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The Ultimate Criterion

by Robert J. Hustwit
(c) Copyright January 10,1988, Robert J. Hustwit
Have you ever wondered why children so often grow up having a vastly different set of standards from their parents? Why "good" parents often seem to produce "bad" kids? Why "bad" parents often seem to produce "good" kids? Have you wondered why there frequently seems to be little connection between the values and standards of the parents and their children? Between the citizens and the states which they create? The nations and the world in which they exist? The fundamental answer to any one of these questions is also the answer to the others. The answer reveals a basic flaw in the way we have been doing things. At first blush, this flaw seems too simple, too vague to be the answer to all of those questions. I assure you it is not. It turns out that this same flaw has caused the gradual collapse of every civilization we know of. This same flaw is now causing the (not so) gradual collapse of our current civilization. This same flaw is responsible for pitting nation against nation, race against race in local and global conflicts. It is astonishing to contemplate, but this very same flaw is responsible for most of today's personal inner confusion; for most of today's so-called psychological problems; for most of today's personal insecurity, destructive guilt, lack of will and moral decay. As helpful as it might be to identify this malicious, pervasive flaw, simple identification is not enough; we must also provide some method, some procedure by which we can eliminate it. Our quest here will be an attempt to do both. Because of the constraints of space and the newness of the ideas, the reader will have to fill in many blanks, answer many arguments, and explain many "What if?" questions for him/herself. In future lectures, discourses and writings, I will explain and amplify the Ultimate Criterion more, but for now, this brief monograph serves to identify the flaw, and introduce the new principle that can eliminate it. First of all, we must describe some of the intellectual tools used in our journey. There are four that especially merit our consideration: Simplicity Rationality Human Divergence Cumulative Selection SIMPLICITY Do not fear simplicity; instead, as Lao-tsu counseled over 2,500 years ago, embrace it. I claim that Simplicity is Truth's Litmus Paper.*1 Einstein said, "One seeks the most general ideas of operation which will bring together in simple, logical and unified form the largest possible circle of formal relationships." I believe that a true understanding of the nature of things always reveals simple postulates; that complexity of ideas indicates either a basic error in thinking or a fundamental misunderstanding. Therefore, I always look for simplicity in basic premises as an indicator of truth. Please note that an indicator merely points a possible path to something, it does not necessarily define it. The point of all this is that simplicity in a basic idea is at least one indicator that the idea may be a true idea or principle--it may be profound. RATIONALITY I define rationality as the potential to recognize reality and modify behavior accordingly so as to better survive.*2 Without going into a lengthy explanation of this concept, let me caution you not to be put off if my definition conflicts with your definition. Definitions, after all, are merely the labels we put on concepts in order to be able to communicate with each other. As long as you know what I mean when I say "rationality," we can communicate. HUMAN DIVERGENCE The Principle of Human Divergence is a concept I developed several years ago. Subsequently, I found that I was not alone in identifying the importance of this phenomenon. It had already been noted in other forms by others before me. People from Chopin to Somerset Maugham, Aristotle to Thomas Aquinas had all commented on it. After some trials, I finally arrived at the following version of the Principle of Human Divergence: The least initial deviation from rightness, if not quickly corrected, is multiplied later a thousandfold.*3 We see this phenomenon when someone tells a lie. No matter how small the lie, unless it is quickly corrected, another lie is needed to support it, and another two to support them, and so on. Ultimately, something has to give. The liar is found out, the system of lies collapses. The same thing happens when a civilization is based on a false premise, or a premise that is flawed, or, what is worse, no premise at all. In these cases, no matter how lofty the goals, no matter how large the culture, destruction and ruin are the only possible end. You see, unless the system can quickly correct the inevitable errors that we as humans make, the Principle of Human Divergence tells us that those errors will expand and cause the collapse of the civilization. If a single small uncorrectable error can cause the collapse of an entire civilization, imagine what it can do to our personal lives! In the section below, titled "The Flaw," we will see just what it is that makes an error uncorrectable. CUMULATIVE SELECTION It is absolutely imperative that you understand what I mean by cumulative selection, for without it, the solution I propose will seem to have little value. In its simplest form, cumulative selection means that "the end-product of one generation of selection is the starting point for the next generation of selection, and so on for many generations."*4 We see this gradual process at work in the physical world as a species evolves, with the survivors' genes naturally containing the "instructions" for survival. If the genes didn't, then the species would not be able to adapt over time to changes in the environment. The species would die. It is important to understand how cumulative selection applies to our discussion here. Humans, as rational beings, do not pass on their knowledge of survival through genes as much as through rational communication. Because we are rational, we can modify our behavior immediately, not waiting the hundreds of thousands, or millions of years that physical evolution would take to teach the same lesson (even if it could). Now here is the key point: where we have been able to pass on useful knowledge, where cumulative selection has been able to work through rational communication, the tendency has been to produce spectacular results over time. Think of the advances in science over the past 600 years. Science, using the scientific method, has been able to pass on from one individual to the next, from one generation to the next, from one culture to the next, its knowledge and advances. Even though scientists have often disagreed among themselves, even though they have often been wrong, science has tended to progress steadily because the scientific method has served as an objective, knowable criterion for judging scientific actions. Up until now, there has been no such standard in the field of human interaction, hence little opportunity for cumulative selection to play a role in the social arena. That completes our (agonizingly brief) discussion of the four intellectual tools; if you have a reasonable understanding of them, we can begin our journey. THE FLAW: The basic flaw that has caused almost every kind of societal and personal problem we know of is simply that up until now, no civilization, no government, no individual or group has had a workable, cumulative method of determining right and wrong in human interaction;*5 there has been no single, knowable criterion of right and wrong subject to cumulative selection. Errors have been uncorrectable because they cannot be properly (clearly) identified as right or wrong, and according to the Principle of Human Divergence, they grow to cause the collapse of the civilization. "Wait!" you say, "What are you talking about? Of course we can tell right and wrong." The next sentence varies depending on where in the world you are, and to whom you are speaking, but here are some of the variations: "We read the Bible (Torah, Koran, Bhagavad-Gita, etc.)," or "We use The Golden Rule (Majority Rule, Republic Rule, Tao, etc.)," or, "We have Capitalism (Communism, Socialism, etc.)." And so on. Since the beginning of recorded history, every society, every civilization, every philosophy, every creed, has had at its base some method of determining right and wrong actions. Unfortunately, the criteria used have been, for the most part, subjective personal preferences, all of them shifting from time to time, person to person. All of them relative to time and circumstances. Let's take the Golden Rule as an example (N.B., This is only an example. Similar points can be made about other rules or methods). There are two versions extant: "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you," a paraphrasing of Luke 6:31; and from Confucius, five hundred years earlier, "Do not unto others what you would not they should do unto you." These two versions of the same basic concept have served many people as a guide for many years. The problem arises as follows: Let's say that you have had much success in your life applying the Golden (or some other) Rule. How do you pass your ability to use it on to others? Your success has depended upon YOUR perception, upon YOUR abilities, YOUR desires. They are unique to you. To what common standard can you point as a criterion for your actions? How can others duplicate your successes? Do you have an easily understandable criterion that will become clearer and clearer to more and more people over time? Don't say God's Word, because, of all of the standards that might be used, God's Word is among the most subject to dispute and personal interpretation. Since we have had no single, knowable standard of right and wrong that was subject to cumulative selection, social progress has not been possible until now. You see, the problem is not that the above methods don't work, because some of them, or parts of some of them, do work. The problem is that none of them allow cumulative selection to work. Because none have an objective criterion, the lessons learned cannot be reliably passed on to someone else. At this point, even though there is much, much more to be said, I will introduce The Ultimate Criterion. THE SOLUTION: THE ULTIMATE CRITERION; To determine, on your own, what constitutes right and wrong action: Ask the question, "If everyone on earth were to do this under similar circumstances, over time would the species tend to survive or not?" If the answer is that the species would tend to survive, then the thing being considered is right; if the species would tend not to survive, the thing being considered is wrong. If it seems that there would be no effect on the species one way or the other, then the basic concepts of right and wrong do not apply, rather we have a matter of personal preference or custom. Based on the above criterion, we have a new definition of right and wrong; a definition astonishingly simple and at the same time almost inconceivably powerful. Right is defined as that which, if done by every member of the species, would result in the continued survival of the species; and wrong as that which would result in its death. Almost paradoxically, this new and simple principle can benefit from much explanation; because of its very simplicity, it connects with more knowledge than a complicated principle. Since there is little room left for explanation, I will instead give (for me) a painfully abbreviated list of some of the things I feel are critical to consider when using the Ultimate Criterion: FIRST, you must consider what the results of applying the Ultimate Criterion would cumulatively tend to be over time. The importance of CUMULATIVE SELECTION cannot be overemphasized here. You must constantly examine the cumulative tendency over time in order to determine the value of the Criterion; always remembering that when we use it, we tend to pass on our successes. SECOND, you must never, never lose sight of the fact that the Ultimate Criterion is based on individual action, not group or mob action. The Ultimate Criterion gains its strength from linking individual action to the survival of the species. THIRD, The survival of the species is, in principle, a knowable criterion. Over time it will tend to become clearer and clearer, more and more objective. Again, the tendency over time to accumulate successes plays a vital role in the power of the Ultimate Criterion. FOURTH, the Ultimate Criterion answers a more fundamental question than we might be used to. For example: "If all defective babies were killed at birth, wouldn't that tend to help the species survive?" is not the proper question; it is too superficial. Watch what happens when we rephrase it into a more proper, more fundamental question: "If everyone who believed that another person was defective killed that person, would the species tend to survive or not?" I think the obvious answer is that the species would not survive. FIFTH, recognize that no one need abandon any beliefs or precepts in order to use the Ultimate Criterion. It can simply be "tacked on" to the end of whatever you currently use. SIXTH, survival, for a rational being, is impossible without progress, since the process of recognizing reality is a one-way, cumulative process. Over time, if the species survives, survival gets progressively more and more efficient, more and more enjoyable. SEVENTH, consider the fact that most of the people, most of the time (not all of the people, not all of the time), will do what they believe to be right—if they can clearly identify it as such. The force of Right, as opposed to wrong, slowly coalescing into a worldwide movement, represents the most powerful agent for social change imaginable. EIGHTH, note that using the entire species as our criterion excludes special consideration for any subgroup of the species: rich, poor, white, black, big, little, all use the same criterion. For once, the entire species gets special consideration from a social principle. Finally, I must emphasize that societal change is gradual. The Ultimate Criterion is not a new social order—but it CAN be the cradle of one. In that vein, I close with the words of Winston Churchill: ". . . this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is perhaps the end of the beginning." THE END 1. Developed further in my System Of Life Seminar. 2. The inspiration for the idea of rationality as a potential came from Mortimer J. Adler's book, Ten Philosophical Mistakes. [Chapter 8, part 3] 3. From Aristotle, On the Heavens [book I, ch. 5] comes the basic version of this. He said, "The least initial deviation from the truth is multiplied later a thousandfold." I needed to change it very little. (For some years I called this principle the "Human Parallax Effect".) 4. Richard Dawkins; The Blind Watchmaker, [Chapter 3: Accumulating Small Change]. My interpretation of Dawkins' views on evolution permeate this paper; I am much indebted to him. 5. I am grateful to Andrew J. Galambos, who sensitized me to the vast importance of having a valid method of determining right and wrong.
(c) Copyright January 10, 1988, Robert J. Hustwit