Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Value Enlightenment

I tend to gravitate towards the idea that people can (and do) attain "value enlightenment" (a term I've coined myself, or at least if it's out there somewhere else, I arrived at it independently, bitches). I mean to say, individuals can adopt and act on the assumption that every living person is equal, no one's values are inherently more important or "right" than another's (nor should they be applied as if they were), and that every life is just as priceless as it is trivial. 

Let's take an example. Why not a quasi-famous moral dilemma: The Value of Your Heart

You're in a hospital for a check-up, and a doctor runs in yelling that your heart is a perfect match with another person (who, for the sake of the argument, will remain description-less) currently dying of heart failure (not a medically accurate scenario, I get it, but I want the severity). Doctor asks, "Please, sir, can we have your heart, and subsequently end your life?"

The correct answer in context is: An "enlightened" individual would say "Yes, absolutely! My life is exchangeable for that of another, because we are one and the same when it comes down to it." In this scenario, the individual completely disregards personal benefit in the face of ultimate and infinite cost; effectively losing every compounded benefit generated by their existence, and ever will come of their existence, and therefore will experience no gain -- Not even the satisfaction of doing the "right thing," because there is no such thing! This hypothetical man is just doing what is expected of him: he's only shifting the ability to continue using a body and mind to execute marginal decisions from one to another. Value hierarchy, in essence, do not exist, ergo, there does not exist a "better man for the job". Really, it doesn't matter who lives. The idea is just that if you're asked, you do it no matter what because it doesn't matter.

I realize this presents some argument holes; namely, it's an unrealistic offer in modern practice, as individuals behave selfishly at SOME point (and are biologically programmed to do so), the idea implies that individuals retain NO personal set of values (because any difference in value systems between individuals immediately creates a subjective hierarchy), and that if everyone's life is both precious and pointless, why is there any incentive to do something with your life? I'm arguing none of these points, and in fact, I don't think that "value enlightenment" and having values are mutually exclusive. Allow me to explain -

First of all, there is pretty universal agreement among us humans on the existence of moral absolutism (and to a further extent, graded absolutism), which says that there do exist universal values (rights and wrongs) that apply to everyone (which intrinsically establishes a value hierarchy that everyone *should* adhere to). In the aforementioned dilemma, if the hypothetical became "The doctor can only save a dying man by killing the donor without the donor's consent," we can all agree that would be a big no-no. The benefits of saving that one life do not justify the action of killing another; the costs are too great! 

Furthermore, we are somewhat purpose-ful-driven organisms. We have certain goals that we are trying to reach; specifically, we are programmed to do what is in the best interest of survival, propagation, and comfort (all functions of value, whaddayaknow). Nodding to evolution, individuals mainly respond to stimuli in a way that yields the most personal benefit at the least personal cost in order to increase the chance of survival, propagation, or comfort. That is, we're selfish studs that just want to spread the seed with little suffering. However, altruism has persisted over time in a range of species, despite it's counter-intuitive approach to self-preservation. Those that sacrifice their well-being for that of others are costing themselves INTENTIONALLY for no gain. In these cases, the benefits of the action transcend the individual with the intention that the probability of survival, propagation, and/or comfort is increased for the rest of them (or one of them, or whatever). There are many bio-theories as to why altruism exists in a system otherwise defined by selfish action, but the ultimate takeaway here is that at basic levels, we understand that there is a real gain to a system bigger than ourselves when we self-sacrifice in the right ways. If our values were rigidly personal, we'd be in arrested development. But as it were, our individual efforts are placed in efforts that contribute to our development as individuals, communities, societies, and species! *

Let's see, who said it best (and waaaaay more succinctly)? I'll put my money on the unknown (and probably controversial) Steve Davis, a Science 2.0 contributor - 

"Acts of kindness occur when people (and other animals) see themselves as being part of a greater entity...If organisms see themselves as being part of a greater entity, then that’s all that’s needed for group-based trends to appear. And it doesn’t matter what their genes think about it at all!
Another feature of this that the gene-centrics cannot accept is that altruists do not see their actions as a loss. Despite the gene-centrics tying themselves in knots trying to explain how organisms work out relatedness and proportions and costs, the fact is that there is no cost-benefit analysis. The explanation is simple. For the altruist there is a net outcome of zero because the action is internal to the greater entity, it’s merely a transfer of material or energy within the group just as the functions of metabolism take place within a cell."

So finally, when applied to economics, we initially come upon a similar conundrum: Economics is based on costs and benefits to the individual themselves, and that explains the success of the market. But in such a system, it seems to me an irrefutable result that if one individual sacrifices their assets to give another individual a comparative advantage with them (though the first individual will get nothing from the transaction), that there will be a net gain of the system at one individual's total sacrifice. Consider an anonymous donor that gives a fledgling company $1 million, no strings attached, with no intention of reaping a benefit. It is not an investment, that is. That company flourishes only because it had the boost of an altruistic donor, and positively effects the economy beyond any conceivable scope of the donor's otherwise personal allocations of the $1 million. This donor is assuming every cost and transferring the potential gain to that of another; giving them a comparative advantage without their sacrifice to attain it. There's still a net cost and a net gain in the situation, but the cost-benefit equilibrium has been suddenly removed from the individual's well-being, and replaced with a broader one (community? society? species?)! That net gain for the bigger system allows for that system to get bigger and better! Therefore, a possibly adjusted definition of economics would just remove the clause defining an individual's execution of values as "personally beneficial and costly," and replaces it with "universally beneficial and costly."

Example Time: Situations where an individual makes a cost/benefit analysis, and chooses an option that impart a gain or loss to a broader system
Sophie's choice (a real bummer one, I'm hesitant to use it): Sophie relinquishes her daughter to an immediate death in Auschwitz so that her son (whom Sophie thought would have an advantage over his sister at surviving in the concentration camp) might live (granted, this was not the son's cost/benefit analysis, but it conveys the basic idea) 
"I'll save you, Mr. President!" - - - The prez *probably* has more societal-bettering potential than whoever is jumping in front of that bullet for him
"No, I'M Spartacus!No, I'M Spartacus!No, I'M Spartacus!No, I'M Spartacus!No, I'M Spartacus!No, I'M Spartacus!No, I'M Spartacus!No, I'M Spartacus!No, I'M Spartacus!No, I'M Spartacus!No, I'M Spartacus!No, I'M Spartacus!No, I'M Spartacus!No, I'M Spartacus! . . ." - - - Gotta *try* to abolish dicky Roman subjugation and slavery.

Ultimately, I am not a proponent of the argument that people only behave altruistically for the benefit/sake of feeling good about themselves. I truly believe that when people take on the collective values of the larger system that the economy of it won't crumble, but rather surpass in development a system composed only of purely self-interested individuals. I'm not advocating communism or socialism or the likes, but rather the consideration of the value of one's potential sacrifice within the collective sphere. There is absolutely still merit for one to weigh the personal benefits and costs of an action to maximize personal gains, but I'm an advocate of a hybrid set of values; one that places importance on the awareness that one is not inherently better than another, and simultaneously agrees that the possibilities of collaborative sacrifice and gain can yield incalculably better results for the system at large, and for posterity. I guess what I'm saying is, let's not all be selfish jerkbags all the time, because we can totally do better.

The 90's back me up (for the most part), right up until Joey gets on TV. That was not supposed to be in the cards!! A pretty shamelessly obvious example, excuse to watch Friends again

* For good measure, here are some articles on altruism

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