Wednesday, April 18, 2007

A Materialist Viewpoint

I sometimes think it would be nice to strip away all the ideologies, the seemingly solid sets of mutually contradictory arguments that people latch onto because they provide a framework with which they can define themselves, and a group that they can ally themselves with.

It would be nice if we looked at things from as objective a viewpoint as possible. It is lazy to say that people can never be objective. However it is difficult to be objective, so on this occasion I won’t even try to be objective, but I will try to be sensible.

Call it the materialist viewpoint.

There are six and a half billion people in this world. Each individual is made of carbon, oxygen, hydrogen, nitrogen and several other elements. And yet each one is more intricate and wonderful than any of the other things we can see in the universe.

The human brain is the most complex object we have yet discovered. If any one of us were given the choice between meeting Aristotle, Newton, or Shakespeare, and the opportunity to explore an entire lifeless galaxy, it is likely we would choose one of the three human beings over the galaxy.

Of these six and a half billion people many do not have the luxury of being able to consider matters of ethics, philosophy, mathematics, science, art, or culture. They live lives that we would consider to be nasty, brutish, and short.

This simply isn’t acceptable. A recent psychological survey I read claimed people were more ready to feel emotionally about the plight of individuals, rather than simply being told that a certain number of thousands of people had died for whatever reason.

This lack of emotion concerning the many people currently living in poverty may go some way to explaining why something hasn’t been done.

Some claim that western capitalist countries have influenced the global free market, through the IMF and World Bank, in order to protect their own prosperity over that of poorer countries.

I don’t know enough about economics to be able to give an opinion on this. If asked, I would say I enjoy the privilege of living in a liberal western democracy, and I would certainly agree that the state of the state I find myself living in is pretty good and I would agree that it is desirable that this state of affairs continues.

I would have expected, if it were not that I have learnt a little about human nature since I was born, that some system would be devised that would distribute the vast wealth of humanity; including all our knowledge, the resources of the Earth, and our own minds and skills, as widely as possible.

I am given to understand that inequality is rising in the developed world, and is already rampant on a global scale, and has been for centuries. That a few should have proportionally more than the many is a fact that I find very difficult to be angry about. Perhaps a few of those wealthy people did something truly useful that means they earned their fortune, many of them seem to give charitably, if perhaps not as much as I’d like them to.

But the problem is not with a few rich people. The problem is that there are a vast number of people who don’t even enjoy the standard of living I enjoy, with access to reasonable healthcare that I don’t have to pay for immediately, with effective public transport, free education, and a welfare safety net. I am also given the opportunity to do pretty much anything I’m capable of.

I am not advocating a socialist world government. The necessary extent and power of such an institution would invite corruption and mishandling. Applying democracy on a global scale, even with extensive federalisation, would be difficult. With so many diverse concerns and competing interests, no single person could reasonably be elected to a “world senate”, let alone a world presidency.

I am not especially libertarian in outlook. If you read this document closely you will notice that I mention that I consider my political views to be “liberal socialist secular humanist democratic”, roughly in that order of precedence. But again, it is necessary to put aside these tribalistic labels we apply to ourselves and simply consider the basic conditions of humanity.

I dislike pain and hunger; both of the physical, emotional, and mental variety (although I haven’t actually experienced anything I’d describe as mental pain, I suppose mental hunger would be an unsated sense of curiosity). I can model my own behaviour well enough to consider myself, as an entity. I can also model the universe around me and the people within that universe. I can project my own feelings of pain and hunger onto my model of another individual. This allows me to empathise with people.

I find it disagreeable that there are so many people experiencing pain and hunger, and that there does not seem to be any fundamental reason. There is no physical law that prevents everyone from having the chance to lead a long, healthy, and happy life. I also find it disagreeable that all those billions of unhappy people exist in my conscious as only a vague blur. I can’t really identify with any number of people over about three or four at any one time. Beyond that I use abstract tricks to deal with the immensity. Orders of magnitude and logarithms and so on, but you can’t apply a logarithm to human suffering.

It is clear that Something Needs to be Done. I'm not yet sure what It is. I suspect I will know It when I see It. It may be a slightly different way of running the global economy. It might be an invention. It might just be a way of looking at the world. Perhaps the trick is to simply allow things to carry on as they are, but constantly keep nudging events towards more favourable outcomes. It will probably take quite a long time, but I suspect we will get there eventually.

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