24 February 2012

Accountability and Ethics

THE SUBJECT OF ACCOUNTABILITY has come up quite a lot lately. I've come to see gods that oversee our behaviour and karma as part of the same complex of ideas stemming from changes that civilisation brought to human culture. I outlined this view earlier when discussing the plausibility and salience of rebirth, and here I'll expand on it.

My thought is that we evolved to live in small bands of several families all working closely together to ensure our survival. These bands were probably part of larger groupings, but on the whole most of the time was spent in relatively small groups of say 30-50. In contemporary hunter gatherer societies there is typically a division of labour with women gathering food and men hunting. Women stay together as a group while working which takes up a good part of their day. Men tend to hunt alone or in small groups, but spend a lot of time together as well. In a group of 30-50 which is highly dependent on each of its members, there is not much in the way of privacy. We would all know what everyone is doing, and especially we would know if they were following group etiquette and rules. Going against the norm, and keeping it secret, often causes an internal tension that would have observable consequences. If you know someone well and over a long period of time, you know when something is wrong. Infractions are dealt with socially - with shame being an important factor in maintaining cohesion. And cohesion is not just arbitrary it is what helps the group survive in what is probably quite a hostile environment.

We share these patterns with our social primate cousins - especially the apes. Chimpanzee society has many of the same features for instance, and I think provides us some insights into our own distant past. They work together foraging as a group, and rely on each member to contribute and not to deceive. And individuals do on occasions deceive the group over food and sex. We don't just share a common genetic ancestry, I think we probably share a common social ancestry. In any case I think one can learn a lot about basic human drives and behaviours from Jane Goodall's observations on the Chimps of Gombe stream in her book In the Shadow of Man.

Civilisation changed this pattern, and made us different from any of our ancestors or cousins. Civilisation gave us the means to live together in much greater numbers. We were no longer dependent on passing game, or the random distribution of food crops. We domesticated our food - both animal and plant. This allowed for an expansion of group sizes beyond the magic Dunbar number of 150 - the number of relationships we can keep close track of. In a large village we do not know what everyone is up to because we do not observe it for ourselves. We do still keep track using informal information sharing (aka gossip, but this word has far too many negative connotations). It is not less important that everyone consents to live in the same way and follows the same rules, but it is much harder to know. And within any group there are always those who can profit by deception. Civilisation brings with the it a new problem of how to limit the dishonesty of susceptible individuals when personal observation is not sufficient to detect breaches.

Many societies developed a kind of cosmic police force and judiciary. In Indo-Iranian myth for instance it was the function of Mitra/Mithra. The people who propagated the myths of Mitra and preserved it through many centuries believed that the universe itself was ordered and that this macro-cosmic order was reflected in the microcosm of human society and human relationships. By sacrificing to Mitra the Indo-Iranians and their descendants were trying to ensure that Mitra had enough sustenance to do his job. And one of his jobs was to oversee the contracts and bonds that held society together. In fact his name probably originally meant 'contract' (from PIE *√mei 'to tie' + the instrumental suffix -tra: 'the one who ties', or 'that which ties'). I suspect that if you search the myths of all people's you will find this judicial function being carried out. It is possible that the role of enforcing the laws will be separate, but I think they are often combined.

The next step in the development of this idea was its further abstraction. In societies which followed the lead of Zoroaster and adopted monotheistic gods (such as the Abrahamic religions) the functions of overseer and enforcer were combined with other roles into a single "swiss-army-knife" or über god. In the Old testament god these two functions are much more prominent than in the new. In India a curious abstraction took place. Rather than combine all the functions of regulating society into a swiss-army-knife god that could do everything, they went another route altogether. In India the role of overseer became entirely abstract; it simply was part of the fabric of the universe that your actions would have inescapable consequences which were suitable to the action: we usually refer to this role as karma (though of course karma just means 'work or action'). Note that though the mechanism is different the function is identical. This suggests that the problem it was intended to solve was the same.

The development of this idea then stagnated for many centuries amongst our ancestors - and indeed has not changed at all in some sections of the Western world. One minor development was the contracting out of the overseer role to priests. The priest stands between the people and their god. There is no doubt that some people are more apt than others to have the kinds of experiences that can be interpreted as 'divine'. Most of us are rather untalented in the business of visions and mystical attainments, even with the boost of psychedelics. Perhaps it was inevitable that some people who had easier access to such states would act as intermediaries, and be valued as such by their fellows in this role. Somewhere along the way the job ceased to be awarded on the basis of merit and typically became the preserve of a clan - the vast majority of whom had to fake their contact with god which they did by aping their more inspired elders. In Judaism it was the Cohen clan, in North-West India the Brāhmaṇas. With the advent of a celibate clergy other arrangements were made to keep control of this social function in the form of large institutions such as The Church or The Saṅgha. Religion so captured by hereditary groups or hegemonic institutions quickly descends into formalism and empty rituals, and this is more or less the situation with most religions most of the time.

So for most of the Christian era in Europe the church has been a sham. However it did continue to provide oversight of the people. It did this through confession particularly. This is an observation made by Michel Foucault (e.g. in Madness and Civilization). Although God was invoked, it was in fact the clergy who had taken over his role as overseer. Since the role needed doing this was not necessarily a bad thing, but the fact is that it was mostly done under false pretences. Much the same kind of thing happened in India. In both places genuine visionaries would crop up from time to time, though in Europe we would generally torture them and then burn them alive; and in Indian they would set them up as local deities. Now at the same time kings were also still seen as divinely appointed rulers (several kings had wars with popes over this issue). Kings began to make and enforce laws too.

It was not until the Enlightenment that things began to really change however. The European Enlightenment shifted the focus from religion and superstition to the possibilities of reason. The idea of being ruled by reason was pretty attractive after several centuries of dark age - hence the term Enlightenment, and hence also Mr and Mrs Rhys Davids's deliberate identification of the Buddha with the European Enlightenment via the translation of bodhi as Enlightenment (complete with upper-case E). Michel Foucault notes that one consequence was that the oversight of those who simply could not follow any rules (the mad) moved from the church, to the burgeoning medical profession. But in the meantime the mad were locked away in asylums, which were originally lazar houses, because in a society which was beginning to see reason as defining humanity, losing your reason became a crime.

As Europe developed and spread outwards in an orgy of imperialism and colonisation it exported these values around the world. Only Asia proved able to resist, but only temporarily. The power to make laws, to oversee them, and to punish wrong doers moved decisively away from religious and towards secular administrations. This was one of the principles of the French and American Revolutions, though it was no so clear cut in England, so that the United Kingdom does not separate church and state - my Sovereign is also the head of the Church of England. The power to keep tabs on people was abrogated to the government on the one hand, and to the medical profession on the other. But in many places the medical profession became a subsidiary of the government, or at least was governed by government rules and regulations. Confessions continued to be a crucial part of the way the secular judiciary operated. And in some places the name of the judicial god was sometimes still invoked (the power vested in me by almighty God...). Medical priests used our confessions to regulate our bodies and sexuality, and assumed vast authority over us. Government took on a much greater role in attempting to regulate the morals of society. The UK's present Prime Minister for instance understands without question that part of his role is to set and enforce moral guidelines for the people of Britain (See this assessment in the China Post 22 Aug 2011). The medical profession meanwhile has totally taken over the regulating the lives of the mad, and madness is now a disease of the mind, a chemical imbalance, or a genetic defect.

Presently we seem to be in another transition. Surveillance of individuals by government agencies has never been more comprehensive. Our every movement is monitored by video cameras (the UK has more per population than any country in the world!). In fascist states surveillance intruded more deeply and with more devastating effect than peacetime democracies. We cannot cross a national border (most of which are entirely arbitrary) without our finger prints being taken and our movements entered into computers. Yes, some of this is for our own protection because people from countries which our governments (extending their godlike powers to the nations around us) have routinely oppressed and exploited for the last two centuries are now attacking us in very personal ways, exploding bombs on trains and buses for example. But still, we are being watched, have no fear. Elsewhere in the world Muslims, given the chance to vote, are voting for religious governments of the type that have a track record of imposing restrictive laws on their people.

All of this began as a way to ensure the cohesion and therefore survival of small bands of people eking a living out of the environment as best they could. In Buddhist ethics we are enjoined to surveil ourselves, to vigilantly watch our own minds, and not to act on any unskilful impulse. We're not asked to keep track of others, though we might help a friend out of compassion. This is quite an unusual idea in a society with 2000 years of being taught that someone else does the watching for us. We're not really used to taking responsibility for this role. We become our own judiciary. We pre-emptively confess our transgressions not in a context of fear and punishment, but to friends and mentors who wish us well, and help us to make amends (if necessary) and get back on track. This way we attain to the state of avippaṭisāro 'not feeling remorseful' (i.e. having a clear conscience) which feeds into the natural progress of the Spiral Path (e.g. AN 10.1-5).


Note 13-5-12

 Does Thinking About God Improve Our Self-Control? Wired Science.
Yes. It does. 
"The scientists think that faith-based thoughts may increase “self-monitoring” by evoking the idea of an all-knowing, omnipresent God. Previous research, which showed that priming people to think of a vengeful, angry God reduces the likelihood of dishonesty, supports this view. If God is always watching, we better not misbehave—he knows..."

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