The Evolution of Ethics


Further Discussion of the Relationship Between Age
and the Role of Wisdom Defining Moral Ought and Should.

Wisdom derives from the observation of human behaviors that evolve over generations of time. It is knowledge that has a fine balance between practical. productive and theoretical elements of human experience. The evolution of wisdom operates in the background of social evolution bringing change and understanding to more formal systems of ethical knowledge.

Wisdom is a potent form of human knowledge, being a distillation of not only human knowledge, but experience as well. If you distill experience you arrive at what is "real" and what is "apparent." What is apparent can be real, but there is no consistent evidence to prove that. What is apparent can also be an illusion or predatory deception. For instance, an unwise shopper sees a bright and shinny car that is spotless inside and out. She believes it is a "good" car based on its appearance. The car has all the symbols of being "good," but in fact the car has hidden engine problems. It is not a "good" car to buy. Learning the difference between what is real (substance) in the world, and what is apparent (symbol), takes considerable learning. So, wisdom involves not only how to see, but how to behave without being moralistic in the process. Here, it is only human for people to be deceived by people selling automobiles, leaving much of the responsibility to the buyer to make good choices. Part of making good choices, therefore, is realizing there is more to life than "appearances." Wisdom involves ethics, but it goes well beyond it.

Wisdom tends to have its hand on the pulse of the moment. In this respect it is concerned with practical aspects of knowledge and experience while morality tends to infuse moral observation and experience with belief and a visceral reaction to events. On the other hand, formal ethical theory is an intellectual response to what wisdom and the cultural morality have discerned and discussed over generations of time. Ethical theory analyzes a wide spectrum of moral and ethical ideas culminating in various schools of thought. But, ethics as such is not responsive to the complexity of a moment in time when decision-making occurs. In general, ethical theory is detached from the "moment" (context) of a particular human action. Uniquely, theory questions the validity of any belief or observation of human behavior that might lead to the conclusion of what a person ought or ought not do. Were it not for insightful questioning of moral beliefs they would run rampant subject to social whim.

Ethical theory of the last several centuries has had a tendency to find its logical validation in terms of the analysis of words such as goodness, good, moral, , ought and should. This preoccupation with words alone has set formal ethics on a collision course with science. The meta-ethics of G.E. Moore and David Hume quite clearly question the notion that one can ever justify claiming what another person ought or ought not do. For instance, a child possesses a gun which they fire and harm another person. In the strictest sense of logic one cannot say that this is wrong. Likewise, the formal logic of the is/ought dichotomy has concluded that "what is" cannot logically lead to what one "ought" or "ought not" do. "What is" in this example is a child pointing a loaded gun at someone and firing. What one "ought" to do about it, now or in the future, is indeterminate because no logical connection can be found between is and ought. It is here that evolutionary science enters the picture to solve the puzzle of logic. Darwinian evolutionary theory emphasizes the idea of struggle for survival and the survival of the fittest. Focusing on survival as an aspect of ethical development gives ethics a whole new set of arguments to deal with. If the long-term survival of a society is important, human beings in that society will have to make choices that determine what others ought or ought-not do. If humans are to survive and flourish they are compelled to a certain extent to embrace the notion that life has value. Given some validity to this notion, it would not be wise to give a small child a loaded gun. If small children have unimpeded access to guns, the peace, prosperity, and tranquilly of a society will certainly be threatened. Time is irreversible. One cannot put the bullet back in a gun once it is fired and make the harm that it has been caused go away.

The wisdom that comes with generations of experience with guns forms the foundation of moral knowledge that conflicts with conventional ethical theory. Formal ethical theory does not recognize any connection between children shooting guns and a subsequent moral view that they should not have guns. In this perspective, one cannot easily dismiss the very powerful and enduring link wisdom has with a society's moral views. Even though one cannot find a linkage between a "factual is" and a "moral ought," the wisdom of keeping guns from children remains reasonable. Wisdom has a more immediate grasp of human survival than conventional ethics. There is a mathematics to wisdom that leads human behavior in the direction of sustainable actions that are efficient and integrate well with a broad spectrum of other human activities. Wisdom includes a remembrance of the past; what works and what does not. When people remember what works and what does not they free themselves from the inefficiencies of perpetually making the same mistakes. Moral systems, etiquette systems, statutory laws and customs all express facets of wisdom that have been learned over thousands of years. They are knowledge's that are rediscovered, reinforced, and perpetuated in each generation.

To understand the relationship between ethics and wisdom it is important to understand the effects a person's age has on his or her decision-making. The idea of right and wrong, is connected, in part, to a person's maturational development. It is also connected to the idea that there is a larger world to consider beyond the impulsive or selfish needs of a young person. Parents have strong moral attitudes that are often the product of intense experiences they have left them emotionally, financially, or physically wounded. Hard experience leads to the perception of a world in which some choices are better than others. To the young person the world looks benign when in fact it can be a very dangerous.

Time and experience reveals that ones perception of the world is divided into at least two parts. There is the real world and the apparent world. Confusing the apparent world for the real world can, and often does, leave a person in serious trouble. A moments inattention or loss of focus can lead to an accident in which bones are broken, people are paralyzed, or suffer debilitating pain the rest of their life. But, these are dangers of the physical world. There are also dangers of the psychological world that can be as damaging to an imprudent person. All people, rich and poor must navigate a world in which the people around them all possess a degree of "personal, political or economic powers" that can harm an unwary person. For instance, there is political power to contend with . Employees of business or government have the power to speed up or withhold assistance. Most people have some capacity to help or hinder people around them. Some individuals have enormous powers and can exact painful lessons of that fact. When mature people develop a sense of the dangers around them the they come to know what behaviors are wise and unwise.This is to say that there is an order in the world that is very defined but difficult to see at first glance. For example, a young person goes to work in a large office.Each person in the office has a job description, varying degrees of authority and freedom to make decisions. Within the same office system there is an unspoken hierarchy of power and authority that can influence a person pay raises, choice of jobs and ability to keep their job. A naive, inexperienced person invariably collides with the power structure simply because they do not understand the dynamics of power and authority in the office. Older worker, knowing where inexperience leads immature people dispense bits of wisdom concerning what a new worker "ought" to do. This wisdom is a reflection of the prevailing moral code of the office that has evolved over many years of time. To go against the code invites certain consequences. In the same way older people proclaim moral "ought" and "should."

When the words ought or should are used in a moral of ethical context it is important to note that ought and should have a moral referent. One should place heavier and more solid items on the bottom of the grocery bag "if" (the referent) one does not want the more delicate fruits and vegetables to get crushed. Or, another example might be if one values good health they ought not smoke. What a person values defines what they ought and ought not do. There are personal values to consider, family values, social values, the values of the state and the world. Thus, ordinate and super-ordinate values define what human beings ought and ought not do.

Central to a cybernetic theory of evolutionary ethics is the idea that "actions inspire consequent reactions" in the physical and psychological worlds. A person cannot escape this fact of life anywhere they go in the world. Add to this concept the very real presence of social, political, and economic power in the world. Here, the idea of being prudent and careful moves one step farther towards the idea of wisdom. Take for example the physiology and maturity of a young person. If a young person finds themselves in a position of power over other people because of their size and strength, and they use that power imprudently, the consequences of abuse invariably accumulate and come back to destroy or damage them. This is a difficult concept to explain but one can see the inner workings of power in national politics. If a leader has power they concurrently seek to extend the duration of the possession of that power. What is the point of ruling a nation one day if simple prudent use of power extends ones rule for many years. So, in actual day to day practice of politics players use their powers very precisely to minimize any collateral damage they might inspire in the course of doing politics. If one imprudently uses power they soon find out other people also have power. Imprudence sets up vicious cycles of conflict that can tear the lives of people apart. An attack invariably leaves the attacker vulnerable to attack in times they are weak or without adequate resources. Power politics on this level can be quite unpredictable and violent. The forceful use of personal power of any sort thrusts the user squarely into a power dynamic not unlike the dynamic professional politicians experience. Wise and mature people use power with care while the young and inexperienced tend to act out their power at the earliest opportunity.

This takes us back to the idea of real and apparent worlds. A young person cannot know the perils of power or the extent to which their untrained visceral responses to power can put their lives or careers at risk. Responding to power and the powerful takes discipline and training. Those who have achieved a degree of social wisdom act as intermediaries or guardians of less mature people. The social morality evolves from experience with the dangers of life. Principles of prudent action affirm and perpetuate themselves in each generation. With time sound precepts become formalized in the ethical and legal codes of any evolving society. The evolution of social wisdom and formalized rules are inextricably linked.


Links to articles concerning decision making.

Kohlbergs levels of moral maturation in decision making

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wisdom, science and ethics, moral science