Thursday, January 05, 2006

Ethics for Dummies

I work for a giant US-based multinational. Among the numerous damfool notions that they impose on their reluctant UK workforce is a yearly mandatory 'Ethics Training' course that all must view, and certify that they have done.

This might not be quite so odious if the material weren't so absurdly puerile. The course design seems aimed at students for whom even the most fundamental principles of good and evil are a closed book. That worries me - is it? Does a significant portion of the population really have no idea of right and wrong?

It would explain a lot - those wretched soaps that always finish with some twerp saying 'You know, I learned something today. Some people think it's OK to put dogshit in your friend's headphones, but it rilly isn't…' etc. etc. There's a lot of it about, but I'd never considered the possibility that it was actually necessary.

Some religious people are under the impression that all atheists must ipso facto be utterly amoral, because all morality comes directly from god. They tend to be a little shy of taking on the obvious extrapolation - that in that case only the fear of divine retribution prevents the devout from running completely amok.

I notice that the Brights are supposed to be preparing a formal rebuttal to this dangerous notion, though it seems long in coming. I've always argued that, for starters, basic moral behaviour is a necessary prerequisite for a social animal. This is backed up by the stuff Matt Ridley writes about in 'The Origin of Virtue', where he shows that a certain amount of trust and generosity confers a survival advantage - which means morality doesn't require something dodgy like Group Selection in order to arise.

But it seems to me that these traits have to be necessary in order to remain innate. If a mutant arises without an innate moral sense, who nevertheless receives enough moral instruction to get by - via tacky TV, schoolteachers and religious instructors - then his deficit may actually go unremarked. Ultimately, though, this person would effectively be a sort of high-functioning psychopath, trained to act 'normal', but with a serious soul-hole.

So these blasted Ethics for Dummies measures we have to deal with may be more dangerous than they look. They could be training to help psychos pass for sane. It's interesting that they tend to be imposed on company grunts by those in the upper echelons - where, one understands, the incidence of psychopathy is at its height. Maybe they think everyone else needs it because they do.


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