Ostentatious Piety in the Asylum

The blogosphere is a crazy place. Read posts and comments where you will, and you will find the online asylum is filled to bursting with people who are cocksure they know what is good and what is evil, and are quite convinced their standards apply to everyone else in the world. No matter whether they are leftists or rightists, infidels or true believers, they are all convinced they have a monopoly on the true morality. One typically finds them pointing out how people they happen not to agree with don’t quite measure up to their universal standard.

Now, certain as they are that they know the difference between good and evil (and assuming, of course, that human beings really are intelligent), one would think that they would be able to tell you, logically, and going back to first principles, why what they consider good is really good, and why what they consider evil is really evil. If so, one would be thinking wrong. Of all those currently strutting about on the moral high ground preening themselves on their superior virtue, you could probably count the number who could even make a convincing attempt with the fingers on one hand.

Good and evil have no objective existence, and yet our brains are hard wired to perceive them as not only real, but absolute. Even I, the philosopher king of this blog, perceive them that way. That would all be well and good if our situation were still the same as it was when morality evolved. It isn’t though. The world is now much more complex, and we are armed with nuclear weapons in place of sticks and stones. Second guessing mother nature is always a dubious proposition. Refusing to act as moral beings because we consider ourselves too clever and sophisticated for such atavistic nonsense is a strategy that is more than likely to blow up in our faces. Still, it would behoove us to occasionally step back and ask ourselves whether what we consider good and evil really promote our survival or not. These categories only exist in our minds because that’s what they did in the past. If they prompt us to act self-destructively in the new world we’ve inherited, perhaps its a sign we need to turn off the autopilot, and start relying on our reason.

Author: Helian

I am Doug Drake, and I live in Maryland, not far from Washington, DC. I am a graduate of West Point, and I hold a Ph.D. in nuclear engineering from the University of Wisconsin. My blog reflects my enduring fascination with human nature and human morality.

2 thoughts on “Ostentatious Piety in the Asylum”

  1. “Good and evil have no objective existence, and yet our brains are hard wired to perceive them as not only real, but absolute”


    From your David Davis on Torture post:

    ““The battle against terrorism is not just a fight for life; it is a battle of ideas and ideals. It is a battle between good and evil, between civilisation and barbarism. In that fight, we should never allow our standards to drop to those of our enemies. We cannot defend our civilisation by giving up the values of that civilisation. I hope the minister will today help me in ensuring that we find out what has gone wrong so we can return to defending those values once again.”

    (Helian’s voice follows)

    Some additional background on Davis may be found here and here. Again, I know little about Davis, but if he really is the man of principle he seems to be, he has my admiration

    So. I’m confused. If there is no obective good and evil, wherefore the admiration for ‘the man of principle’ who declares otherwise?

    If there is no objective existence for good and evil, why should I – or you – give a monkey’s butt about torture?

    Damn, I’m glad you’re back!

  2. It is not necessary for me to believe that good and evil have an absolute, objective existence to oppose torture. It is only necessary for me to consider it a threat to my survival, and the survival of the members of my family. In my opinion, it is, and that’s why I oppose it. To oppose it effectively, I must cast my opposition in a context that most readers will understand. Morality and traditional values provide such a context. If I tried to cast the argument in terms of my own personal philosophy, most readers would dismiss it as gibberish. I would be wasting my time.

    Other than that, as I’ve pointed out elsewhere, the fact that I don’t believe good and evil have an objective existence doesn’t imply that I feel justified in acting amorally. Far from it. In the first place, I realize morality has evolved for a reason. It has promoted our survival. After all, it makes sense. If we were all fighting each other to selfishly monopolize all the resources we could find for ourselves, our chances of survival would be slim. That logic works as well today as it did 100,000 or a million years ago. Secondly, morality is hard wired in my brain just as it is hard wired in everyone elses. I have a conscience. It pleases me to do what I think is good, and to avoid doing what I think is evil. It would be distressing for me to act otherwise. Since I have also logically concluded that I will promote my own survival by acting morally, I do so.

    That does not mean that my philosophy has no bearing on my actions, and is, therefore, inconsequential. I realize that morality evolved over millions of years, and that it may occasionally prompt me to do things that do not promote my survival in today’s world. Therefore, I occasionally step back and consider whether acting in one way or another makes any rational sense. For example, I am as predisposed to indentify and hate an out-group as anyone else. This hatred, which has evolved in the same way as what we would normally consider moral behavior, has manifested itself in such classic forms as racism, anti-Semitism, anti-Americanism, the Communists’ hatred of the “bourgeoisie,” etc., and has been, as we all know, the source of much misery throughout our history. We must, therefore, understand it, rationally grasp the obvious fact that it is generally self-destructive in the context of the modern world, and, therefore, control it.

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