Work in progress. Oh, keep a keen eye out for the few footnotes. They’re tough to find. The rest is as clear as large print can be.
Here I use “objectivity” in reference to a state of absolute truth, not necessarily material existence.
1/ Under what circumstances is it acceptable to curtail freedom of speech?
2/ Under what circumstances is government surveillance of private communications acceptable?
3/ Under what circumstances does the possession of a ‘right’ not carry a correlative obligation or duty?
It seems misleading to talk of legal rights and freedoms when addressing ethical as opposed to legal issues. In the legal world, there are clearly defined terms and fairly clearly defined – or at least quite understandable – circumstances under which those terms are taken to have different meanings. The difficultly with bringing law into ethics is that law is created arbitrarily: it relies primarily on the use of force to be enforced (hint in the verb there). It may be developed from ethical principles and an appreciation of broader public opinion, but ultimately it does not aspire to the position held by ethics. Namely, it does not aspire to objectivity, and it does not aspire to appreciation beyond a desire for personal security. This can be seen particularly clearly in cases implicit within 1/.
Freedom of speech is one of the most highly valued and deeply enshrined principles in many liberal democracies, yet all such democracies stipulate certain circumstances under which it can be ignored. These circumstances tend to relate to law’s sole concern: personal security. For example, someone might be prosecuted for shouting “fire” in a crowded cinema despite there being no actual fire, as the resultant chaos could lead to the injury or death of patrons as they rush to the exits. In this and similar cases, freedom of speech might be constrained or ignored because the speaker is deemed reckless, is thought to use his or her freedom to deliberately (though indirectly) injure others. And under such circumstances they are often seen to be as deserving of punishment as someone who has committed a more direct infringement of personal security and so law.
The response to an apparent misuse of a freedom granted by law is always a punishment, and this indicates why law does not aspire to the objectivity which ethics often seeks. Law’s response to a threat to personal security is to threaten personal security. It considers an illegal attack on one person to be an attack on society’s ways and therefore society itself, in so far as society is held together primarily by the enforcement of laws. Law, therefore, works like the dictates of a Hobbesian Leviathan. It grants a single body the sole ‘right’ to exercise force in order that the population, in order that society, may be preserved from the horrors of every individual possessing that power.
And this is where law does not match up to ethics. It uses the thing that it wishes to eliminate – coercion – in an attempt to eliminate that very same thing. It is contradictory. It is based on the premiss that all people seek security from domination through another’s use of force, of coercion, and yet it employs what is often the greatest amount of force available to any body within society. That is why law cannot be objective, because it renders itself incorrect. It renders itself an enemy to its own principles.
Thus we return to 1/ 2/ and 3/ and find that there are two possible solutions to each question posed: the solution from an ethical perspective and the solution from a legal perspective. A full analysis of the legal perspective will require lengthy examination of legal documents and a statement of the jurisdiction(s) being examined…and so will be avoided in this discussion. Suffice to say that the legal perspective focusses on a utilitarian sense of the preservation of personal security as its ultimate end. It is the viewpoint of a government which mistrusts its people because they resent its use of coercion for their apparent benefit. It is the viewpoint of a government which rightfully mistrusts and is rightfully mistrusted. Which maintains itself through an uneasy compromise with its subjects.
The ethical perspective presents something else. Here we will define the ethical as “the best solution” or “best way to live”. Considering this, we must look at things pertaining to ethics – these things being suggested guides and systems of rules – as mere investigations into what is truly ethical. We must recognise them as what they are: suggestions, philosophical waypoints of thought. Because the best solution to a problem changes depending on what we know. And the best way of living varies somewhat depending on the circumstances of the individual concerned. It is possible that there is an objective “best” that is unchanging. It is perhaps even likely that such a course exists. However, it is also likely that we cannot yet know it given our limited perspectives, our limited information.
And so the ethical perspective looks for the best attempt at an answer.
For that, we must consider liberty more broadly.
Civil liberties pertain to society, which is currently taken as standard to be governed by laws. Laws which, as discussed, do not seem sufficient to be called ethical. What are civil liberties intended to achieve? The comfort of citizens, their ability to develop beyond issues of personal security, and the improvement of that facility with which they pursue happiness and knowledge. In short, civil liberties are citizens’ attempts at achieving actual liberty, or, more accurately, at realising actual liberty. They do not seek such liberty out of a bloody-minded pursuit of anarchic chaos. They do not seek it to burn the treasures of inter-personal respect and understanding, of sympathy and empathy. They seek it because it is the only basis on which a truer society, a safer society, can be achieved.
Yet civil liberties are mere civilities. They are the polite bow at the court of a genocidal despot, the handshake with an archnemesis, the smile that hides a scowl. They are in fact worse than that at times. They are used to suggest that the only order, the only safe, moral, ethical order is the one which they propose. Even though they have changed and will change with laws and personal opinion, they pretend to be easily understood and often binding. They pretend, more specifically, that they are enough. They are not.
Why? Because reason tells us that we are entirely free, that there is nothing to stop us but ourselves.
So, consider yourself. What are you? What do you really know about yourself, and about your surroundings? You know that you perceive things in a certain way, using your senses, and you have done so in more or less the same way for a long time. Perhaps as long as you can remember. You think, from these observations, that the world definitely exists as other people tell you it does. And that other people are made up of the same sort of stuff as you. That they behave in the same way. Or at least some of them do. But you can’t even know this.
All you can know without a doubt is that something which you refer to as yourself exists at any given moment. Before or after the tiniest of nanoseconds of your immediate thought, you may cease to be. You may cease to be, because there’s no reason not to. You cannot remember where you came from, though people talk about a birth, and you do not know beyond doubt where you are going, because you’re not there yet. This is where we all begin. Observing this, observing the uncertainty, and knowing it more fully through the flaws in our senses. Indeed, the filters through which we perceive and experience so much of our lives can be called imperfect. They do not show us the full picture. They do not show the whole spectrum of light, sound, x-ray. They cannot detect all particles, they cannot see individual atoms without assistance. They can be manipulated. If the nerves and connectors which make up our sensory systems were connected to very advanced computers it is indeed likely that our whole world could be quite accurately and even satisfactorily fabricated, as in fiction1 and in philosophy2. And this has been recognised for centuries from Plato3 to Descartes4 and onward. This is in fact thought of as a basic and simple philosophical notion.
Much has been done since to explore around it, and to carry on exploring our world regardless. But if we are to more fully explore our existence, then it must first be recognised that it is hugely uncertain. Incredibly so for some people. And this uncertainty, once set at the base, will extend through all of our thinking.
Reason and consciousness are the only things which seem certain at a given moment. Consciousness because existence seems to entail it, and reason because pure reason is like logic, like maths: it is a process. As a process it seems perfect. One plus one may not always make two (one orange and one apple will not make two bananas) but plus will never mean minus. It is, generally speaking, the application of reason which may be more or less successful. Yet reason itself appears beyond need of doubt.
If we begin with reason and move forward as thoroughly, inclusively and exhaustively as we can, we will see that many things only seem probable. Those assumptions we have about the fundamental fabric of our lives suddenly become simple likelihoods. And then likelihood becomes our reassurance.
You know something which you call yourself exists. You are unsure about other things. Even if they do exist, it is difficult to explain how or why. So the first state you prize above all else is your own existence. You want to survive. You want to survive for security. For time to learn more. Anything more. Even just how to stand a better chance of lasting longer. Because, without any further investigation, basic existence is all you have.
As you develop some security, and you persist in relentless existence, you become accustomed to living.5 You observe a world around you which so far has seemed to keep to certain rules or certain behaviours. It seems to continue to do this, much as you continue to exist. And so you may conclude: this will probably continue to happen much as it has done, there being little or no suggestion of evidence to the contrary. Then, whether your new found sense of security is justified or not, you start to wonder more about this world. You can observe other people and decide that probably, seeing as they look broadly like you and seem to function in a very similar way to you, that they are probably conscious too, or might as well be. You start to enjoy spending time with others, pursuing more leisurely and contemplative activities, and you desire happiness.
Happiness is, to the initial goal of survival, a very dangerous thing. Sometimes better ignored. But if you do consider it, you seem to realise something deeper about yourself, perhaps about humanity. Namely, that the only thing you can easily place value on in life is happiness. Not a permanent ecstasy or euphoria, but rather things and people which you enjoy, with which you actively want to engage because they bring you gratification or pleasure. They do not just help you to survive – sometimes they endanger your survival – but they give your survival meaning. Where before it was treasured because it is the only thing you possess, now it is treasured because it enables an appreciation of happiness, an appreciation of experience. Happiness seems to give existence meaning.
So happiness becomes the goal. Because what value is a life lived in misery? Especially when that life may end at any time. Now, to say that happiness is the new goal is not quite sufficient without explaining what happiness is, but a simple reference to happiness as the new goal will help to explain something else: suicide. The majority of people who commit suicide will only do so because they believe that they will be happier if they do. Whether it is to save desperate comrades on the battlefield, or because one’s life is so miserable that even nothing would seem better, the essential goal is to “feel better”.
Better is the key phrase now. Happiness is a broad and various phrase, used in many circumstances and so better understood within a clear context. “Best” however, “best”, may seem as general, but actually has a far clearer sense for every individual. Saying “I want to do my best” is far less nebulous than “I want to be happy”. And we will generally have a superior sense of what we think it is best to do in any given situation than what will make us happy in the same situation. Saying “best” may not seem morally precise, but in fact it’s probably the most precise evaluations an individual can make at a particular moment.
Remember the uncertainty of existence, and therefore the relativity? If you cannot even know whether the page in front of you will still be there in the next few seconds, you cannot know (objectively) that someone else is wrong. You can know, when your goal is survival, that anyone who endangers your survival must be stopped. You can know, when your goal is happiness, that anyone hindering your happiness should be avoided. But when you do not even know, from your observations thus far, why you exist…how can you claim that anyone else is definitely wrong in anything they do? You may disagree with their interpretation of the world, but cannot call it wrong. You can say that their view may be right, but you have a different view which makes much more sense to you.
If life is lived by the individual, the only morality must be the individual morality. Ultimately. But if it seems likely that all other people are individuals too (which it does seem) then how can one individual’s view be known to objectively overcome another? It can’t. It cannot overcome and it cannot be overcome. The only way to change an individual morality, to prove or disprove it, is for the individual to make the alteration or affirmation themselves. In this sense, no-one can objectively declare anyone else to be wrong. All that a person can do is disagree and persuade. We have complete freedom to decide upon our own morals but, if we are working forward using reason, we cannot use those to declare that someone else is completely wrong. Or that we are right.
Someone who enjoys murder can claim that murder is moral. Someone who enjoys ruling over others can claim that they are the one and only god. But no-one can prove that. No-one, except, perhaps, everyone as individuals. An individual can consent to it through fear, though any number of possible means, or can agree that (to the best of their knowledge) it is true, or it does make sense. And so temporarily they might treat it as proven. But they cannot claim it objectively. All they can do is consent individually.
So we return to “the best”. As traditional definitions of knowledge and proof as pertaining to truth begin to fall away, it makes sense to redefine them as “the best”. To know something is to possess the closest approximation to the truth on that subject, given the evidence considered. To prove something is to explain that it is the best option, the most likely, the most true, given the information available. In knowledge, in philosophy, the new standard is “the best”. And the best in relation to truth.
In everyday life, the standard has always been “the best”.
Think back. What is the one value that you have always had, the one standard that you have always applied, the one system of analysis which always comes most easily to hand? It is that encapsulated in the question “how can I get the best result out of this?”. The standard that everyone applies is “the best”. Forget what they say. Forget how they want to twist it, manipulate you into believing that they are talking about a bearded god or a scientific absolute. It is merely “the best”. Stop trying to define it as anything else. It works already. It works because it is adaptive. It works because no matter what code you adopt, what view you have, you still want “the best”. Even with suicide, even with sacrifice, even if you might not say it, you’re trying to get the best, you’re trying to get or to do what is you think is deserved.
Now, some readers may be interpreting this as simple and vague moral relativism. It is not.
Given that we seek the best, and that the best changes in every situation, in every moment as new information becomes available, does it not seem that we are working towards something? The ultimate best? Something which is stable, which is perfect, which is objective, which is true? You might wonder, how could something perfect or true exist? Existence is true. We may not know exactly what it consists of, but in this moment it is true. In this moment it is steady. In this moment, it does not make sense to doubt it. Even if some day it may end. You might ask, how do we know what perfection is? We feel uncertain. This is why we are seeking it. If we knew it more precisely, we would surely have obtained it, or would find ourselves behaving in exactly the same way in order to obtain it. In fact, we do find ourselves behaving in exactly the same way in order to obtain it. We all seek the best outcome. Within our own definition, it is our main objective. It is the best. Perhaps that is enough. In a world containing so much imperfection and change, surely perfection must be at least a little alien, a little hard to define in less perfect terms.
But it is there. Very probably. And because we want it, we must think.
Returning, then, to civil liberties. They are our current attempts at the best order of society, but they are only the best because so many have not considered them, because so many have not felt themselves able to consider them. Because we are educated to believe in other peoples’ dominance and rules, and it makes sense to accept it at the time.
1The Matrix, Wachowski Brothers, 1999
2“The Brain in the Vat”, an easy read in 50 Philosophical Ideas You Really Need to Know, Ben Dupree, Quercus, First Edition, 2 Aug 2007
3Allegory of the Cave, Plato’s Republic. I used the Penguin version. The allegory should be around Bk 7. The rest of the book’s not too bad to read as well. Summaries and explanations available everywhere.
4Descarte’s First Meditations, here’s a version: http://marxists.org/reference/archive/descartes/1639/meditations.htm
Don’t read too much into the Marxist link. I’m a fan of Marx but I’ve never been a follower.
5The more conflict and distrust in a society, the harder it will be for a feeling of security or confidence to emerge. Indifference to philosophy and a focus on immediate circumstance quickly seems the better option for survival, which, in the rougher society, will likely remain one’s central goal.