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Sustainability, Happiness, and a Science of Morality: Part II

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In the first part of this post, I briefly went over some of the larger problems that our global society is currently facing, including the problem of overpopulation and the overall lack of environmental and economic sustainability.  I also mentioned some of the systematic and ideological (including religious and political) barriers that will need to be overcome before we can make any considerable progress in obtaining a sustainable future.

Although it may seem hopeless at times, I believe that we human beings – despite our cognitive biases and vulnerability to irrational and dogmatic behaviors – have an innate moral core in common that is driven by the incentive to increase our level of overall satisfaction and fulfillment in life. When people feel like they are living more fulfilling lives, they want to continue if not amplify the behavior that’s leading to that satisfaction. If a person is shown ways that lead to greater satisfaction and they are able to experience even a slight though noticeable improvement as a result of those prescriptions, I believe that even irrational and dogmatic people do begin to explore outside of their ideological box.

More importantly however, if everyone is shown that their level of satisfaction and fulfillment in life is ultimately a result of their doing what they feel they ought to do above all else (which is morality in a nutshell), then they can begin to recognize the importance and efficacy of basing those oughts on well-informed facts about the world. In other words, people can begin to universally derive every moral ought from a well-informed is, thus formulating their morality based on facts and empirical data and grounded on reason – as opposed to basing their morality on dogmatic and other unreliable beliefs in the supernatural. It’s easy for people to disagree on morals that are based on dogma and the supernatural, because those supernatural beliefs and sources of dogma vary so much from one culture and religion to another, but morals become common if not universal (in at least some cases) when they are based on facts about the world (including objective physical and psychological consequences not only for the person performing the moral action, but also for anyone on the receiving end of that moral action).

Moral Imperatives & Happiness

Science has slowly but surely been uncovering (or at least better approximating) what kinds of behaviors lead to the greatest levels of happiness and overall satisfaction in the collective lives of everyone in society. Since all morals arguably reduce to a special type of hypothetical imperative (i.e. if your fundamental goal is X, then you ought to do Y above all else), and since all goals ultimately reduce to the fundamental goal of increasing one’s life satisfaction and fulfillment, then there exist objective moral facts, whereby if they were known, they would inform a person of which behaviors they ought to do above all else in order to increase their happiness and fulfillment in life. Science may never be able to determine exactly what these objective moral facts are, but it is certainly logical to assume that they exist, namely some ideal set of behaviors for people (at least, those that are sane and non-psychopathic) which, if we only knew what those ideal behaviors were, they would necessarily lead to maximized satisfaction within every person’s life (a concept that has been proposed by many philosophers, and one which has been very well defended in Richard Carrier’s Goal Theory of Ethics).

What science can do however, and arguably what it has already been doing, is to continue to better approximate what these objective moral facts are as we accumulate more knowledge and evidence in psychology, neuroscience, sociology, and even other fields such as economics. What science appears to have found thus far is (among other things) a confirmation of what Aristotle had asserted over two thousand years ago, namely the importance of cultivating what have often been called moral virtues (such as compassion, honesty, and reasonableness), in order to achieve what the Greeks called eudaimonia, or an ultimate happiness with one’s life. This makes perfect sense because cultivating these virtues leads to a person feeling good while exercising behaviors that are also beneficial to everyone else, so then benefiting others is rarely if ever going to feel like a chore (which is an unfortunate side-effect of exclusively employing the moral duty mentality under Kant’s famous deontological ethical framework). Combine this virtue cultivation with the plethora of knowledge about the consequences of our actions that the sciences have been accumulating, thus integrating in John Stuart Mill’s utilitarian or teleological/consequentialist ethical framework, and then we have a good ethical framework that should work very effectively in leading us toward a future where more and more people are happy, fulfilled, and doing what is best for sustaining that happiness in one another, including sustaining the environment that their happiness is dependent on.

A Science of Morality

To give a fairly basic but good example of where science is leading us in terms of morality, consider the fact that science has shown that when people try to achieve ever-increasing levels of wealth at the expense of others, they are doing so because those people believe that wealth will bring them the most satisfaction in life, and thus they believe that maximizing that wealth will bring maximal happiness. However, this belief is incorrect for a number of reasons. For one, studies in psychology have shown that there is a diminishing return of happiness when one increases their income and wealth – which sharply diminishes once a person exceeds an income of about $70K per year (in U.S. dollars / purchasing power). So the idea that increasing one’s income or wealth will indefinitely increase their happiness isn’t supported by the evidence. At best, it has a limited effect on happiness that only works up to a point.

Beyond this, psychology has also shown that there are much more effective ways of increasing happiness, such as cultivating the aforementioned virtues (e.g. compassion, integrity, honesty, reasonableness, etc.) and exercising them while helping others, which leads to internal psychological benefits (which neuroscience can and has quantified to some degree) and also external sociological benefits such as the formation of meaningful relationships which in turn provide even more happiness over time. If we also take into account the amount of time and effort often required to earn more income and wealth (with the intention of producing happiness), it can be shown that the time and effort would have been better spent on trying to form meaningful relationships and cultivating various virtues. Furthermore, if those people gaining wealth could see first hand the negative side-effects that their accumulation of wealth has on many others (such as increased poverty), then doing so would no longer make them as happy. So indeed it can be shown that their belief of what they think maximizes their satisfaction is false, and it can also be shown that there are in fact better ways to increase their happiness and life satisfaction more than they ever thought possible. Perhaps most importantly, it can be shown that the ways to make them happiest also serve to make everyone else happier too.

A Clear Path to Maximizing (Sustainable) Happiness

Perhaps if we begin to invest more in the development and propagation of a science of morality, we’ll start to see many societal problems dissolve away simply because more and more people will begin to realize that the reason why we all think that certain actions are moral actions (i.e. that we ought to do them above all else), is because we feel that doing those actions brings us the most happy and fulfilling lives. If people are then shown much more effective ways that they can increase their happiness and fulfillment, including by maximizing their ability to help others achieve the same ends, then they’re extremely likely to follow those prescribed ways of living, for it could be shown that not doing so would prevent them from gaining the very maximal happiness and fulfillment that they are ultimately striving for. The only reason people wouldn’t heed such advice then is because they are being irrational, which means we need to simultaneously work on educating everyone about our cognitive biases, how to spot logical fallacies and avoid making them, etc.  So then solving society’s problems, such as overpopulation, socioeconomic inequality, or unsustainability, boils down to every individual as well as the collective whole accumulating as many facts as possible about what can maximize our life satisfaction (both now and in the future), and then heeding those facts to determine what we ought to do above all else to achieve those ends.  This is ultimately an empirical question, and a science of morality can help us discover what these facts are.

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Sustainability, Happiness, and a Science of Morality: Part I

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Human beings seem to share the fundamental goal of wanting to live a satisfying and fulfilling life. We all want to be happy, and the humanist movement is an excellent demonstration of the kinds of strategies that have been most effective at achieving this admirable goal – such as the push for democracy, equality, basic human rights, and the elimination of poverty. Clearly we have a long way to go before human happiness is anywhere near universal, let alone maximized – if these are in fact possible futures within our grasp. We’re certainly not going to get there very easily (if at all) unless we address a number of serious societal problems.

One of the most pressing issues facing us today, because of it’s negative impact on just about every other societal problem, is the problem of overpopulation. The reasons for this are obvious and include the decreasing number of available resources per capita, thus forcing people to stretch their resources thinner and thinner over an ever growing population, and/or inclining some societies to go to war with others in order to obtain more resources. Then there’s also the problematic increase in environmental degradation and waste production as the population grows. Beyond the typical resources we’re depleting such as energy/power, food, clean air and water, and raw materials for making various products, there’s also other limited resources that are often overlooked such as the amount of available (let alone habitable) space where people can live, grow food, store waste, etc. There’s also a relatively small percentage of people employed in professions that not only require very special training but that also form the backbone of our society (such as teachers, doctors, scientists, etc.). As these latter resources get stretched thinner and thinner (i.e. education, healthcare, and scientific expertise and research), we’re effectively diluting the backbone of our society which can eventually cascade into societal collapse.

To be sure, there are several ways to combat many of these problems that are caused or exacerbated by overpopulation, for example, by shifting from a goods-based economy to a service-flow economy that recycles product materials that would otherwise be wasted (in part by leasing many of the products that are currently bought and later thrown into a landfill), by increasing the percentage of less-pollutive or non-pollutive renewable energy sources, and finding other ways of decreasing the demand for and increasing the efficiency and distribution of all the resources we rely on. The problem with these approaches however is that although these technologies and admirable efforts are slowly improving, the population is also increasing at the same time. So even if we are in fact increasing efficiency and decreasing consumption and waste per capita, we are simultaneously increasing that very capita, and so it is difficult to tell if technological progress has been (or will eventually be) fast enough to produce a true increase in overall sustainability per capita. It would be fallacious and unjustified to simply assume that to be the case – that technology will always be able to fix every problem. If anything, to error on the side of caution, we should assume that this isn’t the case until we have enough data and knowledge to prove otherwise.

Population Reduction is the Name of the Game

An obvious solution to this problem is to decrease the population growth rate such that our technological capabilities are more than sufficient enough to deliver a sustainable future for us. This goal may even require a negative growth rate, and at some point we’re going to have to start talking about what kinds of societal changes are necessary in order to achieve that goal. We may need some new incentives and/or some other kind of population control measures and policies, however, I’m hopeful that solving this problem is pragmatically achievable if we can manage to seriously educate the populace about how their reproductive choices affect the lives of everyone else in the world and how it is likely to impact future generations (though I don’t think this will be an easy task by any means). If people knew that certain reproductive choices would likely lead to either themselves, their children, or their children’s children, living in a future society filled with unprecedented amounts of poverty and war, environmental and economic collapse, and numerous other sources of suffering – any rational person would heed that knowledge and try their best to combat that possible future.

So a large part of the solution is simply educating everybody about the facts and probabilities of these undesirable outcomes. There are already many individuals and groups of people working on these types of endeavors, trying to push for renewable energy, pro-environmental advocacy and other sustainable living practices and policies, spreading education about family planning and trying to increase the access to and adoption of birth control methods, etc. Unfortunately, these practices haven’t yet been adopted by anywhere near a national nor global majority – far from it. However, if the movement becomes more globalized and builds up to a critical mass and momentum, eventually we’re likely to see the average person’s physical and psychological well being improve, which will further reinforce the incentives to improve and perpetuate the movement, because people will start to realize the tangible benefits they are gaining as a result.

Systematic & Ideological Barriers to Sustainability & Happiness

Unfortunately there are some serious systematic and ideological barriers that are preventing the sustainability movement from gaining traction and they’re ultimately inhibiting what would otherwise be fairly reasonable rates of progress. I think that the primary systematic barrier against achieving sustainability has been corporate-capitalism and the free-market economic models currently in place. While it may be true that there are certain forms of capitalism along with certain regulated market models that could work in principle if not also in practice, unfortunately these aren’t the brands of capitalism and market models that are currently employed by most industrialized nations (though some nations have more sustainable models than others).

What we currently have now are globalized economic systems and models that are fundamentally based on maximizing profit and consolidating privately owned production means at the expense of not only exploiting and depleting our natural resources and environment but also by exploiting unethical sources of human labor. Furthermore, these models have in turn led to unprecedented levels of socioeconomic inequality and environmental degradation. Then again, what else should we expect to happen when we employ corporate-capitalist free-market models which inherently lack adequate and universal economic, labor and environmental regulations? Despite the fact that the wealthy corporate elite, and the many politicians and citizens that have bought into their propaganda, have actually been touting this model as “the best in the world” or “the best model possible”, we can see that this isn’t true at all both by the fallacious fundamental principles that the models are based on and the actual results they’ve been delivering thus far. If we’re going to have a sustainable future, let alone one that provides us more satisfaction and happiness throughout our lives, we’re going to have to jump off of this sinking ship, and adopt an entirely new societal model.

We also need to consider the ideological barriers that have been hindering the sustainability movement as well as the humanism movement in general. For example, there are many prominent religions such as Christianity and Islam (which are highly influential as they make up over half the population of the world) that believe that one of the primary goals for human beings (according to their “divinely inspired” scripture) is to “be fruitful and multiply” while also claiming a general dominion over all the plants and animals of the earth. While the latter “dominion” over the earth has been interpreted by some as “responsible stewardship” (which is compatible with sustainability), it has often been interpreted as “ownership” over the environment and as justification to exploit it strictly for the benefit of human beings (not realizing our intimate dependence on all other ecosystems). Worse yet, the former “be fruitful and multiply” adage can only be reasonably interpreted one way, and unfortunately this “advice” is the antithesis of a sustainable model for society (though it has been an incredibly effective meme for the expansion of these religions and their cultural influence and power). Indeed, it is the exact opposite of what we should be doing at this point in human history, and perhaps the greatest irony here is that the current overpopulation problem was largely a result of this adage, and the subsequent viral spread of these Abrahamic religions over the past fifteen hundred years especially.

Two other religious beliefs worth mentioning here, which have also been highly popularized by the Abrahamic religions (notably Christianity), are the beliefs that “the end is near” and that “no matter what happens, everything is in God’s hands”, as these beliefs and the overall mentality they reinforce do nothing to support the long-term responsible planning that is fundamental to a sustainable societal model. The latter belief plays on an unfortunate human cognitive bias known as risk compensation, where we tend to behave less responsibly when we feel that we are adequately protected from any harm. In the case of a fanatical belief in divine protection, their level of risk compensation is biased to the theoretical maximum, thus making them the most likely to behave the most irresponsibly. The former belief (“the end is near”) unavoidably shifts the believer’s priorities to the short term (and in proportion to the strength of the belief), and with the specific intention of preparing for this “end that is to come”, rather than basing their beliefs on reality and evidence and responsibly preparing for a brighter future for all of humanity and the rest of the planet that we depend on.

Certainly, these religious beliefs aren’t the only ideological barriers to sustainability, as there are a number of other irrational political ideologies that are largely though not exclusively based on the rejection of scientific evidence and consensus, and have served to heavily reinforce the fossil-fuel and other natural resource driven corporate-capitalist model. This unsustainable model has been reinforced by denying facts about climate change and many other facts pertaining to human impacts on the environment in general. In some cases, I find it difficult to tell if the people that make these absurd claims actually believe them to be true (e.g. that 99+% of scientists are somehow conspiring or lying to everybody else in the world), or if they are just implicitly pleading ignorance and rationalizing so that they can maintain their profit-driven models for outright insatiable greed. I find it most plausible that politicians are collaborating with certain corporations to deny scientific facts because they want to continue to make billions off of this resource exploitation (at least for as long as they can get away with it), and are doing so in large part by brainwashing the constituent base that elected them into office with mounds of corporate-funded misinformation, fear mongering, and empty political rhetoric.

It should also come as no surprise that the people that believe and/or perpetuate these political ideological barriers to sustainability are most often the very same people that believe and/or perpetuate the aforementioned religious ideological barriers, and it seems quite evident that politicians have taken advantage of this fact. Many of them surely know quite well that if they can persuade religious voters to vote for them by convincing those voters that they share a common ground on some moral issue, then those voters become distracted from critically thinking about the primary political agendas that those politicians are really pushing for behind the curtain. The very agendas that are in fact hindering a sustainable future from ever coming into fruition.

We’ve all seen it – certain politicians claiming that they oppose stem cell research or abortion, or that advocate for abolishing the separation between church and state (though generally not admittedly), and use this tactic to suck in these (often) single issue religious voters, while ironically promoting a number of policies that often violate the morals of those very same voters (unbeknownst to the voters). They enact policies that perpetuate war, capital punishment, poverty, and the military-industrial complex. They enact policies that worsen socioeconomic inequality and the accumulation of wealth and power in the hands of a few at the expense of the many. They enact policies that are destroying the finite supply of natural capital we have left on this planet. They enact policies that ultimately hinder democracy, equality, and universal human rights.

So in the end, most religious voters (and some non-religious voters that are similarly misled), while admirably trying to do what they believe is the most moral thing to do, end up vastly increasing the amount of immoral behavior and suffering in the world, due in large part to the politicians that manipulated them into doing so. Which is why it is crucial that people make their decisions based on reason and evidence and also critically think about the consequences of their decisions and actions as they are sometimes more complicated than we are often led to believe. We need to think more critically of all the policies and legislation that we are choosing based on who we vote for, and we also need to be wary of policies that may initially seem to align with our morals and desires, and yet will actually result in more suffering or other unforeseen problems in the long run.

In the next part of this post, I will elaborate more on the broader human goals we all seem to share, and how a science of morality can help us use those broader goals to alleviate these societal problems and simultaneously help us to achieve a future where we are all collectively happier than we ever thought we could be, with far more fulfilling lives.  Here’s the link to part two.