History of Ethics and its Multicultural Origins (Part 2/2)

Aco Momcilovic
7 min readJan 27, 2022

Principles that formed Human Behaviour and Decisions

Interviewer: Aco Momčilović, psychologist, EMBA, Owner of FutureHR, Ph.D. Student @ University of Dubrovnik; Co-Founder and Co-Director of Global AI Ethics Institute.

Interview with Mirko Sardelić, Ph.D, Research Associate at the Department of Historical Studies HAZU, Honorary Research Fellow of the ARC Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions (Europe 1100–1800) at The University of Western Australia; formerly a visiting scholar at the universities of Cambridge, Paris (Sorbonne), Columbia, and Harvard.

Picture 1–3 Sources

5. When did Ethics and morality become connected with religions, and then in the last centuries, again disconnected with it? Did the rise of Humanism influence that?

Uhm, this is quite a difficult one. First, it is good to remind our readers (again) that both ethics and religion are scholarly constructs. None of the major historical legacies that were developed in their own Spatio-temporal and cultural environment, and that we discuss today defined themselves as ‘religions’. Nonetheless, most scholars agree that religion includes several features: convictions about the most important features in life (such as birth and death, or sex), rituals, beliefs about the nature (whence and whither) of existence, codes of conduct, communal life, and also experiences of transcendence. Therefore, ethical questions are tightly entangled with all religious teachings.

Although different religious traditions address similar complex psycho-sociological mechanisms that lead to conflict, failure, or delusion, each of these traditions has a focus on different issues that are deviations from a ‘good way’, such as immoderate craving (Buddhism), violation of ancestral bonds (natives of America and Africa), distorted love (Christianity) and many others.

Humanism is also a word rich in historical meaning. If you take a present-day definition proposed by Humanists International, “Humanism is a democratic and ethical life stance which affirms that human beings have the right and responsibility to give meaning and shape to their own lives.” If what you are referring to is Renaissance Humanism (which, nota bene, is a 19th-century term), it truly has changed the worldview significantly. This intellectual movement, apart from its vigorous interest in classical antiquity and its legacy, promoted the importance of education, civic virtue, non-religious studies, moral autonomy of individuals, the importance of observation and critical thinking, creativity, and many other elements that our society praises today. One should also be cautious in generalizations though as ‘Humanism’ came in deeply Christian and non- (even anti-) Christian forms. Many famous and influential humanists were Christians — let us just mention Erasmus. The early modern period promoted another crucial idea: self-assertion. Humans assert themselves, they put forward their opinions, express their needs and wishes, demand rights. Some thinkers argue that this is an important step away from theology.

In this sense, individual and collective morality have been more in focus as ‘extra-religious’ components of our everyday lives. In other words, although all religions deal quite caringly with the most important questions of human existence, (especially) including moral ones, morality and ethics can and should be discussed without entanglements to any religious framework.

Picture 2 — Science and Religion

6. Do we have any other substitutes for the rules for behavior in other cultures?

Social control and social order have always been crucial issues in all societies. The means of control can be informal and formal. The informal part is also known by the umbrella term ‘socialization’, a process of teaching and learning cultural values and acceptable behavior. Humans are born with a wide range of potentially possible behaviors (we have all seen so much difference), but then their social environment shapes them according to its standards. The process can vary in success rate, but what seems to be beyond doubt is that the environment interacts with the genotype to influence behavioral outcomes. Socialization has a central influence on the behavior, beliefs, and actions of humans throughout their lives.

The formal part of social control consists of a range of external sanctions prescribed by the laws of each society, such as fines, incarcerations, even censorship of undesirable materials. These vary across cultures, as varies the importance of informal sanctions that can be as effective as the formal ones. We are talking here about shame, criticism, or ridicule, that can be so powerful, especially in the formative age.

We tend to forget that ‘other cultures’ are not just those that are spatially distant from our own, but also those temporally distant. For example, present-day Croatians can be in many ways more similar to, say, Americans in terms of ethical principles, values, etc. than to fellow Croatians who lived just two hundred years ago (just six or seven generations away). Many of the elements we discuss here have changed over time across cultures. At some point, I have been quite interested in a quite complex concept of honor which, in one form or another, guided human behavior through difficult moral issues. Honour was defended by quite radical moves: even Caesar himself divorced his wife Pompeia because of the shadow of doubt was cast on her as a certain Publius Claudius Pulcher sneaked into her quarters with an intention to seduce her. Although Pompeia had nothing to do with it, Caesar divorced her, stating that his wife needs to be ‘above suspicion’. So many lives were taken in defending honor: it was the duels that took uncountable victims in Early modern Europe until they came ‘out of fashion’ in the 19th century when they became ridiculed heavily. The seventeenth-century French army had a strict policy against duels as at some point their officer ranks were decimated in dueling. Fortunately, honor killing was mostly forbidden and vanished in the 20th century.

7. What can we learn from the history, about Ethics, that we could implement in the modern world, and when thinking and designing new products — like in the field of AI?

It is the advances in technology that made our life easier in many ways: we have got ourselves amazing shelters, food production, we live longer, work in more human conditions, and so many other things. Humankind has also been eager to use technology as a means of control. It was about controlling one own’s group, then the environment, and we tend to use so many things to control our behavior, the way we feel pain, the way we procreate. Some would say that humans like to indulge themselves, while others would say that they ‘play God’. Either way, with the rapid evolution of technology, humans started fearing that the intelligence they have created (the AI) might ‘decide’ to make a turn in a direction that collides with our values and ethics. Even worse, that it might take control over us — which is one of the most common human fears (such as being controlled, trapped, or confined; alongside the fear of heights, animals, wounds, and diseases).

The way humans interact can be observed from many perspectives, but I guess we’d all agree that AI is created by humans themselves either to assist in complex tasks or to make up for some deficiencies. It seems that what is the most unfavorable about it is the following dichotomy: on the one hand, AI is the force of increasing what we can do but only at a cost of subjecting us to its control. All that relates to AI is still, at least for the time being, in the domain of human ethics — with challenging and ever-more-complex turns, nonetheless something to be negotiated between scholars and entrepreneurs, policymakers, and activists.

Sometimes it is not just the problem of ethics, but more about the rapid evolution of automated systems for which the general public (i.e., all of us) is either not too interested or simply ignorant. Let us mention just a few: many aspects of the industry, especially administration and logistics, have become heavily automated, rendering many human workers superfluous (at least in the eyes of the system). Second, the creation of a global ‘police state’, i.e., a highly controlled environment supported by a panopticon created of countless cameras whose field of sight is analyzed by algorithms that enable automatic recognition of people and their actions. There is also an automated analysis of the internet and phones, and the communication of all people using them. Third, some countries have started using (reportedly objective) algorithms for approving loans, even getting a job. The data can be accurate, the algorithm's objective, but is it ‘human’ to leave such decisions to automated systems? Can everything be justified with control, efficiency, and objective measurement?

The development of AI depends highly on hours of work invested — in other words: on funding. Two major developers of AI are the military and business sectors. The nature of both is that ethics does not come first, but it’s the edge over competitors and the financial aspects that have priority. In 1988 Ulrick Beck argued that modern ethics “plays the role of a bicycle brake on an intercontinental airplane”. This is not too far from the proverbial saying ascribed to a famous Scythian philosopher Anacharsis from the 6th century BCE. This remarkable, witty, and straightforward scholar from the Black Sea, upon hearing that Solon was employed to create the laws for Athenians, reportedly responded immediately: “Laws are spider-webs, which catch the little flies, but cannot hold the big ones”. This, of course, is not the way history discourages us from acting — it is just the lesson that it takes a joint effort of many to make small steps in making both legal and ethical frameworks more elaborated and widely accepted. Therefore, it is important that we all reflect on the most important ethical issues and their complexity, for we are all affected, or will be, sooner than we think.

Picture 3 — Science



Aco Momcilovic

Ph.D. Student. National AI Capital Researcher. Human Resoucres, Psychology, Entrepreneurship, MBA…