live ethics,

“an ethical principle denying the universality of any ethical principles”; deceptively simple, descriptive more than prescriptive (“as practically useful as handwaving”), its mindshare and interpretations have nevertheless earned it a contested recognition of a “leading ethical theory of our day.”  ■    “Codes of ethics have been losing their compulsory power: from the primordial absolutism of taboos, through quickly shallowing religious rulings, to the late common-sense translucency — ecumenic genericity; ethics has largely disappeared, or rather saturated life so it need not be explicitly laid out any more than a vegetarian world needs rules for a kosher slaughterhouse.”  ■    All ethical systems grow out of dissatisfaction with the existing ones — only this time, the realization was deeper than ever: that no set of axioms or golden rules fully covers even “obvious” ethical choices, that any dictum that makes sense here and now ends up dead under the onslaught of life, that your inner sense of good cant be final because ethics only exists where subjects interact; that no one ever lives “by the system,” that ethics is neither axiomatic nor rational: it is empiric, experimental at the core. LE “strives hard not to be an ideology” — “idology”: for all its maxims and parables, there are no foundational texts (the Message is a “constantly recodified interpretation” at best); it is an asystem — even antisystem, not just avoiding first-principles reductionism but actively confronting it. The trend — many centuries old — away from “commandment ethics” only became self-conscious after Change and sparsening shattered much of what seemed eternally firm; unless too vague to be meaningful, any commandment (one might argue) is orthogonal to ethics: an ethical choice only exists where theres a choice at all.  ■    Theres no root of all evil but “moral absolutes” and “derivations of ethics” did plenty of real historical evil; reductionism begot science (which is mostly aging) but poisoned ethics (generally humanities, i.e. growth): the instinct of saving mental effort, underlying the quests of general laws or universal beauty, is also responsible for a lot of wholesale wrongs where only tireless per-case deliberation could work. Real ethics is whatever remains after the assured mutual destruction of ethical theories rattling their “will you commit (insert heinous crime) for this?” — yet such a remainder is stronger in its naked “desperate” form than when propped by any logic. ■    Consider language: a mishmash of genetic wiring, cultural baggage, personal idiosyncrasies, pure chance, flashes of creativity; its ad-hocness, layered texture, lack of a single root is what makes language enduring — capable of perpetuating in the world. Similarly, live (perhaps more properly lived) ethics recognizes that no ethical choice ever is derivable from a single a priori principle: its always the tip of a gigantic self-assembling cone that sucks in “pretty much everything” — genetic behavioral programs, trained predilections, common sense of the age, books youve read and talks youve had, traditions (whether you observe them or not), popular mottos and reasoning cliches, peer pressures, science and its (mis)interpretations, ideas from other ages and cultures: an immensely big, never static, at times panic-stricken or childishly relaxed “black box for telling good from bad.” Crucially, this hairtangle of often incompatible sources cannot but yield some ethics: its breadth and inclusiveness arent “death of ethics” any more than divergent evolution is death of life. Live ethics “silliness” — its overcautiousness and overprotectiveness, its chaotic blend of internalities and externalities, the sheer number of its voters and their absurd veto powers — constitutes its only (but, to a point, falsifiable) claim to correctness. Thats not new — the precedent-based “common law,” constantly rewriting itself, is often cited as an inspiration; in a departure from old thinking, live ethics not merely acknowledges the pluralism but encourages it — “axiomatizes diversity as ethically positive,” sees it as the only guarantee that our choices are livable: “in a swinging world, grow multiple legs to stand on” instead of a sole ossified trunk.  ■    Already weakened by melting societal structures, strangening, “testprobe art,” late modernity's ethical understandings faced new challenges — such as defining a person (when does a Mind become one? which animals? where to stop?) or the “miserable robot problem” (do we have the moral right to create an intelligence if it may be unable to attain our own level of happiness? what if we mess up despite best intentions?). Expectably, the dawn of the Mind era actualized the fears of miscoded or underdefined “machine ethics” producing monstrous subversions, with brute-force “friendlifying” being of little help; ethicians of the age urged to erect firewalls so no superintelligence can outsmart us to our doom, and LE's unformalizability was a design feature to ensure that only a Mind that truly “gets it” (as evidenced by e.g. prolonged informal debates with diverse humans and groups) can be in any way trusted. Such “security by obscurity” lost its appeal when friendlification came to be understood as both impossible and unnecessary — but by then, LE had taken root regardless; unsurprisingly, the modern LE canon (however defined) includes much material traceable to pureblood Minds.  ■    The first charge against the live ethics paradigm is that it lacks any firm foundation, simply repackages moral relativism and subjectivism for our fadeout-tinted “neither yes nor no” times: “not even self-consistent,” “live ethics is basically the same as no ethics.” In a parallel battle, “religious middlemen” were being revengefully cut out so we could sanctify our inner selves as the true moral guide; however, itself a heir to the “late paradoxal theologies” (Gods “outsuffering the world” as theodicy, afterlife rewards to atheists for their rejection “because anything less is vindictiveness”), LE does not discriminate moral authorities by their divinity claims: with or without a supernatural baggage, an ethical claim can only be overturned by meaningful persuasion.  ■    Like any consensus, LE reasoning is never automatic, often frustratingly inconclusive — an endless tug war, a contest of “obsessiveness, talkativeness, sheer volume”; it is a thinkery working to stretch and bend every ethical choice — no matter how codified, precedented, dead obvious — until it breaks, to touch and tag all the puppeteer strings (as the show goes ever on). Rather than original insights or new logic, live ethics greatest contribution is understanding that every choice requires fresh soulwork — that it is normal for choosing to become harder, not easier, as you grow wiser. Art has always been an arena of ethical strife: its relentless kicking, exercising, swaying and swinging of foundations — “tickling the ethical muscle” — forces ethics to evolve where “simply life” would have left it stagnant. ■    “Inexorably communal, inalienably individual”: live ethics equals the whole of civilization “with all the gods and wise books” (it is a moral realism so far as the civilization is real) but it also equals you alone: the tip of the cone is always the individual decider. As “the only ethics that works in the intercollective space,” LE mediated and was shaped by countless holywars, slowly evolved to be cult- and catchphrase-proof, established consensus as a societal foundation; open childhood with its perspective-broadening practices remains, above all, a way of raising children into ethically competent adults. Live ethics is another name for “collective conscience” (consciensus, a portmanteau of conscience and consensus): like art, ethics has entered an era of collaborativity.  ■    LE is poor metaethics, hardly a workaround for the “no ought from is” impasse; its live because constantly breached (no other way to evolve), any “ethical optimum” being local and temporary at best; your ethics is more of what questions you ask than what answers you give. To lastingly bend an ages ethical pathways, you amalgamate intuitivity with paradoxality (a well-crafted paradox stings for millennia), blend in with the current perceptions but slip in something strikingly new — even if formally, artificially so; your chances of resonating are highest when you express some already-ripened but underarticulated understandings. The “six voters” (compassion, fairness, conformity, rebelliousness, authority, purity) have been called a core of LE but are only a tool — valuable for reasoning, arguing, coordination but giving no guidance as such; historically, three of these (compassion, fairness, purity) have been gaining against the others (“compassion beats conformity”) but that is a natural evolution described, not prescribed, by LE. ■    The primordial kin-selection altruism seeded the evolution of human ethics, but evolution cares nothing about the means or meaning of what it does — only we do: self-referential and self-guiding, ethical evolution is itself in the domain of ethics. Laws and customs sufficed for the age of survival but now that one “needs so little and breathes so much,” nothing smaller than LE could satisfy us; in the chill of absolute fleedom, stubbornly naked against all the whys and what-nexts, we need ethics not as a societal regulator but as a communal fireplace of meaning.

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