Yesterday I was discussing the river engineer and his belief that “health” was “our highest good”. I contrasted the ill-defined notion of health with my mathematical-physical concept of idleness (from Idle Theory) as a much better candidate for being our highest good. Utilitarians like Jeremy Bentham would have said that “happiness” is our highest good. So straight away there are three rival candidates for the highest good: “health”, “idleness”, and “happiness”.
Why is anybody trying to figure out what might be our highest good? The answer, I think, is that in the western world at least, the old Christian moral cosmos with its One God, and its Heaven and Hell, has become obsolescent, and we’re trying to replace it with something else. We no longer believe that when we die we will face judgement for our sins, and live on in an afterlife in either Heaven or Hell. So we no longer think that there are long term consequences for what we do. And for some people that is taken to mean that anything goes. In losing Christianity, we’ve lost our moral compass. And that’s one reason why a dwindling remnant of Christians clings on to Christianity: they can’t see any new moral code to replace it with. It may also be why Islam is resurgent, because Islam doesn’t seem to be facing the same crisis as Christianity.
Why has the Christian cosmos become obsolescent? Because we no longer think about life and death in the way we used to do. In the past (and for many thousands of years before Christianity) it was thought that living people were vitalised by an immortal soul, and that when they died their immortal soul lived on. But these days we tend to see living people (and animals and plants) as powered by energy from the Sun, rather than vitalised by a soul. And we think that when we die there is no afterlife for our soul to live on in, and that we live brief lives of a few decades into which everything has to be packed, and that there will be no reward for us in Heaven, and no punishment in Hell.
Heaven and Hell now have to be crammed into the span of a single lifetime. And so we are now in process of recreating Heaven and Hell on Earth. In our prisons and labour camps and death camps, we have been pretty good at recreating Hell. And perhaps in our holiday camps or holiday islands we’ve recreated a little bit of Heaven.
The other problem we have, as our soul-based account of life is replaced by an energy-based account of life, is that our mathematical-physical model of the universe doesn’t seem to have a moral dimension to it. It describes how the universe is, but it offers no advice about how it ought to be. So we are falling between two stools. One stool is the departing Christian moral system, and other stool is the emergent (and currently amoral) mathematical-physical description of the world. We are betwixt and between.
Might it be possible to discover a new system of ethics in our emergent energy-based mathematical-physical description of the world? Might there be something there which we’ve missed, or not yet seen?
As candidates to replace the old Christian One God, I’ve postulated three. The first is the current reigning cult of “Health”. The second is Utilitarian “happiness” or “pleasure” or “satisfaction”. And the third is the “idleness” of Idle Theory.
The big problem with “happiness” or “pleasure” is that it’s a psychological attribute, and there’s no obvious way of measuring it. It’s incommensurable. We don’t have happiness meters. Nor, even though “health” is much more of a physical than a psychological attribute, do we have health meters to measure how healthy people are. So both “happiness” and “health” are rather vague, amorphous, and ultimately useless ideas. But “idleness” is a physical attribute that is measurable with clocks. In an ordinary working week, for example, we have two weekend idle days and five working days in every seven day week, so we have an idleness of very roughly 2/7 or 28%.
And our idle time is also free time in which we can do as we like, rather than do as we are commanded by our employers during the working week. The “weekend” is our modern two-day Christian “sabbath”. If we have this extended sabbath, it is because thanks to our modern machines we are able to perform the work needed to maintain ourselves alive more quickly than we used to only a few centuries ago, and we had 6 day working weeks and an idleness of 14%. We have more free time. And we have holidays on top of the weekends. And we have all sorts of luxuries and amusements to enjoy in our idle time (e.g. video games). If economic growth is anything at all, it is growth in social idleness. And this economic growth is a painstakingly slow process that has taken place over many thousands of years, beginning in the Stone Age and continuing through the Bronze Age and the Iron Age, and now proceeding at almost breakneck speed.
The cosmos of Idle Theory is populated at one end by living things with idleness approaching 0%, and at the threshold of death, and at the other end by living things with idleness approaching 100%, and theoretically immortal. And so its cosmos has Life at one end, and Death at the other. Or it has Idle Life at one extreme, and Busy Death at the other extreme. Which is to say that it recreates Heaven and Hell at its two extremes. And it also recreates a Divinity at one extreme, and a hyperactively busy Demon or Devil at the other end. And with human life and other forms of life suspended somewhere in between the two extremes. In short, it reconstructs the Christian cosmos, but using a new terminology. And its long term vision is one of very slow ascent from low idleness to high idleness, over many thousands of years, always accompanied by the danger of a relapse (or Fall) to a lower level of idleness, and into a busier, more hard-working life.
And in this new cosmos, what is good is what increases idleness, and what is evil is what decreases it. And so murder is an evil because it deprives a living thing of its idle time. And theft is an evil because it deprives someone of some lesser amount of their idle time. And nuisances like barking dogs and noisy railway trains are evils because they deprive people of small amounts of their idle time. The scale or degree of any evil is measured by the amount of idle time it costs anyone. And the scale of any good – like roads and water and electricity supplies – is measured by the increased idle time it provides.
By contrast, the adoption of “health” as the highest good offers no ethical guidance whatsoever. Or if it measures anything at all, it only measures longevity of life. It has no measure of the quality of life, only its duration. But Idle Theory offers the idleness of any life as a measure of the quality of that life. So in the healthist maximum longevity model, a 70 year life is worth more than a 50 year life, while in Idle Theory the length of a life must be multiplied by its idleness to give its value, so that a 50 year life lived at 90% idleness is worth 45 years of idle time, and a 70 year life lived at idleness of 20% has a value of 14 years of idle time. Longevity or “health” is not what matters most of all. And in fact with their smoking bans the health zealots have taken away the idle time that smokers used to enjoy in pubs and cafes, simply in order to prolong their lives by a few more months or years. I used to enjoy about an hour every single day in a pub or cafe, but for the past 10 years thanks to their smoking ban I have only enjoyed about an hour a week in them (or rather, outside them). So they have so far cost me 3,170 hours of idle time, without any compensating length in the longevity of my life – because I haven’t stopped smoking. And since there are about 10 million smokers in the UK, the smoking ban has so far cost them something like 31,700,000,000 hours idle time in total. Surely the health zealots should be sent to prison! Perhaps they should even be summarily executed! We would all be much better off without them.
And this, in principle, is how Idle Theory’s ethical system might be used to attack and destroy the Healthist ethical system. And in this it might find an ally in the Utilitarian ethical system, if it can be argued that the UK’s 10 million smokers have been a lot more unhappy over the past 10 years than the UK’s 10,000 or so health zealots have been happier.
Idle Theory offers a restoration of something very like the lost Christian moral cosmos, but with a new set of meanings for most of its terminology. And it also offers a mathematical-physical description of that cosmos, and provides a moral dimension to physics that it has hitherto lacked. And it offers an intellectual army with which to contest the reigning, highly destructive Healthist dogma. What, if anything, is missing?