about knowing what is ethical and doing it. Humans are not “rational animals,” we are driven by emotions, which are direct and indirect expressions of higher instincts, modified and shaped by cultures. People are positively motivated: they primarily pursue emotional goals rather than analyzing dangers: awareness of likely or certain suffering and deprivation before and after reaching a powerful goal rarely diverts its pursuit. Without conscious efforts to develop values and ethical thinking as part of one’s personal culture and without learning to be mindful in all decision-making, behaviors tend to be random expressions of culture-directed emotions in given circumstances, sometimes leading towards goals that concur with ethical values and long-term goals, but often not.
Ethics is not the same as morality and it is not based on 18th century thinkers’ pursuit of the elusive notions of ‘justice’ and ‘equality,’ an assumption that people are ‘born equal,’ etc. And it is not the essence of what the great religions may have in common.
Humans appear to have a moral center, probably part of or an extension of the language center, and cultures usually instill forms of morality in children. Usually these are in many ways unethical. Religions may serve as foundation of culture-bound morals; but religions typically incorporate more ancient conventions and add ethically dubious ‘vices’ and mandates.
Ethics must be pragmatic. When there are ambiguities in ethical questions, intuition, the result of unconsciously weighing data and considerations, will generally decide.
Instincts and inclinations that support ethical behaviors include an inherent desire to be “right” or “good,” empathy that often leads to compassion, and generosity that may raise one’s esteem and strengthen social bonds. Most mature adult strive to modify emotional responses and learning to resist unethical inclinations, such as being vindictive and/or physically aggressive, by pausing before making decisions, reviewing options and mobilizing ethics-supporting emotions. However, adults also may fight ethical inclinations of adolescence when family culture emphasizes to watch out for oneself and one’s family and/or to pursue status, wealth, and power.
The following is a short list of ethical guidelines:
– Reciprocity, the “golden rule” or sense of fairness, and altruism are two inborn principles of ethics. Humans and other animals enjoy doing what others want.
– A benevolent, respectful attitude, as others wish, is part of reciprocity. It includes honesty, reliability, compassion, gratitude, and generosity; respect for goods, art and artifacts that many value; reasonable consideration of local culture and respect for private space and property; and appreciation of natural environments, natural courses and developments, etc.
– Ethical allocation of resources, how much we help others, naturally considers closeness (family, group members, adopted strangers) and previous investments in recipients, emotional and material; recipients’ developmental stage and apparent potentials; mutual feelings; reciprocity in relationship; quantity, severity and emotional significance of deprivation and suffering of others; guilt perceived by donor as individual or member of a group; and instinctive stimuli such as cute, helpless appearance of a child. People may give to future beings by preserving natural environments and artifacts. Ethically, people should always consider all groups of beings: close to distant (close, known but not close, persons one has some things in common with, beings one knows about from descriptions and reporting, completely unknown and future beings). However, people always give and sacrifice most for beings they are at the time close to.
Ethically, people must resist natural unethical propensities:
– ‘Us-versus-them’ or group thinking: social instincts, sense of fairness and compassion hardly include people perceived as ‘them,’ ‘others’ or ‘outsiders.’ And in peer groups it is easy for individuals to promote extreme positions that individual members would recognize as biased, wrong and/or unethically. People must learn to become broadly empathetic with decisions always reasonably considering consequences of intended actions, on directly and indirectly affected others, present humans, animals and future beings.
– Inherent revenge responses and the instinctive competing for territory and rank often lead to unethical aggression and anger (which is barely contained aggression).
– People must particularly fight yielding to humans’ inherent fascination with suffering and cruelties, which may lead to participating in sadistic acts.
– It is unethical to give in to, mentally consent to and/or enjoy unethical thoughts, fantasies and emotions. Thoughts and fantasies strengthen propensities and they make perpetrations more likely.
– Abuse is, by definition, unethical – it refers to doing something that feels good or alleviates discomfort but is ‘bad,’ harming others and/or self. Abuse may refer to intoxicating substances and food, inanimate objects, and animals or persons; and abuse includes enjoying inappropriate and unethical fulfillment of instincts, directly or in indirect ways. Young people may feel compelled to engage in some abuse behaviors but should resist getting into abuse patterns and consequent addictions. Often underappreciated are severe psychological addictions: forms of gambling, conspiracy theorizing, pursuit of unethical fantasies, materialism-consumerism, pursuit of wealth and power.
– Following subcultures is a powerful inherent inclination – humans are much more followers than inventive organizers, even as leaders; however, following subcultures of families, peer groups or professions is often unethical.
– Incentives are powerful; giving in to them – wanting some reward others offer for their own benefit – often distracts from ethical goals and the pursuit of personal values; and people are usually hardly aware of these distractions or they rationalize them.
– People often get into unethical thinking because they hold on to multiple, contradictory realities and models of functioning: religious versus scientific thinking versus pragmatically following ethically questionable cultures and subcultures. Religious teachings must be very limited, and we must check customary, expected actions regarding ethics before following them.
If a person’s action appears acceptable, but the same action is very problematic if done by many or most, it is unethical.
Ethical decision-making recognizes ethical principles pragmatically and includes reviewing situations from many angles, evaluating data regarding possible consequences of possible actions or inaction, and considering affected individuals empathetically, as feasible.
Assessments regarding ethics may include broadening one’s perspective and awareness by asking self: Could I recommend my plans to my (same sex) child or a loved peer? What would wise friends advise? How would I feel if my planned behavior were widely publicized, or how would my plan most likely be judged by a panel of women and men of different ages, cultures, social class, etc.? Am I likely to later regret my planned action or inaction? The decision then follows intuition and conscience.
Knowledge obliges: as feasible, humans ought to respond to what they know to be wrong and what is needed, by themselves when alone or when others ignore the problem, or working cooperatively.
Ethics must become the guiding principle of public life: all elected and appointed officials have a responsibility to make decisions according to ethics, not rigid laws, partisanship, and advantages or whishes of constituents. Processes towards this objective may include peer supervision and supervision by neutral ethics committees that consisting primarily of outsiders.
II The term “instinct” as used here generally refers to higher instincts that are perceived as emotions. Primitive instincts include inherent movement patterns that higher animals seem to follow “automatically” with little or no awareness and/or feelings. ‘Emotions’ are, as the word implies, “what moves us,” while the term ‘feeling’ includes mental perceptions that may commonly be called emotions but are not directly associated initiating an action. ‘Sympathy,’ ‘empathy,’ and ‘compassion’ are terms that are often used interchangeably and in vague ways. As used here, sympathy, “feeling with others,” refers to the spontaneous contagion of feeling states, positive or negative. Empathy, “Einfühlung,” is a purposeful effort to experience, to a lesser degree, others’ perceptions, emotions, thoughts, etc. as when acting in a serious play. Empathy tends to be compassionate but may be exploitative, wanting to benefit from understanding others, or sadistic, being able to hurt other more when understanding his/her fears. Compassion is essentially Latin for the Greek ‘sympathy’ but is almost exclusively used to express feeling bad about others’ bad state and wishing to be in some way helpful. As our actions or inaction affect other beings, people should always, in a very limited way and as feasible, have compassionately empathetic considerations towards all possibly affected sentient beings, close or distant, present and future.
‘Autonomy,’ ‘self-determination’ and ‘independence’; ‘equality,’ ‘being born equal’; and ‘justice’ are often considered universal ethical principles. However these are relative, largely meaningless terms. We are interdependent. Rather than seeking autonomy, people often endanger their lives for family and groups. Large units, such as school districts or states, do better with outside leaders than being autonomous and self-governed. Federal governance should supersede local governments and international organizations should supersede countries’ governments. ‘Justice’ and ‘equality’ are always elusive concepts. Women and men are very different; people are unique individuals. While erratic and biased application of rules is ‘unfair’ or ‘unjust,’ rules, enforced laws and standardized punishments cannot establish ‘justice’ since they are not adapted to individual people and specific situations.
The people of a civilization cannot be expected to simply decide to live according to ethical values; institutions of civilizations need to evolve or be developed, particularly education in ethics on all levels has to be much improved and cultural learning adapted. The goal is that universal ethical principles will guide thinking, values, decision-making and expression of instinct-based emotions.
All elected and appointed officials have a responsibility to make decisions according to ethics, not rigid laws, partisanship, and advantages or wishes of constituents. Processes towards this objective may include peer supervision and supervision by neutral ethics committees that consist primarily of outsiders..
Cultures modify the expression of instincts, but they should not order people to do what contradicts powerful instincts. Without harsh military or similar training, it is very difficult to follow utilitarian ethics directives, e.g. to kill an innocent person in order to save several, or to neglect one’s own average child to help deprived exceptional children of poor countries. However, throughout history, cultures commonly succeeded in compelling people to overstep powerful ethical instincts; when religions, customs and authority figures mandated cruelties that outsiders considered sickening, they were faithfully perpetrated by mothers, health professionals, soldiers, community or gang members, executioners, etc. and frequently, participants gained satisfaction from its completion.
There are at times conflicts between different objectives people universally want leading to the question of what they prefer. When insulted or injured, humans instinctively want vengeance and they may have difficulties to accept when vindication is not allowed, not possible, yet people prefer peace to ongoing hostilities, and if examining the issues, they usually understand likely factors that led to the injurious behaviors; consequently they may find it easy to forgive. Instinctively there are conflicts between us-versus-them thinking rather than pursuing broad compassion and cooperation. People may rationally agree with a cooperative, forgiving attitude, but it is difficult to emotionally overcome hostile feelings, guilt, and jealousy; meditation, contemplation and forms of therapy may be helpful.
As in addictions, following instincts and cultural dictates feels ‘right,’ fulfilling them feels good. The neurotransmitter dopamine is important in people’s pursuits: it leads to greatly overvaluing expected good feelings. The ‘high’ of fulfillment is usually short and minor compared with the efforts, deprivation and suffering leading up to it. People need to learn ways of resisting powerful urges to pursue unethical goals.
The ‘golden rule’ is problematic. Our and others’ wants differ. What people ask for may be harmful for them. There are many poor people but few who are able and willing to give. Generosity is important, but thoughtless giving lowers the esteem of the receiver and may encourage an exploitative attitude.
Negative experiences must be understood as ‘normal’ mishaps that should never lead to reciprocal, vengeful aggression.
In relationships, people tend to overestimate what they give and underestimate how they hurt partners or what is given to them; thus, a generous attitude is usually necessary. However, altruism must be considerate.
Idealism is dangerous: fanatics may follow abstract goals, political or religious, and even engage in violence and warfare.
Humans, particularly healthy adults, naturally give some of their excess (unneeded) resources, material and/or emotional. Adults work for themselves, and for the previous and later generations. Giving and receiving are important aspects of social, ethical living and must not be limited by egoism, greed or us-versus-them thinking. Allocation of excess resources should follow natural and ethical principles and include consideration of distant, very different and future beings.
Cultures progress extremely slowly; unethical and ineffective traditional ways are hard to change. By broadening compassionate empathy, ethics challenges culturally taught values. Although people incorporate cultural values and perceive cultural expectations as natural, they must not follow them blindly. Often, people have an ethical obligation to thoughtfully work towards changing traditions and institutions of their culture.
Aggression is ethically problematic. In the evolution of vertebrates, aggression is an instinct that is significant in exploring the environment and it serves to establish and defend territory and rank order, physical and mental; aggression may also be vindictive. In males, aggressive and sexual instincts can readily be combined. In addition, humans appear fascinated with aggressive acts, suffering and cruelties. In modern civilizations, aggressive behaviors are almost always harmful.
Us-versus-them thinking is dangerous because people inherently tend to be inconsiderate, exploitative and even hateful or cruel towards people that are perceived as ‘others’, particularly if a person has a handicap or is otherwise unusual, however ‘groups’ are usually vacillating and often defined very broadly; a group may consist in a family, teen boys (versus girls), ‘in-group’ (versus outsiders), adults (versus children), a religion or a congregation, an ethnic group, etc. In groups, people also tend to reinforce members’ prejudices and violent inclinations.
Instincts often appear to opportunistically (and pitilessly) calculate what is likely to further own and particularly own genes’ interests. Such barely conscious, opportunistic plotting largely determines who feels like a friend and who is perceived as enemy.
People commonly distinguish between forbidden (by law or family/cultural rules), but desirable, often imagined and maybe secretly practiced if negative consequences unlikely, versus truly bad, ‘taboo,’ meaning even thoughts are shameful or repulsive, never enjoyable. High rates of major ethical transgressions are a consequence of people’s categorizing and perceiving such behaviors as ‘forbidden’ rather than as ‘taboo.’
The mental pursuit of unethical thoughts and emotions reinforces them and leads to the propensity to act on the fantasies under extraneous circumstances, e.g. when isolated, in a war zone, or remote area in the Third World; when enraged, sleep deprived, or intoxicated; and/or either extremely poor and indebted or extremely wealthy and powerful, essentially living outside laws and cultural expectations.
People must learn to deal effectively with frustration and stress without aggression and/or other abuse behaviors, cognitively, by way of healthy lifestyle, meditation and contemplation, etc. Nonuse must weaken unethical instinctive inclinations. Broad empathy has to be learned as a fundamental value that is supported by powerful emotions; and empathy must challenge enticing instinctive propensities and cultural expectations that feel natural but are unethical.
While civilizations progress rapidly in many realms, a broad lack of ethical consideration and guidance has been contributing to catastrophic developments. Studying and teaching ethics and incorporating effective ethical supervision in all institutions of civilizations worldwide is probably more important for the future of our planet than most efforts to advance sciences and technologies.
Positive – ‘good’ and negative – ‘bad’ are based on biology although the terms are generally perceived as subjective opinions. Science may lag in determining what is ‘good’ or positive versus ‘bad’ or negative but there is always an objective biological-natural basis for valuing environments, actions, etc.
Valuation has been an integral part of biological life throughout evolution. Organisms have always responded to environmental factors as positive or negative, for instance seeking a ‘good’ or desirable temperature and level of light or humidity, or ‘good,’ meaning nutritional materials in the environment versus ‘bad’ irritants or toxins. Somehow primitive animals learned to perceive many dangers, such as predators, toxic odors or early signs of earthquakes.
In higher animals there is not only a sense of what is positive or negative for the organism, but powerful biological feelings of ‘good’ – pleasure, satisfaction, beauty, positive goal-directedness, versus ‘bad’ – discomfort, suffering and meaningless pain, frustration, ugliness, stuck in conflict; also complex-mixed, e.g. pain that is perceived as ‘right’ and a meaningful part of moving towards a higher goal.
Maybe exclusively in humans, a third level of valuation rationally examines possible future consequences of decisions, how actions may result in good or bad outcomes, for self and others, in near to distant future. Other animals typically ‘feel’ what is good for future generations but cannot project how they themselves and their progeny probably will do consequent to any actions; and animals hardly plan to harm others in the more distant future even though they may remember an individual as ‘enemy.’
In humans, many ethical rules appear inherent as evaluated by Rushworth Kidder (Institute for Global Ethics). However, ambiguity about ‘good’ and ‘bad’ are also inherent. For instance, in cases of conflict, higher animals value what is good for their family and group higher than what is good for other individuals of own species with whom they usually interact in a friendly way. Mothers may feed their offspring even if they have no food for themselves. For humans, the immediate future is more important than the distant future partly because the distant future is much less predictable. There often is also concomitantly discomfort and suffering and a sense of being in a meaningful, desirable situation (throughout history childbirth has been dangerous and extremely painful but inability to conceive has been felt to be worse; initiations usually include cruel mistreatments but being rejected, considered unfit to join mature men or become a warier, may feel worse).
Thus ‘bad,’ neutral or mixed and ‘good’ have multiple basic meanings: they apply to how a person subjectively perceives the present, physically and mentally; and how beings, non-living things, situations, specific actions or decisions, institutions, etc. influence present and future, particularly with regard to the quality of life of humans.
Subjective perceptions of “bad” versus neutral, mixed and “good” include:
– Perceiving physical discomfort and suffering;
versus feeling comfortable, pleased, physically-emotionally good, as when expressing directly or indirectly an instinct; also feeling good or positively excited with anticipation when satisfaction, good feelings (‘reward’) seems imminent, or when enjoying the effect of a drug that imitates such reward feeling.
– Feeling frustrated, when expecting direct or indirect instinct fulfillment, disappointment, and other forms of unfulfilled craving;
versus either being able to distract self and focus on other aspects of life or on meaningful/satisfying endeavors; or feeling good persevering and being able to delay fulfillment.
– Sense of ‘wrong’: discontent, sense of failure (often with jealousy), disgust, futility; feeling unjustly treated or violated (possibly with revenge fantasies);
versus perceiving sense of ‘good’/’right,’ feeling generous and forgiving when unfairly treated and abused, feeling progress and meaning even if there is discomfort and there are set-backs or hardships; feeling vague sense or premonition of moving toward instinctive rewards; pleasure with sense of being in a ‘good place’ with sense of belonging to loving family; maybe feeling freed by giving up expectations.
– Doing what feels good at the moment with sense of doing something bad, that one engages in abuse behavior, that benefits do not outweigh likely or possible negative long-term effects, harming others and/or self; avoiding considerate thinking about future when decisions are significant; engaging in malicious thoughts and plans to harm others, as revenge or for sadistic gratification while feeling vague discomfort and anger;
versus considerate thoughts about future, assessing what will probably be later directly rewarding and/or what is meaningful, biologically, culturally or ethically, with indirect later rewards; always striving to compassionately consider how decisions may affect others in the future.
Even though virtually everything has positive and negative aspects, people readily apply the terms “good” and “bad” to a person, other being or matter, an action, or a situation, referring to expected consequences that affect people’s quality of life and related valuations. However, such summary valuations applied to people, animals, natural events, human-made goods and works of art, laws, rules, public or private institutions, human activities, etc. are generally biased. Reasonably thorough science-based evaluations should appraise positive and negative aspects of anything significant and help guide people in dealing with ethical dilemmas.
“Right” or “wrong” usually refer to behaviors, thoughts and experiences that are assumed to be indirectly good or bad, ethical/moral or unethical/immoral; however a sense of right or wrong is often determined by cultures and subcultures, usually influenced by biases, and may not correspond with ethics. As people inherently want to be ‘right,’ we often must evaluate if ‘right’ equals ethical or whether rationalizations are faulty, loyal to a cause or person that became unethical, based on prejudices, etc.
Many animals appear to be sentient, but humans are unique in their realizing the development of past to future, often considering past and present while anticipating and planning for their future.1 Many animals appear to experience sympathy, feeling to a lesser degree what individuals around them feel, but humans may be the only animals capable of empathy, defined as ability to put oneself into other’s place, feeling some sympathy but mainly attempting to comprehend others’ perceptions, thoughts and aspirations while being aware of one’s own separate self.
People often perceive beauty related to the potential of instinct fulfillment. Healthy, intelligent persons are generally seen as beautiful, handsome and attractive, particularly when in fertile age or when approaching reproductive maturity (conversely attractive people may be considered more intelligent than they are). Countrysides are seen as beautiful, if fertile with plants and water, and with openness so that approaching dangers could be seen in time. We perceive healthy animals as beautiful: herbivores that could be hunted as well as predators which show that there are animals we may hunt; etc. Art often depicts beautiful individuals, pleasant countrysides and buildings that protect people and appear comfortable. People generally like ‘wholesome’ smells and healthy food even though evolution has not adjusted to today’s wide availability of salt, sweets, refined starches and unhealthy fats. A unique form of pleasure and sublimation of instincts consists in abstract art, art that appears completely unrelated to normal human endeavors, particularly complex music. Even the human voice used artistically appears to be a rather modern invention. It is hard to explain why classical music is universally appreciated for its sublime beauty and how music can be felt to express our deepest emotions.
In humans, instincts and learning predispositions are still very important but they are readily mixed with cultural learning. Human children inherently learn very early to recognize biological life, versus ‘minerals,’ since living organisms may be potential food or dangerous, and when encountering unknown animals children tend to intuitively recognize their classification.
What in higher animals may simply feel natural (instinctive) and ‘right,’ e.g. males fighting each other in competition, females submitting to an aggressive male suitor, or an individual sharing to help and form a bond with a peer, may lead in humans to complex reflective thinking about cultural values and the future. Global ethical goals should then become part of reflective thinking, and such thoughts should activate emotions and actions that advance good long-term outcomes, for individual, family, society and future generations.
In common language, ‘good’ (versus ‘bad’) usually refers to cultural morals, or, more broadly, to a decision’s or behavior’s effects on the actor’s own future and on others: family, community, beings of the whole world and future generations. Decisions that are primarily good for the actor are generally judged neutral, possibly intelligent or smart, self-serving or egotistical. The terms ‘good’ or ‘bad’ are also used to judge products, services and institutions referring to qualities such as use of resources, providing relative safety versus being dangerous, and otherwise affecting people’s quality of life.
Perceptions or feelings that result from positive experiences vary: pleasure, enjoyment or joy, amusement and delight. They are often associated with cognitive notions; that may include physical wellness, satisfaction or gratification, gratitude and contentedness, and happiness that is based on a sense of meaning in life. Activities and situations often feel meaningful and good even if reaching a goal is far from certain. Physical comfort, e.g. easing of back pain and headaches, often follows constructively dealing with negative mental stress and conflicts. Positive stress, such as starting a family and moving may be problematic for one’s health but usually does not feel bad. Positive sensations from drugs that imitate feeling of instinct fulfillment are often mixed due to their meaninglessness if not apparent immorality. Actions and decisions that are good for one’s own future are generally ethical if considering oneself to be an asset to family and others, and if making efforts to prevent becoming a burden.
18.104.22.168 Ethics deals with conflicts between self and others: selfish, inconsiderate actions or inaction that are likely to harm others, versus actions that are expected to help improve the quality of life of some or many other sentient beings. However, directly or indirectly, all decision-making is selfish, seeking relief or pleasure, promoting self-esteem and respect by others, seeking good feelings from following ethical goals, believing to improve after-life, etc. In a broad sense, ethics seeks ways of doing what is doable and good for others while maintaining or improving own sense of contentedness and quality of life – doable meaning reasonably corresponding with human nature.
Ethics considers that humans, rather than being principally rational, are driven by emotions, which are expressions of our instincts. People are positively motivated; even awareness of likely or certain suffering and serious dangers before and after reaching a goal rarely distract from the pursuit of a powerful emotional goal. People do not pursue stress-free, painless lives: they cannot resist seeking exciting, emotion-driven experiences that may include dangers and pain. Rational thought processes often foresee catastrophic outcomes and may mobilize emotions that counter what drives the person at the time.
People must make efforts to develop ethical thinking and learn to monitor decision-making; otherwise cultural learning, circumstances and activated emotions lead to behaviors that are often at odds with ethical long-term goals. For individuals, ethics necessitates developing values and a personal culture that guide behaviors and help resist negative environmental influences. Personal culture and values address what inherent talents and interests to develop, what careers to pursue, when and how to seek recreation, whom to associate with, etc., always considering overriding ethical principles. Main goals of a personal culture include cultivating predispositions and instincts that correspond with ethical principles, strengthening ability to resist negative environmental influences, and weakening instincts that often lead to unethical emotions, impulses, thoughts and actions or modifying such instincts’ expression.
Unethical emotions and impulses must be overcome by stronger instincts-emotions that promote ethical behaviors and by weakening undesirable instincts. We strengthen instincts by pursuing them, instinct directly or indirectly, actively or vicariously and by enjoying memories of instinct-related actions. Instincts are weakened by avoiding triggers and distracting self from all impulses, memories and fantasies. Gradually, the effect of triggers weakens and their meaning changes; the instinct becomes inactive.
Ethics includes pursuing relevant research and applying findings.
Religion and spirituality should always be personal. Specific religious beliefs are generally divisive and must not guide scientific or political thinking. However, rituals and sense of community are often helpful.
Research goals should include the evaluation of: human instincts, cultures, family systems, other group dynamics and a broad range of psychological issues; factors contributing to happiness and health, including meditation, particularly awareness meditation, healthy lifestyles, exposure to nature, good relationships; psychotherapeutic and self-help approaches; mediation, conflict resolution and peace research.
22.214.171.124 Some inherent principles that enhance ethical living:
Altruism, enjoying helping others, and reciprocity, the ‘golden rule’ or sense of fairness are two inborn principles of ethics. However, giving is often problematic, for instance when the receiver cannot reciprocate; empathetic evaluation of possible giving is needed. Since people are hardly objective in judging who does what for whom, positively or negatively, relationships require that people are and feel generous.
The principle of reciprocity includes not doing what would have major negative consequences if many or most people would do the same e.g. living luxuriously, being wasteful, not voting, ignoring what one knows to be wrong (knowledge obliges people to respond/act).
A benevolent attitude, derived from inherent altruistic feelings and sense of fairness, is reinforced in many cultures and includes honesty, reliability, generosity, gratitude, reasonable care in all actions and reasonable consideration of local culture.
Compassionate empathy, making efforts to put self into place of others and attempting to understand their suffering, desires and aspirations, is a basis of ethics. It results from sympathy or feeling, to a lesser degree what others feel, a natural desire to help, reflective thinking, and learning about different people. We learn about others’ conditions by observing, listening to and particularly reading about them.
People readily form friendships in most circumstances; they universally desire peace and caring relationships. However efforts are often needed to maintain friendships and to include people who are very different, depressed and isolated.
People usually have and readily give excess resources, material, time, readiness to nurture, etc. Giving and receiving are basic aspects of social and ethical living. Ethical allocating of resources includes self-care, living modestly and healthy so that one can be an asset to society. Naturally and ethically the quantity of helping others considers factors including closeness (family, group members, adopted strangers) and previous investments in recipients; recipients’ developmental stage, mutual feelings, and appreciable individual potentials; reciprocity; quantity, severity and emotional significance of deprivation and suffering; guilt perceived by donor (as individual or member of a group); instinctive stimuli such as cute, helpless appearance of a child. People may give to future beings by saving resources and preserving natural environments and artifacts. People should always consider all groups of beings, close, distant and future, even if giving more to beings they are at the time close to.
Inherent ethics also respect private space, limited private property, broadly valued art and artifacts, natural environments, natural courses and developments, and natural and cultural roles of individuals including rank orders.
People’s instinctive acceptance of roles, rank order and loyalty to own family, clan or group often require evaluation, e.g. loyalty to an unethical leader is not ethical. An inherent urge for some form of cleanliness underlies some damaging cultural mandates but may be a reasonable basis for cultures to prevent the spreading of diseases. Inherently, people avoid harming innocent persons who are perceived as friendly or belonging to own group, even if killing one person could save several.
People instinctively want to be “right” or “good”; and cultures help define what “right” and “good” means and includes. Some cultural learning is unethical, e.g. a focus on ‘honor’ or loyalty may leads to unethical acts. People have an ethical obligation to work on improving their culture and traditions. On the other side, cultures must oppose many inherent propensities.
The value of the ‘golden rule’ is helpful in teaching children empathy and ethical reasoning, but it is limited. Our and others’ wants differ. What people ask for may be harmful for them. There are many poor people but few who are willing to give. Deprived and abused people deserve help, but, while the donor’s esteem rises, the recipient’s is diminished. Donors expect some reciprocity, at least expressing gratitude and recipients doing their best to become self-sufficient. Lack of any reciprocity may lead to dependency, an exploitative attitude by the poor, and mutual resentment.
The likelihood of people helping according to the ‘golden rule’ is highest in one-to-one encounters, one able person seeing one person in distress. If a group of people sees an accident, nobody may respond; there is a diffusion of ethical responsibility and others’ doing nothing may affirm one’s own propensity to inaction.
Humans and other animals generally avoid harming others and they genuinely enjoy helping and doing what others want; being helpful may strengthen bonds and raises one’s rank and esteem, but it lowers the recipient’s esteem; and generally, some form of reciprocity is expected. Altruistic actions need to be evaluated with empathy. Deprived and abused people deserve help, but inability to reciprocate may lead to conflicts and mutual resentment; poor people may be ungrateful, feeling donors have an obligation to help.
In reciprocal relationships such as housemates or couples, when trying to be ‘fair,’ generosity is important since people are generally more aware of what they do for others than what others do for them, of how they are hurt by others than how they hurt others. People should learn that giving feels better and good feelings last longer than when one receives.
Idealism is dangerous: fanatics may follow abstract ideological or religious goals, and even engage in warfare.
With giving and nurturing, other social instincts and instinctive behaviors in general, people often respond to frustration by using replacement objects. Replacement objects may include, adopted persons, pets or inanimate objects. Rather than dealing with aggressive impulses, people sometimes direct aggression towards any weaker person or animal, more or less randomly. While mistreating a wife or stepchild is obviously unethical, ethical dilemmas may arise, for instance when people treat pets better than their human relatives, or when animal protection laws are treated as more urgent than human rights issues.
126.96.36.199 Some instinctive inclinations usually lead to unethical behavior and to distorted thinking; they must be addressed by the institutions that influence people (such as schools, entertainment industries, literature, arts, spiritual teachings); they also must be considered in the organization of all government agencies and contemplated by individuals while developing a personal culture. Particularly detrimental are:
– ‘Us-versus-them’ or group thinking: social instincts, compassion and sense of fairness generally exclude people perceived as ‘them,’ ‘others’ or ‘outsiders.’ In groups, people often encourage biased, extreme positions in each other. Particularly young males are more likely to commit dangerous and unethical acts while with peers than when acting alone.
– Humans’ dangerous propensity towards unethical reciprocity thinking: wanting revenge for ‘cheating,’ perceived insults, etc., often with holding on to anger and escalating hostilities; and propensity to embitter relationships due to humans’ inclination for biases and other unconscious influences, judging, taking sides etc.
– The pursuit of rank, territory and/or aggressive exploration, often includes major aggression, harsh competitiveness, extreme and/or meaningless risk taking, etc. Such pursuits often include greed and readily become addictions.
– Abuse-addiction behaviors: abuse means behaving in ways that are expected to make the person feel better while having some knowledge that the behavior is ‘bad,’ that benefits do not justify probable or possible harm to others and/or self. People readily develop a pattern of abuse, if there is no stronger, competing emotion or emotional value, and many behaviors that are associated with abuses are also reinforced.
– Humans’ inherent interest and fascination with suffering and cruelties, wanting to watch, sometimes even participate.
– Giving in to, mentally consenting to and/or enjoying unethical thoughts, fantasies and emotions. Thoughts, reliving memories and fantasies strengthen propensities, interfere with healthy human relationships and make perpetration more likely.
Reciprocity and sense of justice often lead to alternating violence between tribes, groups or individuals, but people tend to prefer peace above ‘justice,’ sometimes by way of ritualistic conflict resolutions. Cultures sometimes exaggerate a need for reciprocity and giving can be used to harm the poor recipient.
Punishments in childrearing and quick vindication among young people (hitting back, reacting to a severe insult) can be effective when spoiling a malicious pleasure, and it may re-establish rank and respect of the person who punishes. If an immediate response, which should not be worse than the insult, is not possible, it is hardly effective or ethical to punish at a later point.
A generally nonjudgmental attitude is important: when taking sides in a conflict, people inherently and unconsciously distort perceptions and memories. Consequently reciprocal hostilities, emotional or physical, may escalate rapidly.
188.8.131.52 By broadening compassionate empathy, people learn to express instinctive inclinations in ethical ways. Ethics must challenge aspects of cultures, and ethics obliges people to work towards changing the institutions that promote unethical expectations, values and traditions.
The application of ethical principles is pragmatic, not ‘black and white’. As part of maturing, people should learn being mindful, never making significant decisions ‘automatically,’ following impulses or habits. Pragmatic ethical decision-making includes reviewing situations from many perspectives, evaluating data regarding possible consequences of possible actions, and considering affected individuals empathetically, as time allows. Depending on what scenarios and comparable dilemmas one recently reviewed, factors in an actual dilemma are weighed differently. Thus, when quickly reviewing multiple ethical problems, the order in which they are reviewed influences one’s impressions and conclusions. In difficult decisions, it is important to think of multiple comparable dilemmas. The final decision is intuitive, based on unconscious weighing of factors and considerations of one’s conscience.
Some ways to broaden perspectives regarding ethics may include asking self: “Am I thinking in a caring, empathetic, compassionate way? Would I later regret a planned action or inaction? Could I recommend my plans to my (same sex) child or my peers? What would a wise friend advise? What would a panel of very different people from many cultures conclude? Would it be o.k. if, what I want to do, would be done by many or most people?” The decision then follows intuition and conscience (unconscious processing of information, emotions and values, without the conscious mind interfering).
A benevolent, positive attitude towards all sentient beings and particularly towards people who appear to be adversaries may be based on multiple ways of understanding and perceiving situations:
– Since there is hardly ‘free’ will, we cannot justify a vindictive attitude; causes of people’s behaviors are complex and not well understood.
– If feeling bad about a person or situation, that bad feeling is caused by expectations that were not fulfilled (too high and/or unreasonable or expecting others to be and act like us); Buddhist and Christian wisdom includes a caring, compassionate, non-judgmental attitude towards all beings; when judging others and having bad thoughts about them, we primarily hurt ourselves; if enjoying to vindicate a perceived wrong, that good feeling is generally short-lived.
– Any victimization and perceived injustice is an opportunity to practice compassion and a forgiving attitude, which is essential for feeling good (even if acknowledging scientific determinism, we feel that we and others are guilty when doing something ‘bad’, and emotionally, we have to forgive ourselves and others).
– Ethical living gives a sense of meaning in life regardless of a belief in free will or determinism.
Efforts to improve ethics in cultures and institutions and efforts of people as individuals are based on
– broad compassionate empathy that includes people outside one’s group and people one only knows about,
– thinking and learning about situations and problems that need to be addressed,
– learning about inborn tendencies towards unethical emotions, thoughts and behaviors,
– learning known techniques to improve mental health and to take control of emotions and associated thoughts,
– learning known techniques of dealing with specific problems and promoting cooperation and peace on all levels.
Relevant ethical issues in economic activities include
– for buyers: learning to always use good judgement is urgent: considering judicious use of resources and resisting temptations to buy items for prestige, unreasonable standards of comfort or simply for the short term pleasure of buying something new;
– for enterprises (including distribution and sales) of products and services: ethical allocation of resources and restraint in salesmanship are important; distribution and sales of products and services are valuable and ethical when products and services are needed and/or beneficial for quality of life, but unethical when profit thinking or greed override ethical considerations, e.g. selling unhealthy or wasteful products, competing with other enterprises in a destructive way.
Research indicates that many happiness-enhancing behaviors are ethical and that behaving ethically generally enhances life satisfaction, contentedness and happiness. Science-based natural ethics evaluates importance and implications of empirical research; concerns include ethical implications of:
– inherent drives and social interaction patterns of humans;
– what we may learn from the great variability of ways human instincts are expressed in indigenous and traditional cultures;
– environmental, economic, cultural and physiological influences on perceptions, emotions and behaviors, and on the development of individuals (‘environmental’ includes influences by availability and quality of essential resources and patterns of their use);
– aggressive drive to explore, compete, conquer, retaliate, defend as possession perceived territory, etc.;
– inherent us-versus-them thinking and its powerful suppression of sympathy and compassion;
– learned behaviors that are driven by abuse and addiction patterns;
– characteristics of human learning, judging and future projections, particularly addressing how to avoid inherent propensities to biases, flawed projections and common cognitive errors and distortions;
– environmental factors influencing mental and physical health, including architecture, city planning, public transportation systems; value of natural environments;
– aspects of individuals’ pursuit of meaning, life satisfaction and happiness (‘happiness research’);
– values and ethical goals that people may develop through reflective thinking, and ways of strengthening them by integrating them with positive emotions;
– ethical and unethical features of cultural legacies (traditions in broadest sense, literature, religious teaching, etc.), particularly cultural shaping of instinct based behaviors;
– ethical and unethical aspects of institutions (economic, social, legal, educational, religious, governmental, etc.);
– validity and limitations of utilitarian thinking; evaluating issues to consider in questions such as: when and how much resources may be removed from some for the benefits of many; is it acceptable to neglect handicapped children to provide advanced education to talented children; is directly harming or killing uninvolved persons ever justifiable for the benefit of many (if done by individuals, this has always been considered abhorrent, but it has been considered ‘normal’ in warfare);
– cultural and inherent influences of treating different acts as recommended, as illegal or not permitted by rules, versus as taboo: guidelines or recommendations are generally considered helpful; forbidden by family, culture and governmental laws typically means that people may like to do it if there were no major consequences; taboo expresses that even thoughts of doing the act induce guilt, shame and/or disgust; example: only in recent history have cruel punishments, genocide and cruelty towards animals become taboo.
– Question: can people be happy without knowing and having experienced suffering; does the mind need the contrasts between good and bad experiences, pain and pleasure, to be able to fully experience good feelings?
Most psychological research has studied educated Westerners, but humans have been dealing with their raw instincts and their natural and human environments in much more varied ways. Studies of social animals are important. Much research is needed to integrate what we may learn from traditional, including very primitive, societies.
Religions and superstitions developed partly due to the inherent perception that two things following each other usually indicates cause and effect relationship. A prayer or sacrifice followed by good luck leads to the assumption that some higher being helped; angry gestures and bad wishes followed by bad luck may indicate a curse or witchcraft. Believing one heard the voice of a diseased during acute grief may lead to ancestor cults. Religion, culture/religion-based morality, spirituality and ethics overlap but they are different entities; ethics is not part of religion. Some scientists believe that religions, belief systems outside the realm of sciences, are essential to humans as individuals and to societies. Spirituality as part of an agnostic (or atheist) worldview appears preferable.2
The goal of achieving humane conditions for most or all people requires that cultures are changed, particularly economic institutions, and that the teaching of ethics (much by choice of reading material) and ethical oversight of institutions is greatly extended. Institutions must advance cultural learning that strengthens ethical instincts, modifies instinctual propensities in a positive way and lets harmful instincts be weakened and activation through triggering stimuli is essentially extinguished through nonuse.
In past pursuits of ethical thinking and more humane conditions, progressive political and religious leaders, writers and philosophers advanced notions such as freedom, autonomy, justice and equal rights, which are always relative, elusive and/or inapplicable. As every individual is different, equal treatment is neither just nor necessarily humane, and individual freedoms must be limited to protect others and make cooperative work and peaceful communities possible. For many reasons, the lives of humans improved greatly in recent centuries, but for some, the revolutionary changes and scientific and technological progress have largely failed to create humane conditions, and new, generally preventable problems arose. Overvaluation of individual freedoms, property rights and focus on economic growth do not promote happiness or humane conditions, in the contrary they tend to reinforce egoism, aggressiveness, ruthless competitiveness, disrespect, callous relationships, materialism and addictive behaviors. Rather than reducing harmful consequences of human weaknesses, modern economic institutions often reward their exploitation.
Understanding of and continued research on instincts is essential. Instincts are activated by external and/or internal stimuli. The degree of neurological readiness dependence on the balance of inhibiting and disinhibiting factors (including signals from other neurons and from hormones) and the inhibitions have to be overcome by an adequately powerful trigger in the environment or brought up from memories, imaginations or other mental processes. Seeing or perceiving a trigger is felt as emotion, a feeling with an urge to express itself in body language and/or actions. Looking for adequately powerful triggers (often in seemingly aimless activities such as wandering around or going to places where people gather), when bored or in anticipating mood, is called appetence behavior. Failure to find a trigger that can overcome the inhibitions of an instinct is generally perceived as frustration; acting on an instinct and instinct fulfillment feel good, and everything that the mind associates with the triggers and instincts is reinforced and becomes more positive: what may have been perceived as bad becomes neutral and with repeated instinctive actions, even pleasurable.
Learning within families and cultures modifies what triggers instincts and shapes the expression of instincts into socially adjusted behavior patterns. The adaptations of instincts may be constructive, mixed or destructive. Cultural institutions are extremely important in shaping, strengthening or weakening the expression of instincts, and associating instincts with behaviors, perceptions and environments. Direct and indirect instinct fulfillment is self-reinforcing and feels rewarding and a primary source of good feelings. Expression of instincts, in action or thoughts, strengthens them; non-expression and not thinking of them for extended time, weakens them. Abusable substances are part of some cultures; they lead to positive emotions that are very similar to instinct fulfillment, but without complex pursuits and actions; still, anything associated with the substances is soon perceived as positive, good or beautiful.
The human mind also intelligently manipulates information, creating images of events in the past, possible present events in other places or future events. These images may lead to very indirect ways of instinct fulfillment.
Our emotions, not rational thinking, give our will the power to move and proceed. However, rational considerations may mobilize inhibiting emotions to avoid foreseeable dangers.
Ethics must also address inherent problems in human thinking, including ‘heuristics’ and ‘cognitive biases,’ undue but predictable influences on judgment with overvaluing or readily forgetting information that was learned in specific ways. Examples of automatic heuristic assumptions are that clearly seen objects are close, hazy ones distant, vertical objects are perceived as longer than horizontal ones. In decision making, many errors appear inherent and predictable:
– people generally overvalue negative input;
– people readily overvalue one piece of information or a readily remembered example of a comparable situations;
– after an affirmative answer to a simple question, people tend to answer more difficult follow-up questions affirmatively without much thought;
– when there is some control, people feel more optimistic, they (particularly males) generally overestimate self and own group versus others, and people tend to be “locally optimistic” but “globally pessimistic”;
– people tend to trust predominant beliefs of own group and generally of people around them;
– people believe rhyming statements more than statements without rhyme; and people overvalue attention-grabbing statements, e.g. with suggestive words and subtle grammatical incorrectness;
– people assume that money and material goods make them happier for a long time (increased happiness last only a very limited time; giving is more beneficial for happiness than receiving).3
It has been speculated that humans’ amygdalae developed to respond to acute dangers, such as seeing a predator, and that our response system is overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of bad news in today’s media and by predicted or probable bad events in the future. Peter Diamandis (main author of Abundance: The Future is Better than you Think) and others speculated that this factor, along with negativity bias and perceiving progress as linear (not understanding today’s accelerating progress), leads people to feel pessimistic, even hopeless. However, this evolution-based explanation of widespread depression and stress-related disorders is hardly accurate. People always knew about potential bad outcomes: every cold, skin infection and pregnancy could kill the person; people suffered and died at all ages, from diseases, animal attacks including snake bites, wars and starvation, accidents, and culturally condoned or mandated abuses by other humans; homicide rates were very high; in many cultures, erratic and extremely cruel legal systems added to the misery and uncertainty of people’s lives, and religious leaders often predicted cruel punishments after death. In spite of a propensity to overvalue negatives, people are inherently positively motivated; for a positive goal, people essentially ignore certain pain and dangers before and/or after reaching the goal. Throughout history, women hoped that marriage would give them healthy children even though each pregnancy was more likely to bring about a child that died very young or might kill her. Men readily joined armies, considering military service honorable, hoping to win, be able to ‘rape and plunder,’ become wealthy and later marry. Even in extremely bad situations, people have been resilient, focusing much on whatever may be beautiful or pleasant at the moment and what may give meaning to their lives.
Research must evaluate whether today’s propensity to anxiety and depressive disorders is a cultural phenomenon, related to unhealthy lifestyles and many adults instilling in children unrealistic expectations of ‘rights,’ protection and near ideal institutions. Western economic systems, particularly the U.K.’s and USA’s economies, require widespread indebtedness to function: most economic activities dependent on individuals’, businesses’ and governments’ willingness and ability to borrow; however, indebtedness leads to insecurity, people may discount their future and slip into chronic stress syndroms, depression with suicidality, substance abuse and criminal behaviors. Self-centeredness and weakened connectedness with family and other social networks may contribute. Consequences of the spreading use of indirect communication over social media requires more research.
The responses to the death of a child as one of the worst, most difficult to overcome losses and stress factors in modern Westernized people would have appeared odd to most people of the recent and distant past even in Europe and the USA. People must work to improve their resilience and put negative information into perspective while avoiding “compassion fatigue” and supporting positive trends and movements.
Ethics is in part empirical and pragmatic and it is largely based on empathic compassion; conversely, mores and morality, being part of a culture and its religion, are usually dogmatic. Cultures defined and reinforced some inherent propensities as ‘virtues.’ Philosophers, particularly Immanuel Kant, developed a transcendental moral philosophy that is like a religion. While appreciating sciences and technologies, humans appear innately attracted to religious and transcendental suppositions.
The socio-biologist Edward O. Wilson4 defined the conflict of religion and transcendental philosophy versus empirical science in his book Consilience, The Unity of Knowledge (1998):
“The essence of humanity’s spiritual dilemma is that we evolved genetically to accept one truth and discovered another. Is there a way to erase the dilemma, to resolve the contradictions between the transcendentalist and empiricist world view? No, unfortunately, there is not.” He later refers to humans’ inherent need for a “sacred narrative” which makes religion relevant. We may find and focus on some wisdom and ethical thoughts that are embedded in stories of religious teaching, for instance, in Christianity we may focus on the ethical teaching of forgiving, helping the poor, not being greedy or hypocritical, and above all being compassionate and loving. However, religions are extremely problematic: people adhere to many contradictory beliefs which cannot be supported by science. Human brains, as opposed to artificial intelligence devices, tend to hold contradictory interpretations of reality, and the mind may not notice; examining contradictory models of reality is helpful, not recognizing or ignoring the contradictions, as often occurs in religious pursuits, is problematic. Religions commonly incorporate traditions that are grossly unethical; religions divide people and often cause conflicts, hatred, even wars.
Additionally, teaching religions often contains blatant psychological abuse, e.g. teaching that many people, including persons a child knows and loves, will suffer eternal, excruciating torture, leads to sympathetic traumatization. Such abusive teachings not only confuse but may lead to a spiritual crisis and damages the child’s basis of ethical thinking. It teaches that in ‘heaven’ there is no sympathetic suffering or compassion for those suffering on earth and in ‘hell’.
Spirituality may be understood to include humility and awe for the greatness of the universe, nature, human accomplishments such as works of art and/or the wholeness of a society with its ancestors. Spirituality may also refer to an appreciation of the human mind (or spirit) which is greater than and not destroyed by grave distress, creates a ‘narrative’ or legacy of the individual and finds meaning in an ethical life within society and nature.
3.4.4 Universal basis of ethics revised 6/2015, 7/2017
Research on global ethics shows that some moral principles are found, in varied forms, in virtually all cultures. Humans have a natural propensity to judge people, their actions and situations, and the concepts of right versus wrong, or good versus bad have been central throughout human history. Telling stories with moral content by far predates writing. Language may have developed primarily to support a “grammar of social behaviors.”
A propensity to follow morals appears inherent: humans usually feel bad when planned or impulsively transgressing moral standards, even if not caught. Morality, as true communicative language with abstractions, may be a human characteristic not found in other animals.5
Cultures and subcultures created forms of morality, taught in stories and actualized in traditional practices; there were often efforts to enforce the practice of taught virtues, religious mandates, laws and taboos. Cultural mores are precursors to ethics; they modify and shape, reinforce and suppress natural inclinations (expressions of instincts), but they are generally dogmatic rather than pragmatic and they are often incongruous and/or incompatible with compassion.
While humans have an inherent sense that things should be a certain way, there are often conflicts between inclinations. Judgments may appear right when considering a cultural tradition and wrong when considering other moral principles or virtues, such as compassion. A forced traditionally arranged marriage between a mature man and a young bride is judged “right” when considering cultural traditions and the relationship between the families, but “wrong” when feeling compassion for the girl who does not feel ready to leave her family, is afraid and has no attraction to the man. Even close relatives and friends often disagree about matters of morality, and when multiple conflicts are considered, individuals may change a judgment after considering other conflicts.
Globally, most people, particularly mothers, emphasize a wish that the next generation will do better. When people of virtually all cultures look at conflicts with some emotional distance, they broadly agree in some primary and basic values, in spite of contradictory emotions within individuals and different cultural responses to human instincts. We also find broadly, though less consistently and probably more in women than in men, preferences for
– avoiding hurtful ways of achieving any goals, particularly ‘innocent,’ uninvolved individuals should not suffer; whenever possible, people should not inflict pain, suffering and long-term damage;
– accepting rank orders and by culture assigned roles, generally being loyal to leader of family or group rather than selfishly rebelling
– attempts to be fair, practicing generosity (usually expecting forms of reciprocity)
– pursuing peace, even when there are obvious incentives to wage war;
– resolving conflicts and hostilities within and between social groups through mediation and arbitration, rituals, compensating injured person materially (work or money) and apologies, rather than taking revenge;
– attenuating aggression, possibly using verbal assertions or posturing, peaceful competition and negotiation;
– cooperating rather than competing, hurting others’ interests as little as possible while pursuing own and family’s goals;
– befriending and accepting outsiders (travelers, immigrants) as guests or partners rather than treating them as enemies;
– helping, if needed nurturing and caring for the poor, injured or ill, disabled, weak, orphans etc.;
– decreasing ethnocentricity, racism, sexism and other forms of hostile attitudes or discrimination in favor of cooperation, broad empathy and humane treatment of all people.
Principles of global ethics are found in most cultures’ religions and were expressed by many thinkers. The universality of some principles have been considered an indication of religions being based on messages of one God; however, the widespread belief that the great religions teach the same basic moral messages has little validity. There are instincts that lead to universal ethical-moral principles, but religions emphasize very different values and goals and they often cause divisions and antagonism among people. Indian religions teach respect for and even sanctity of animals and a progression through many incarnations. Semitic-Western religions see animals as created for human exploitation and life as one chance to earn paradise or perpetual punishment. Buddhism counters the human propensity to pursue positive goals and excitement while largely ignoring dangers and suffering. Christianity emphasizes equality of all men and women, pacifism and broad forgiveness: humans were not to punish each other. In its precursor religion, according to scriptures, the God of the Israelites enforced a patriarchal hierarchy that included slavery and allowed leaders to enslave hundreds of wives and concubines; crimes demanded reciprocal punishments or punishments that were much worse than the crime, rather than forgiveness; and their God helped the Israelites commit genocidal warfare against tribes they considered inferior. [If there is a personal God who wants humans to live a certain way, She/He has not been successful in communicating it to us humans.]
Inborn factors that support the development of morality include primary nurturing and protective instincts, expectation of reciprocity or ‘fairness,’ sympathy and compassion, desire to help, sense of cleanliness and order, inherent aversion to seeing innocent others hurt, inherent acceptance of rank orders and roles within groups, loyalty to family and groups, instinctive valuation of people based on genetic or other relatedness and developmental stage, instinctive valuation of individuals as potential supporters or mates, etc. However, social instincts, sympathy and compassion work mainly within defined groups and are ineffective when beings are considered outsiders, “them,” “others,” not “us,” or enemies.
Jonathan Haidt listed universal principles of ethics as: care [underlying nurturance, kindness, gentleness – versus harm]; fairness [proportionality, reciprocal altruism, also generating ideas such as justice, rights, autonomy – versus cheating]; loyalty [standing with group, family, nation, people feeling “one for all and all for one” – versus betrayal]; authority [accepting rank order with deference – versus subversion]; purity [or sanctity, forms of cleanliness, abhorrence for disgusting, contaminating things – versus degradation]; and he added a questionable principle: liberty versus oppression.
Rushworth Kidder (Institute for Global Ethics) enumerated five global principles of ethics: responsibility; honesty; respect; compassion; fairness.
Particularly with regard to the perception of fairness, humans are unique in their observation of others’ following rules and watching who ‘cheats.’ Cultural morals are largely internalized and followed even when nobody watches, however, people are much more likely to break laws when being caught appears very unlikely.
Compassionate empathy is central in natural ethics. It is people’s ability to put themselves into another’s place, trying to understand his/her feelings and thoughts, having some sympathy, but being aware of the social environment and one’s own autonomy. People learn to be empathetic by listening to and reading stories in which they identify with a protagonist that is different from their group members; in good literature, protagonists’ feelings, thoughts, memories, fears, aspirations, etc. are described in great detail, and the reader can imagine temporarily becoming that person. Compassion towards people who are similar to the protagonist then becomes natural.
Empathy is not always compassionate; it appears to have developed with multiple purposes: in punishing and sadistic empathy one visualizes what cruelty the victim fears most, and in some cultures, bizarre cruelties were developed as entertainment. Trade is promoted by learning to be empathetic, empathetically sensing what a potential buyer may want and what a salesperson has to emphasize. Compassionate empathy is probably most frequent and is most relevant; it is derived from sympathy, the spontaneous feeling what others describe and express in their body language, and it includes a wish to be helpful.
Global ethics research indicates that most people appreciate peace and cooperation, at least within their group, clan or state, but, particularly in Western cultures, children primarily learn adversarial thinking. Additionally, people have often been taught that peaceful approaches rarely work in major conflicts, that warfare is honorable and they have difficulties changing patterns of thinking. It is probably a remnant of ancient religious ideas that the experience of severe suffering is often considered necessary for personal growth or to please God, and people tend to derive pride in having endured severe pain, but suffering as such is hardly beneficialin any way. Much old wisdom promoted ethics and a sense of meaning, contentedness and happiness; some cultural groups and psychological research concerning happiness have rediscovered them.
Civilizations consist of institutions that contribute much to how the expression of instincts is shaped; the institutions have the effect of a comprehensive behavior modification program. People are different and do not respond to incentives in identical ways, but everybody is profoundly influenced by the cultural-institutional environment. Blaming individuals is obviously pointless: many children may become highly ethical adults, but nobody can make most or all people start behaving ethically in order to reach world peace and universal happiness. Economic and legal systems, the educational and social institutions, passed-on folklore and tales, religious teachings and traditions, literature for all age groups, games, entertainment and the media are all part of the thought and behavior-shaping environment. The entirety of a civilization’s institutions should be seen as behavior modification program. Only by improving cultures and their institutions can we improve people’s physical and mental health, morality and happiness. The expression of human propensities is also powerfully influence by forms of dwellings, city planning, transportation systems and other aspects of the environments that are shaped by cultures.
Cultural institutions’ developments tend to follow coincidental factors, including the spreading of local trends and fads, ideas of influential people, contacts with other civilizations, scientific-technological developments, demographic changes and changes in physical environments. Leaders of countries and other influential people rarely appreciate the extent of institutions’ impact on people’s character and mental health, on patterns of interactions, on belief systems, morals and propensity toward unethical behaviors, on perceived needs and craving for luxuries, and on their health and happiness. The damage caused by some religious teachings is broadly ignored; for example, we cannot teach children about heaven and hell while trying to instill broad compassionate empathy: the primitive image of heavenly happiness is a place where there is no compassion for the horrendous sufferings of those in hell. Bad luck, illnesses, bad parenting and some abuse behaviors cannot be prevented, but cultural institutions can greatly decrease their likelihood and impact. For instance, child abuse is decreased and has much less tragic consequences if troubled families receive support from extended families, communities and governmental institutions, and if abused children have ready access to emotional support and psychological help. Helping perpetrators while preventing further abuse is possible and much more beneficial than court proceedings and imprisonments that harm all family members. Compassion can be developed and encouraged, and empathy can be taught, for instance by using interesting teaching materials that show perspectives of very different people and empathetic protagonists.
While much progress was reached over the millennia, institutions are largely maintaining 18th century economic, legal and social thinking. Eighteenth century thinkers introduced major institutional transformations, leading to modern democratic, economic and legal institutions, and to the formulation of rights, rights of children, minorities, animals, etc. A comparable shift in people’s thinking is needed today: we have an ethical obligation to work towards broad institutional changes. The goals of equality and equal rights, justice and freedom are elusive and unrealistic: treating people the same neither exemplifies equality nor justice, and ethical considerations require that freedoms are restricted. People perceive to have and enjoy the feeling of freely choosing, but punishing, based on a belief in free will, is wrong. In cases of major ethical transgressions, victims and perpetrators need help and more preventive work is required, minimizing first perpetrations and preventing repeated offenses.
People are different regarding temperament, intellectual and other strengths and weaknesses, cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds, etc., and the major biological differences between girls and boys, women and men are largely ignored. Reviewing observations and keen research help clarify differing propensities and needs of humans of both sexes and of different temperaments and aptitudes; institutions need to adapt to them in ethical ways.
Natural ethics includes working towards institutions, a social order and governance that guide natural propensities towards ethical behaviors and promote ethical decision-making, physical and mental health and humane conditions, locally and globally.
Modern economic institutions cause severe problems. The circulating money consists to a significant degree in bank loans; lending practices encourage materialism but debts lead to depression and a sense of enslavement. Corporations have a fiduciary duty to yield profits for investors, thus ethical goals of a corporation’s founders are soon perverted. The system of lending and investing money leads to a waste of human intelligence: many highly educated people do nothing but moving money around, squeezing profits out of trades and maximizing these profits. Economic institutions directly or indirectly influence most aspects of human behaviors and government agencies, often in detrimental ways.
A most appalling failure of institutions is the USA’s legal system which is based on pre-Christian values and false assumptions regarding the human mind. In addition, there is a lack of preventive measures and inadequate treatment of potentially dangerous persons. Legal concepts ignore that people do not act according to legal or moral knowledge, that all major actions are based on emotions, that if there is free will, it is a minute aspect of human decision-making.
Studies indicate that developments towards dangerous psychopathy virtually always include both, a genetic predisposition and a problematic environment during childhood; however, most dangerous people are not manifestly psychotic and prevention cannot focus on most disturbed individuals. In much of the highly industrialized world, the teaching of ethics is weak and it is often countered by youth subcultures and culture at large, by media, games, etc. Ethics and particularly empathy can be taught: children and adults can be lead and compelled to hear about and look at experiences, aspirations and the suffering of others. Signs of problematic developments should be screened for in preschool and during school years. After a person has become a perpetrator of highly unethical acts, he/she is still treatable, but usually much structure is needed. Some people should be held in therapeutic, monastery-like institutions with structure, therapy, vocational and artistic-spiritual pursuits; treatment should always be humane; punishments must be avoided, as Jesus taught and many thinkers, including Charles Darwin, an agnostic, confirmed. However more research and experience regarding prevention and treatment is needed.
While scientists rarely address the issue of free will versus determinism, many highly intelligent thinkers came to the conclusion that humans have no free will, including Baruch Spinoza, possibly the greatest philosopher of all times; Charles Darwin, Sigmund Freud, Albert Einstein, Konrad Lorenz and Edward O. Wilson. Subjectively, people enjoy the sense of being able to decide freely at any moment, but we never can claim “I could have avoided that” without the knowledge and powerful emotions one may have now but did not have at the time, neither can we ever guarantee that, tomorrow, we will feel strongly enough about stopping (or starting) a behavior, that we will decide in the way we “know” to be “right.” Often, what we know to be “bad” feels at the moment “right” and we cannot stop ourselves. Resisting a “bad” emotion (urge) and acting according to higher values is only possible when the higher value is associated with an emotion that is stronger than the “bad” emotion. When believing to decide freely, people typically follow an instinct. When we feel right about a decision, we hardly could act otherwise. If having no sense what is good or least bad, we do not feel free: decisions feel random and hardly conscious. (The philosopher Patricia Churchland described detailed scientific arguments against free will.)
Free will versus determinism is an often debated issue in ethics and many thinkers assume that free will is a foundation or precondition of morality or ethics, however, many philosophers and scientist believe firmly in determinism, the understanding that all processes including all mental and physical activities of humans are determined by the laws of nature that cannot be changed by free will. (Even though there are processes in subatomic entities that appear to be random, these cannot be construed to explain free will.) Because of the complexity of factors that determine mental processes future decisions and activities cannot be predicted. Determinism is not the same as predetermination, a belief that everything is determined in advance, that there is no randomness in nature, and a related belief that an all-knowing god knows everything in advance, leading to a conclusion that people’s lives are determined before they are born and that they cannot act differently. Steven Pinker, in How the Mind Works, 1997, p. 55, argues that science and ethics must be considered two self-contained systems with ethical thinking being based on free will as an idealization of human beings and science being deterministic. However, as E. O. Wilson describes in Consilience, 1998, p. 119f, “The hidden preparation of mental activity gives the illusion of free will.” And later “Confidence in free will is biologically adaptive. Without it, the mind, imprisoned by fatalism, would slow and deteriorate.” While we may benefit from the illusion of free will, knowing that it is an illusion is valuable when dealing with perceived injustices and urges of revenge, and, as Einstein noted in “Wie ich die Welt sehe,” in “Mein Weltbild” (around 1930) the belief that there is no free will is an inexhaustible spring of tolerance and alleviates the easily paralyzing sense of responsibility. In addition, to feel good, humans need a sense of meaning, which is gained primarily from pursuing ethical goals regardless of a belief in free will or determinism.
For healthy functioning and ethical thinking it is important to feel free, accountable and responsible. As noted, without the enjoyable feeling of choosing freely, a ‘fatalistic’ attitude interferes with normal mental processes. It may also be beneficial if unethical impulses and behaviors trigger guilt feelings. However, past actions that appear, in retrospect, unethical, should be regretted, to be learned from, and later accepted without judgment (forgiveness, for emotional relief, should be applied to others and to self). Conversely, not believing in free will helps accept adversities that people cause each other for whatever reason. Paralyzing fears of making a grave mistake may also be relieved.
Human lives are deeply intertwined: giving and receiving are central aspects of social living, and giving generally leads to more good feelings than receiving. Giving includes time and effort, care and/or material and financial support.
When allocating resources to improve others’ quality of life, ethical decision-making is based on broad empathy, thinking globally and considering future generations, and it considers or affirms social instincts. Factors that are considered include:
– Closeness (genetic closeness, personal bond and notion of duty to help each other): relatives; spouse or partner, in-laws, adopted children; friends, acquaintances and in some ways known strangers; members of groups one belongs to; domesticated and wild animals of personal concern.
– Developmental stage of the recipient, particularly apparent feelings and reciprocity of feelings and emotions.
– Donor’s and others’ previous emotional and physical investments in the concerned being(s), e.g. older children are more valued than an infant; when infants and older children die, grief for older children is more devastating.
– Capabilities and potentials, particularly appreciated, individual capabilities which are based on the investments in a person (upbringing, schooling, etc.).
– Instinctive cues for caring: head proportions in infants, cuteness of children or young women, submissive posture, signs of illness or injury, particularly if one feels bonded to the person.
– Expectation of some form of reciprocation, direct, indirect, future, or potential; or at least sense that there is genuine gratitude.
– Persons who are isolated (alienated from, not knowing family members, and lacking friends who could help), and persons with handicaps may attract compassion, appearing to ‘deserve’ being treated like friends (this includes specific suffering people described in media and by fund raisers of charities).
– Personal concerns about specific situations and forms of suffering that lead to strong sympathetic response, e.g. exploited and abused Third World children, victims of specific forms of institutionalized cruelties.
– Quantity and/or severity of suffering and privation.
– Causal factors of suffering and privation, i.e. consideration whether predicament partly or indirectly caused by potential donor’s countrymen, ancestors or own previous actions (e.g. having bought sports gear made by enslaved children).
Altruism is natural: people and some other social animals may spontaneously do small things that others wish; giving feels good, leads to a rise in self esteem and may elevate one’s rank and esteem in a society. Giving and asking favors, giving others opportunity to give, leads to personal bonds, but gifts should generally be small, not lowering other’s esteem, obliging reciprocity or fostering dependency and an exploitative attitude.
Ethically, people should always consider all groups of beings, close, distant and future, even if giving more to beings they are at the time close to. Meaningful altruistic actions primarily consider needs and avoid foreseeable negative effects, not fulfilling a wish when what poor people may long for is objectively harmful to them. As there is great misery in the world, a potential donor’s material and emotional resources affect ethical responsibility. Voluntary simplicity, the avoidance of affordable luxuries, is, to some degree, an ethical obligation.
The wide gap in living standards between social groups and countries is critical: extreme poverty, usually associated with environmental degradation and very high population density, leads to disintegration of family structure and social institutions. Indebtedness and perceiving self as far below local norm adds to the emotional strain and contributes that people function far below their intellectual potentials. Normal balances get lost and violence by individuals, gangs and political groups become likely. Significant redistribution of resources and opening of borders is ethically and politically imperative.6
Giving includes helping persons with emotional hardships. However, when helping a person with conflicts, stress and/or a recent loss, a basic question is whose role it is to be the primary actor and who is to be mainly supportive; does the anxious, depressed person want that somebody else temporarily takes charge?
Giving is influenced by a person’s physical and mental state, social and cultural setting, the meaning of the actions according to the person’s own values and priorities. However giving may be problematic in many ways: in addition to lowering the esteem of the receiver, it may lead to an exploitative attitude and/or resentments; the receiver may feel put into the position where reciprocation is expected but not possible; people may give what benefits the donor more than the receiver; people are bad judges with regard to what is beneficial for whom. In all interactions, a broad, empathetic review of possible consequences is relevant, beyond what may ‘feel right’ at the moment.
Ethically, people should give more when needs are great. Anecdotal evidence and research indicates that people tend to give less. Describing one suffering child or family or focusing on a catastrophe often leads to immediate significant donations while chronic widespread famines remain largely ignored. “Adopting” a Third World child by giving a few dollars each month may give a sense of closeness but may damage the child’s community. People have an ethical obligation to think more globally and also give outside of their personal realm. It may be helpful for donors to form communities that affirm their meaningful impact.
Giving for selfish reasons is probably frequent. Giving food aid may help the American and hurt the Third World farmers by keeping food prices high in the USA while robbing poor farmers of needed income thus impairing future food production. [Excess food should be stored and/or may be given to farmers in areas where harvests fail, so that farmers can sell it, that prices stay affordable for populations and that farmers have resources to plant in the next season.] Giving to churches may alleviate a sense of obligation or guilt and raise one’s self-esteem but generally does little for the suffering poor. Giving to organizations such as the YMCA benefits more Americans who are fairly well off than people deserving charity. More problematic is that, as a culture, modern Americans often perceive giving to the poor as sentimental and meaningless, unless it brings major recognition, e.g. a building being named after the donor.
Saving, in extreme emergencies, older children ahead of babies may appear counterintuitive since babies naturally elicit a nurturing response and probably need less resources to be saved. However, if in an area there is every few years a famine or epidemic, and families would focus on saving the youngest children, there would be a significant likelihood that no child reaches adulthood. Among some gathering-hunting people who do not know breast-milk substitutes, e.g. the !Kung, infanticide may be practiced if an older sibling still needs nursing. Compare also valuation of embryo or fetus and people by age and gender in the Bible, Exodus 21, 22-25; Leviticus 27, 2-8.
A major ethical issue is spending on public works that have no direct benefits for the poorest, such as building monuments, parks and museums. Where to spend money on public research is also ethically problematic. Far too much has been spent on weapons development instead of broadening worldwide cooperation and mutual understanding. Space projects appear at best questionable. Modern societies spend resources for infrastructure, for beautification of towns with art, plants around dwellings, libraries, museums, parks, nature preserves (which absorb greenhouse gases and help save endangered species), for education and research, etc.; such expenditures enhance the quality of life for many, may improve people’s health, decrease crimes, and may decrease personal spending on entertainment, travel and luxuries. However, public expenditures should be limited. As during the Great Depression, public works may be done by people who otherwise would be unemployed and/or who otherwise could not realize artistic and other skills. Ethics must seek a balance, spending on public works that improves the quality of life of many thus decreasing personal luxury spending, and investing in progress and the future, while spending adequately for the poorest, old, ill, disabled, etc.
Feelings and emotions are contagious: we feel to a lesser degree what people around us feel (sympathy), and if people around us feel bad, we naturally wish to alleviate their suffering (compassion); humans also learn empathy, the practice of putting oneself into others’ place, appreciating their past and present situation and attempting to understand their emotions, thoughts and aspirations. However, humans are often cruel when specific instincts and cultural learning interfere with feeling compassion and/or acting on it. Many cultural institutions discourage empathy and condone, encourage or mandate unethical behaviors.
In evolution, group formation with cooperation among group members proved to be beneficial and many mammal and bird species developed patterns of cooperation. In humans social instincts generally functioned within small gathering-hunting groups and to a lesser extent among groups kindred by intermarriage and shared language; others were largely perceived as inferior and as enemies.
The natural propensity to form groups that exclude others, dividing people into “us-versus-them,” largely suppresses compassion towards ‘others’ or ‘them.’ Us-versus-them thinking is probably the by far most important factor leading to planned and institutionalized forms of extreme callousness and cruelties, from bullying to torture and warfare. In sadism and when there is a cultural mandate to inflict extreme pain, empathy is often perverted, doing to the other what one would fear most.
Basic, natural groups are families, clans and what is perceived as nation, but groups often include adopted members: tribes may steal other tribes’ children or young women, families may adopt orphaned children and nations often give citizenship to immigrants and people of conquered regions. In complex societies, groups form capriciously, often changing and overlapping, allowing callous actions among people who are close to each other. Even within families there is often ‘us-versus-them’ thinking based on differences in age, sex, social position or role, and individual inclination. Within cultures and subcultures, groups may form in response to some people having in some way opposite characteristics, making them targets of derision and other maltreatment. Groups may break into smaller groups when no longer cohesive because of size. Groups may consist in peers of a close ‘in-group’ versus outsiders, young men versus adolescent girls, older workers versus inexperienced ones, ‘properly married’ women with children versus single, divorced, childless and widowed women, fathers and teachers versus older children, mother-in-laws and matriarchs versus young women. Coincidental and “artificial” groups include army units, people converting to same religion, people with different backgrounds working on common projects, or people meeting and cooperating in the aftermath of a disaster. When cultures encourage or mandate cruelties, group dynamics help suppress compassion, e.g. young men being considered a ‘wild’ unworthy subgroup before initiation, and young girls being seen as ‘unclean’ until genital mutilation is performed. Individuals of one group inflicting much pain to members of another group may appear ‘normal,’ e.g. in punishments, in warfare and in medical procedures.
Group formation has often been exploited by politicians, e.g. colonial governments favored groups which then were used to suppress the majority. Instigation of ethnic and inter-religious violence often served unrelated political goals. Poverty and lack of resources often lead to aggression between previously well integrated population groups.
Ethically it is most important to recognize ‘us-versus-them thinking’ and to counter it by learning and practicing broad empathy.
Groups can accomplish what individuals cannot, particularly hierarchically organized groups can be very effective.People must cooperate and people tend to work well in teams when individuals do complementary jobs or work separately on a common project. Working together as a group may enhance work and ethical behaviors, when people cooperate in valued volunteer work enjoying others’ appreciation for the work and the social aspect of common work, however they hardly make extreme efforts as a single ethical worker might.
Psychological studies indicate that forming groups to cooperatively solve problems by ‘brain storming’ and to generally increase individuals’ efforts and productivity does not work. Within groups, people tend to work less, physically and in mental tasks; they are less inventive and less compassionate than when facing situations alone. In addition, groups often lead members to unreasonable, extreme positions; nobody seems inclined to compassionately consider consequences and discuss them. As responsibility is spread, nobody feels responsible. Even when witnessing an assault or fire, for group members it appears ‘normal’ to do nothing, the group becomes ‘us’ versus the suffering ‘other.’ Many forms of abuses and discrimination are based on group dynamics and ‘us-versus-them’ thinking.
Many as ‘others’ perceived people consist of individuals who have something vaguely in common and are by outsiders perceived as ‘groups,’ e.g. most ‘African-Americans’ are of mixed ethnicity, including Caucasian, many African and other ethnicities, but they were perceived as one ‘inferior’ group and they feel some solidarity. ‘Jews’ are neither a religious nor ethnic group and they lost their Semitic language centuries ago; they contain religious subgroups, converts, agnostics and atheists of mixed ethnicities, and they speak many languages.
Sometimes there is overlap between a role that requires to focus on a painful action versus lack of empathy because of ‘us-versus-them thinking,’ When treating a sick child, parents and health care professionals may sometimes be nurturing and sometimes cooperate in procedures that cause pain. Teaching ballet may contain caring guidance and compelling very painful training to advance girls out of their novice status. Some very painful procedures are usually done without any pain relief while with other procedures health professionals may go to great length to make the patient comfortable. Physicians and nurses may not feel compassionate when judging a patient in cases of drug abuse, undesirable pregnancy or an accident due to irresponsible behavior, and judging the patients separates healthcare professionals from the ‘inferior’ human beings who became their patients.
Obviously, wars and conventional law enforcement include roles that require merciless us-versus-them thinking, which harms all involved people: military personnel, officials who initiate wars, civilians in war zones, law enforcement personnel, people who broke a law and their families. Wars and today’s legal systems are inhumane, obsolete and counter-productive responses to conflicts and human rights violations.
Aggression in its various functions attempts to advance own self while impeding others, and/or inflict pain; it inhibits sympathy and compassion. Aggression within a species (not including predatory aggression) naturally serves as tool instinct in exploration of environment, in rank order and territorial fights (defensive or offensive, as individual or group), and in retribution, which is generally perceived as required by reciprocity or ‘justice’ and ‘honor.’ Humans also instinctively want to punish ‘cheaters’ or ‘slackers’ who break group rules and benefit from group efforts without cooperating. Aggression is also part of primitive mating behaviors that are based on dominance and submission. Like other instincts, aggression is often enjoyed out of a context (picking fights), and vicariously in games, watching fights or when identifying with aggressors while reading, watching movies, playing video games, etc. Anything associated with the instinct fulfillment is perceived as significant, typically in a positive way.
People appear fascinated with suffering and cruelties. Physical suffering may be defined as pain sensation, the perception that tissue is damaged, combined with an irresistible, unfulfilled will that the sensation cease. Humans are intrigued by the contradictions between wanting to feel good but being very vulnerable and often experiencing suffering, appreciating when others feel good but wanting to observe and sometimes even cause severe suffering in others. Humans also willingly learn to participate in cruel treatments of others when these are condoned or mandated in their culture. In a stoning, the whole community is expected to participate. Fascination with contradictory instincts and group dynamics often exacerbate brutalities.
Culturally inhibited aggressive urges and other frustrations are perceived as justified anger, often with revenge feelings, jealousy and/or a sense of being owed something; anger usually results from unfulfilled expectations which were considered justified. People assimilate by cultures established rules with regard to expressing anger in public settings. Because of the private nature of family life, domestic violence is sometimes less inhibited.
Multiple instincts and their expressions may be naturally combined as in the case of aggression as a tool instinct, or they may be associated through cultural learning and external, coincidental factors. A particular problem is males’ ability to combine sexual feelings with aggression, and female’s inherent readiness to combine fear and humiliation with sexual arousal.
The primary ethical goal is to broaden compassionate empathy while always scrutinizing habits and traditions. Aggression has a very limited function among adults in a peaceful civilization. People must learn to accept unfulfilled expectations with a forgiving attitude rather than angry, aggressive reactions. Negative feelings should be calmly observed as they weaken and dissipate; they should not be expressed nor supported by thoughts.
People must be cautious regarding any group formation: groups rarely encourage balanced positions and consideration of multiple viewpoints; groups often lead members towards biased and extreme positions. People must stay vigilant and distract from fascination with cruelties, aggression, ‘us-versus-them’ thinking and the related virtues of group honor, loyalty and patriotism. People must work on changing adverse cultural customs and adverse developments.
Usually it feels ‘right’ to follow instinctive inclinations and their cultural adaptations. It is important to observe them but we must also develop and emotionally strengthen ethical values to help us resist unethical inclinations, cultural expectations and mandates. While it is natural to dislike some people, we need to make conscious efforts to be understanding and forgiving towards others, seeking to improve unethical thinking and behaviors peacefully and not allow prejudiced or hateful feelings or us-versus them thinking.
Instincts often appear to opportunistically and mercilessly calculate what is likely to promote own self, own group and particularly own genes, sometimes utilizing aggression individually or in group actions. People may see a man favorably if he may help their advancement, but when he becomes a competitor, aggressive feelings are likely to emerge. Biologically, it makes sense for a male to kill his new mate’s infant, as has been observed in some mammals; accordingly men may rationalize treating a stepchild negligently, even viciously although a young child’s appearance normally triggers caring instincts.
Instinctively, people always want to be right, and when taking sides, even if not involved in a conflict, the human mind readily focuses on and exaggerates what supports one’s side, making the adversary appear much worse than a neutral observer would describe. Thus humans’ propensity to aggressive and vindictive feelings is usually exaggerated unless there are indirect reasons for being a friend of the adversary. In addition, people focus mostly on negative interactions and remember them more readily.
Observations indicate that in males, rank order fights are frequent and often ritualized, and when a rank order is established, a loser may become a loyal ally of the stronger male; serious fights in females are rare but more likely to lead to long-lasting hostile feelings.7 The difference between male and female fighting may be biologically explained: for males, rank orders are more important as they partly determine who will be able to procreate; once rank orders are established, being a friend of a high ranking male is beneficial. Among females, aggression may be more related to jealousy due to fear of losing a male friend, protector and provider. Fierce hostility due to fear of losing a male to another female is understandable since the loss of her lover is detrimental for a pregnant female or mother. Among our ancestors, almost all females were impregnated, but not all had bonds with strong males who helped with their young and/or defended them, and often there were fewer males than females because males often killed each other and/or they died in risk-taking displays.
In most vertebrates, there is an inherent propensity to combine dominance and aggression with sexual arousal in males (feeling love but wanting to hurt a girl or feeling lust while hating a women), and combining fear, humiliation and/or submissiveness with sexual arousal in females. Conversely, fear generally impedes sexual feelings in males and aggressive emotions impede sexual arousal in females. Male sex hormones (androgens) increase both libido and propensity to aggression, but conversely, sexual intercourse and rising in rank also increase a male’s androgens. Males easily shift from aggressing against a male to sex, and male sexual behaviors may contain aggression, e.g. fear and pain of a virgin may increase sexual excitement, and males may rape a woman to punish her male relatives. The propensity of fear, humiliation and a sense of failure to enhance sexual arousal in females contributes to girls consenting prematurely to sex, woman getting involved with dangerous men and most cultures condoning marital rape. (Sexual activities should not be considered consensual unless both partners agreed well in advance [while sober], with thorough consideration of possible consequences.)
Sex education must reinforce caring aspects and empathy in courtship, and address psychological aspects of relationships. Cultures should reinforce that sex must be the last step ina lengthy sequence of instinctual/cultural steps of court ship and forming bonds. This is important because sex biologically strengthens bonds (hormonal effects, and emotional and cultural reinforcement), helping parents feel close to each other and staying together. Promiscuity weakens the bonding effect of sexual intercourse. Evolution also brought about a propensity to occasional affairs [for females: “don’t put all eggs into one basket,” since the gene combination of a couple may not be optimal for survival], for males’ it increases propagation of genes). Virtually all monogamous animals have sometimes “extramarital” sex; however, in humans, cultural laws against or a taboo of extramarital relationships makes ethically sense because of the subsequent emotional pain and complications, particularly if children are conceived. However, marriages should not be destroyed only because one or both partners had an affair.
Primates are patriarchal, apparently as a result of evolution. Primitive humans form/formed small groups; research indicates that humans can only feel familiar with up to 150 people, in other primates the number is less. To decrease inbreeding, young adult females often move to a neighboring group. The males generally stay loyal to their hierarchy and group culture while an immigrating female, even though valuable to the group, has no status; she has to adapt and gradually find her place.
Aggression that is restrained by cultural learning is perceived as anger. Cultures have fairly firm rules as to how anger may be expressed among people of different positions and in specific settings. Being “out-of-control” usually means showing more anger than is wise and culturally acceptable, but crude, uninhibited aggression is rare. Sometimes intense aggression is displayed because the aggressor apparently wants to be restrained (or killed). Within families, people often fail to establish ‘rules’ for themselves; this may explain the relative frequency of domestic violence in otherwise very peaceful societies.
To let anger and frustration dissipate, we usually have to decrease or renounce expectations and judgments, consciously change thoughts that are connected with anger, relax, accept reality, and then reevaluate issues. Ethics requires that we address conflicts peacefully, with a forgiving attitude, consideration and compassion, if necessary utilizing mediation or arbitration. Defending honor, revenge to “to restore justice” and patriotism are neither ethical nor effective in finding peace. Practicing meditation and contemplating issues without judging is very helpful, reducing intensity of negative emotions and often leading to a different perception of events. Ethics also requires conscious efforts to recognize the unethical nature of thoughts and actions related to aggression, anger, revenge and jealousy and to change thoughts that are associated with such negative emotions; in people’s personal culture, such thoughts should become shameful and ‘taboo.’
Suffering physically is the combination of a pain or other very uncomfortable physical sensation (usually including a sense that tissue is being damaged), combined with an inherent, strong, discordant will for the sensation to stop. Suffering may be reduced or overcome by an alternate will, when the result of specific forms of pain lead to a rewarding or meaningful outcomes: a child may associate painfully spicy food with nurturing, women may enjoy pulling out body and facial hair and drug abusers may like self-injecting. Sexual masochism is an extreme example of contradictory mental responses to physical pain sensations. The positive meaning of childbirth may raise pain tolerance. Hypnosis may help interpret the sensation of pain differently or lead to dissociation, e.g. making an injured body part feel numb.
There are many examples of human fascination with contradictory instincts. In specific situations, people may be caring while being also cruel. Primitive people appear to have assumed that the gods are blood thirsty and demanding sacrifices, including healthy humans that are killed in ritualistic cruel ways. People often assumed little children to be naturally bad and needing brutal treatments to be civilized. If brutal towards ‘misbehaving’ children, men may treat their wife (or wives) similarly since they perceived women as somewhere between a child and adult (men are attracted to child features in women; patriarchal cultures expected men to punish their wives but not vice versa).
Instinctively, people want to protect prepubertal girls more than boys and more than mature people; however cultures developed extreme cruelties specifically targeting four to ten years old girls (worst traditions probably were/are foot binding and genital mutilations); there was/is not even a pretense of anesthesia and compassion. Such traditions often spread and were soon assumed to be necessary to accentuate femininity and to secure favorable marriage opportunities. [Painful procedures during the initiation of adolescent boys may make sense since adult men must learn to be courageous and voluntarily face painful situations. However, male circumcisions, though much less severe than FGM, were also often performed on children.]
Love is associated with tender feelings, and child features of a young bride are often exaggerated. Young women are consequently expected to remove body hair, act shy and ‘innocent,’ sometimes even undergo nose surgeries to have a more childlike face, and young women often act fearfully and unassertively, as if seeking guidance, sometimes even hiding their knowledge. However, boys’ protective feelings cease when a girl friend does not want sex, sex is painful or she does not feel ready to become pregnant and go through childbirth. Because of peer pressure and expectation to have a boy friend, young girls may submit to sexual acts, which they perceive as repugnant. In many cultures, arranged marriages compel sex without love; child marriages and infibulation exaggerate the incongruity between love and cruelty. In such situations, young men may see themselves as group, separate from and not empathetic towards females’ different emotions and concerns and ready to temporarily squash tender emotions.
When studying a culture, visitors may love the beauty of the countryside, the animals, the people with their colorful clothing and their art, and wish to learn more about the culture; they then may accept public flogging, cruel initiation rituals and forced marriages of young girls with older men. Even in recent and present Western cultures, competition within groups for high rank, to join in-groups, and to have best reproductive prospects, often leads to painful treatment of self, but mainly of pupils and own children of same sex, e.g. painful and unhealthy training in sports and artistic dances, painfully tight clothing or shoes that gradually deform body, symbolically meaningful tattooing and scarifications, etc.
Adolescent girls and women, usually considered to deserve kindness, were and are often harshly punished for infractions for which a male would hardly be chastised. If cultures mandate that women must be killed, e.g. a raped young women who dishonors family, a women whose dowry cannot be paid or a widow who must be buried with her husband, traditions prescribed cruelties such as burning her alive or cutting her throat. In Western history, many young women were burned alive because their actions were seen as which craft. In the USA today, there are often harsh judgments when an adolescent girl or young women is involved in a possible crime. Child Protective Services and family courts are often vicious towards young poor mothers who have psychological problems. Domestic as well as random violence targeting girls and women are still common, killing thousands each year. When leaving an abusive boy friend or husband, women are still at risk of being killed. Throughout the world, many women still believe husbands have the right to beat them, and girls may watch how their peer is savagely kicked and beaten by her boy friend for allegedly having slept with another boy.
Group dynamics encourage extreme positions. In Western cultures, cruelties in hazing and inhumane forms of training are still common. When inflicting extreme pain is/was part of traditions, practitioners may insist in preserving the tradition without pity, sometimes using obsolete tools that prolong the agony. Older adults of same sex may have pride in the tradition and are rarely inclined to prevent the abuse of their children and grand children. With cruel traditional practices, the victim’s relatives are usually in a celebratory mood. Cultures may mandate that groups practice forms of violence that may be vindictive or may represent part of opportunistic warfare where aggression is not part of a ‘fair’ fight or self-defense. Group members may be exited when inventing new weapons or sadistic punishments. After a cruel attack on enemies, aggressors are often in a frenzied, wildly excited, jubilant mood (observations in humans and chimpanzees).8
There has been great progress in reducing virtually all forms of violence, genocidal and lesser wars, violent crimes, cruel traditions and cruel treatment of animals. Throughout history, people in all parts of the world were entertained with violent stories and shows, including public cruelties on animals and humans. To many it appears normal that people deserve entertainments that include extreme situations particularly violence and unethical sex, and they may see the general decrease in violence as proof that there is no problem with violent movies, video games, etc. However the personal psychological involvement in violence and cruelty is different if playing a video game than if hearing a story, seeing a drawing, or playing soccer games that may be perceived as violent. The frequent readiness of somewhat disturbed people to shoot at uninvolved humans seems novel and rather unique to the USA (often there is some symbolism, e.g. shooting people who represent a specific type of persons). If estimating that 99.99% of people will never act on violent fantasies they enjoy in video games, that leaves 1 in 10,000 who may. And who will shoot (women, children or anybody) can hardly be predicted. Most people who become violent tyrants or criminals are relatively normal and most patients with mood disorders and psychosis are not dangerous. Many coinciding factors contribute to violence, particularly depression and poorly processed previous traumatic experiences; other factors may include sleep deprivation, alcohol, temporary acute paranoid fears (which many people sometimes experience), abandonment and major losses, being in very unfamiliar place and feeling suicidal (while depressed anxious and angry). However, all perpetrators had major unethical fantasies long before acting, usually stimulated by observing unethical behaviors when growing up in chaotic circumstances, by movies, video games, etc. Others may have been in war zones or worked in slaughterhouses. Many practiced shooting at human figures. When feeling very disturbed, young people do not suddenly invent crimes (nor do they invent drinking and injecting drugs). For many, it is a matter of luck if they never acted out grossly violent fantasies.
While many statistics look good, the mental health of young people is hardly improving; adolescents are more confused, many boys seem lost and girls have high rates of anxiety and mood disorders, eating disorders and an increasing rate of severe substance abuse. In the USA, teen age girls are 10-15 times more likely to have a child (very few planned and desired) compared with Switzerland, and in the USA the rate of abortions is considerably higher than in Western Europe. It is hard to assess what factors contribute to the epidemic of tattoos, piercings, and other self-injuries behaviors.
The belief that life appears enriched by extremes (at least portrayals and fantasies of extreme situations) may have some truth, but there is usually enough psychological and physical pain in good, ethical lives, and there are always interesting personal stories without extreme physical pain, and deaths consequent to initiations, childbirths, etc. Otherwise, life should be enriched by experiencing nature without risking one’s life, by sports activities that seem healthy and well “tolerable,” and enjoying and creating art without the pain and dangers of point dancing or gymnastics. Furthermore, even though they seemed so important, something older people may have been proud of, the extremely painful procedures that people suffered were hardly ever talked about.
Abuse-addiction behaviors may be understood as antithesis of ethics; by definition, abuse means ‘using wrongly or improperly’; the abuse being motivated by the expectation of relief and/or positive feelings while there is some knowledge that the behavior is not ethical, that benefits of the behavior do not outweigh possible or probable harm. Abuse behaviors include ‘bad’ use of drugs and enjoyment of instinctive, cultural and economic activities outside the realm of ethical and healthy living. Examples are use of alcohol and other substances to achieve unnatural good feelings, child or spouse abuse to alleviate frustration or sense of low rank after humiliation, fighting to obtain temporary sense of power, impulsive sex for fleeting sense of being loved, exploitative, loveless sex for physical pleasure and sense of power, eating for comfort, shopping to relieve stress and/or buying products to fulfill neurotic desires, gambling to enjoy moments of high expectation, computer games that include vicarious unethical acts, and, possibly most pernicious, addictive pursuit of wealth and power.
Abuse of chemicals causes good feelings by directly stimulating brain receptors normally associated with instinct fulfillment; they “cheat” the emotional-behavioral system. Abuse-addiction behaviors are enticing and self-reinforcing; the resulting good feeling makes the person want to repeat the behavior. A cause and goal with more emotional impact is needed to stop repetition of the behavior. Abuse behaviors are frequent and not readily recognized and acknowledged, instead, people tend to seek questionable justifications for the behaviors. Good feelings that result from abuse and their anticipation reinforce many associated perceptions and behaviors: places, smells or tastes, auditory and visual perceptions, or a specific pain sensation associated with the behavior may soon be perceived as positive, beautiful, good or right. Abuse patterns are addictions when they regularly compete with first priorities such as wanting to be healthy, ethical, a good parent, a good employee, etc., that is, when the abuse pattern reached the level of first priorities. Healthy behavioral habits must not be considered addictions unless regularly pursued for unethical reason, e.g. running or painting to avoid family and other responsibilities.
Initially, people may stumble on an abuse behavior not immediately recognizing negative aspects and soon rationalize the behavior. When suffering conflicts, frustration, traumas or isolation, people often seek abuse behaviors rather than mitigation of negative feelings and destructive emotions by reviewing information from many different angles, changing attitude and expectations, and through artistic expression, exercise and meditation. Generally, abuse-addiction patterns are phases in life, even though the danger of relapse stays high, at least in the first two years after discontinuing the pattern. While addiction behaviors have characteristics of a psychiatric disorder, there is no tissue damage as in most medical diseases; healthy aspects of the person are maintained, and people often can leave an addiction pattern when finding strong positive motivation with emotional impact. Examples: desired pregnancy and different sense of self may stop all substance abuse; finding significantly more meaning in new learning may stop time-consuming internet-computer addictions; thinking of loved children not wanting to be hypocritical nor age prematurely may make smoking feel ‘wrong,’ egodystonic, and lead a smoker to quit without outside help; learning to be empathetic when reading life stories that relate emotions and suffering of sex abuse victims may obviate a perpetrator’s erroneous justifications and cause his pathological urge to feel disturbing.
In the treatment of abuse-addiction disorders, psychological approaches are pivotal, addressing factors of vulnerability and promoting emotional growth; the goals are fundamental changes in the patient’s perception of the self, personal culture, and ethical thinking.
Abuse is generally perceived as a choice that can be justified and abuse patterns are often limited to situations where nobody appears directly harmed or when the person expects not to be found out. All abuse patterns may become addiction disorders, particularly when there is psychological vulnerability such as extreme loneliness or depression.
For adolescent males it is normal to take risks and oppose cultural teachings in order to show courage and strength; this propensity makes young males particularly vulnerable to develop addictions. Education should teach all young people to distinguish between ethical ways of demonstrating strengths and courage versus abuse and other unethical displays. Life choices often resemble gambling: no effort is certain to succeed. However, the goals of dangerous pursuits should always be meaningful. When a goal is extremely meaningful, it is valuable to work towards it even if efforts are dangerous and the likelihood of reaching it is low; working towards an ethical goal itself is meaningful.
In young women, abuse behaviors are more likely due to psychological problems, including conflicts caused by cultural expectations and peer subcultures, posttraumatic symptoms resulting from the discrepancy between what is culturally expected and acceptable versus what happened to them. In addition, when insecure and pressured, young women often go along with men friends’ abuse behaviors. Sexual addiction patterns may start after a young girl felt powerless in her earliest sexual experiences and later wants to experience sex in a position of power, at least getting secondary benefits such as being paid.
Many unethical behavior patterns may become abuse disorders but are rarely recognized as such. Anger and aggression are addicting because of a temporary sense of power and lifting of perceived self-worth or rank, comparable to addictive excitement in gambling. Wealth is addicting for multiple reasons. Acquiring money leads to anticipatory excitement as in psychostimulant (amphetamines and cocaine) abuse or at least a temporarily improved self-image, as with cigarette smoking. There is a widespread false belief that a high material living standard inevitably brings increased enjoyments and pleasures. Money is overvalued because it can buy almost everything that may appear enticing even if unethical and/or illegal: from any technological marvel or rare piece of art, real estate, to any sexual service. The pursuit of wealth and power is dangerous because, outside small groups, it has no point of satiation: the CEO of the most powerful corporation may want to acquire more assets and other corporations, and/or create slave-like conditions for workers to increase profits; the president of a powerful country may be dissatisfied until he becomes president for life with dictatorial powers.
Abuse and addiction behaviors are often considered impulsive, compulsive and/or habitual behaviors, crimes, manifestations of weak will, diseases, or psychiatric disorders. Actually, most abuse behaviors are planned rather than impulsive. Abuse is motivated by positive expectations whereas compulsions consist in ritualistic attempts to alleviate irrational insecurity, sense of being dirty, etc. ‘Weak will’ to resist repetition indicates that abusers have no emotionally powerful insights with positive goals to redirect them and/or they may feel very insecure, overwhelmed by conflicts, depressed, and/or isolated. Will power is a function of emotions that support a goal. Addictions become habits in the sense that the behaviors tend to be ‘automatically’ repeated without awareness.
Concerning a definition of addiction, there is much incongruity in the opinions of professionals. Neurotransmitters are involved in good feelings that result from addiction behaviors and associated perceptions, and other neurotransmitters may be involved in the intense and seemingly irresistible learning of the addiction behaviors. Pharmacological addictions may more directly influence the balance between neurotransmitters, however, there is little difference in the symptoms of psychological and pharmacological addictions: cocaine use and gambling have much in common, computer addictions are similar to drug addictions. Particularly after heavy amphetamine abuse, a person’s ability to enjoy small things is reduced; a similar response occurs in consumerism and when a person suddenly becomes wealthy. Children with genetic propensity to behavior and previous exposure to much violence also show a clinical picture of very muted response to ‘normal’ positive experiences, driving them towards extreme behaviors to get a sense of excitement. Addictions change brain responses and functions, but the same is true for most learning, falling in love or becoming a parent, enduring severe hardship, etc.
Unethical thoughts and fantasies reinforce unethical propensities and harm relationships, and fantasies may, in unusual circumstances, be acted out. In most civilizations, people enjoy vicarious participation in cruelties including sexual violence. Describing and visually portraying grossly unethical acts for entertainment is, at least in the USA, considered ‘free speech’ and many people relish the sympathetic excitement when identifying with perpetrators, particularly when violence seems somehow justified. Unethical passing thoughts and impulses are normal; however, people should avoid mentally consenting to the thoughts, considering cruelties to be ‘normal’ or necessary and enjoying thoughts. Combining natural novelty seeking and curiosity with specifically studying details of painful treatments, accidents, natural disasters, etc. usually leads to desensitization and excitement that may reinforce inherent fascination with suffering and cruelties. Identifying with perpetrators in violent movies, computer games or pornography is addictive and leads to craving portrayals of worse victimizations. Thoughts of abusing a known person or recognizing characteristic of fantasized victims in known people damages relationships. Situations where unethical fantasies may be acted out include intoxication, unfamiliarity, sleep deprivation, high levels of stress and male sex hormones, feeling extraordinarily powerful or feeling dejected and powerless.
Empathizing with persons committing unethical acts should be limited to attempts of understanding what leads to the behaviors. For psychologists, anthropologists, journalists and travel writers, it may be difficult to be appropriately empathetic, trying to understand people’s emotions and aspirations, rather than vacillate between sympathy and detachment. Empathy is needed to understand what is observed. Researchers should be honest, not calling cruel procedures “uncomfortable,” neither should writers report exaggerated or misleading statistics.
When learning about or when reminded of extraordinary suffering, an ethical reaction may consist in attempting to be shortly empathetic in a non-personal way and perhaps thinking of people’s strengths and resilience. If indirect help is possible, there is an ethical obligation that individuals and organizations spend resources, e.g. supporting NGOs who work in area.
Abused children and children witnessing abuse may identify with an abuser, particularly if he is a respected and previously liked relative. Attempts to identify with perpetrators may occur because children want to see their experiences as just and right rather than chaotic; many abused children believe they deserved their treatment or their suffering is necessary. Believing that cruel punishment is deserved gives a false sense of being able to prevent further abuse by “being better.” Abused children may later become perpetrators themselves, condone similar abuses and/or seemingly not notice them, but most will make efforts that their children’s lives will be better.
Thoughts of revenge against a perpetrator are natural. However, sadistically abusing a perpetrator will relieve rage, bitterness and/or grief at most temporarily, and if there is an understanding of the perpetrator’s past, the rage may broaden to include his abusers. It is therapeutic to work towards accepting the past, overcoming shame, guilt, disgust, anger and/or bitterness, possibly seeking a forgiving attitude and towards perceiving a past victimization as more accidental than interpersonal.
Sometimes, victims of major traumatization reach an unexpectedly high level of life satisfaction after they learned to utilize memories of their suffering to focus on all positive aspects of life. Specific treatments may contribute to helping trauma victims become strong, empathetic individuals with high life satisfaction.
Alcohol and other drugs are often blamed for unethical acts. However, there is always a combination of previously imagined actions, opportunity, and intoxication or otherwise altered mental state. While previously imagining the perpetration, the person felt some positive excitement, although feelings are usually mixed. Alcohol may be used to diminish negative feelings and serves as excuse when planning to act on the desired fantasies. Other situations where inhibitions are reduced include sleep deprived state, being in an unfamiliar and seemingly lawless environment, e.g. as sex tourist or in war zone, having power that seems to place person above all laws or feeling abused and dejected, that no punishment could be worse than one’s actual life.
Income distribution within a society, functioning democratic governance and good public education may influence frequency of violence. The poorest within a civilization are frequently exposed to violence, ignored by society and abused by the legal system; spontaneous and poorly planned violence is an expected consequence. Powerful people have been inventing and testing sadistic, symbolic and/or entertaining forms of cruelties throughout history, sometimes involving animals but mostly as “others” perceived humans.
When researchers, educators and aid workers live with a people in a poor country, they usually see positive aspects of the local culture and like them; they may not want to imagine and fully describe the horrors of some happenings or they may participate in rationalizing them. For instance, cruel traditional practices and the extent of spousal abuse in patriarchal cultures, usually considered a private matter, are treated like secrets. The apparently stoic acceptance of overwhelming suffering and deprivation must never be used as justification not to respond to the information. Witnesses of extraordinary callousness and cruelties should promote changes by supporting broad education, local movements and aid agencies.
Sometimes, writers reporting about a very poor people or catastrophic situation convey data from which we must conclude that the majority of the population are likely to die in near future or that any help appears futile. Worst cases are described but reported statistics include many minor cases. Consequent misleading and/or misunderstood numbers imply that situations are hopeless and that the work of UN and NGOs is worthless. For instance, women with most severe fistulas may be shunned, not allowed in towns or family dwellings and barely fed, but many women with severe child birth injuries regain self-respect and a function within their society. A compassionate conclusion is that, rather than considering the number of all patients as far too big for any aid organization to have an impact, UNICEF and NGOs work to improve availability of for child births needed medical assistance and to support treatment of most severe fistula injuries to enable patients’ reintegration within their families.
In some situation a certain desensitization from overwhelming sympathy may be necessary if working with acutely suffering people. However, a caring and comforting attitude is important, supporting suffering person’s sense of being cared for which may increase her/his pain tolerance. Simple hypnotic techniques are often helpful.
In virtually all civilizations there is obvious unnecessary suffering that is sometimes seen, talked or read about. Learning and sharing knowledge about examples may serve as pastime and feel temporarily exciting. However, all humans have a certain responsibility to respond in a limited way, maybe choosing specific issues and giving some support to people working in that area. Examples: working towards the elimination of most cruel cultural traditions while educating people in culture-appropriate ways and helping to find better means of fulfilling the tradition’s function; decreasing negative influences of Western media which reinforce fundamentalism and social conservatism within Islam, Judaism and Christianity; fulfilling basic needs of the poorest; conflict resolution within and among governments at all levels; supporting peace keeping military units; worldwide access to prenatal care, C-sections and treatment of childbirth complications; better pain management in gynecological and obstetric procedure; broadly available help for victims of torture and assault, particularly victims of sadistic sexual assaults in war torn regions, with medical-surgical treatment and addressing PTSD symptoms and reintegration in society.
To accomplish social harmony, ethics demands honesty, reliability, judicial reciprocity and reasonable cleanliness; ethics pragmatically respects private and public property, natural and cultural functions, roles and relationships, natural courses and normal developments, natural environments, valued art, artifacts and objects others value, etc. People also expect reasonable tolerance and freedoms of self-expression, speech, etc. People should make efforts to empathetically understand and largely accept others’ thoughts, personally held opinions and customs but never accept the inciting of hatred and/or encouraging or committing human rights violations, in actuality or vicariously. Natural ethics requires that we respond when cultures condone or mandate unethical acts.
Knowledge obliges: as a matter of reciprocity, knowing of something being very wrong and harming people (or animals) leads to an ethical obligation to respond and act as feasible. An individual’s seemingly irrelevant action is unethical, if, many or most people doing the same, would be bad; examples: ignoring obvious wrongs, not voting.
People have a sense of common versus private, but private property must be limited. Land, water and mineral resources should be considered public. Humans must never be property and animals, domesticated and wild, must be considered with respect and some empathy. Land should be leased to families or institutions rather than privately owned. Public property is important: people should feel part of their communities and they have an ethical obligation to care for their investments, infrastructure, public buildings, parks, public sculptures, etc.
It is natural to respect instinct-based and culturally endorsed relationships. Communities must respect and support individuals’ roles within families, but communities also must protect individuals from domestic abuse, support all community members as individuals, and complement the functions of families. Public roles should be transparent with peer supervision.
Ethics and the pursuit of a good quality of life requires the discipline to follow reasonable rules and demands of parents, schools, employers, professional groups, etc.; people must not follow urges, impulses, desires or goals without considering reasonable demands of others, society’s values and consequences of their behaviors. Being ethical in one’s personal life includes minor actions, avoiding waste, treating things carefully, respecting what others do or did, etc.
In the conflict of truthfulness versus freedom of expression, natural ethics demands that people are reasonably protected from false or misleading communication that is spread, for instance for economic or political gain.
Ethics includes taking care of oneself by pursuing a healthy lifestyle and environment, partly to be able to be a resource for others. People greatly benefit from exercise, meditation, environments that include plants and animals, broad exposure to nature, etc. Following what natural ethics advises generally increases people’s quality of life.
Utilitarian thinking, taking actions that minimize suffering within a society, may be considered reasonable, but instinctively, it is limited. Generally, it does not seem acceptable to harm or kill an uninvolved person to save many others, or to neglect average or handicapped children to give most resources to talented ones. However, it appears reasonable to remove some resources from the affluent for the benefit of many, and it appears justifiable to harm a perpetrator if this is the only way to stop harm to others. (This is not consistent with strict pacifism, but neither is it a justification for the death penalty or other forms of revenge.) Contrary to inherent ethics, people tend to think in a utilitarian fashion when victims are distant, e.g. killing with missiles or drones in a foreign country, and also when thinking of the distant future. How people instinctively evaluate such dilemmas depends much on us-versus-them or group dynamics and whom they identify with, the many who suffer or the person that could be sacrificed to help the others. Ethically, people may feel good about (or pressured to) sacrifice own well-being for the benefit of others, e.g. when risking possibly lethal burns to save children in a fire. However we must accept that sometimes multiple people suffer and die, when, by killing one other person, the suffering could be stopped.
A basic respect of property and a sense of cleanliness is innate but culturally shaped; honesty and integrity are also important because humans are interdependent; people want trusting relationships; people suffer if material goods, to which they are attached, are destroyed or stolen. When children learn their language, it first serves social interactions and children may say what they consider to be expected. Children also go through a stage in which they experiment with lying and deceptions, trying to find out what they can gain without major negative consequences. When learning the importance of communicating information properly, people do not instinctively feel obliged to be honest towards strangers. Similarly, property rights of people outside their culture are intuitively not fully appreciated. However, people easily learn to think globally and to perceive themselves in solidarity with strangers within and outside their civilizations. Global information exchange, contracts and cooperation are then possible. Consideration for indigenous people, animals, and future generations requires that we protect the environment, which must be respected as public goods.9
Since the late 19th century, there has been a strong trend to honor natural courses. Forcing arranged marriages, eradicating animal species and indigenous people, introducing animals and invasive plant species into an environment, etc. is no longer broadly accepted. Natural ethics has to determine what is a compassionate solution when interfering with nature, e.g. introducing forms of birth control and saving children who naturally would die of an incurable disease or an epidemic. Roles and authority of family members have multiple components, including instinctive “rights,” culturally assigned prerogatives and functions that are based on compassionate reasoning. Similarly, roles and rights of highly trained specialists such as physicians and persons who were chosen as leaders must be considered from multiple viewpoints. If there is land ownership, it should be considered more a steward relationship that respects animal and plant life to a reasonable degree, rather than a right to indiscriminately exploit.
Blending roles often leads to conflicts of interest, but separating roles is often impractical; for instance, there is a conflict of interest if a healer diagnoses and then treats a patient: the healer benefits from finding a treatable disease in a person who can pay but not in an uninsured indigent person. Teachers and healers give information so that pupils and patients may make decisions, but they must also advise, since they know much more than the persons they teach.
Blending cultures is often problematic. While respecting immigrant cultures, it is important to observe potential human rights violations: traditions may not fit the new environment; when trying to adjust, there is a tendency to hold on to bad aspects of the previous and lean the worst parts of the new culture. Example: Islamic immigrants maintaining confined role of women but starting to drink.
Freedom of expression is limited. In public speeches, education and all forms of media, we must distinguish between religious and traditional beliefs, impressions when good data is largely lacking or not known to the speaker, opinions and theories, generally meaning that scientific interpretations of data are not conclusive, that well informed people disagree, and scientific facts where virtually all serious scientists agree that the information fits modern scientific models. Ethics requires that language is used properly, particularly when professionals and sales pitches try to influence others’ decisions. The jargon term ‘evidence’ is misleading; it literally means based on what was seen and sounds as if the ‘evidence’ allows an almost certain conclusion. In legal procedures and medicine, ‘evidence’ is often used to refer to anything that points in a direction, indicates that something may be ‘proven,’ but generally leaves great uncertainty. Similarly, ‘opinion’ indicates a judgment based on intuitive recognition and broadly known data, in sciences and law it is a conclusion that is not reaching level of ‘scientific proof,’ but the term is often used to express a religious belief, prejudice or a on little data based impression.
Instinctive perceptions of interpersonal relationships and natural roles are at times problematic. One does not own a spouse, but expects that an intimate relationship is exclusive. Similarly children are perceived as, in some way, owned; however perceived “ownership” is never license to abuse. Obviously, cultures define families differently and humans, though tending to be monogamous, instinctively want affairs, which makes sense from an evolutionary perspective (higher likelihood of genes being passed on into future generations). Additionally, while early love feels exclusive, people may loose that sense of exclusivity as parents may perceive the first child as having an exclusive bond with them while later they feel able to love multiple children equally. As males frequently died due to risk taking and fighting as adolescents, successful surviving males may have had more than one female partner, simultaneously or in succession. Ethically, having multiple intimate partners is very problematic; it leads to powerful negative emotions; however, if an affair occurs, it should not break up an otherwise reasonably stable family. The flexibility of the human mind and people’s ability to change, if emotionally motivated, must not be underestimated. Empathy must be the guiding principle in resolving relationship conflicts.
From the perspective of reproductive advantage, females should have children with more than one partner; they may tolerate a husbands having sex with another women; they mainly do not want their mates to give much attention to other females. For males, affairs have the added benefit of having children without responsibility, but males mainly do not want that their mates conceive with another male. Polygamy is advantageous for females; when many risk-taking males die, there is a shortage of males; if a female is not attractive to most males, it is preferable for her to become the second or third wife of a successful, decent male than having to settle with a most unreliable and abusive one. A problem of polygamy is that low-ranking, irresponsible males, when unmarried, cause more trouble for society than if a wife is a placating influence.
Ethically, freedoms must always be limited by interests of and consideration for others; even thoughts should not be considered “free” since unethical thoughts are dangerous and may interfere with human relationships. When attracted to a female, people generally see her speech, behavior patterns and face as individual, but the rest of the body may be categorized as a ‘type,’ e.g. ‘petite’; if fantasizing about sex whenever a women’s body matches a man’s favorite ‘type,’ ignoring her individuality until knowing her better, their relationship, friendship or professional relationship, is impaired, even if no sexual act occurs; the situation is worse when a man focuses on an immature ‘type’ and fantasizes about sex with young girls. Aggressive feelings also tend to be most readily developed into violent fantasies when directed towards specific beings, animals or human; people may rationalize cruel thoughts towards specific pets, towards people based on race, religion, sex or sexual orientation, gang membership or type of crime they committed, thus greatly reducing ability to communicate with such people in a healthy way, even if no argument of physical fight occurred.
Caring for others’ interests frequently coincides with advancing own welfare, but people usually do not recognize that living simply, giving and caring for others makes them happier than using resources for themselves. People widely believe that gaining wealth, self-sufficiency and perceived safety makes them happy. Actually, much anecdotal data and many experiments indicate that giving, doing volunteer work, being generous with small gestures of consideration, being nice to strangers, forgiving in conflicts, graciously reciprocating, etc. make people happier than receiving and consuming. Intentions are important: giving must not attempt to buy friendships or make others obliged.
People generally have severe difficulties coping with small irritations that do not comply with expectations but respond well to accidents, major illnesses or natural disasters. While rising from middle-class to wealth leads only to a temporary rise in happiness, tragic accidents or diagnosis of a catastrophic disorder usually lead only to a temporary decrease. People who were afraid of getting cancer tend to cope well when actually diagnosed; adjustment to loss of a limb is often rapid; natural disasters may lead harmed strangers to feel like a caring family.
Perverse utilitarian thinking often occurs in wars: us-versus-them thinking and group dynamics lead generals to kill many enemy troops and civilians to presumably prevent deaths at home or even to rescue a few prisoners. Group dynamics with discrimination are important but frequently there are economic reasons that drive unethical warfare.
Even though members of families, clans and other groups are interdependent, caring and often loving, there are always inherent conflicts between any two beings. Male and female partners, parents and children, siblings, high and low ranking adults, etc. have incongruous interests; seemingly corresponding instincts do not match. Even closely bonded individuals must continuously work out compromises; however, this process may strengthen relationships.
Additionally, there are impulsive thoughts and acts that seem self-destructive, particularly in young males: acts that are rebellious, risk taking, potentially lethal, violent, seemingly against nature. Shows of strength, skills and courage are to prove one’s capability to do much more than what is needed to survive and impress enemies, peers and potential sex partners. They are exciting and may feel like expressing freedom, but they are basically very dangerous manifestations of primitive instincts. Young females take hardly justifiable risks primarily when following males they are attracted to.
People’s actions and thoughts are essentially egoistic, directly or indirectly. Individuals want a good share of available resources to create a “free” space for personal development, enjoyment, and their family. When helping, there are always selfish aspects. Egoism, individuals looking out for own interests, may be beneficial for communities since good health, education and vocational success make people better parents, community members and leaders. Group egoism, accepting group’s interests as personal goals, develops naturally within most groups where members perceive important commonalties.
Altruism in a broad sense serves both, self and others; it must not be defined as the opposite of egoism. People cannot consciously decide against their interests and nature, even though their interests may be indirect and/or hidden. People feel good when expressing social instincts, pleasing a loved person or even a stranger. People may enjoy instinctive actions out of their natural context such as nurturing somebody else’s child; they may also expect direct or indirect reciprocity and/or esteem; they may expect benefits in future, possibly in an afterlife.
In humans, social instincts include wanting to cooperate but they expect fairness or reciprocity: humans are unique in their observation of others’ following rules, watching who ‘cheats’ and wanting to punish them.
Decision-making is based on instincts, cultures in which a person grew up and lives in, personal history and memories, and personal culture; actions may also follow primary and conditioned reflexes. Decision-making appraises factors such as exceptions according to one’s culture, what is perceived as natural course, closeness to some or all concerned individuals, indirect benefits to self or family, how personal and direct versus distant and indirect effects of action or inaction are, and how close or personal consequences appear.10 When there are conflicts, decisions are much influenced by recent thoughts and memories; particularly recent conflicts influence what is considered more or less relevant. Actions and decisions appear determined by such factors: scientifically, there is no basis for free will.
Ethics is not based on and does not require a belief in free will, rather ethics deals with general and personal culture, which include learning and modifying human instincts. Ethics advances strong personal culture, fostering empathy and social altruism, decreasing meaningless risk taking, countering propensity to punish etc. Well developed personal culture, particularly decreasing influence of recent memories and events or coincidental associations when faced with a difficult decision. An understanding that there is most likely no free will supports a forgiving attitude.
Edward O. Wilson described human’s instinctive inclination to cooperate beyond interest in advancing own genes, but humans also want to advance own and own group’s social position, expect reciprocity, punish those who cheat, and ‘level down’ successful members of society, particularly if they do not seem to earn benefits of success. Instincts within tightly bonded families do not match: male and female sexual instincts are not complementary since males and females have very different reproductive functions, different investments in offspring and different biological goals. There is always competition between mother and offspring, starting before birth, and between siblings, between group members of different rank order, etc.
Altruism in a broad usually leads to much greater benefits than what was ‘invested’ or ‘sacrificed.’ Altruism between not closely related people is often based on indirect reciprocity: “A gives B, B gives C and D, D may later give A, etc.” Whenever giving feels right, relatively minor and not calculated to get direct reciprocity, giving leads to a rise in life satisfaction or happiness in the giver. Altruism in a narrow sense, giving with minimal benefits to the donor, is not sustainable in evolution. Sacrificing for religious or abstract values is dangerous, even leading to warfare.11
Humans feel free and act as if there was free will, but the question of determinism versus free will is important because of people’s propensity to seek ‘justice’ and wanting to punish. Punishments are never justifiable even though societies may limit a dangerous person’s freedom to protect potential victims. Science cannot prove that there is no free will, but if there is free will, science shows that it would be extremely limited. Healthy people with a reasonable upbringing do not commit human rights violations because they are morally ‘good’ and thus choose not to commit them, but because they could not commit the violations; a certain level of mental disturbance and disequilibrium of values, development of ‘dark’ fantasies and thought patterns, and/or physiological functions is needed. For instance, in military and other institutionalized violence, actors are lead to regress, thus suspending personal judgments and then committing acts unthinkable in a healthy family and evolved society. People cannot act against their perceived interests, against what feels right. Decisions feel either right – alternate actions raise too many red flags and seem not doable, or the decision feels random, the mind cannot decide and if the action could have waited a few seconds, it might have been different; in neither case is a claim of free will meaningful. We must not declare “I could have acted differently” because a change of opinion as to what is ‘right’ or ‘best’ always results from a change in information, perception of importance of specific data, physiology, hormone levels, etc., claiming “I (or anybody else) could have acted differently” is presumptuous, based on hindsight.
Personal history, which leads to personal culture, includes memories of observed traditions, notable events, purposeful cultural and scientific learning, learned empathy and emotional responses to events, and previous personal evaluations of memories. the psychiatrist Murray Bowen stressed the development of a differentiated self, which corresponds with a personal culture versus moment to moment adaptation to environmental aspects of group or broad culture one lives in. Natural ethics as a basic factor of progress must spread through interactions between individual culture, culture of groups and culture in broad sense, and it must address perception of human rights and goals and consequences of all types of technological advances.
A proximate description of mental illness is “being stuck in bad thoughts, unable to accept reality”, e.g. irrational or exaggerated fears, guilt and self-accusations, dangerous over-optimism, or rumination about realities that person refuses to accept, past, present and anticipated future. Mental health derives from a flexible, resilient mind; it leads to relative happiness. It is supported by efforts to accept realities and defying cultural expectations that were not met, could or cannot be met, and/or are unethical. Also important is a healthy lifestyle: physical exercise, reasonable nutrition, having good social relationships and following natural rhythms that include times of meditation and contemplation. Belonging to a family, group and culture gives people a sense of identity and subjective security; it generally leads to a remarkable acceptance of past and anticipated pain and dangers, uncertainty and losses. Normally, people are positively oriented, optimistic and resilient; when there is a meaningful goal, anticipated dangers and pain are readily accepted and much of the time ignored. Clashes with cultural expectations are probably the main reason why people develop posttraumatic stress and many other mental disorders.
To pursue happiness in an ethical way, we must find meaning in life, balancing egoistic pleasures with good feelings derived from ethical pursuits and to a lesser degree from adaptations of instincts that may be ethically neutral. Most importantly, we must always be empathetic. Main issues include:
– We must accept reality, past and present but feel free to move meaningfully into future, to change without feeling trapped by past.
– We must not trust instincts and cultural learning, we must review issues empathetically from many sides and in the process develop a personal culture or a ‘differentiated self’ [Bowen theory12].
– We must avoid ‘us-versus-them thinking’; not trust group dynamics, and we must practice broad empathy .
– Natural conflicts within families and groups require compromises; we often must evaluate natural roles, who is to make decisions and who is to be helpful; working out conflicts may strengthen bonds.
– Overvalued ideas should be avoided and/or resisted; examples: obtaining a specific degree or job, owning a specific car, having a boy child. Overvalued ideas lead people to make sacrifices and ignore others’ desires, but, when the goal is reached, they soon are replaced by another overvalued idea. People do well pursuing ‘voluntary simplicity’, enjoying beauty in nature, relationships and arts.
– Aggression, which is a natural instinct, must be recognized but not directly expressed. Restrained aggression is felt as anger; people determine in advance how far anger may be expressed in specific situations, towards neighbors, coworkers, etc. but least towards loved ones. To minimize anger and other negative emotions, we must decrease and halt unreasonable expectations.
– Thoughts of unethical actions are unethical; they reinforce the instinct and propensities. People should not mentally consent to, enjoy and vicariously participate in unethical behaviors; nor should journalism, literature and movies desensitize people by frequent exposure to past, distant or fictitious people’s suffering.
– Education must emphasize broad empathy and compassion, avoiding adversarial thinking and notions such as justice, honor and loyalty.
– People benefit from gratitude, remembering what was beautiful and went well, and from imagining a positive future, what may be reached with genuine work and some luck. People also enjoy sense of being influential, even when impact is minimal.
– We must learn positive associations with most everyday experiences and weakening negative associations by distraction and interpreting them as unimportant; most are unimportant and to major problems, people are very resilient and adjust relatively easily.
– Small ethical deeds, being spontaneously nice and generous in small ways, expressing gratitude for small or long past actions, etc. appear to have little objective value but may increase sense of well-being of both, giving and receiving person.
Healthy people usually live “as if”: as if the possibility of negative events would not matter, as if, when pursuing a positive objective, a substantial likelihood of accidents and illnesses, even certainty of severe pain and distress, would not matter. The more meaningful a goal, the more dangers, discomfort and pains are naturally accepted.
If psychotherapy and medications help a person with a mental disorder, improvements must be solidified; the person needs to focus on functioning as a member of family and society, repeatedly think in a more constructive way, practice being different and healthier in attitude, thoughts and feelings, and avoid giving in to earlier habitual patterns that lead to unhappiness and poor functioning. People tend to see personalities and patterns as fixed, believing in permanence of psychiatric disorders, a seeming lack of will power, etc., rather than working on change, practicing to overcome weaknesses. Willpower and frustration tolerance are not human characteristics but a direct function of emotionally supported motivation. People benefit from support, but groups of similar-minded people tend to exaggerate biases and shortcomings rather than ameliorating them.
The influence of the material environment has probably been much underestimated (compare Malcom Gladwell’s work). Whether people are behaving ethically or not, ‘normal’ or in unusual ways, is much influenced by situations. As children grow older, they appear more influenced by the peer environment of a neighborhood and school than by their families. People are also much more influenced by other people then they recognize. ‘Social epidemics,’ unusual situations, listening to a charismatic person, etc. have very powerful influences. Individuals should work on being less susceptible to influences and on strengthening personal culture of ethical thinking and compassion. Working on improving environments and/or moving to good environments, choosing good peers and schools, etc. may be helpful; and people may individuually work on influencing the spread of good and bad developments.
Within the realm of what is considered normal and culturally acceptable, people are very resilient and may survive horrific initiation or childbirth experiences, loss of children, etc. without developing chronic anxiety disorders. However what contradicts cultural teachings, e.g. sexual abuse, even without physical violence, or being publicly denounced, may lead to chronic posttraumatic disturbances, particularly if the victim feels singled out, alone and unable to talk with empathetic and understanding relative or friend. Bad luck and failing instincts leads primarily to frustration, but failing culture leads to shame and disgust, maybe feeling ‘dirty’; when there was sense of active participation, also guilt; when obviously victimized probably rage, exasperation and bitterness. The cultural denouncing of abuse is probably critical in the development of posttraumatic stress or panic disorder. If women are ‘normally’ beaten and raped as maid-slaves or by their husbands, emotional adaptation is much easier; their focus may turn to their children, possibly religiosity, helping others, etc. Many severely abused people eventually consider their abuse history as integral part of their identity, they may feel stronger, more appreciative of small things and/or more compassionate.
People often feel hurt and/or become, in a specific situation, predictably angry; they have psychological “sore spots”. These are usually an indication that one’s cultural expectations are not met, that old issues still lead to shame, guilt or anger, and that personal culture needs reevaluation. Being understanding rather holding on to how everybody should behave minimizes disappointments, anger and other negative emotions. People often assume that non-expression of aggression eventually leads to “explosions”; actually, the expression of aggression makes individuals more aggressive. Aggressive feelings are spontaneous when feeling invaded, insulted or attacked, but wane quickly if not supported by thoughts. Aggressive interactions are usually due to misunderstandings, aggressors are often irritable due to something not directly related to present adversary. When becoming the object of a person’s aggression, it is best not to view the situation personally; while considering it largely the other’s problems, it is still advisable to work on changes that contributed to interaction.
Humans love a sense or illusion of controlling their environment and their future. The human neocortex is unique with regard to its development of the frontal lobe which is capable of speculating about the future and making limited predictions. The neocortex is a huge geometrical array of pattern recognizer units which function in hierarchical fashion and have associations throughout the different processing centers. In the insula, in the central part of the cerebrum, originate the huge, irregularly shaped spindle neurons with hundreds of thousand of connections spanning the breadth of the brain; they are only found in humans over 4 months old and in much smaller numbers in gorillas, bonobos and chimpanzee and some other primates; they are particularly active when strong emotions are felt. More primitive parts of the brain, particularly amygdala, nucleus accumbens, ventral pallidum and other structures of the diencephalon and ‘old’ parts of the cerebrum are directly leading to fear and pleasure sensations, and there is intense, bilateral interaction with developmentally higher structures and the neocortex. Happiness is much influenced by what in our modern world is associated with positive and negative stimuli, what is perceived as equivalent to fear of a predator versus what leads to anticipation of instinct fulfillment and relative safety, when seeing into distance, seeing healthy plants which indicated fertile land and animals which may become prey, when seeing faces that seem trusting and may indicate a possibility of future bonds. We generally see people as beautiful if they look like potential objects of social instincts or sex drive. It has been speculated that the today’s widespread anxiety and mood disorders are due to stresses in modern life, too much negative information that creates latent fears; however, until recently and in much of the Third world, almost any sign and symptom could induce fear: good weather could be the onset of a drought and bad weather of floods, sounds indicating animals and unfamiliar people meant dangers, any fever could be lethal, pregnancies were dangerous, there was always the danger of wars, etc. When people perceive the modern, mostly unnatural world as primarily stressful, they have a problem with too many bad and not enough good associations. If they enjoy beauty in gardens, art, buildings, other humans, domesticated and wild animals, and in activities that are valued by society, they are likely to perceive modern living as happy; stress with novel experiences is more likely to be perceived as positive than negative.
We have propensities to foreseeable cognitive errors due to inherent functions of the brain and due to cultural and other learning. To reduce the risk of unethical decisions and other errors of judgment we must make efforts to become aware of these propensities, be attentive and considerate. Important examples are:
– Perceiving own cultural beliefs and morals as “right” and adhering to biases of own culture.
– Over- or undervaluing and misjudging situations, thoughts, objects or persons because of irrelevant coincidental or purposefully devised associations with emotionally charged powerful stimuli; examples: a dishonest person looks like a good friend; propaganda and advertisements succeed in enticing and/or deceiving people.
– Perception of high relevance of what is frequently seen, heard, done or thought about; preference of habitual over what is objectively better, perceiving anything different and foreign as probably inferior and possibly dangerous.
– Overvaluing early learning and first impressions (including biases and expectations of ‘justice’, life and institutions being better than they are), or what seems to function as ‘anchor’ (such as an example that serves to compare and evaluate other ideas)
– Heuristic assumptions, inherent heuristic propensities such as disregarding complexities and relying on “educated guesses,” “rule of thumb,” intuition, stereotyping or a readily remembered example.
– Under-appreciating, often forgetting, what is learned in middle part of a larger experience.
– “Satisficing”, accepting the first encountered choice that seems satisfactory out of reasonably available options, not thinking far ahead, as opposed to visualizing the optimal choice in advance, then evaluating available options.
– Overvaluing material goods, physical comfort, conveniences, assumed safety, etc. for happiness, while undervaluing benefits of healthy connectedness with others, contact with nature, plants, animals, walks in natural environment, etc.
– Overvaluing external factors (environment, possessions, etc.) and undervaluing what is intrinsically meaningful, ability to be contented and joyful, and ability to ease negative emotional response to external circumstances.
– Under-appreciating adaptability of the human mind, resisting positive changes and wanting to preserve present state.
– Creating distorted justifications after a bad decision was made; rationalizing rather than changing overvalued goals.
– Overvaluing minor mishaps as signs of being out of control; feeling helpless and externally controlled.
– Assuming that one will feel in the future as one feels at the time of making a decision.
– Believing what one expected in spite of contrary information and falsifying information and memories accordingly.
– Misjudging probabilities: seeing extremes as closer to average than they are; believing random events are influenced by past events; believing randomness leads to even distribution; believing infrequent events are miracles.
– Remembering well when treatments, rituals or prayers “work” but often forgetting undesired outcomes.
– Observing and being aware of positive changes but not negative ones, noticing what is new but not noticing what is no longer.
– Wanting to broadly agree after having had some agreement with someone.
– Assuming that others agree when there is no information about their opinion.
– Accepting an emotional group’s move towards extreme positions, discarding own rational assessments.
– Assuming that it is helpful to visualize a successful result (rather than the required efforts and their emotional value).
– Belief that rewarding results of activities is more valuable than gentle rewards of activity and efforts (rewarding activities and efforts is more beneficial).
Inherent primitive thoughts, derived from our long evolution as gathering-hunting groups, were summarized by C. R. Hallpike in The Foundation of Primitive Thought, 1979, and quoted by E. O. Wilson in Consilience, 1998, p. 208; as follow:
– intuitive and dogmatic
– bound up with specific emotional relationships rather than physical causality
– preoccupied with essence and metamorphosis
– opaque to logical abstraction or arrays of the hypothetically possible
– prone to use language for social interaction rather than as a conceptual tool
– limited in quantification mostly to rough images of frequency and rarity
– inclined to view mind as stemming partly from the environment and able to project back out into it, so that words become entities with power unto themselves.
Emotionally powerful stimuli lead to powerful associations that are generally relevant, but many associations are not meaningful, usually not adequately appreciated and often hardly noticed; such associations distort balanced thoughts. Relevant stimuli may relate to nature, health, power, prestige, sex appeal, cruelty, fear or victimization. Associations to stimuli may be purposefully arranged in advertisements and propaganda, commonly showing images that evoke positive associations to promote a product, service, etc. or negative emotions to harm or demonize ideas or persons. Often hardly noticed coincidental associations may also evoke emotions that distort judgments.
Emotional adaptability and resilience has been weakened in modern cultures; modern Americans have high expectations and appear less forgiving when a tragedy or victimization occurs. However, resilience may be increased by finding meaning in life, utilizing approaches as described in ‘happiness research,’ learning to alleviate negative emotional responses and guide thoughts and behaviors based on sincere values and personal culture, learning to meditate, etc.
People readily recognize unethical acts in others but may not recognize serious ethical problems in their own families and cultures. If studying issues empathetically and considering all affected individuals, outsiders of different traditions usually get close to consensus on ethical questions, such as whether a tradition or law is ethical, or how an individual should balance self-interests, family and group loyalty, empathic compassion towards strangers and consideration of laws and traditional expectations that are ethically questionable.
Examples: Most West and North Europeans do not agree with the USA’s inadequate crime prevention efforts, often inapt law enforcement, vindictive aspect of punishments and partial privatization of prisons; nor would they consider the inadequate ‘safety net’ and lack of support of poor mothers with infants ethically tolerable (a few weeks old baby should not be in full-time low-cost, commercial daycare). Past in some cultures practiced cruelties, such as foot binding, girls and women being burned alive as “witches,” or burning widows on husband’s pyre were considered barbaric in most places even if comparable cruelties were ‘normal’ in most civilizations. Today, most people agree that it is wrong to physically and sexually abuse prisoners, to cut off girls’ genitals, to refuse prosecuting rapists if the victims are minorities, poor, of a low cast or of different religion, to force severely abused women to stay with or return to their husbands, to give a severely abusive husband, after a divorce, rights to stay involved with his children or even to make children of divorced parents the father’s ‘property’; however, many biased groups within a culture defend all these practices as justifiable and as according to their religious morals.
Because of cultural biases international standards should supersede local ones. Civilizations should routinely employ foreign consultants, mostly from areas of similar levels of economic development but with very different traditions. Religious teachings are always problematic: people tend to consider biases and old traditions as religious duties, as demanded by their gods. By definition, religious beliefs cannot be in any way substantiated; even within a religion people rarely agree on the meaning of their sacred texts and interpretations are often distorted to justify discrimination, oppression and wars.
Without conscious effort to develop ethical thinking and values, behaviors are largely the result of our inherent propensities and emotions, culture and other environmental factors. For individuals, ethics necessitates developing a personal culture which supports some, modifies many and weakens other instincts and predispositions.
Preparing for future ethical decisions, we may practice:
– Healthy lifestyle, including exercise, meditation and contemplation, nonjudgmental attitude.
– Preventing and resisting impulses to rebel, act deviously, take unnecessary risks, etc.
– Finding ways that reduce aggressive feelings and expressions in self and others by decreasing expectations and not reacting to others’ aggression; planning to restrain expression of aggression and anger in any situation.
– Developing conscience and intuitive processing of conflicts by practicing broad empathy, listening to people and reading; deepening empathy envisioning self in others’ situation with some sympathy and efforts towards broad understanding; observing and examining but not blindly following social instincts and their cultural adaptations, including culture at large, expectation of reciprocity, family and group culture, personal experiences that may have lead to prejudices; practicing meditating and contemplating issues without judging.
– Developing and clarifying personal goals and values independent of subculture and questionable charismatic leaders; efforts to avoid overvaluation of specific goods or goals; practicing simple and modest lifestyle; seeking strong emotional motivating factors to support generosity, consideration, and ethical goals.
– Reviewing attitudes, virtues and vices as sought in Buddhist philosophy, in Christian ethics (not Old Testament), other cultures and based on natural ethics; being aware of dangers in some traditional virtues, such as group and family loyalty, seeking honor, nationalism and political or religious idealism.
– Developing foresight, avoiding situations where unethical acts may be done impulsively and habitually or where unethical acts are ordered (however, being aware that some ethically questionable acts may be justified when serving a higher goal).
– Learning and practicing to resist ‘bad’ impulses and incentives, usually by asking self about relevance of action and mobilizing emotions that can halt unethical thoughts.
– Maintaining awareness of basic goal to help improve institutions and happiness of beings in all parts of world, present and future.
– Ethical decision-making recognizes ethical principles pragmatically; it includes shortly assessing data on possible consequences of each possible action, considering affected individuals empathetically, as time allows; the decision then follows intuition and conscience.
– Principally, we need to regard ethical and rational altruism and seek a balance between interests of self, family, own groups, and rest of world, and between concerns of present and near future versus distant future. Family or group loyalty must not supersede other consideration.
– To guide major decision, we need to, as a lifelong process, develop ethical goals and a personal culture; these must be supported by powerful emotions, e.g. relating to loved children, and become more powerful than group pressure and other influences.
– Usual first questions: how much time is there to review applicable principles and consequences of possible options? Whose problem is it primarily; whose role is it to make decisions and who is to be supportive?
– When feelings and emotions are very strong, it is usually best to wait; we should be aware of our feelings and emotions without expressing them since our judgment is likely to be impaired, other values and goals may be temporarily forgotten, and expressing negative emotions usually leads others to become defensive rather than empathetic.
– We also need to check regarding predictable cognitive biases and errors, what is typically overvalued, what easily overlooked, etc.
– People need to treat depression and other mental disorders that interfere with rational ethical decision-making and happiness.
‘Test questions’ in decision-making that help broadening perspectives:
– Would I advise others, my same-sex child, sibling, friend, peer or colleague, in a comparable situation, to decide similarly? If my action directly involves another person, would his/her close friends and relatives approve?
– Will I be likely to be content with my decision or regret it later?
– If I could explain my plan to the wisest, most compassionate person I know or knew, what would he/she advise?
– Would empathetic people of many diverse cultures and both genders agree with my behavior and decisions?
– If what I want to do seems irrelevant, would it be bad if many or most people would do the same?
– May my behavior contribute to more ethical institutions and more humane conditions in future generations?
We can neither trust our instincts (they serve our genes more than us as individuals), nor can we trust culturally acquired propensities. Mood disturbances and mental disorders may also lead to bad decisions but may be ameliorated with psychotherapy and medications (treatment should generally increase flexibility and adaptability of mind and it may induce growth of critical brain nuclei).
In ethical decision-making, rational altruism considers limitations of reciprocity. Little or no reciprocity is expected when helping in emergencies, potential recipients live at significantly lower standard, recipients would like to but cannot work themselves out of distressed state without help.
Cultures and religions have made efforts to encourage their morals by teaching virtues and reinforcing them with instinct based and culturally shaped emotional forces (pride, honor, social status), and to discourage unwanted behaviors as sins and vices with threats of negative consequences, usually in an afterlife or after reincarnation. Some virtues, such as gratitude, kindness, compassion, generosity and modesty, may help guide ethical living, but the traditional virtues of honor, pride, loyalty and patriotism may promote highly unethical behaviors. A quality of ‘saints’ of any religious or philosophical orientation appears to be a consistent effort to follow moral-ethical principles and resist other emotions and instincts. We may pursue getting a little closer to ‘sainthood’ in the sense of strengthening our ethical values and resisting temptations to deviate from them, but we must stay with truly ethical thinking and decision-making and remain open-minded and realistic. Efforts to adopt, teach, and live according to ethical values is strengthened by formulating goals positively, goals being associated with emotions that become stronger than contrary impulses and emotions. While emotions are the basis of will power, attention and monitoring helps prevent ‘lapses’ that result from habits and unexpected triggers.
The pursuit of discipline in ethical living and improving one’s quality of life need to be associated with positive emotions and a sense of meaning. Rather than reaching specific goals, the efforts are most important, seeking a process of continuously improving ethical living, working on and enjoying harmony and loving connectedness with others, appreciating beauty and greatness of art and other accomplishments, appreciating connectedness with nature, and also a strong sense of improving the quality of life of others. Improving the quality of life for ourselves and for others may be enhanced through meditating and applying research that addresses our enhancing happiness.
Appendix 1: Religion and abortion
Appendix 2: Crime Prevention, Teaching Empathy
Appendix 3: Thoughts about compassion, sentient nature of beings; modern technological developments
Religions are culturally important but must not direct political thinking, and in education we have to be very clear that religious stories belong into the realm of folklore rather than guiding tenets of life. Religious communities are important and may include meeting for meditation, rituals of transition, mutual support of families, expressing reference for great people of the past, and specific forms of artistic expression, but people will never agree on specific religious beliefs, what texts are most relevant and how to interpret them, and people have always incorporated unethical local-cultural notions into their religions, mandating or condoning exploitation, torture, genocides, genital mutilations, slavery, ruthless capitalism, etc. With regard to specific beliefs, we should teach children agnosticism: much is simply not explainable or comprehensible to the human mind..
People considering themselves ‘believers’ have questions how agnostics deal with the ‘supernatural’ – obviously we do not know what is supernatural, we only know that there is much that humans could not and still cannot explain. In the past, thunderstorms were considered supernatural, and with natural disasters, people still talk of “acts of God.” Our minds cannot comprehend eternity, what a God would be like, what would have been before the ‘self-creation’ of God or of the creation of the universe, etc. The belief in the benevolence of an all-powerful God is very hard to believe in, and a notion of universal justice is humanly incomprehensible. Objectively, nature appears miserable, suffering in sentient beings appears to by far outweigh pleasures. In addition, people tend to hurt each other even if they are already suffering, and if there is no pain, fear and significant objective danger, people appear to crave and seek it.
Spirituality is a natural phenomenon rather than primarily an essential part of religion. We cannot explain why we perceive greatness and beauty in nature as spiritual, nor can we explain why the unnatural use of the human voice in music and complex instrumental music, invented by humans and not obviously associated with aspects of nature and instincts, can feel astoundingly beautiful and spiritual.
Religious people who think that they really believe what their religion teaches need to ask themselves: Are my decisions and actions, e.g. my seeking all kinds of pleasures and material things, understandable in light of what my religion teaches me? If I believe that I have free will and that I will be rewarded with eternal happiness (after death or after the final judgement) for doing what God wants me to do, forgiving others, helping the poor, etc., and if I believe that I will be punished with horrendous tortures, possibly for eternity if I commit major sins, how can I explain that I do not make heroic efforts to think and act continuously like a true saint?” People can hold multiple “truths” or models of the world, but generally, they are aware of that, focusing on one or the other at different times (even asserting that both, the Old and New Testaments are equally the words of God requires acceptance of contradictory moral systems). In religious persons only part of the brain, if any, believes in what they claim to believe or at least try to believe.
The ethics of supporting ready access to abortion appears clear:
– It is human nature and part of all cultures that beings are valued in accordance with closeness, particularly meaningful mutual emotional interactions that require an adequate developmental stage, and previous investment in a being.
An older child or adult is much more valued than a newborn, and an infant is much more valued than a fetus or embryo. It is apparent that people usually care more about their own children and even their pets than suffering beings in distant countries and children of future generations.
– An embryo or early fetus in a women’s womb is no outsider’s concern.
If a loss of an embryo or fetus is grieved, the loss of a potential (imagined) future child is grieved, as when a woman grieves not being pregnant when she has a late period and had hoped to have conceived. The fetus is built and nourished by the women’s body; the male sperm that contains less than half of the genetic material contributes less than 1/10,000 of the fertilized ovum’s mass!
– The notion that an embryo or fetus is essentially a human being who requires protection by society like a child, while disregarding the extremely heavy burden and suffering of a woman who is forced to carry an unwanted, undesirable pregnancy to term, is profoundly unethical and lacks a rational basis.
Women who had to give a child up for abortion tend to suffer, worrying about their child the rest of their lives. Keeping a son who resembles a hated rapist or bad former partner can lead to severe conflicts.
Embryos and fetuses are, biologically, parasitic beings with the potential to become humans, but up to the latest stages of a normal pregnancy they have much less qualities of a human being than apes, monkeys and other mammals. Even a newborn child is probably not yet fully sentient, is not yet experiencing what its body language and vocalizations seem to show. Sentience appears to evolve gradually and suffering with pain stimuli develops much later than the reflexive physiological reactions to biological stress and injuries, that already appears in most primitive forms of life.
– In recent decades there were, worldwide, an average of approximately one abortion per woman. Without these abortions there would be resource shortages that almost certainly would have led to much more serious mass migrations and hostilities and many more wars. In most wars, relative overpopulation and resource shortages are at least a major contributing factor. Adoptions are never able to fill the care gap of unplanned and socially undesirable children.
While women rarely suffer long-term psychological problems after spontaneous or induced abortions, they tend to suffer greatly when having to give their baby up for adoption, partly because the extremely high levels of oxytocin before and during birth cause the woman to bond emotionally with the offspring, and these mothers often worry about their child for the rest of their lives. Keeping a son who was conceived in a bad relationship or rape can lead to major conflicts, particularly if he resembles his father.
– Lack of access to abortions leads to much maternal suffering, maternal deaths largely due to dangerous attempts to induce abortions, to infanticides, postpartum depression and postpartum psychosis sometimes involving suicides and mercy killings of her children. Children who are born into abject poverty and chaotic family environments often become disturbed and/or drug-alcohol abusing and criminal adolescents.
The USA has relatively very high mortality rates of 1-12 month old infants of poor families, probably because mothers often do not have the emotional and physical resources for the tremendous needs of babies leading to relative neglect, inadequate parent-child bonds and possibly high exposure to infections in bad child-care settings.
– Obviously the need for abortions is often caused by men impregnating women without prior careful and empathetic consideration for the woman and a possibly resulting baby (and “consent” that is only indicated during a passionate date and/or sexual arousal should not be considered valid); this problem needs to be addressed by changing cultures, education, teaching empathy and broad ethical thinking, and providing ready access to safe contraception.
The sexual instincts diminish ethical thinking and consideration of possible consequences. During high sexual arousal, women have an instinctive propensity to give in to a lover’s demands with fears rather increasing sexual desire; in males, sexual instincts often override ethical and truly loving thoughts and the knowledge of hurting and possibly impregnating the woman tends to strengthen rather than countering his sexual urge. Religious teachings hardly decrease the need for abortions: Catholic and Muslim countries have relatively high rates of abortions. However, even among wealthy Western countries, the frequency of undesirable pregnancies varies greatly; Switzerland has relatively few abortions and about 10 times less births to women below age 20 than the USA.
Empathy (German “Einfühlung” – putting self into realm of others’ feelings) means feeling some sympathy while attempting to reasonably understand another person’s emotions, thoughts and aspirations. Sympathy means spontaneously feeling to a lesser degree what others feel, when observing their body language and vocal expression of feelings. Empathy is generally a conscious act, it is mostly learned from listening to others, from stories and literature people are exposed to. Empathy may be compassionate, exploitative when used by sales people, occasionally sadistic. Stories and literature may desensitize and even provoke fascination with suffering and cruelties, stimulate aggressive and/or inappropriate sexual emotions, teach sadistic inclinations, etc.
All media influences, including computer and other games, are important since people identify with characters and empathize with portrayed ethical and unethical emotions. Young people sometimes listen to songs with unethical lyrics because they like the melody – liking the music actually enhances the negative influence of the lyric’s messages.
In language skills training, learning to read and write, practicing task of summarizing stories, etc., text samples may enhance young people’s learning to be broadly empathetic, if narratives are written from the perspective of person of different cultures, sex, ages, and times. A described person may be generous and loving, or someone who suffers, is discouraged, has regrets, etc. If the main character is aggressive, it should probably be in defense of weaker people; the aggressor may be injured, there may be readiness of self-sacrifice when preventing imminent pain or death of people he/she defends. A girl’s fear of a man or of sex or childbirth should probably not be elaborated, avoiding the possibility of sexual arousal (in males and females); but texts may describe actual pain, disgust, feeling victimized or regret when dealing with male-female interactions, etc. Descriptions of victimizations may omit any allusions and/or description of the perpetrator, being completely focused on how a victim feels and copes. If a perpetrator is described, it may be in an understanding and compassionate way: perpetrators of violence usually have a background of victimizations and they lost their ability to have meaningful, loving relationships; if appearing to have a ‘normal’ life, they are hardly able to appreciate their families and jobs in a healthy and comprehensive way.
While avoiding frequent and extreme descriptions of suffering to minimize desensitization or a fascination with pain, adults probably should talk in front of young people about spouse and child abuse cases; prisoners who were abused and/or “went crazy”; people who die unrecognized and alone during a war or in a dangerous expedition. Adults should talk in front of boys about female issues, such as pain and dangers of childbirth, horror of having to give a child up for adoption, a women having to raise a boy that resembles a rapist or a hated ex-boyfriend, embarrassment and mixed feelings regarding an abortion and/or painful, dangerous illegal abortions. Often children and young adults listen to and assimilate information more when they are not directly addressed and when there is an appearance that they should not hear and understand what adults talk about. Girls may learn about female issues in different ways; they should learn to be apprehensive and cautious but neither in denial nor paralyzed by fears concerning themselves or close female friends. Girls may learn about the extraordinary meaning of sex and readiness to create and nurture a new human being partly through poetry and art and through empathy with older female relatives. They should learn early that sex must never be just an experiment, like trying an abusable drug or experimenting with rebelliousness, lying or shoplifting, and consent to sex should never be given when the mind is clouded and powerfully driven by sexual emotions.
Stories may include young people glorifying fictitious heroes who got away with cruel acts; then one character committing such a crime while serving as prison guard, in the military or other unusual situation, but later is being tortured by his conscience, is ostracized or jailed. Stories may show helping professions in a positive light.
General crime prevention approaches focus on supportive environments for families. Schools must engage and challenge children and structure most of their time; particularly adolescents should have little or no unsupervised time with peers. We have to teach children healthy, balanced lifestyles that includes meditation and exposure to nature and artistic expression, largely avoiding competition.
Children should be intermittently screened regarding pathological developments, particularly if there is a known family history of antisocial behaviors and if they have been growing up in a problematic family environment. Children may show early abnormal responses to usual stimuli, e.g. minimal physiological-emotional responses to what usually is emotionally arousing. Such children need particularly caring attention (if possible with a long-term connection with a strong ethical teacher, relative or friend), much structure, efforts to teach broad empathy, teaching appreciation of art and nature, etc.
In the spectrum of social connectedness males, genetically (Y chromosome) and developmentally (due to effects of androgen hormones), tend to be closer to autistic than socially competent, asocial rather than socially connected, and even antisocial rather than culturally compliant. They generally are more aggressive, less socially aware, more selfish, risk taking, blaming others and concerned with rank order. These natural propensities must be dealt with, directed, not suppressed, and balanced by fostering other potentials.
Everybody has ‘male’ and ‘female’ emotions: boys can be very nurturing and girls can, in a limited way, learn to feel masculine; girls and women can learn unethical male attitudes and behaviors. However, female brains’ architecture differs from male brains, and even young girls are much better able to process feelings (utilizing brain’s cortex, with connections to language center); thinking socially is an essentially continuous, spontaneous process in females (corresponding to much better connection between right and left brain centers).
However, hormonal factors and brain architectures do not dictate aggressive or uncaring behavior. In spite of their inherent deficit of social awareness and ability to feel sympathy, autistic people, female and male, are usually not criminals. They still appreciate social interactions and recognition and can learn, in a limited way, to be empathetic.
People seek high points of arousal, humans are not content with safety in a trivial life: they want a sense of meaning, positively or at least negatively. Antisocial persons may commit exaggerated actions, hitting rather than raising voice, raping rather than patiently expressing desire to become intimate, killing rather than threatening, etc. because ‘normal’ behaviors are not arousing enough. Being antisocial is partly learned, partly inherent. Even if genetically predisposed, it appears that antisocial behavior patterns are only expressed if the child grew up in a violent, chaotic environment. It is possible to correct the behavior patterns if the person lives for an extended time in a highly structured environment and gradually learns to see exciting parts in observations of nature, sciences and arts. Feeling empathy and learning to be broadly empathetic are particularly important for such people. Structure in daily life is very beneficial, possibly based on self-imposed discipline that includes rituals. Humane, monastery-like residential settings may be most helpful.
Major ethical issues stem from many modern technological developments and from the uncertainty about what is sentient or conscious, with versus without ability to perceive pleasure and suffering. When feeling compassion, we assumes that the concerned being is sentient and suffering in some way.
Consciousness (being sentient) is likely to have developed gradually with primitive beings probably having none or only very vague awareness while higher beings may feel what is instinctively “right” and what is “bad” or injurious to its body. An organism may respond to opportunities for growth and expansion, to dangers and to injuries; such reactions include biological stress and increase the organism’s chance of survival and reproduction; the different responses may appear to indicate pain or positive excitement but are hardly associated with feeling pleasure or pain and suffering. Other views deem that the most primitive form of sentience may consists in moments of feeling pain when injured. In humans and higher animals, suffering is more complex than pain; there is additonally a conscious will or urge that demands immediate change, mainly cessation of discomfort, such as pain sensations, severe thirst or sense of suffocation. A will demanding that pain stopps can be coutered making a pain sensation desired if associated with a powerful positive experience e.g. in sexual masochism or when self-injecting drugs. Pleasure, which feels more powerfully positive than some action feeling “right,” is probably also limited to most complex beings. In determining where compassion is due, we may assume that primitive beings have at best faint consciousness; inclinations to avoid pain stimuli and following instincts may represent awareness of directedness. Vague to intense suffering and pleasure may be limited to animals with highly developed nervous systems, probably most vertebrates, particularly mammals and birds, possibly some non-vertebrates, such as cephalopods.
Even if we reasonably assume that primitive animals like lobsters cannot feel pain, we need to avoid treating them in ways that seem cruel, for instance throwing live lobsters into boiling water because the rational mind telling us that they cannot feel does not counteract the desensitizing effect of casually doing something seemingly very cruel.
In many cultures, it has appeared unclear whether people believe that animals are not sentient or whether us-versus-them thinking suppresses compassion when they mistreat and kill animals in seemingly cruel ways. The second is more likely. Children often treat a young sheep, rabbit or chicken like a baby doll or a sibling but must later accept that their father will slit the pet’s throat. In many cultures, women and children were/are sometimes treated like animals, without any sign of compassion.
A recent ethical issue is humanity’s approaching general scientific-technological developments that are very rapid and far-reaching but which individuals do not understand. In the past, many natural phenomena could not be explained, but the functioning of human-built devices appeared explicable, and life was not far removed from a natural, pre-technological state. When camping and in expeditions, people may choose to live in simple ways close to nature. Today, people use more and more complex, miniaturized devices, having no notion about how they function and what they mean for humanity’s future. Some inventors and authors, e.g. Ray Kurzweil and Peter H. Diamandis (Singularity University) are convinced that the rapid, in many areas exponential growth in information and nano technologies will continue for some time, leading to utopian solutions to virtually all present problems, with abundance of food, fresh water, energy, health care, educational option, etc. What they seem to miss is the contradictory aspects of human nature and the rapid adaptation to any progress with essentially no improvements regarding happiness, human relationships or life satisfaction. While the material living standard tripled over a half century, with women in particular having much more options, average North Americans do not perceive their lives as better. New psycho-social problems are vast. While medicine advanced in ways that appeared unimaginable in the 1950’s, depression and pain continue to be a major issues. In the USA, the broad readiness to treat physical pain with medications had grave unforeseen consequences.
A particularly important issue will be the use and treatment of robots with artificial animal-human-like features and other artificial intelligence applications. Will some scientists consider nonhuman computing devices conscious or sentient, including having the capacity to feel pain and pleasure? Will nonhuman intelligence compete with human efforts to direct developments? It appears counterintuitive that artificial intelligence creates human-like consciousness. If an extremely sophisticated robot had any consciousness, it would appear that displayed emotions would be like acting, except that the robot, unlike a human actor, would not know what human suffering and pleasures feel like. Establishing ethical guidelines concerning the development and applications of artificial intelligence is pertinent; these must address problems inherent in human relationships and humans’ pursuit of happiness. (It appears important, that any creation of extremely sophisticated artificial intelligence would have to avoid any potential development of a desire or will in the machine beyond the goal of resolving clearly defined limited problems that humans feed into the machine.)
When any type of animal is thrown into a long water tank that is hot at one and ice cold at the other end, the animal will, if able, swim towards a for the organism optimal temperature. It can hardly be determined which organisms, one-cellular, crustaceans, octopi, fish, sea reptiles or mammals are vaguely or clearly sentient, feel that swimming in that direction is “right” and/or whether they feel actual discomfort and suffering that turns into comfort or pleasure when reaching the zone of optimal tempeerature. Higher animals have much in common with humans and we probably correctly sense when they are afraid of imminent suffering or perishing, and when they perceive other feelings similar to what humans perceive.
Behaviors of very primitive animals, one-cellular to insects, may appear to have mammal-like expressions of emotions but the animal may at best have a minimal sense of a behavior being (instinctively) right. People may admire their “personalities” and “bravery.” To have some success in evolution, animals have to be adaptive by slightly varying inherent patterns, and they must take risks: there are huge numbers of young animals with only the combination of adaptation, ‘courage’ and strength (and much luck) determining which individuals will be able to reproduce. We may readily consider these instinctive behaviors as signs of virtuous decision making but we can only intuit in what higher species there may be associated fears, pleasure or other feelings.
Theoretically, we have no absolute knowledge as to whether any machines perceive discomfort or pain; engines that run hot and show warning lights, simple computers that indicate mistakes, sophisticated computers operating a robotic pet which behaves very similarly to a real animal, complex computing networks that may control air traffic or rail systems and human-like robots with artificial intelligence of high sophistication. Sometimes children even feel as if love given to a puppet or soft fabric animal may give it some consciousness. We probably correctly perceive ‘inanimate’ machines and dolls as not being sentient in any way.
There have been discussions as to whether a colony of social insects should be considered an individual. Functionally this may make sense but it would be very hard to imagine that a colony may form a sentient mind.
We do not know whether humans have more than the single consciousness that gives us a sense of individuality and relative permanence, moving from past to future. (When anesthetized, a sentient part of the person may still feel pain sensations but without the conscious mind having lasting access to the information; it may be easy to accept pain without associated memories of distress and probably with much less suffering or will that the sensation must cease.) Much of the human brain computes and steers actions without the individual’s mind knowing. Most computing within the cortex is outside of our awareness and there is a continuous flow of information between the cortex and in evolution and embryonic maturation earlier developed structures (particularly the thalamus). The amygdala, a nucleus of the limbic system, continuously evaluates cues from our senses and sometimes initiates physical reactions with consequent feelings without the conscious mind knowing what is judged as potentially promising or dangerous. Many structures of the more primitive parts of the central nervous system, particularly the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems, direct and influence the organism independent of and often discordant with the conscious mind. In addition, many of our organs have separate nervous systems resembling those of primitive animals, however there are nerves that communicate with the cortex, sometimes sending intense pain signals. If there are structures (e.g. the nervous system of intestines) that are sentient within a higher animal, perceptions are most likely vague and at a very primitive developmental level.
When judging whether a being or an organ may be sentient, it is relevant to distinguish between: 1. probably minimally sentient, 2. able to feel what is instinctively (or within its environment) right or wrong, 3. having a nervous system of adequate complexity to feel physically and/or mentally good or bad – comfort, pleasure or suffering.
A particular difficulty is the interpretation of stress reactions: it has often been assumed that stress reactions indicate suffering. However, the decapitated body of a higher animal may exhibit stress reactions, e.g. a freshly decapitated chicken still “tries to flee.” Even in humans, many forms of stress actually lead to a survival mode with dissociation from an injured body; while fighting or in a severe accident, there is little or no pain perception. It is difficult to differentiate between stress in a survival mode when there is no pain versus rather increased pain sensation when stress is due to fear and conflict with forced passivity, when mistreated by a rank higher person who should protect rather than torture and when fighting back or efforts to escape are impossible. When pain perceptions appear ‘normal’ and unrelated to an acute injury, e.g. inflammation of a gland or abdominal cramps, people appear relatively accepting of the sensation and there should be pain relief due to endorphins; however, in modern humans the endorphin systems appears to work poorly. In modern civilizations pain may also be aggravated by an expectation that we should always be comfortable. Humans may be unique in the severity of their pain perception and the lack of natural, effective pain-relieving mechanisms in the nervous system. (Suffering can be extreme, indescribable, much worse than the opposite of intense pleasure, but luckily, it cannot be remembered and re-experienced as we can visualize images or imagine the sounds of a symphony; generally only associated distress and other perceptions are remembered.) There are probably few, if any other animals that can experience torture as humans can. (Apes, elephants, whales and dolphins may have similarly complex experiences as humans, however, the endorphine system in humans appears to be hardly functioning and humans are unique in understanding their helpelssness and the intent of torture – there is usually no dissocaition as in accidents and wars.)
In highly developed animals, the conscious valuations of sensations, emotions and actions are often contradictory, leading to conflicts. Perceptions and actions are judged on multiple levels and may range from feeling right to wrong, good to bad and pleasurable to painful. There may also be with perceptions associated positive expectations or fear. Examples: When pulling out a baby tooth that is loose or scratching a boil open, it feels right to self-inflict pain. When having sore feet while walking with family, pain sensations may feel undesirable but acceptable; if unable to distract from pain, there is usually an added powerful will that the sensation ‘must stop,’ is ‘unacceptable,’ which leads to suffering. Males may feel fearful but instinctively right to fight a rival again after having been badly beaten; for a female, inviting sex may feel right even if it was previously painful; an individual may want to explore a mountain further even if a previous effort was strenuous and lead to frostbites. In humans, accepting suffering may feel right or meaningful due to cultural pressures or mandates, e.g. undergoing tattooing. Positive associations may make pain sensations feel good, as in intravenous drug users that become “addicted to needles” and in sexual masochism. Religious and cultural teachings may make certain pleasures adverse experiences.
Theoretically nobody knows whether different people mean essentially the same when talking about beauty and ugliness, pleasure and suffering, etc. We do not know how similar or dissimilar people perceive sensations, such as colors or sounds, and whether pain caused by a specified injury varies greatly between individuals. Predispositions, physiological states and particularly learned associations modify perceptions. People can intuit that others do not see the same things as beautiful, and we observe how an individual’s perceptions change with maturation and learning. However, as a model of reality, we assume that humans and their experiences have much in common; the congruence in our communication and the predictability of what people will describe in what way appear to be good indications that we correctly understand what people mean when talking of beauty and pleasure or of excruciating pain.
Humans feel as if, separate from the computing brain, there is a soul which perceives a very limited part of brain activities, auditory, visual and at times smell sensations, sometimes bodily sensations, sometimes memories, projections into the future or abstract constructs; the ‘soul’ has a sense of development of past to future, sees and hears things in cohesive ways, like detailed pictures, complex music, etc., and perceives deep emotional feelings, beauty and ugliness, pleasure and pain, love, hatred, anger etc. If there is a dualism of brain and soul, the soul would not only passively perceive some aspects of nervous system activities, it would also transfer knowledge about itself, allowing the brain to philosophize about the existence of consciousness, beauty, pleasures, suffering, etc. To determine if an animal or robot has a consciousness as humans have, we would want to ask about an understanding that the being has more than some ‘body knowledge’ which may be contained in a primitive, computing system, in its genes, etc., and helps operate its body; we would want to discuss whether the being feels things, feeling directedness, that some sensations and behaviors are right or wrong, and possibly whether it perceives the huge difference between the frustration of something going wrong versus the indescribably worse, much more intense feeling of a different quality when suffering intense pain or desperation, and at the other end of a range of feelings, ecstatic pleasure. Objectively, it does not appear that we have souls, separate from and overlaying the nervous system; if the brain fails, feelings, emotions, memories, cognitions, etc. fail. What makes humans sentient and what pleasure and suffering are remain unanswerable questions. If human-like computers with superhuman artificial intelligence will be built, they could probably pretend having deep feelings and maybe even discuss the problem of differentiating between a mechanical machine and a feeling animal. On the other hand there is hardly an animal that would be capable to communicate in any way about the issue of levels of consciousness, even if some animals can learn some abstract language skills. We have to rely on scientific knowledge of nervous systems and the intuition that another being is, in many ways, like us.
Ethics is inadequately considered in today’s rapid pursuit of technological progress. Engineers and venture capitalists drive technological progress without clarity of long-term goals and their pursuits’ meaning for humanity and possible unexpected catastrophic consequences. Often there appear to be rationalizations why the spreading of a technology should be good; for instance, ready access to information seems good but it is today primarily a business that tries to sell advertisements and create artificial needs. Sophisticated social media and technology-driven school education do not address broad ethical issues. With overspecialization that often starts in public schools, most researchers and inventors are not even attempting to reach a broad understanding of ‘the human condition’ as dealt with in the world literature, of animal and human ethological research, of problems and benefits of the natural adaptability of living beings, and of broad ethical considerations. Even psychologists and physicians, including psychiatrists, often have little knowledge of ethological research, the adaptability of the nervous system, research concerning happiness and life satisfaction, etc.
1 compare: Daniel Gilbert: Stumbling on Happiness, 2006, p.5ff
2 It appears hypocritical and elitist to advise people to hold on to religions that are divisive and tribal in character while by far most serious scientist do not believe either in a personal God or immortality (among members of the U. S. National Academy of Sciences, only 10% and only 2% of the biologists), reference: Edward O. Wilson, The Social Conquest of Earth (2012), p.256
3 Examples in Daniel Gilbert: Stumbling on Happiness, 2006, Peter H. Diamandis: Abundance, 2012, and Richard Wiseman: 59 Seconds, 2009; research on “cognitive biases”; there are many biases that may be culture bound; because biases are unconscious, people readily deny them.
4 Edward O. Wilson: Consilience, The Unity of Knowledge (1998), p.264
5 Charles Darwin already considered an innate moral sense or conscience to be the most important difference between humans and other animals.
6 compare Jared Diamond: Collapse, 2005; studies on poverty and high population density, animal and human research.
7 Compare: Robert Wright, The Moral Animal: Why We Are the Way We Are, 1995, and Leonard Sax, Why Gender Matters, 2006 p.58.
8 Daniel Jonah Goldhagen: Worse than War, 2009, p.3ff; Jane Goodall: Through a Window, 1990, p. 98ff.
9 Respect of the environment appears more culturally acquired than instinctive, however, it is highly adaptive. There are many examples of prehistoric people hunting animals to extinction. Primitive humans as well as animals often overuse natural resources, greatly damaging the environment and jeopardizing their own survival. Compare: Jared Diamond: Guns, Germs and Steel, 1997 Collapse, 2005
10 Research indicates that persons of different cultures respond similarly to such dilemmas.
11 Natural Ethics by Jan A. and Brigitta S. Tullberg www.tullberg.org
12 Murray Bowen: Family Therapy in Clinical Practice, 1978