Category: Ethics


The film Valhalla Rising was released in 2011 directed by Nicolas Winding Refn, co-written by Refn and Roy Jacobsen, and starring Mads Mikkelsen. It is a dark adventure drama set in pagan Scotland during the dark ages. The main character played by Mikkelson is a mute warrior named One Eye. He is enslaved by a pagan chieftain for the purpose of gambling on fights as he appears to have a supernatural ability to defeat all opponents.

One day while bathing in a mountain stream he discovers an arrowhead which he conceals. He later uses it to cut his bonds and then kill his masters. As he wanders off he discovers that he is being followed by the young boy who was tasked with feeding him while he was caged. The boy has decided that sticking with One Eye is probably the safest option in a dangerous world.

They eventually come across a group of Christian mercenaries who have just massacred a community of pagans and forced their women and young girls to disrobe. They are seen huddling in terror and from the cold. The “missionaries” ask who he is and where he comes from. The boy answers for him and tells them that he was born from hell. They offer One Eye and the boy a place on their ship as they are heading for the “holy” lands to do the same to Muslims and need good warriors.

Unfortunately, due to some abberation of both weather and trans-Atlantic current, the voyagers become lost at sea, surrounded by mist with no wind to fill the sails. As they edge closer to desperation and madness they eventually find that they have arrived at a new land. The leader claims this land in the name of God and declares it to be the new holy land though others think it is hell. The survivors of an attack by native Americans and some intergroup conflict decide the safest option is to set off after the warrior from hell who seems indestructable. This wasn’t the wisest choice as, one by one they are picked off by the natives. In the end One Eye offers himself in sacrifice, without fight, in order to save the life of the young boy.

For me the movie is a comment on society’s psuedo-ethics. The one adult character who showed any moral character was judged to be amoral, from hell, by every other character as a result of being forced to fight to the death to stay alive. The other characters saw themselves as morally and spiritually superior to him thanks to their religious psuedo-ethics, both pagan and Christian. Patriotism is another very similar psuedo-ethic, though not mentioned in this film. They rely on individuals believing themselves superior to others via their strength of belief in or attachment to some “thing”, whether it be a hobgoblin or a piece of dirt.

The film highlights the “Dunning Kruger effect” as it pertains to moral reasoning.

“The Dunning-Kruger effect, named after David Dunning and Justin Kruger of Cornell University, occurs where people fail to adequately assess their level of competence — or specifically, their incompetence — at a task and thus consider themselves much more competent than everyone else. This lack of awareness is attributed to their lower level of competence robbing them of the ability to critically analyse their performance, leading to a significant overestimation of themselves. In simple words it’s “people who are too stupid to know how stupid they are”.”

http://rationalwiki.org/wiki/Dunning-Kruger_effect

 In this case the characters, inexperienced as they are with the concepts of empathy and genuine moral reasoning skills based around genuine moral principles such as justice, beneficence and respect for autonomy, mistake their religiousness for morality…as so many people still do today. In the end One Eye, the social pariah, is shown to be the only character with any sense of strong moral principle or empathy by protecting the child and then sacrificing himself to save the child.

In relation to the debate over corporate salaries you might have heard the cliché, “If you offer peanuts for salary, you only get monkeys”,. The reality turns out to be that if you offer ridiculously large financial incentives, you get psychopaths.

The Great British Psychopath Survey conducted by Kevin Dutton, a research psychologist at the Calleva Research Center for Evolution and Human Sciences at Magdalen College, University of Oxford, provides us with some evidence of the paths of employment that psychopaths are attracted to in everyday society. The top ten of these professions are listed in the left hand column of Table 1. It is interesting to note that each of these professions could be said to offer one or more of three motivations that appeal to the psychopath, direct authoritarian power over others, social influence, and financial gain. These are incentives that they can, and do, abuse for their own benefit. It offers a precautionary warning to those involved in the recruitment processes for these professions that they should consider making the screening for psychopathy a standard part of the application process. It would certainly make a nice, prosocial change from screening out those who suffer depression from employment.

The masks psychopaths wear.

Looking at the right hand column, unsurprisingly, it appears that professions involving caring don’t seem to offer an appeal to the psychopath. Number 10, the accountants, is interesting. Perhaps corporations should only be offering their CEO positions to those in this profession at the standard accountant salary rates. Then they’d be getting someone who is not only financially competent, but who is not going to slash and burn a company’s staff, quality of products and services, safety standards, and environmental standards for the sake of increasing company profits to earn themselves some extra bonuses. Just a thought.

Table 1. Top 10 professions that are Most / Least occupied by individuals testing positive to psychopathy as measured on the Levensen Self-Report Psychopathy Scale. (n=5400).

The psychopaths you meet Table 1

Reference:

K. Dutton. 2013. Wisdom From Psychopaths? Scientific American Mind. Vol 23, No. P42, No. 6, January/Febuary. New York. Nature America Inc..

Practice Compassion

This is a stencil illustration of my mother that I created soon after her death in 2010. She was a person who lived a life for others. She was a person who had a deep well of forgiveness and compassion for others. On her grave stone I had inscribed “Resting here is Margaret Adele Thomas, beloved mother and unassuming princess among humanity . A soul of great beauty, compassion and self-sacrifice. She is my greatest role model in life.

When I created this work, as well as missing my mother deeply, I had been reminded of that iconic image of Che Guevera that is now commonly found on the t-shirts of non-conformists around the world (many of whom I would suggest don’t understand the idea of communism nor know much about Ché Guevera’s personal history). His image has come to represent the idea of revolutionary change in society. Those familiar with history will recognise that although revolution is responsible for a lot of interesting things in human culture, it hasn’t ever delivered a utopian society. In fact it very often leads to a lot of harm and suffering with just a change in the demographics of the people inflicting the suffering and those receiving.

There is something far less drastic than revolution that is far more effective in bringing us closer to a utopian society. That thing is compassion. Unlike emotions like anger, hate and fear, which originate in the basal ganglia, neurological structures that we inherited from our reptile ancestors, empathy and compassion are a product of cerebral activity. In other words, a person without these cognitive skills is emotionally stupid, cognitively impaired. It is not strength to be without compassion, it is weakness, pathological weakness. If you don’t believe this statement, ask yourself, who in our community are completely devoid of empathy and compassion. It is the psychopaths, people who rape, murder, torture, molest children without the slightest feeling remorse. They do not represent an evolved or evolving humanity. Those without compassion or who devalue compassion represent a diseased state of being.

Thus, I created this image to illustrate how each of the billions of individuals on this blue planet has the power within themselves to generate a revolutionary change in society, without revolution.

Compassion is evolved, compassion is strength.

Eer2

I generated this image to illustrate some important points regarding ethics and ethical/moral reasoning.

The title, “Ethics = empathy x respect squared” is not meant to be taken as a genuine algebraic formula, it is merely a play on Einstein’s formula for energy, E=mc^2. It expresses the idea that two very key elements to an ethical character are a) that a person is capable of empathy for others, and b) that they are prepared acknowledge the right of others to be treated with respect. By making reference to Einstein’s famous equation, which has had a significant impact on our understanding of the universe, I’m attempting to illustrate how ethical reasoning is of fundamental importance to our functioning as a social entity.

The sagital section of the brain, is arbitrarily delineated into four sectors. Each of these represent four qualities that I’ve held for a long time to be essential to being a good human being, virtue (ie engaging in prosocial behaviour and thought while refraining from antisocial behaviour and thought), compassion (the product of empathy), understanding (ie making the effort to use reasoning and evidence in making ethical decisions while refraining from ignorant thought processes such as stereotyping, bigotry etc), and finally tranquility (if a person has a calm mind then they are more able to reason clearly, perceive evidence, and less likely to react in emotive and antisocial ways).

In the lower right area of the work is listed what developmental psychologists recognise as the universal and sequential levels of cognitive development in the human species. These are the levels identified by the researcher Nancy Eisenberg. You will note that I have labelled the first three levels as being religious levels (with the label placed over the basal ganglia to represent that these are very basal modes of ethical reasoning). If you examine the moral instruction given by major religions you will realise that the forms of reasoning they use fit into these low level categories. Studies have indicated that religion in fact retards the development of ethical cognition, with followers often not rising above the sterotypical level. This is defined as representing a 7 to 12 year old level of reasoning. The majority of people tend to only reach the empathic level of moral reasoning, with only a small number developing partially internalised principles and strongly internalised principles. People tend to switch between different styles of reasoning depending on the circumstances. The reason few people obtain the higher levels of ethical reasoning is that little to no emphasis is placed upon the development of these skills in our education systems. Even the use of an already available curriculum such as P4C, Philosophy for Children, would be enough to help rectify this situation, leading to a more prosocial school environment and society.

Finally, in the lower left area I have simply listed the three major principles of ethical reasoning used in ethical philosophy and applied ethics. Individuals who reach the sixth level of moral reasoning often discover these themselves. It is my contention that the aim of each individual and the aim of education should be to raise everyone’s consciousness to the highest level of moral reasoning that they are capable of.

Just do a websearch for “myths about child abuse” and you will find that there are a number of cruel myths that surround child sexual abuse that make it difficult for victims to recover from the scars left by sexual abuse. The one that I think is the worst and cruellest is this one: “Victims of child sexual abuse grow up to become child sex abusers themselves”.

This fallacy creates the fear in the victim that if they tell anyone about the abuse, they are then going to be an object of suspicion themselves for the rest of their lives. This additional fear, (along with the fear of not being believed, called a twisted liar, being an object of disgust and so on), very powerfully robs the victim of the ability to disclose to anyone what has happened to them. Corollary to this fear is the hurt that people would believe them capable of the sadistic behaviour of the monster or monsters who abused them. This false belief held by the community at large, robs them of the hope that they could ever gain a sense of respect or acceptance from others. They feel as though they would be the social leper that acquaintances wouldn’t want to see near anyone’s children, nor having children of their own. And so they stay silent. It is a very effective myth for the real abusers to perpetuate when you think about it.

A little depressed avatar

In the criminological and psychological research literature it has become clearer and clearer that there is absolutely no basis to this poorly conceived belief. As the Australian Institute of Criminology points out in it’s report “Misperceptions about child sex offenders” by Kelly Richards
(ISSN 1836-2206), there is no causal relationship between being sexually abused and becoming a sexual abuser. Very few victims become abusers themselves. When this does occur, it is not as a result of the sexual abuse. The fact that most victims do not become abusers and that most abusers were never abused should be enough to destroy this myth. One can only hope, I say with an ounce of pessimism, that the public will become more educated as to the facts and that the cruelty of such false beliefs will fade over time. Thus making it easier for victims to heal and feel an accepted part of humanity rather than an outcast.

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