Idle Theory The Varieties of Ethical Systems

There have always been a diversity of ethical views. In modern Western society, slavery is regarded as abhorrent - and yet it was held to be quite normal in antiquity. Again, the practice of one state invading another, and siezing its assets and subjecting its peoples, is regarded as wholly immoral - and yet in antiquity (and right up to the present day), it was standard practice. Cannibalism is also condemned, but has been practised in several cultures. Sexual mores also vary: in ancient Greece, pederasty was frequently practised, but in modern Western society it is regarded as an abomination. This raises the question: why is there such ethical diversity?

Ethical codes may be regarded as survival strategies. All living creatures need survival strategies. These strategies tell them what to do and what not to do. Good strategies bring survival, and bad ones extinction. And just as living creatures evolve and change, their survival strategies also evolve and change. In some creatures these strategies may be hard-wired into them, and able only to change very slowly. But where survival strategies are learned by trial and error, or being taught by example, a living creature can change its survival strategy very rapidly in response to changing circumstances. And these evolving and changing strategies are, in effect, ethical codes that determine behaviour. And there are as many survival strategies as there are different species of living creatures, and even in the same species survival strategies may differ from one location or circumstance to another.

If there are a diversity of human ethical codes or survival strategies, this is because there have historically been many different ways of surviving - as hunters, as fishers, as farmers, as nomads, in many different climates and locations. What was the right thing to do in one place was entirely the wrong thing in another. And so, more or less every single human society developed its own ethical systems, and these ethical codes changed as circumstances changed. There was no one right way of doing things that was applicable across the entire world. If in modern times, value systems and codes of conduct have tended to merge into something approaching a single shared ethical code, it is largely because almost the entire world uses the same technology to survive, and therefore adopts the same ethical codes that come with their use.

For in many ways, codes of behaviour are not essentially different from the instruction manuals which come with computers or video recorders or microwave cookers. An entire technological system might almost be said to come with an instruction manual which constitutes its ethical code.

From the point of view of Idle Theory, survival strategies and ethical codes are essentially concerned with maximizing idleness, making life easy. If humans once perhaps lived almost entirely solitary lives, they would still have had survival strategies, and there would still have been right ways to do things, and wrong ways.

Co-operative society

Co-operative humans societies, it may be suggested, emerged because sharing out the chores of living among members of a group resulted in an increase of idleness for the entire society. One man could almost more easily collect plants or fetch water for everybody than if each collected and fetched his own. And it was easier for one to cook for all, than for each to cook for themselves. But with these co-operative human societies there came a new set of right and wrong ways to do things: members of such societies had to learn to obey instructions, and diligently carry out their assigned tasks. Co-operative society required a new kind of discipline, in which people learned to consider not just their own personal interests, but also the interests of other members of their society.

Co-operative societies were also innovative societies. If they could find easier ways of living, they would adopt them. They were prepared to experiment and innovate. In this way they could gradually increase their idleness over time, as they developed new tools and new technologies. But for the most part, this process of technological development proceeded with agonising slowness. And yet it was a progress of an inherently exponential nature, for the more idle a society became, the more time it could devote to experimentation and innovation.

Thus while co-operative societies were relatively idle by comparison with solitary life, they never offered complete idleness. In general, in co-operative societies, an equality of idleness was demanded. And with relatively rudimentary technologies available to them, life was far from perfectly idle. Anyone who was not prepared to wait for aeons to elapse before being able to enjoy a completely idle life, but who wanted an idle life now, had to come up with some other approach.

Coercive society

And the only way for anyone to achieve very high levels of idleness was to enslave other people, and force them to carry out their work for them. And thus, for long eras, the principal way for any society to increase to achieve an idle life was through war, conquest, looting, and enslavement of other societies. It was only through coercion and force of arms that that an easy life could be procured. And once this short-cut was taken, technological innovation became almost entirely restricted to developing new weapons systems.

The values of such military societies were always essentially the values of thieves and brigands. One gained at the expense of others. Life was a zero sum game, with winners and losers.

Yet it was the idle elites of coercive society, in Greece and Rome, which provided Western society with much of its mathematics and philosophy and poetry and literature and sculpture and architecture. And this was because inegalitarian coercive society provided a minority of people with almost entirely idle lives which could be entirely devoted to study, to thought, to discussion. A 20% idle coercive society would have 20% of its members as idle or leisured free men, and 80% as working slaves devoid of all leisure. By contrast a 20% idle egalitarian co-operative society would have all its members 20% idle. And these 20% idle people would not have the time to devote themselves to thought and study as thoroughly as the 100% idle elite members of coercive societies. And therefore it was coercive society that generated most of the philosophy and mathematics and architecture.

However, coercive and predatory military society is always inherently less idle than co-operative society. Military society requires the extra burden of work in the manufacture of weapons, and training in their use, as well as that of whips and chains to control slaves. And none of these increase human idleness by one iota. In fact the devastations of war always decrease human idleness. Therefore, whenever war raged, human idleness fell, and when it fell too far, it was co-operative rather than coercive human societies that survived. The ultimate fate of all empires was extinction.

Ascetic society

Yet another survival strategy was asceticism. The ascetic stripped away everything unnecessary for survival. This naturally meant disposing of all luxuries and amusements, all sexual activity, and involved regularly pushing the thresholds of endurance to their limits. Highly disciplined and egalitarian co-operative societies of ascetics - monasteries - were the idlest societies, and thus able to survive where less disciplined and less ascetic societies could not. In their idle time, ascetic monks engaged in prayer and contemplation.

In any society made up of mixtures of coercion and co-operation and asceticism, the ill effects of falling idleness, whatever its cause, would be firstly felt by coercive social organizations. As life got harder, less work could be got from slaves, and less tax extracted from subjects. Coercive societies would be forced to become co-operative societies. And where co-operative societies in turn found themselves in difficulty, it would be extreme ascetic monastic societies which endured. And thus in times of great privation, monastic society would become the predominant social organization, and its values would become the prevailing value system across the whole of society. (It might perhaps be argued that the fall of the coercive and militaristic Roman empire, and the rise of Christianity and monasticism, were the inevitable consequences of falling idleness.)

And within co-operative societies, technological innovation that served to increase social idleness, rather than simply redistribute it, gradually acted to raise social idleness. And as social idleness rose from some low level which had required monastic discipline to survive, and life got easier, forbidden luxuries and amusements and games - which require idle time to make and enjoy - would re-appear. And tight social discipline would gradually relax.

Furthermore, as social idleness rose with accelerating technological development, more and more people began living largely idle lives. Whereas once only the rich could afford an idle life, the idle class expanded. And the values of this idle society were experimental and hedonistic - sex and drugs and rock 'n' roll. For them, the problem of life was increasingly not how to come by idle time, but what to do with it.

Idle society

The value systems of idle societies transcend those of working societies whose ethical systems are geared to generate idleness. In idle societies, the task of attaining idleness has been achieved, and any ethics will be concerned with the disposal of idle time. And since the number of ways of disposing of idle time is infinite, there may be an infinity of idle ethical systems. Or maybe, almost the same thing, no ethical systems at all.

However, unless idleness is perfect and enduring, the ethical sytem which generated that idleness must remain intact, because while idleness is imperfect there is always the chance that idleness might fall. On the pleasure cruiser of idle life, there must still be a life raft kept, stocked with provisions and instructions, in the event of shipwreck. And from time to time the idle passengers must practise the drill of launching that life raft, donning life jackets, and raising its sail.

It is of course possible that in idle societies people will be highly disciplined in tasks that they voluntarily set themselves. But equally, they may act with complete spontaneity, at the disposal of chance.

In some ways, it might be argued that these various ethical systems are each appropriate to the circumstances in which they arose. Extreme ascetic monasticism is appropriate, even necessary, in times of extreme privation and difficulty - but not otherwise. Coercive militarism will tend to thrive in circumstances of fairly low idleness. Co-operative trading societies will flourish at higher levels of idleness. And undisciplined spontaneity will emerge at higher levels of idleness. It is not that one value system is better than another, but that different value systems are appropriate to different circumstances. Whatever ethical codes come to predominate are the result of a process of natural selection.

Co-operative, coercive, ascetic, and idle societies all have implicit ethical codes, which are mostly antithetical. Yet they are all ultimately have the same goal, which is to live, as far as possible, an untroubled leisured life. And if not to live it now, then to work for its future realisation. The good of the monk, the warrior, the slaveowner, the bandit, and the shopkeeper are all one and the same. But they set about achieving that good in markedly different ways, using completely different strategies.

In the short term, the good life is most rapidly achieved by theft, slavery, and war. But this strategy, if employed by everyone, must result in endless wars in which everyone ends up either utterly impoverished or dead. In the short term, it gets quick results, but in the long term it is disastrous. The co-operative strategy of innovation and trade is ultimately a long term strategy, and will only generate rapid returns in its final stages of exponential growth. Prior to this, the good life can only be immediately enjoyed by sharp practices like acquiring monopolies and using them to charge exorbitant prices.

Ultimately, for the bulk of human history, the idle life, the life of leisure, has always remained a distant future hope, to be enjoyed by remote future generations. And however rich anyone ever became in their own lifetime, through theft or war or gambling or monopoly, however vast their estates, and however ornate their palaces, they would always know that beyond their gates stood the mass of the toiling poor, who, given half a chance, would take their wealth away from them using the very same methods by which they themselves acquired it. And in this at least there must always be retained an uncertainty and anxiety which no amount of wealth could ever entirely erase.

In the long term, it is only those who work for the long term benefit of humanity, and of all living creatures, rather than their own personal immediate benefit, who will ultimately bring realisation to the goal of the leisured life.  

Idle Theory

Author: Chris Davis
First created: July 2004