Friday, 8 March 2013

Supreme Indifference and Inhumanity

In an earlier article I introduced a scenario centred on a powerful character, the Emperor Prayuhua, who plays a special role far beyond being the Siamese Emperor.  He represents a combination of divine authority and nature.  He is like a god in that he is indifferent to the outcome of the dilemma which he has presented to two of his lords, Prasopgarn and Sukhum.  In a similar way, while farmers might struggle against nature and feel that they have prevailed over it, nature is supremely indifferent to both the strivings and failings of men.

Many people consider themselves to be ‘moral’ because they obey the injunctions of their particular god or gods.  They will argue strenuously that they are not interested in ‘winning’ but rather in ‘doing what is right’.  If pushed on the issue though, these people will most often happily report that a clear benefit derives from their morality.

Blaise Pascal argued that it is entirely rational to believe in God (meaning the Christian god).  What is known as Pascal’s Wager is similar in form to an asymmetric prisoners’ dilemma for one player and runs somewhat like this:

The logical upshot is that since a sceptical Pascal faces eternal torment if he is wrong and an erroneously faithful Pascal suffers nothing, Pascal’s best bet is to believe, even if God does not exist.

Pascal’s Wager is, of course, a simplification.  Belief in one’s god or gods is rarely sufficient to warrant eternal bliss.  Each belief structure includes a set of commandments or rules which are additional preconditions for divine reward.  Below is a variation of Pascal’s Wager.  Note that “Supreme Being” replaces “God” and can refer to a monotheistic creator, as in the Judeo-Christian and Muslim traditions, a god charged with judging the dead, as is found in most polytheistic traditions, or an intrinsic justice in the universe, as implied in some forms of Buddhism.

This structure is based on the possibility that the Supreme Being has set out some guidelines for getting the most out of mortal life, but She does not intend punishing those who fail to follow them.  This is accords more with a loving and forgiving type of God, rather than a vengeful and authoritarian type who demands unquestioning obedience.  Nevertheless, mortals cannot be certain of the treatment they will receive after death, whether it is contingent on their earthly behaviour or not.  Therefore, in this variant of Pascal’s Wager, it seems rational to bet on a stern and unforgiving God and follow His laws.

A religiously moral person is playing the ultimate end-game, a somewhat extended ‘game’ lasting an entire life-time.  By following the moral rules, a religious person expects to win.  That same person expects that someone who does not follow the rules will lose.  The nature of most religions is that the ‘game’ is entirely individual, my winning does not preclude your winning as well and my losing neither helps nor hinders you.  Unless there is a divine rule which states that we should think otherwise, we may be indifferent as to whether another person wins or loses.

Perhaps the most important distinction between the game of morality played by a religious person and the end-game played by Prasopgarn and Sukhum is that a religious person believes that he can win even if he dies.  In the grand scheme of things, in fact, he only ever wins after he dies.  ‘Winning’ in this context, however, should not be confused with beating the Supreme Being.

A characteristic that Emperor Prayuhua shares with a Supreme Being, and with nature, is that he sits so far above the players of the ‘game’ that he creates that the players would gain little if anything if they chose to play against him.  A less supreme form of this indifference manifests in our daily considerations, even in the absence of such huge differences in relative level of status.  Consider a real game, or a sporting venture.  When we play, say table tennis, against an opponent who is clearly inferior we get little joy out of winning against them.  (This may not be the case if the opponent is better at something else, in which case winning at table tennis may be considered fair compensation for losing in some other competition.)

More importantly though, there is no great loss of face in being beaten by a clearly superior rival.  But when two players are very closely matched, both will strive to win and the winner will feel far more satisfied with a victory.

The mythical Greek hero Achilles exalted after slaying the mighty Trojan warrior Hector, but found day-to-day battles with the more common Trojan soldiers little more than an inconvenience.  Strangely enough, it was implied that an honour was bestowed upon a common man when he was slain on the battlefield by a hero.  No shame could be attached to losing against a far superior warrior and in such a battle the common man certainly could not be expected to win, at least not without the capricious intervention of the gods.

When it comes to ‘games’ played in real life, it can be seen that we do in fact tend to play only against those who are about the same level as ourselves.

This concept can be applied to the considerations of Prasopgarn and Sukhum, who would more likely care about the opinions of their fellow nobles than the farmers on their own estate.  They could break an agreement with a farmer and feel no qualms about it but might keep a thoughtlessly made agreement with a fellow noble at considerable cost to themselves, to ensure that their word remains good.  Being observed to act ‘immorally’ by one's peers or betters seems to matter, whereas being ‘immoral’ in front of those below us does not.

If you do not have to explain your actions to anyone, morality and ethics could be seen as irrelevant.  (Of course if you have a Supreme Being watching you, but then you do have something that you will have to explain your behaviour to.)

As far as Prasopgarn and Sukhum are concerned, Emperor Prayuhua, whose very word is law, is above morality.  Prasopgarn and Sukhum are similarly above morality when it comes to agreements with commoners.

Note that if a Lord were to break his word with a farmer and another Lord were fully aware of this betrayal, it might still not matter.  A promise made by a Lord to a farmer is unlikely to be considered binding because it is not an agreement between equals.

Consider some of the quirky behaviour of modern humans.  Many people anthropomorphise their cars, even to the extent of talking to them.  (I’m really hoping it’s not just me here.)  We could imagine such a person speaking to their car when it refuses to start properly, making what amounts to a verbal agreement by saying “Please start and I promise I’ll put you in for a service next week!”  Even if the car obligingly starts immediately, the owner can hardly be considered to be under a moral obligation to have the vehicle serviced as promised. 

A car is a chattel, just as a farmer may be a chattel in the eyes of a Lord.  If you have sufficiently dehumanised those you are dealing with, and if you have consensus within your social grouping, among your peers, as to that dehumanisation then you are under no obligation to act in a manner which would be considered moral in other circumstances, such as when dealing with your equals.

So, if the person you are dealing with is not fully human, or at least is not your equal in humanity then, while moral injunctions may apply in theory, not all of them may apply in practice.


This article is one of a series.  It was preceded by Ethics as Winning Games and will be followed by Towards a Rational Origin of Ethical Structures.  It all started with the first prelude, Saving the Dog.

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