February 05, 2007

Fighting Bad Enlightenment Business Practices

keithtiny.jpgRecently Keith Henson was arrested in Arizona for his anti-Scientology activism. Keith is one of the ur-transhumanists, active in the L5 society and featured in Ed Regis' The Great mambo Chicken ("In the future, three out of four people will be Keith"). A very impressive person who has dared to take an active and costly stand against a pretty nasty organisation.

Scientology in many ways represents the danger of one-way transparency. The organisation exploits information from its members and the rest of society, but fiercely defends its internal structure and teachings from scrutiny.

All religions claim to possess unique revealed knowledge, but most are only too eager to dispense this "knowledge". Scientology is interesting in that it instead tries to keep it on the inside: it is a modern mystery cult. But unlike (most) cults of antiquity they charge for initiation.

I don't see anything necessarily bad about that.

The main problem with religions in society tends to be that they claim society should conform to their morals, and that gives society a legitimate right to scrutinize their claims (and that usually leads to an epistemic battle). But a religion that does not publicly claim society must conform to its ideas (and Scientology as far as I know doesn't seem to be arguing this, unlike most other religions) does not invite that form of scrutiny.

There are also valid reasons for religious privacy: to avoid oppression, freedom of thought, that spirituality is inherently personal and hence naturally part of the private sphere, etc. But religious privacy for individuals does not imply a right to privacy for religious organisations when they interact with the rest of society, just as the right to political privacy among people does not imply that it is improper to scrutinize political organisations and their activities. To the extent the activity overlaps with society it should be transparent.

This is where I think Scientology is not playing fairly. Even the most minimalist libertarian government has a legitimate interest in keeping business transparent, ensuring that deals are fairly made, contracts upheld and conflicts resolved by the rule of law. If Scientology is selling enlightenment, then that business should be transparent. Are people getting what they pay for? Are there unfair information advantages? Are conflicts resolved properly?

The evidence seems to suggest that there are problems with the business ethics of the church. Some might be inherent in mixing business with religion, since religion almost by definition involves subjective states, vulnerable people and methods of causing psychological change that are not under the control of the worshipper. But the existence of front organisations that conceal their ties to the church go far beyond that. The intense reactions to the leaked NOT documents also show that the desire to retain strong and profitable information asymmetries appear to be driving, and that collateral damage to outsiders regarded as irrelevant.

This is really what makes the organisation so odious. It applies the framework instituted to protect business to prevent criticism and free speech, as well as society's legitimate concerns about exploiting vulnerable members. This damages the law and causes chilling effects on public discourse - a cost the church does not bear.

Most religions include a strong in-group identity and a negative view of the out-group: they are essentially paranoid to some degree. A rational company in the enlightenment business would defend its profitable trade secrets as long as it was economical but no further. Scientology (and/or members) seem to go further, driven by this us vs. them perspective to harass individuals. It would actually have been better for everybody if the church was as cynical and money-grubbing as caricatured.

I hope future versions of Keith will be able to look back at this episode and chuckle. But for now we should be thankful for (and help) his struggle to improve the business ethics of the enlightenment trade

Posted by Anders3 at February 5, 2007 02:57 AM