Conscience, Objective Morality, Monkey Biz

Morality and our sense of justice (or injustice) are interesting things: is there some sort of “objective” morality? Is there a “conscience” that is the same in all of us?

For many “believers”, it is only their particular faith that holds the key to right action. In all seriousness they ask whether, without god, non-believers, “atheists” or others can even act morally. They could ask my friend Jamy…

Jamy Ian Swiss is widely regarded as a very skillful professional magician, author, critic, and skeptic (skeptic for you Brits – in Canada we use both). He was recently appointed as a Senior Fellow of the James Randi Educational Foundation, an institution that’s mission is to “help people defend themselves from paranormal and pseudoscientific claims.” You may have heard of their still-unclaimed million-dollar offer to whomever can, under controlled conditions, satisfy them with evidence of paranormal phenomena.

You can find out more about Jamy at his website and about JREF here.

In any case Jamy wrote to remind me to include direct links to material I was posting. A useful reminder, and like anything to do with copyright, intellectual property, etc it is also the kind of thing that invariably sparks heated debate and raises many issues.

I’m currently working on a documentary film project that will look at some of those themes. Initiated by a composer Marvin Dolgay (probably my oldest friend) this film will be only a small part of a much larger international effort by creators in different parts of the music industry who are seeking a fairer distribution of the profits generated by their work.

At this late date it is certainly not news that we live in a world where people increasingly expect free access (legally or illegally) to the creative output of people (writers, photographers, painters, musicians, etc). Interestingly however, someone is generating huge amounts of wealth from the fruits of that creative labour — and it isn’t necessarily the creators.

Our film will explore not only the “cost of free” but who is benefiting, who is getting screwed, the social costs and what might be done about it.

If you are a regular visitor to this website you may have already checked out my entry monkey business in the Glossary menu. It’s a term I use for all those biologically based behaviours, and cultural values, that we sometimes refer to as “mechanical” or “automatisms”. Gotta love that monkey biz!

A few years ago, in a film I made for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), I included a number of examples of research illustrating the pre-human and non-human roots of various important human accomplishments (including our concept of justice). Mysteries of the Animal Mind included examples of various cases, and interviews with the experts doing the research. Neither the scientists nor I are saying that, for example, these capuchin monkeys with a problem about injustice – but they seem to indicate something about the roots of those values and ideas in (in this case literally) monkey business. Here’s a bit from Frans de Waal’s Ted Talk on the subject (I’m not a big fan of Ted Talks but what the hell).

Or if you prefer here’s a BBC news item on the original research.

What about the psychedelia? No worries I’ll get back to that. Soon. Honest.