Do the ends justify the means, or the means, the ends? Neither. A completely different answer awaits. We have to change our considerations of complex issues from unsophisticated, uncouth, flying blind, to something much more subtle, inspired by the turn towards more subtle analysis that physics itself had to take, in the last three centuries (just post-Newton).
“Maximization of agency towards greater good”… is the only good. Why?
Because the world is fast, and getting faster, exponentially. We are confronted to an increasingly violent shoot storm. Philosophy is not just a consolation anymore. Philosophy has become the only pragmatic way out of a gathering multidimensional cataclysm.
Yes, it is also an excretion storm. Humanity is excreting, all over the planet, creating lethal imbalances all over. Contemplate the Great Barrier Reef, in Australia, one of the world’s greatest biological structures. 2,300 kilometers long, 350,000 square kilometers in area. Yet, it is suddenly threatened by utter destruction. Why? Australian agriculture, all these plants, eaten by all these hungry vegetarians, out there. (In full truth, sugarcane is the primary culprit.)
Yes, of course, the spikes will make you bleed, and they are venomous.
Massive production of plants requires a lot of phosphates, and other fertilizers. The latter gets into the sea. One thing leads to another. And then the babies of a killer starfish, the Crown of Thorn starfish, survive at roughly 100 times their natural rate. And the ladies Crown of Thorns are rather prolific: they produce up to twenty million eggs each. What is the Crown of Thorns prefered diet? Live coral. Crown of Thorns have already eaten their way through roughly half the Great Barrier Reef.
It is a science fiction situation, it requires a science fiction solution (philosophy will tell you as much). There are too many killer starfishes already. One needs killer robots. They are been developed: the starfish terminators have eyes, and they recognize Crown of Thorns with 99.9% precision, and inject them with bile, to which the Crown of Thorns is highly allergic.
Autonomous killer robots at sea: what could go wrong? Are sharks next? Of course! Not to terminate the species, but to make the swimmers safe (we could reprogram for plutocrats, some will insinuate…). Proper usage of philosophical evil optimization theory shows that, only this way, is evil minimized.
So welcome, killers robots!
Take another example: lack of awareness, and the evil Clintons, helped by the Bush of Oblahblah, let the financial plutocracy grow completely out of control. The silly ones will give money, clothing, even food, and feel emphatic, happy about themselves, and their pacific tendencies. Does the Will to Peace generate peace? A philosophical question. And the answer is awful: when a bushel of wheat goes from the American Middle West to Africa, it is bought and sold virtually, by the financial traitors… No less than 2,000 times! Then they live in plush mansions. Of course those traitors are culprit. But so are those who let them thrive, namely all those ready to vote for crooks (names starting with “C”).
Shoot storm? Yes, not just animal waste and dirt that is flying, but outright bullets. To wit: extremely violent wars out of nowhere. Contemplate Rwanda, Somalia, the Islamist State. Worse could be around the corner: a (nuclear) war of India with Pakistan, quickly generalizing, is imaginable.
Science fiction, some will sneer, from the bottom of their feel-good ignorance.
But 2015 was considerably warmer than 2014, which was, itself, the warmest year, ever, by a long shot. Greenland is melting, fast. A collapse of ice shields in Antarctica, little talked about, looks imminent (at least to me).
Science fiction, some will scoff, and turn around, to study nothing. Yet, look at the Zika virus, propped by global warming. The USA is scrambling to study it. It did not exist six months ago, as a problem for WHO. Now it’s a total panic. Brazil just attributed 4,000 cases of microcephaly to that virus carried by mosquitoes. Four countries advised women not to get pregnant, more will follow. Tomorrow.
Genetic engineering may be a way to stop Zika. Otherwise, massive usage of poisons (which
already started). This sort of question are all highly philosophical, they are always choices between an evil, and the other.
In Libya, the West, led by France, destroyed a bloody despotic regime, practicing mass murder, but then, the West dropped the ball. On the philosophical ground of non-intervention, and Obama “leading from way behind” France, the West let the Natives argue between themselves to find out how they would organize this country, which is more than 4,000 years old.
That was a serious debate: Libyans have had some outstanding issues, of civilizational grade, for millennia (so do Algeria, Tunisia, even Morocco). One of these issues is whether the 3,500 years old alphabet could, or even ought, to be used, in parts where it still exists, rather than the youngish alphabet brought by the invading Arab armies, armed with their “Submission” (= Islam).
However, profiting from the chaos, the Islamist State moved in. And now it’s moving ever more, as the West is destroying it in the Orient.Now France wants to attack and destroy the Islamist State in Libya. Is this philosophically correct? (I think so, can’t wait!)
Philosophical questions are everywhere, and they are not just fascinating, but they have to drive policy. The situation is much more acute than when Seneca was advising emperor Nero, or when emperor Marcus Aurelius was playing stoic philosopher.
To all these questions, only one context in which to frame the answers: relativity. Relativity of knowledge, relativity of evil, relativity of consequences, relativity of action.
So yes, “maximization of agency towards greater good” is where it’s at. Not just where ethics ought to be at, but where action should be.
(Massimo P. and his friends have what seems to me roughly the same approach to goodness of “maximizing agency“; see: “From ancient to modern From ancient to modern Stoicism — part I“. It’s pretty clear that it was always the overriding principle of my approach to philosophy. I thank Massimo in passing for giving me the occasion of planting my claws and fangs into something juicy, in other word, making my thoughts more, well, effective by providing a debating ground.)
Can we find some inspiration in science? Yes, of course. Look at physics: energy is not of the essence. The essence is the potential, not the absolute energy. It is the potential which sits on the right hand side of the De Broglie-Schrodinger equation. Thus it’s the potential which acts (contemplate the Bohm-Aharanov effect).
Physics is dominated by the principle of least action (found by Maupertuis, during the Enlightenment). Least action of evil, such is modern stoicism. Keeping in mind that inaction is itself a form of action.
Notice that the old problem of the “ends which justify the means” has been completely reformulated in a much larger physical and philosophical universe. The entire, immense power of modern logic, mathematics and physics can then be brought to bear. It is not a question of carrying the equations over: equations constitute only logical foam. What is deeper than the equations, what really gets the logic going, is the context they represent.
For example, a way to formulate Quantum Physics, related to the Least Action Principle, is to consider the “sum over histories”… Well, just as human history itself. Causalities, entangled, are all over histories.
Ethics has got more complicated, but, in this vastly richer landscape, minimal energy, minimal evil solutions abound.
This is not just the great age of science, it’s the greatest age of philosophy. In the age of Seneca and Marcus Aurelius, the empire was in danger, from forces, in and out. Now civilization itself is in question, and even worse, the biosphere itself is threatened. It’s an ecology most propitious to a blossoming of philosophy. The greatest questions ever, await the greatest answers.
And much inspiration has to come from science, whose main job is not just to find the facts, but sophisticated logics to give them meaning. Today’s most sophisticated logics and mathematics are far ahead of the best known yesterday.
We want goodness? Let’s maximize agency towards goodness. The Principle of Least Evil, in other words.