Tuesday, 15 March 2016

Moral Relativism & the Empathy Scale

Ethics is about what kind of people we ought to be and how we should accordingly behave in relation to each other. Many doctrines have tried to set out a definitive guide, but every one of them is contested by rival proponents. There are not only different religions and schools of philosophy, but within each we have further divisions with incompatible views. Even when there are attempts to bridge diverse faiths and beliefs to find common ground, these are in turn rejected by those who are adamant that there are vital differences that fundamentally distinguish their ‘true’ notions from the ‘false’ views of others.

So beyond recognising that some will dismiss everyone else as utterly wrong, while others will concede that all are somehow equally right, is there anything worth exploring further? Revealingly, when we put them alongside each other – ‘think only of oneself’; ‘care for a just few deemed worthy’; ‘be concerned with those who possess certain characteristics’; ‘respect and reciprocate one’s fellow human beings in general’ – a progression along the empathy scale is evident.

Moral doctrines at the high end of the empathy scale ask us to view others as fellow human beings deserving of respect. We should appreciate that other people would like to be treated in a thoughtful and reasonable manner just as we would like to be treated similarly by others in return. If others behave in a way not to our liking, we should seek to understand if there are extenuating circumstances – just as we would like others to understand us if we acted in a way we truly regretted. However, if upon closer inspection, we discover that someone is exploitative or aggressive because of his/her malignant disposition, we should protect ourselves and respond in a proportionate manner to prevent the person from doing more harm.

But for those who subscribe to doctrines that command them to cut off their empathy for various categories (people with the ‘wrong’ skin colour, religious affiliation, family background, nationality, gender, sexual orientation, income level, attachment to certain customs), the concerns and feelings of anyone in those categories are regarded as irrelevant. At the lowest end of the scale we have the shameless egoists who may use power or deception to get away with their self-centred behaviour, but who never care at all about anyone else.

Often those with a low capacity for empathy will gravitate towards doctrines (faiths, ideologies, political parties) that not only validate, but also celebrate, the exclusion of many types of people from respect and concern. This tends to make them feel vindicated in neglecting, hating, despising, or blaming people who have never done anything to hurt them. By contrast, those with high empathy will be drawn to ecumenical, inter-faith, or universalist-humanist tendencies that look beyond insignificant differences to embrace the golden rule of treating others as one would like others to treat oneself.

Since people’s capacity for empathy may not be as easily constrained as required by the moral doctrines they for whatever reason (family upbringing, encounter with a charismatic preacher/teacher, peer pressure) have ‘adopted’, they may develop a broader conscience and experience revulsion towards the ‘exclusionary’ doctrines they have been hitherto tied to. Furthermore, a person’s empathic reach can be nurtured to widen its engagement with the emotional connections between actions and consequences, and extend its appreciation of how others may feel without necessarily sharing their physical or cultural characteristics. This means that moral development is conceptually possible and empirically feasible.

Of course, such nurturing would be frowned upon by those whose mission in life is to promote opposition to extending mutual respect and understanding to ‘excluded’ people. But instead of shrugging our shoulders with another round of “well, they are entitled to their views”, we should recognise the importance of countering all doctrines that aim to delimit our human empathy. As educators, there is no greater task than cultivating the capacity for empathy and promoting inclusive moral doctrines that are grounded on its growth and realisation.

Note: Empathy changes can also go in the opposite direction. There are documented cases where some individuals with brain damages became deficient in their empathy and stopped to care about other people’s feelings as much as they did before. Traumatic experiences such as childhood abuse may also under certain circumstances have similarly harmful psychological effects. But it is noteworthy that amongst people with a healthy brain and no severe trauma, the general tendency would be to retain or improve their empathic capacity, but very few would aspire to become less empathic. And the essence of the sociopath is that however well he/she may fake emotional connections with other people, that individual does not care about what happens to those they come across or indeed hurt.

Tuesday, 1 March 2016

A Strategy for Cooperators

Co-operative enterprises, commons advocates, communitarian writers, have all been making the case that the prevalence of exploitative appropriation in society should and could be displaced by inclusive alternatives that respect mutuality and rest on participatory decision-making.

Instead of a powerful elite enclosing ever more resources for their own profit, taking more from the revenue generated by collective efforts, and steering those in government to privilege their personal gains at the expense of everyone else, people should be able to share what nature offers everyone and what they join forces to create on equitable terms.

There are many examples that this can be done, and done well. Cooperative firms have grown in numbers in the UK when the overall economy stalled as a result of the financial crisis brought about by the corporate banking sector; the Mondragon Corporation has over fifty years become the tenth largest company in Spain; the WIR Bank (formerly Swiss Economic Circle) has provided an alternative to established credit systems and now holds 885 billion Swiss Francs in assets; Semco in Brazil has demonstrated how an extensive worker-led approach leads to one of the most successful businesses in the world; and local landbank-based housing projects and community renewable initiatives have appeared in many countries. Yet despite the many positive stories, plutocratic corporations and oligarchs continue to dominate socio-economic life with the support of governments across the globe.

Why is that happening?

Compared with the endless bombardment of adverts from elite-centric corporations and reports from media outlets bought to serve their plutocrat owners, there is but a trickle of information about the alternatives offered by cooperators. When the few who have heard about these alternatives do want to become part of them, they rarely spot an opportunity to sign up to something that will engage them in a meaningful and active manner. And where we have new members managing to join in the work of cooperators, the task of developing and sustaining that work in the face of challenges backed by the vast financial clout, PR propaganda, and political leverage of the corporate establishment, the odds of overturning the latter’s hegemony are far from favourable.

So can anything be done to even out such odds, and turn the repeatedly frustrated hope of advancing towards utopia into a practical synetopia of everyday cooperation?

Here’s a simple strategy for cooperators to consider:

1. Set up a Cooperators’ Franchise Network (CF-Net). Individual cooperator organisations (Co-Orgs) pool their resources through a membership fee to support their CF-Net to do more effectively what they cannot manage on their own. The franchise network will provide: quality/integrity assurance for the franchise’s members; promote the added value offered by genuine cooperator organisations; campaign for pro-cooperator policies with the public and politicians; support the development of existing and new cooperator organisations within the franchise; and offer help to non-cooperator organisations to reform their cultures and systems in line with the cooperator’s ethos). Many cooperatives already belong to their own network, but that still leaves many other cooperator organisations out there without broader support. There is no reason for there to be just one CF-Net. In fact, for the sake of diversity and learning from contrasting approaches, it is better to have a number of robust CF-Nets.

2. The CF-Nets are to collaborate in establishing and funding a Global Cooperators Federation (GC-Fed). The GC-Fed’s key roles will include: agreeing and enforcing rules to promote common assets and guard against demutualisation; developing and marketing a shared cooperators’ brand to raise interest globally; attracting investment on cooperators’ terms to support the long term development of the CF-Nets; and coordinating with other NGOs in securing a level playing field for cooperator organisations.

3. Each cooperator organisation (Co-Org) as part of being a member of its franchise is to commit to continuous improvement in accordance with the core aims of the franchise, and actively promote participation opportunities to their local communities and relevant sectors. Co-Orgs will play an informed part in guiding the work of their respective CF-Net; provide education and training to help those interested in participating in their work as members; and engage all their members in planning and carrying out their activities.

Unless a strategy resembling the one outlined above is taken forward, it is likely that cooperator organisations will remain marginalised and fragmented, never making anything more than a tiny dent in the plutocratic economy. Cooperators all work on the key premise that only by joining forces can we achieve what we are unable to manage separately. Our willingness to pursue the strategy of comprehensive cooperation will be the ultimate test of our commitment.

For more on how the case for democratic cooperation can be made through a number of political education resources, see ‘Synetopia: why, what & how’.