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Got Choices?

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Things that are alive exist in varying degrees of complexity and intelligence. Those life forms we sometimes label as “higher,” tend to feed on and subjugate life forms we consider to be “lower.” We appear to be the only species self-aware to this degree and in this unique respect: we have developed speech and the written word–an abstract language used to describe things and to communicate with each other.

We can explain objects and ideas, and we can express our desires. With this language we sometimes attempt to explain what we are and how we got here. While most of us believe we are superior in various ways to other life forms, still we seem to care about those lower forms of life in one way or another. We take care of them and we value them as being important, even if it is only as a part of our own comfort and happiness.

To illustrate, many people would object to eating a monkey, a dog, or a horse. But many of the same people might not think twice about swatting a fly, taking an antibiotic, or eating a salad. Some people would happily eat a cow or a pig. Others might object and think it is best to stick to the salad. But these are distinctions based on degree rather than fundamental type.

We must all admit to consuming lower life forms and ending their life for our own benefit. We also regularly enslave lower life forms for our own pleasure and comfort. We grow lawns and mow them. We keep pets on leashes or in cages. We raise cattle for food. Even when we rescue or protect endangered species, it is ultimately only because we believe it will improve our own quality of life.

So what about eating or enslaving another human being? Certainly there have been cultures throughout history who have done some of each. Although cannibalism has been relatively rare in our history, certainly slavery has been the norm–not the exception until just the recent past. It is only in the last century or so that slavery has become universally outlawed throughout the world. But in spite of this recent enlightenment on the issue, we will show that involuntary servitude still continues today in various forms, both legal and illegal.

The point is, we typically see ourselves as humans–being supreme, or at the “top of the food chain.” In the spectrum of life forms, we see ourselves as different somehow from the rest of life on the planet. We feel responsible for “lower” life forms, yet we regularly consume them and subordinate them solely for our own benefit.

But there is something that is, and should be different about how we relate to other human beings. We are peers. Intuitively, we understand we should be treating other people as equals–not as servants or slaves.

If your Faith includes a belief in a god, you may perceive another level, still higher on the scale of organizational complexity than our own–that of God himself. Presumably you would see Him as more intelligent and more powerful than humans. Maybe you see us as subordinate to Him in the same way we might see dogs or cats as subordinate to us. Or you might view God as a more advanced form of us–a Father, if you will.

Regardless of the way your Faith understands the nature of God, you would have to admit that He rarely, if ever, makes Himself known in a widespread or indisputable way. If He exists, He does seem to give us wide latitude to make our own choices–both fortunate and unfortunate. We call this free will–the ability to choose. And assuming there is a God, this free will may be His greatest gift to us. Either way, it is a powerful endowment, one we should use with care and thoughtfulness.

So here we are, all together and with the ability to act and to choose. Not only can we act for ourselves, but we can also make choices that affect other people. By our choices, we can enhance joy and satisfaction for other people or we can impair or even cut their lives short.

We are of the same species as the other people on earth and no one seems specially qualified or entitled to “take charge” and decide how things will be done. There doesn’t appear to be a “sheriff” around to keep us all in line with some divinely prescribed set of behavioral rules. We may believe people will eventually be punished by God for their harmful acts. But these consequences are often said to be postponed until a future life or existence.

So if regulations and/or punishments are to be applied in the here and now, it seems we will be doing this to each other. But any time one group attempts to rise up and apply its own set of rules to the rest of the people, in a sense, they elevate themselves above the rest of humanity–playing God, if you will, and attempting to apply their Faith or belief system to “lower beings” whom they evidently perceive to be somehow less intelligent, less enlightened, or less worthy.

To the degree we continue to do this, we end up reduced to clans, groups, Faiths, or tribes continually fighting with each other over a set of cultural beliefs or practices. Some fight to subdue others and some fight to defend themselves from being subdued. Some fight in an attempt to convert or eliminate others who do not subscribe to their Faith. But in the end, there is likely to be fighting. And the strong are going to prevail, in one way or another, over the weak.

It is like the forces of evolution acting in the environment around us. The strong tend to monopolize available resources, leaving less for the weak. Where differences exist between people, their choices seem to come down to force, retreat, or compliance. We can fight, we can run away, or we can submit.

In other words:

Our natural world is ruled by force.

While we may attempt to mitigate this fact by inventing and instituting systems of civil society such as laws, regulations and justice, these too will need to be both applied and defended by force. Ultimately force, applied by those willing to use it, has the power to prevail over the acquiescence of those who will not. Is there a way for agency to survive amid this brutal law of nature?

We all have a Faith of some kind. For some, this means a belief in God as a superior being who has a set of rules he wants us all to live by. Others may choose to believe that the is no such god. Some people express their Faith by devotion to science or a set of political beliefs.

But across our Faiths, most people have some kind of reverence for life and an instinct to respect the free will of others. So there is reason to hope that we can establish a set of mutually acceptable behaviors to:

  • protect the weak from oppression by the strong, and
  • provide for maximum possible expression of free will and choice.

Still, we must remember that the world does contain some people, hopefully a small minority, who won’t hesitate to place themselves in a superior position, consuming, exploiting, or enslaving their fellow humans, given the opportunity.

Because our Faiths are different, we relate to each other differently. This happens whether we are aware of our own principles or not. And even when we are aware, our actions toward other people may not be fully in harmony with our beliefs.

So Faiths aside, let us now attempt to categorize a few different ways we relate to each other as we go about trying to meet our own needs and desires. These will be defined by the way we act toward each other–not necessarily the way we believe we should act under ideal circumstances.

In order to simplify this discussion, we will not diverge into either the merits nor the faults of subjugating lower life forms such as plants and animals. For now, we will deem it acceptable (understanding that some will disagree). So whether your Faith allows consuming dogs, cows, vegetables, yogurt or just plain water, we will focus solely on how we attempt to relate to other human beings as superiors, equals, or subordinates.

For this purpose, we will identify three separate behavioral groups. Of course this is an over-simplification. But it is illustrative to define “P groups” as follows:

  1. Producers
  2. Parasites
  3. Predators

Producers are those who look to the earth and its resources for their energy. In the same way plants reorganize inert substances such as carbon dioxide and water into the building blocks of life using the energy of the sun, a farmer, for example, might exploit those same organisms by planting them in a nice flat field, watering and fertilizing them, and eventually harvesting, eating or selling them.

A subsistence farmer might not really need much from other humans. If he can be left alone with some ground, some water and a little time, he can add the necessary work to create an oasis of life–negative entropy, if you will–and he can use this energy to sustain his own life as well as the lives of others.

In contrast, parasites seek to take their energy from other people. Admittedly, even the farmer is a parasite in relation to his plow horse or to the corn plants growing in his field. But again, that is not what is meant here. Rather, the term refers to a person who lives or feeds off the energy created by other people.

Let us examine the example of a slave owner, or “master.” When one person can “own” another person, it greatly reduces the amount work he needs to do himself. Instead, he can make the slave work for him to produce the energy he needs. As a result, his life can be more comfortable with less effort being expended.

A parasite may even show some degree of care or even compassion for his slave since he values the energy he derives from the relationship. After all, it would not serve the master’s long term interests to work the slave to death. But the parasite is not generally concerned with the happiness, well-being or free will of his slave except to the degree it affects his own comfort or prosperity.

Predators are similar to parasites in that they also depend on other humans to fulfill their needs. However, the predator is even more dangerous. He does not care about preserving his victim–even for selfish purposes.

While human predators rarely eat their victims, it is common to destroy them whether physically, emotionally or financially, in the process of plundering their resources. A thief who regularly enters the farmer’s field just to steal a few carrots each day is more of a parasite than a predator. But a person who enters a home and kills its occupants just so he can steal what valuables he can find is truly a predator. He doesn’t care if his victim is destroyed. He will worry later about finding another one the next time he is in need.

Some people might claim everyone is a parasite since we are all interdependent with other people for practically everything. The key distinction is the opinion, or perspective of the person being exploited in the relationship. If two or more informed, consenting and competent people voluntarily agree to exchange value in a working relationship, both are producers and neither is a parasite. It is when one of the parties has not knowingly consented to the deal that the other is a true parasite.

It is also important to understand that people come with a wide variety of skills and abilities. Due to training, natural intelligence or physical abilities, one person may be very capable of, not only providing for his own wants and needs, but also those of many other people. In some cases, people might be physically or mentally less capable of productivity. For purposes of our discussion, a predator or parasite should be defined more in terms of his willingness to work for his own needs, rather than his ability.

When people can produce for their own support, but instead choose to take from others, this is parasitic behavior. When a person is less able, or perhaps even disabled, we expect them to do what they can for themselves, but no more. So productivity might well be defined in relationship to one’s individual abilities rather than on some sort of absolute scale.

These P groups are particularly interesting when we think about the effect of entropy on our world. While there are plenty of resources in the earth to take care of our needs, these resources tend to exist, more often than not, in an entropic, or disorganized state. What does this mean? Another way of explaining it is called a “low energy” state. This means we need to add work, or energy to in order to make the thing usable.

A good example is iron. Iron is useful for making a variety of tools to make our lives better. But if you leave something made of iron out in the environment for very long, it will begin to break down, or oxidize. Iron becomes iron oxide, and gives off energy in the process. This is like shaking the jar of marbles referred to earlier.

Iron is an organized or “high energy” state and iron oxide is in a less organized or “low energy” state. Most of the iron deposits in the earth exist as iron oxide because if iron comes into contact with any oxygen, it will begin to oxidize all by itself. Because of entropy and the passing of time, nearly all iron has already “fallen down the energy hill.” In order to make useful iron out of it, we have to add that lost energy back in.

We have access to all the things we need, but someone typically has to add the work necessary to put them into a form we can use. The earth produces a limited amount of fruits and vegetables spontaneously–but not nearly what we need in order to keep all the people of the earth alive. In order to do this, we need people to work on farms. The farms need things like tractors, and the tractors need fuel and maintenance. Other people are needed to produce the fuel, to build the tractors and to keep them running.

This is the basis for the field of economics. Resources exist, but they are scarce. There is not enough to go around unless we add some additional work, or energy. Economics is the study of how people acquire scarce resources, add the required work to make the things we need, and then distribute those goods to the people who want and need them the most. This is how we satisfy our hunger and make ourselves more comfortable while we wait.

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