Institutions and Ethics

The ability to mindlessly point to a single institution, be it part of the government, the church or academia for moral absolution is to deny yourself agency as a moral actor. The ability to easily validate you and your actions through a giant bureaucracy is what has helped create the worst crimes of humanity - be it the genocides of colonialism, war crimes or modern day holocausts. Being able to absolve your actions by appealing to something outside yourself that had legitimacy in the eyes of society was a way to wash one's hands but it also comes with all the problems of mindless obedience.

Once upon a time, large institutions were able to power through this problem with a combination of monopolizing knowledge, ethical legitimacy and lack of alternatives. The nature of industrial production and industrial age armies relied on strict obedience and lack of access to knowledge.

However, in our modern age. the preconditions are being reversed. The costs of acquiring information have dropped to zero. Hallowed institutions are losing legitimacy. Alternatives to industrialization and industrial scale armies are appearing and are competing with the established players. Liberation is not guaranteed but it is far more realistic.

But the culture has lagged behind. We're still largely stuck in an industrial age approach to ethics. The use of industrial age armies, for example, required soldiers to give up their individuality and merge their identity with the nation-state so they would willingly perform the mass maneuvers required by industrial age armies. However, even then such armies were not sufficient. The success to this day of guerilla forces against traditionally hierarchical armies despite technological mismatches seems to confirm Machiavelli's notion that loyal citizens are better fighters then paid mercenaries.[1] The logic is simple behind the efficiencies the ability to trust your fellow humans and not have to constantly surveil them to make sure they won't defect not only frees up cognitive space to focus on other tasks, but it also enables individuals and groups to act on their own initiative.

This basic mismatch between the interests of hierarchy and the interests of the individual that make it up is essential to understanding the systemic issues that they face. Hierarchies naturally force those who serve them into zero-sum games in which the interests of the institution can only be served at the expense of those who make it up. Furthermore the inherently deontological nature of how hierarchies act means that they waste time to update to new environments, whereas flatter forms of organization can refigure themselves or better yet dissolve and reform informs that a more suited to the new environment.

As such the powers that be have no interest in developing truly considerate ethical thinkers. As long as the state exists power has no reason to want to develop considerate ethical actors. Developing as truly considerate ethical actors does not benefit them - in fact, it will probably hurt them.[2] The state and the church, despite their pretenses towards human flourishing only do so far as it serves their interests. To do so any further would endanger their position as institutions. Of course there have always been weirdos that they couldn't manage but nowadays the lack of barriers to speech and the access to information means that justified moral outrage is much harder to shut out (of course discourse on the internet is deeply flawed right now but it has undeniably resulted in some pretty significant civil liberties).

All of this is not to say that in a truly liberated society we should all be full-time philosophers or even worse, professional neurotics, constantly concerning ourselves with the moral impact of our actions to the nth degree. Instead, I hope that we might what might be described as an ethical ecology, a complex interconnected system of individuals, institutions and belief structures that feedback off one another through influencing and competing with each other. Instead of an artificially simple solution in which monolithic institutions like The State and The Church instruct us from birth on our behavior we are instead presented with a multiplicity of options that allow us to make more informed decisions about the world. Such a system was supposed to be embodied in the press and we've seen some growth thanks to the internet, but it still exists in an embryonic form. Any serious project of liberation must concern itself with nurturing an ethical ecology to maturity both as a goal but also as a praxis. If hierarchies are truly as inefficient as I've claimed them to be then constructing a network that enables more effective collaboration between actors thanks to both sides being able to quickly verify that they can trust the other is a worthy goal indeed.

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  1. For a fantastic theoretic framing of the why loyal soldiers are more important than advanced technology see Vinay Gupta: The Authoritarian Cause Will Be Defeated by its Own Cognitive Dissonance edited by Kevin Carson ↩︎

  2. See Julian Assange's The non-linear effects of leaks on unjust systems of governance, for the theory behind how this works. ↩︎