Ethics, intelligence and the progress of culture and society


Leandro Castelluccio

Cover image : The Astronomer – Johannes Vermeer (Image taken from: link)

What is prosperity?

Throughout history there have been moments of cultural and social expansion, where different facets of human activity, such as science, philosophy and art, have advanced towards new horizons of discovery and creativity, and at the same time promoting trade and economic prosperity. This process has been accompanied by a certain stability and political freedom, where democracy and the republican system have played an important role. We can name for example the ancient Greece and Rome or the Renaissance and the Enlightenment.

Parallel to these facts there have been desires of prosperity, of utopias where happiness and abundance would be even greater than previously known. But not always those utopias meant true prosperity, the racial model of Nazism or Soviet Communism are examples of the destructive nature of certain ideas, considered utopian. So, not everything implies prosperity.

We can take as criterion of prosperity that cultural and social state characterized by greater happiness and personal freedom, measured by objective criteria, where the life of each member of society gets better in every possible area of ​​human development, whether in science, the arts, health, material security, etc.

Levels of complexity

A prosperous society is founded on progressive layers of complexity, where one advance leads to another, increasing cultural possibilities, both personal and social. As we can see further because we stand on shoulders of giants (paraphrasing Newton), every complex aspect of our lives depends on having achieved other previous steps. Thus, as there is the school, highschool and university, also cognitively a complex behavior, ethical or moral, creative, intellectual or wise, depends on having traveled and achieved previous accomplishments at the level of our development. Thus, the advance of marginality in a society has much to do with the loss of levels of complexity, layers over layers, where a complex and prosperous culture and society is built. When we lose levels of complexity, every time we go back to states where basic emotions and basic learning prevail, where self-regulation fails and one is more prone to violence and all kinds of vulnerabilities. What has been advanced in education is lost and the behavioral complexity that we can expect is reduced. And the same goes from the individual to society. When certain cultural advances are destroyed or lost, if the process is not reversed, what is left is less and less complexity and useful states for the happiness and well-being of the people. In this way a society and its culture decay and are no longer prosperous or do not prosper.

What then are the fundamental aspects to build levels of complexity? On what is the personal and social prosperity fundamentally based?

Ethics vs. Intelligence. What makes a society prosper?

Ethics and intelligence are usually two things that people very often indicate is missing when society does not prosper, neither culturally or economically, when it is said for example that there is corruption and inequality, that poverty increases and is not fought, that “in the country, things are not done well”, “what is lacking is intelligence, intelligent people”, “that things are as they are because people are greedy and corrupt”, “that without thinking people the country is never going to develop”, “that society will not prosper while people are not respectful and civic”. On the one hand we have the dimension of ethical or moral conduct, and on the other the issue of individual intelligence. But are intelligence and ethics separate things? Often both are confused, because it is said that people are not intelligent (“mindless”) when they behave unethically.

Let’s take an example. In many places public transport depends on people getting a ticket while they are not controlled every time they take a subway or a bus. Is it a smart move for the person to use the transport without paying? Nobody is controlling it. We would say that it is not ethical, but neither is it intelligent, the optimal situation is not reached, as is explained by game theory, because the fact that there are people who do not pay ends up forcing the situation of greater controls, generating more expense in it, with which many times the ticket ends up being more expensive for the user. This is a good example where interpersonal trust and collaboration make the benefit greater than if one acts for personal benefit in the short term, disregarding others.

So intelligence and morals seem to go hand in hand, but not always a highly intelligent person is highly moral. There are people with higher IQs who are more likely to lie, be disloyal and commit illegitimate or illegal acts. Many times there is in a person the use of a high intelligence to deceive and manipulate in favor of personal interests, even to the detriment of others. Hence, we have the concept of the multiple intelligences by Howard Gardner, where we could conceive the ability to be morally intelligent, although this author has not included such intelligence in his list. Sometimes a moral code is something acquired by tradition, carries a cultural wisdom inherited culturally and does not depend on a personal construction that involves using one’s own intelligence. There are a great variety of cultural (and moral) manifestations, and naturally some improve the quality of life of people and others do not (there are moral codes that impact negatively).

So, do less developed countries have less intelligent and/or less ethical people? Here is an important issue, which is the theme of the system of incentives. As we mentioned in the previous example, the optimal result is based on interpersonal trust and collaboration. Within game theory, it happens that when people transgress and behave as the subject who uses public transport without paying, they end up forcing the civic (those who act in a manner respectful of social norms) to transgress, in the case that bad behavior is not prevented or impeded efficiently, and so society degenerates in its civic and moral behavior. In other words, civility and ethical conduct can be maintained to the extent that offenders are kept at bay, if in a society the subjects begin to transgress and there are no effective mechanisms that discourage transgression, a chain reaction is generated that ends up disarming the civic status of a society. If a person knows that there are many people who will try to take advantage of it through deception or unethical behavior, it is more likely that one has to deceive or transgress in some way or implement controls to prevent the other taking advantage over oneself or hurting oneself. It is the situation of the prisoner’s dilemma where we can expect that the other will not have an attitude of interpersonal trust. Thus, the lack of civility entails lower levels of prosperity.

The point is that intelligence plays a key role in the cultural, productive and economic development of a society. But perhaps ethics plays a primordial role (the result of intelligence applied to this field). There is always going to be intelligent and productive people in a society. An economically underdeveloped country does not lack intelligent people, what it generally does not have is an ethical system according to the application of the intelligence that is naturally among the members of the society, such that the intelligence hardly manages to prosper. In turn, civility and ethics have an economic power in itself, because many things are saved in a highly civic society, as in the previous example.

The problem of ethical values

Not all morals or ethics are good. They are not good when they threaten the well-being of people. Think of certain moral codes prevalent in Nazism or Communism that affected the lives of millions of people.

The question is: how do we achieve a good moral and civic spirit in accordance with prosperity? Is it thanks to intelligence? Intelligence should not be overestimated, the intelligent person is capable of perceiving things in reality that others do not see as well as creating things in their mind and assign them to reality. Both good and bad things have emerged from great intellects. The difference lies in the rationality of certain ideas that intelligence has identified, and how they have or have not prospered.

A society is as good as its citizens. From the individual we escalate to the collective. What then makes a person prosper and how does this move to society?

Ubi dubium veritas vincit – where there is doubt, truth prevails 

There is a trinity of the subject that makes an advanced society and on the cusp of it is doubt. Where there is doubt, the truth reigns. What seems to be a paradox is a proven historical fact. An open society where not only doubt about the prevailing paradigm and status quo is allowed but that also doubt is carried out systematically, it is an open society, expansive in its prosperity. The idea is very simple, we can consider as true or false the beliefs or ideas prevalent in a society, or the things that people affirm in general, without questioning or appealing to the evidence that supports the affirmations. When doubt comes into play, the lies fall, the irrational can be seen and eventually the truth prevails (although contingent on the available evidence). We live in a world attached to certain affirmations and beliefs, attached to belief systems that are used in religions or loyal to different secular ideologies, be they political, economic or social. Few are skeptical or question ideas or beliefs. Where there is doubt, truth wins, where truth wins, lie and the deception lose, and everything backed by deception that hurts the human being falls.

Doubt is the basis, in my opinion the underlying philosophy would be to focus on knowing, not on the idea or the known. This doubt molds moral rectitude (second aspect of the trinity) and wisdom (third aspect):

Trinidad de la prosperidad

Take the example of religion and ethics. Can a belief system used in a religion be a solid basis for ethical or moral conduct that is high, just and consistent with human happiness? Many believe that without a God there is no solid basis for ethics, but outside of this, the problem with founding ethics or morals in religion and in the beliefs it implies is that there comes a point where proper moral behavior (which is naturally according to happiness) collides with a belief or corpus of beliefs, a conflict where the people involved tend to lose by maintaining a behavior according to beliefs. Take the example of homosexuality. Many religions see this as anti-natural and deviant from the basic beliefs of their doctrine. And this affects the vision of people educated in these religions, to the point of interfering in the natural affection, care and the human relationship that parents have with their children, for example if one of the children turns out to be homosexual. We see this in religions all the time, the struggle between natural issues of human nature associated with happiness and certain beliefs that must be respected. What is the background problem? That doubt is not the epistemological basis of people, but the belief in the truth of something without being questioned and supported by evidence, as is a belief. In this way, having a religion and believing in God is not a condition that the person will act with an advanced ethic consistent with human happiness.

Let us take the example now of secular ideologies and ethics. The same happens when people cling to certain ideologies, political movements, or secular ethical notions without giving room for doubt. Also the intellectuals, the agnostics or atheists who cling to certain ideas or ideologies fall into the same error, in the same way that the religious clings to beliefs, considering truth without putting the doubt above. Think of the number of ideological movements that have resulted in the greatest atrocious acts against the human being, aggression has a great component of giving oneself the absolute right to be right and discard doubt and skepticism. Sometimes people immerse themselves so deeply in ideas, intellectually or theoretically, that they lose contact with common sense and direct experience, with things that are almost obvious when observing one’s reality or context.

In a way, the problem of aggression, violence or conflict is not a problem of extremism. Regarding our positions, being extreme is to be consistent with what one thinks, although it is true that maintaining intermediate positions can be more accurate or lead to better paths in certain contexts. But that is another aspect of the matter, what is clear is that the problem that is often confused with extremism is to give onself the absolute right to be right, in a way to believe one is God (who knows everything) speaking in a metaphorical sense, that is what can lead to the initiation of violence and conflict, because it generates in oneself a legitimacy of one’s actions, and although religions have this problem of belief, they have been able to formulate the problem of believing oneself to be like God, this is a sin in different religions and in a lot of secular literature, because many times the metaphorical and religious and spiritual contains this type of truths, all an incredible thought process that is not so linear, to put it in one way.

The balance is important. Being theoretical to the extreme detaches us from obvious observations and much spirituality can also end in illogical issues. The absence of infallibility should lead us to an attitude of retraction or caution against initiating a certain action based on absolute beliefs. An approach perhaps close the one by Bertrand Russell about not imposing something that could be wrong. But this is not the only thing, caution must go hand in hand with an inclination towards redemption, of oneself or of others. For example, sometimes it has been raised that if we knew for sure if one person killed another then the death penalty is justified, because it is said, that person loses the right to life for what he or she has done and also it is known, but it is also inhuman to murder the guilty person, and eliminating all possibility of redemption or alternative destinies for that person. So the absolute certainty is not a go-ahead to commit certain acts or affirm certain actions.

When we are not able to question an assertion, to question ideas and look for evidence, when we are not able to detach ourselves in a certain way from ideas and that they do not become a part of us that must be defended as if we were attacked as a person, then the immoral act ends up triumphing over the moral act.

The perspective I propose is not to look directly for more rational thoughts, to let thoughts go by or to ignore them, but primarily to have a skeptical attitude towards thoughts and ideas, that means understanding the diffuse and evasive nature of the truth, which usually takes time to be found. In this way, to re-evaluate one’s affiliation to beliefs and ideas, not to consider or act as if a thought or idea was true, to have a detached attitude (that personal identity does not relate to a belief, ideology, religion or political movement), since the truth is always contingent, what must be rewarded is the doubt and deep down a vocation for knowing, for observation and the search for evidence, not a vocation for the known, in any case the known (the idea, belief) must play a secondary role. As Carl Sagan put it in his “Baloney Detection Kit”we should not overly attach to hypotheses just because they are ours. I would add that we are should not overly attach to hypotheses and ideas in general.

Under the previous paradigm of doubt, we can re-evaluate the paradox of tolerance, not to tolerate intolerance, but what happens when we believe that the intolerant is the other, when in reality we are the intolerant? Tolerance does not escape the problem of error and the consideration that we are right, leaving doubt aside. Currently, under the notion of not tolerating intolerance, censorship is fostered instead of the open debate of ideas.

Again, beyond the question of doubt, the question is to focus on knowing instead of the known, a paradigm shift, even a spiritual one, which leads to a much larger reflection, which is not the point in this essay to discuss, but if we should keep in mind that another path is possible, a different path to the one that has been applied and that has only rarely seen the surface.

What happens then when wisdom and morals come together under the guidance of doubt? Exemplary values emerge and society thrives.

Doubt feeds the truth in the long term. Truth drives science and discoveries. But before that, it drives wisdom. Focusing on knowing instead of the known makes one wiser. This wisdom is reflected in the moral values, at the same time that they receive the benefit of the doubt in themselves. This epistemological approach naturally leads to a series of progressions in cultural complexity and openness of a society, with the consequent increase in prosperity, as has been experienced in different periods of history (ancient Greece and Rome or the Renaissance and the Enlightenment). And as a society is more open to doubt, it prospers in its activities, and so a series of values ​​arise: righteousness, civility, democracy, freedom, the search for happiness, dialogue, and interpersonal trust, between others. And the culture becomes great and many good things are possible from there.

But just as there have been cultural expansions and society has prospered, the same cultures and societies have declined. So, does it make sense to build an exemplary society? Exemplary societies have been born and vanished, the remnants of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment seem to be lost in many areas. If one sees it from the Eastern philosophy, when something emerges, its opposite eventually arrives and gains strength until perhaps supplanting it. It seems that this process is something inherent and inevitable in humanity, but is this really so? The question is that if transgression is not prevented, as we remarked before, a chain effect is generated where civics decays, and with it the culture and prosperity of society. In this sense, it is up to our own rectitude to fight the impulses to destroy those values ​​of democracy, freedom, the search for happiness, dialogue, interpersonal trust, among others, where each time it is wanted to impose certainties instead of openly questioning affirmations.

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