Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Universal consciousness and meta ethics

In this post I had indicated that if there is only a single consciousness behind all living beings, then the question of justice and fairness are not relevant, since the perpetrator and victim are one and the same. Although this seems to be a fairly obvious conclusion, in reality it is not so straightforward.

Let's take criminal justice as an example. The two main reasons or punishing an individual for a crime committed by him/her are as follows-
1. Deterrence - To teach the individual (as well as others) that crime doesn't pay, so they don't commit it again.
2. Retribution - In this case, even if it certain that the individual will not repeat the offense, the law may seek a penalty from him/her just so as to make him/her suffer for the wrongdoing, even if it has got no further deterrence value either for the individual or for others.

Now let's take an example of a person who has been found guilty of a certain crime. But after committing the crime, let's say he suffers a severe head injury that either renders him insane or suffers permanent amnesia that makes him totally unaware of the crime he had committed. In most civilized societies, the individual would not be meted out the same punishment as he would be if he were fully aware of his wrongdoing. This is because, most societies require that a criminal be aware of what he is being punished for. Although this lessens the scope of deterrence (since the punishment is now less for the same crime), there is also an implicit belief that the individual now is "not the same" as the criminal who comitted the crime, and therefore should not get punished since it would be perceived as tantamount to punishing an innocent person.

But from a metaphysical perspective, is it really so? If we go solely by the retributive aspect of criminal justice, it should not make any difference whether he remembers the crime or not, provided we accept that it is the same consciousness as the one responsible for the crime that would suffer the punishment. If we start making the assumption that the loss of memory makes the individual different (from the perspective of the homuncular identity), then of course, we cannot ignore this aspect.

So it seems that society treats people as conscious individuals with identities that are determined more by access. Since society is not capable of reconciling the two different access identities (one before the accident and the other after), it can be hardly expected to do so in the case of different people or other life forms when it really turns out that there is a single consciousness operating behind them all.

For example, religious fundamentalists would still hold the belief that the pain felt by a human fetus in an abortion is somehow more tragic than (the same) pain felt by the fetus of a cow.

If we disregard access altogether, then if there is a single consciousness behind all living beings, then as I had mentioned in the earlier post, the question of criminal justice and ethics go away in a meta ethical sense. Of course, there are evolutionary reasons for having justice and punishment (solely determined on the access side), so one has to respect those. But these are mundane motivations rather than any meta ethical ones.

But let's assume for argument's sake that there are two consciousnesses operating behind two sets of people respectively. So if one person from one set has wronged the other set, then does it become fair to punish someone else from the offending set? My personal belief is that it should be ok (provided we are certain that it is the same consciousness operating behind everyone in each set). For the agent undergoing the suffering is not the person himself, but the consciousness operating behind him.

If the last paragraph is hard to digest, think of the two master consciousnesses as two people and the individuals in each set as bank accounts belonging to those two. When any transactions are made between banks belonging to the two, we only look at the net the first person owes the second or vice versa. We do not worry about details of which bank accounts were involved. In legal theory, when a statement like "John owes Peter" or "John has to repay Peter" is made, the details of which bank accounts are relevant are left out, since they do not matter in the larger picture. It is possible that entirely different bank accounts were used on both sides while repaying the loan, as opposed to while borrowing it.

I strongly believe that a similar argument holds in meta ethics too.