This was another question posed to a room full of teachers that I was sitting in recently. Most started in with the simple, basic, and the unthinking answers you’d expect from teachers and/or parents.
Empathetic. Kind. Caring. You can fill in the rest.
This was followed by the presenter saying that in hundreds of rooms around the world, all teachers want the same things for their students when they grow up to be adults.
That statement is false. Period. We do not all want the same things because we do not all use these terms in the same way, nor do we even have the same reasons for why we want them as characteristics of future adults.
Do we want empathetic adults so that they are kind and caring? What about the psychopaths who understand empathy quite well, but use it as a tool for manipulation? Do we want kindness and caring because they are gateways to heaven? What about those who value kindness and caring because of their effects on happiness in this world? Do the differences in motivation for these values have different outcomes? Of course.
After hearing this question, I wrote down what I felt were more specific characteristics of adults that I would hope for. These included:
Empiricist: As humans we are gaining ever more information and knowledge about what makes us happy and fulfilled. Positive psychology is showing us that positive emotions, low negative emotions, life satisfaction, autonomy, environmental mastery, personal growth, positive relations, self-acceptance, purpose and meaning in life, engagement in life, and accomplishment are key to optimizing well-being and pleasure. We should be aiming to increase these facets of life, so long as they aren’t to the detriment of others. Furthermore, suffering ought to be of prime concern as we know humans experience an equal amount of pain as much worse than the same relative amount of pleasure. Therefore, reducing a given amount of pain and suffering often does more to increase well-being than adding pleasure to an otherwise decent life.
Hedonist: One needs a metric for constructing the “good”. Most people seem to agree that living a life solely consisting of being tortured is bad. It is painful and causes suffering of an immense magnitude. If we are able to agree on this simple statement, we can move forward with figuring out what is good and bad based on pain and pleasure, not very different from how the field of medicine proceeds. We do not need one definition of health to agree that life without disease and early death is not as good as a long life free of illness. What is a pleasure can then be determined through empiricism and weighted against the utilitarian consequentialism of others.
Utilitarian: In trying to balance our own egoist pleasures with that of others, some type of system must be created to calibrate them. Utilitarianism does this. In theory, if not in fact, we can aim for constructing a world with the most pleasure in it, not hindered by idealism and theism. This will overlay with Rawlsian thinking on the “veil of ignorance”. (See below.) Essentially, we want a world with the most pleasure, i.e. good, for the most people, while minimizing the harm.
Materialist: This follows along from the trait of empiricism. There is no empirical data that argues in favor of philosophical ideals or a metaphysical reality. However, we do know much pain, suffering, and death have occurred entirely due to idealism, with religious claims about reality being a specific subset of those idealist philosophies. Buying into utilitarianism and empiricism also buys into the fact that idealism seems uniquely able to cause pain, suffering, and death. The data (history) is quite clear on this. See the religious wars, Nazism, Stalinism, Maoism, and the Khmer Rouge among many others for examples.
Liberal: In admitting that there isn’t necessarily one pathway to happiness in our lives and knowing that autonomy itself is a key factor in experiencing happiness, the freedom to pursue our own pleasures is paramount. Empirical data also shows quite clearly that freedom of trade, movement, speech, and ideas are keys to prosperity and the enrichment of quality of life and living standards. In principle, we want to allow anything within a given amount of acceptable harm to others. This acceptable harm is constrained by utilitarianism, empiricism, and Rawlsian thinking.
Atheist: Many of these traits are interdependent on each other. For instance, being atheist is a product of being both materialist and empiricist. The burden of proof ought to be on the one making truth claims about reality. Given the thousands of claims to “know” about a metaphysical reality that are often mutually exclusive, they should all be disregarded until proven otherwise. There is simply no more or less likelihood that a Christian, Hindu, ancient Greek, or Roman god might exist. I could just as easily claim my shoe is all powerful and all knowing and that refusal to worship it is grounds for death.
Rawlsian: In addition to the above and particularly with utilitarianism in mind, John Rawls’ “original position” is a method to ensure that people remain impartial by having them imagine that they design the rules of justice behind a “veil of ignorance”. The implication here is that you can make any rules you want, but you do not know ahead of time which position you will hold in society. This provides a measure of defense against abusing or otherwise oppressing the poor, disadvantaged, and underprivileged of a society. Essentially, this argues for maximizing the minimum within a society.
There may in fact be more characteristics that I would want the children I teach to have as adults. These seem to be the basics I would hope for with a degree of reflection on values and what I see as the most fertile soil for a better, more peaceful world. Substituting any of these for their opposites will lead to more pain and less pleasure in this world, something I categorically oppose.
The above characteristics imply a different world than the one we currently live in. Some of the most important areas of impact would be:
Economic policy. This would follow the general rule of maximizing growth rates whenever there isn’t a long-run trade-off from environmental damage or oppression of various groups. Poverty is a morally unacceptable tragedy in our world and the best way to fix it is to continue growing worldwide incomes. On a Rawlsian basis, we can maximize the minimum by increasing the total world income. Most of humanity lived in absolute poverty for most of human history. Free trade, free movement of labor, and the freedom to spread good ideas in the forms of technology and entrepreneurship have lifted over ninety percent of the world out of poverty. This is one of the single greatest triumphs in history. On this topic, economic policies would need to utilize empirical data to actually be selected so specifics would vary.
Foreign aid. In many underdeveloped and poor countries where the bulk of the absolute poor live, a single dollar can literally have one hundred times the impact that it does in a rich, developed country. If we are concerned with utilitarian hedonism, we would be obliged to donate much more in foreign aid than we currently do as a world. Approximately 700 million people still live in absolute poverty, something that can be solved with roughly 78 billion US dollars. This seems an obvious moral imperative if ever there was one. People should not be dying prematurely or suffering from long bouts of easily preventable and fixable problems.
Climate change. This is somewhat of a tough one. In a perfect world that was anti-natalist (see below), we wouldn’t have children and so we could simply have a giant party for the next one hundred years while experiencing as much pleasure and happiness as possible. We would follow all the recommendations from positive psychology above and become as well off as possible before the end. In reality, people will continue to have kids and given that they do, the empirical evidence is very clear that humans are causing increased environmental damage at an alarming rate due to increased greenhouse gas emissions and destruction of ecosystems. This will ultimately cause mass suffering and needs to be reversed immediately.
Gender identity/equality. This is another issue that falls under liberalism and Rawlsianism. First, there is no reason outside of religious idealism for anyone to care about someone’s preferred gender identity. Second, gender equality is something any hedonic, utilitarian, Rawlsian would choose to endorse if they were constructing a society from scratch and didn’t know where they’d be placed. No impartial person would voluntarily wish to create a society where they might be less than equal for any reason based on atheist and materialist beliefs. They would simply have no skin in the game on this issue.
Child birth. Coming into existence causes unnecessary suffering. If we wish to minimize needless suffering, we would default to having no children. This may not be intuitive and so I recommend reading either Better Never to Have Been or Having Children.
Marriage. There would be little reason to get married. Without the religious history of the institution and no desire to have children, what would cause people to seek marriage? The whole idea would seem absurd. That isn’t to say that two (or more) people wouldn’t see or experience the pleasure of spending a life together. What it does mean is that there is no reason to have laws primarily aimed at protecting children in connection with marriage. Providing tax breaks and other incentives for two people to get together also seems somewhat strange given all of the above. It becomes little more than a corporation that is arbitrarily benefitting two people.
Sexual taboo and adultery. Neither of these would exist. For one, adultery ceases when marriage ceases. For another, sex would be recognized as a pleasure that is to be indulged in whenever two (or more) parties are interested and consensual. Being materialist and hedonist, the only concern would be health and the wish to avoid long-term disease from short-run pleasure.
Drugs. This topic would follow the same logic as sex. Drugs alter our physical experience in the world and as long as it is pleasurable and consensual, then there is no issue. The major issue would involve utilitarian calculus of my pleasure at the possible expense of others (e.g. medical care, disease, and crime from hard drugs). In a fully informed world, we would also weigh our long-run health against our short-run pleasure as with sexual activity above.
Abortion. In a world without an dualism of body and soul, there is no natural barrier to abortion. Aborting a pregnancy would not be seen as sinful, as all actions would be recognized as being a trade-off in utility. Without any religious idealism or metaphysical beliefs, abortion would not be the same issue it is now. Since we would already see coming into existence as being against that potential person’s best interests, we would take appropriate measures (as early as possible).
Euthanasia/Assisted suicide. Being liberal entails giving people control over their own bodies. Neither of these should be prevented in the case of a person who willingly wants to end their own life. The reason for wanting to do so is irrelevant. The choice to live or die should be seen as the preeminent liberal issue.
Death penalty. On the other hand, taking away a fully conscious and sentient life should not be allowed by anyone. If an adult does not wish to die, no one should force the end of their life. This differs from abortion in that the level of “personhood” is much more mature. Both consciousness and sentience have completely developed and they are able to make decisions about how life and death affect their own and others’ pleasure and pain. Their embeddedness in a social reality is much more established as well, and so the negative consequences are much higher than eliminating a small group of cells.
Torture. This can be discussed in two different ways. We can discuss it as a thought experiment in which torturing a person would prevent a large-scale catastrophe and thereby prevent more suffering than it inflicts. This is the utilitarian approach that would essentially consent to the benefits of torture. However, we can also look at it empirically and point out that torture in reality has been shown to be ineffective. There is no proof of its efficacy and it is simply not worth pursuing the pain and suffering of a person for an ideal that has been proven again and again to be ineffective. In this sense, it’s much like the idealism of religion and nationalism. It must be discarded after finding no proof of its benefit and much proof of its harm.
Gun control. The empirical data is pretty clear on this. More pain and suffering, mostly in the forms of being shot or killed, exist because of access to guns. This obviously doesn’t include the intimidation and fear that many may experience without ever being shot or killed because of someone with access to a gun. The benefits of gun control would only increase by including the subtraction of those experiences as a result.
Having gone through as many of the central issues as seems pertinent, it should seem clear by now that listing characteristics we want the children we’re teaching to have as adults such as being empathetic, kind, and caring is not useful. I believe that everything described above creates a world with the most actual empathetic, kind, and caring people in it by my viewpoint. Obviously, not everyone agrees. The more we continue to believe and say that, “we all want the same things,” the more we will continue to avoid discussing actual issues and attempting to solve them.
Issues ought to be tackled one by one, but all issues will be tackled based on some sort of worldview and belief system. Treating them as all identical with identical desires makes this less clear. I am open to change my position on any of these larger viewpoints, but I would like to see rational evidence and reasoned arguments. Arguing from metaphysical superstition will immediately disqualify your opinion. And that’s the point. Until the actual rules of the game are laid out, we aren’t actually all playing the same game. We might pretend that we are, but we are actually working from very different sides of the issues.