Reshaping Institutionalized Ethics

At the heart of the Progressive project is a change in direction from what is to what will be. Institutional arrangements have shaped the ethics and consciousness of a people throughout history – they define the very nature of our interactions with one another and the world around us. Present reality demands a more precise examination of the ethics that are imprinted upon us by our systemic structure. The Progressive project seeks to build institutions designed for the maximization of access and agency within society. To successfully manifest this vision we must first recognize the psychological barriers imprinted on us presently through our current institutional arrangements. In doing so, we present ourselves the opportunity to imagine the collective ethical consciousness under a different structuring of society.


The possible and the right

The premise of the argument presented here is relatively straightforward – the way our economic, political, social, and educational arrangements fundamentally define how our society operates and the reality in which as individuals exist. These institutions provide the framework for our interactions with one another, and they unconsciously dictate the patterns of our thoughts and in doing so construct limits on our imagination. These limitations are not limited to how we work, play, teach, and love, but permeate through to the moral definitions of what we believe is and is not right.

For example, let’s consider an ethical dilemma that lies on the horizon. Recently NPR published an article[2] about significant advancements that have been taking place in Genetic Engineering. Using the CRISPR[3] technology the scientists have created a Mosquito that when introduced to another colony will spread a mutation that will eventually leave the females sterile, causing species to collapse.

“After mosquitoes carrying the mutation were released into cages filled with unmodified mosquitoes in a high-security basement laboratory in London, virtually all of the insects were wiped out, according to a report[4] in Nature Biotechnology.”

This is a major scientific milestone. However, scientists have been clear that more research is needed before live deployment.

The case for deployment could be made merely in discussing the revenging effects that malaria has in some areas of the world. In 2016 there were 216 million cases of malaria worldwide with 445,000 of these cases resulting in death. [5] Developing nations in Africa experience the worst impact of this disease. Eradication would have the potential to save a tremendous amount of lives which some scientists agree is the best path of action [6]. This disease is a significant problem for many people living outside of the United States. Their lives matter and as we continue the deepening of our global social order we have a human responsibility to offer assistance whenever possible.

At the same time, there are others within the Scientific Community who warn of the potentially dire consequences for releasing these creatures into the wild. Mosquitoes feed on plant nectar, making them pollinators as well as play a vital role in the food chain by providing a source of food for many fish and frogs when in the larvae stage and birds and bats after they mature [7].

Eliminating a species from the natural web can have profound consequences and from the research conducted it does not seem like we have a full understanding of the potential negative impacts of such an act. Historically, we can observe that a lack of knowledge of what is possible in these scenarios has not stopped humans from experimenting before. In the late 1950s to early 1960s China experimented with species eradication. Dubbed the Four Pests Campaign, leader Mao Zedong implemented a plan to eliminate rats, flies, mosquitoes, and sparrows. The results of this attempted speciescide were a significant decrease in the rice harvest and a rapid increase of the locust population which intensified the ecological problems. It is believed that this purge increased the impact of the Great Chinese Famine which resulted in 20-45 million people dying of starvation [8].

If we consider the additional element of the ever-increasing threat of crises generated from climate change[9] the situation becomes further complicated. We understand the vast array of negative consequences of our past and present actions within our environment better than ever now but still lack an appropriate global solution. What drives us to believe that a species-level elimination is a viable option without understanding the totality of the consequences? Alternatively, is it the love of one another and the divinity of human life that drives the argument for eradication forward? How does the current structuring of our social, economic, and political institutions impact our options for dealing with this issue in the future?

Source: Wikimedia Commons


Dominion Ethics

Do we to choose to destroy these mosquitoes? Is it ethical to exterminate an entire species for our convenience?

Religion plays a significant role in defining the ethics of a society, and if we take the above example of climate change and examine the effects of the rise of dominion theory, this provides interesting insight on how religions may influence the reaction of society to this issue.

King James Bible, Genesis 1:28 “And God blessed them, and God said unto them, “Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.”

Generations of the western religious dominance have created a generational ambivalence to the planet supported by this dominion theory. Aside from climate change, we can observe the dominion theory in our treatment of animals in the present. We are in the midst of a sixth mass extinction [10] that receives little press and is all but ignored by political leadership. Much of the food we eat is meat-based products which are quickly accelerating to the most polluting industry in the world. [11] That says nothing about how we turn a blind eye to the treatment of these animals while they exist. At the core of this philosophy is a perverted Darwinism about how humanity is classified as the fittest and therefore endowed with the prerogative to do what we will. We abandoned personal responsibility for our actions and ethical decisions under the illusion of a divine mandate from an ancient text that relegates supporting a strictly hierarchical organization of society. I say we, but in truth, no person of the present is to blame aside from those who deny collective progress for personal gain. As mentioned earlier the majority of humans today did not choose these institutional norms – they are artifacts of the past that continue to dominate the thought and action of the present.


Present ethics

Dominion ethics are further supported by a dogmatic approach to our current economic and political arrangements. Our world is competitive, and for many, it is filled with fear and anxiety about the future. Increasing prices limiting access to high-quality education, information, and resources create system barriers for many, squandering our collective potential. It’s difficult to think about the ideal version of yourself and society when a few sick days off from work might mean missing a critical bill payment. For those fortunate enough to be beyond the scope of the struggle for necessities lays the next great crises, climate change and the many challenges that will follow. As our politicians continue to quibble about the realities of this conundrum and who is responsible, the scientific community pleas for collective action yet the resolutions fail to present themselves in a meaningful way.

Getting back to the scenario at hand, to kill mosquitoes or to not kill the mosquitoes, if we were to derive our solution from the framework provided by Dominion ethics, we would choose to destroy the mosquitoes because this theory dictates that humans are superior therefore it is ethically the right thing to do. However, if Dominion ethics were not prevalent and there was a different philosophy, it is reasonable to assume that a different remedy would be sought out.



Transform society, transform ethics

For the sake of philosophical exercise, let’s imagine a world where labor was related to personal interests and exploration. All people had access to the education, information, transportation, and resources necessary to experiment within all walks of life. Could we imagine our capacity to construct a new set of economic, political, and social institutions free from the constraints of our current struggles? What type of value system would that society manifest?

Economic cooperation would usurp competition as the dominant model of progress. A vital suite of protections in the form of a socialized bottom would encourage an entirely new swath of people to experiment and innovate in potentially limitless directions. In this imagined institutional framework, the freedom of choice in our labor combined with deepened access to one another would direct us towards models of work structured as small businesses or cooperative firms for larger projects. Automation technology would be a public boon, removing the need for humans to do the job of a machine – freeing us to explore our creative and experimental potential. If all of our labor were based on a more cooperative form of competition, we would lessen the barrier between us and the others. Education would offer a focus on multiple perspectives with the intention of working cooperatively to determine an ideal solution to the problems presented. No person is an island – history teaches us, the most significant contributions to human life have been projects of cooperation. In deepening our connection to one another, we replace fear and threat of subjugation with a sense of unified purpose.

Structurally we could bring about this ethical shift by federally funded education programs, freeing them from the burden of reliance on municipal taxes. Students and teachers would have access to the best materials and curriculum empowering an effort to redefine how we provide access to information within our society. With cooperation being the dominant ideal, the structure of education would transform into Roberto Unger’s vision of a more dialectic framework. We would choose an approach focused on selective depth of specific subjects over wide memorization of facts. Topics would be taught from two contrasting perspectives, fostering dialogue and discussion from the students. Transforming our way of learning is core to the Progressive project, it instills in us the fundamental problem-solving abilities necessary for the people we are destined to become. Personal observations through volunteer work at my local high school conducting civics seminars gives me the impression that this vision of a generational cooperative attitude is closer than we think due to the students’ ability to connect instantly.

Politically we could reorganize our process in such a way as to raise the temperature of democracy within the United States, creating an ethos of personal responsibility to be an active part in the betterment of our communities. We must decouple politics from Dominion ethics. This project requires a fundamental overhaul of our system of elections. We would de-commercialize our election process, removing it from the hands of those who would seek to profit from it. Choosing instead to provide a method of deepened access to candidates and information in an easy and convenient format accessible to all – think digital. Data would drive the issues and debates would be Oxford style [12] focusing on substance. This deepening of democracy would expand the influence of our collective transformative powers. The reimagining of our political structure would heighten every American’s sense of agency in both their destiny and our common direction forward. This shared bigness would become a cultural value, supported by institutional reformations to ensure the access of all to the necessary tools needed to transform the world.


Ethical alternatives

So what happens to the mosquitoes in our scenario of alternative institutions? No prediction I make here could successfully capture the type of humans we would be under a reformed set of institutions. We could imagine that scenarios involving voluntary relocation, material assistance, or other yet unknown alternatives would be viable options. In the end, we may still choose to exterminate the mosquitoes. I imagine that under a different set of ethics defining circumstances that the ecosystem and the creatures that share would be approached from a position of avoiding death if at all possible.

In transforming society do we open up new regimes of thoughts and dominant ethics among our collective? I would argue most definitely yes. We all exist within this shared reality, defined at all levels by our choices to create new alternatives or accept existing structures. When an existing institutional structure limits our ability to transform our economic, political, and social regimes we are consequently denied the ability to change our moral circumstance. An argument for the Progressive project is an argument to expand the human capacity, small but cumulative innovations in many different directions, consistently bringing humanity one step closer to realizing our fullest collective potential.

The restructuring and redefining of our ethical structures should at the core of the Progressive project. It is within our collective power to change our circumstance and in doing so, forever change ourselves and our destiny. A focused approach to piecemeal institutional innovations across all sectors with the intention of institutional reformation is a necessary path for our ascension to more profound freedom.



[1] Kurzweil’s The Law of Accelerating Returns Wikipedia

[2] Mosquitoes Genetically Modified To Crash Species That Spreads Malaria by Rob Stein NPR

[3] Questions and Answers about CRISPR Broad Institute

[4] A CRISPR–Cas9 gene drive targeting doublesex causes complete population suppression in caged Anopheles gambiae mosquitoes by Kyros Kyrou, Andrew M Hammond, Roberto Galizi, Nace Kranjc, Austin Burt, Andrea K Beaghton, Tony Nolan & Andrea Crisanti

[5] Malaria World Health Organization

[6] Would it be wrong to eradicate mosquitoes? By Claire Bates BBC

[7] What Good Are Mosquitoes? By Debbie Hadley ThoughtCo.

[8] Paved With Good Intentions: Mao Tse-Tung’s “Four Pests” Disaster by Rebecca Kreston Discover Magazine

[9] Planet has only until 2030 to stem catastrophic climate change, experts warn by Brandon Miller CNN

[10] Earth’s sixth mass extinction event under way, scientists warn The Guardian

[11] Meat and dairy companies to surpass oil industry as world’s biggest polluters, report finds by Josh Gabbatiss Independent

[12] Oxford-Style Debate, Explained by Intelligence Squared Debates

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