Consequences; Good and Evil, Part II – A World of Euthyphros

Euthyphro appears in one of the dialogs of Socrates as a man so cocksure he knew the difference between good and evil that he was prosecuting his own father for murder. Socrates, using his well known dialectic technique, revealed to both Euthyphro and his listeners that he really didn’t have a clue. It turned out he had no logical basis for his certainty in matters of morality. No one has really come any closer to providing one in the ensuing two and a half millennia, and yet, if the daily flood of moral denunciations and ostentatious public piety on the Internet are any indication, there are more Euthyphros about than ever before.

We flatter ourselves about our unique ability to reason, but it doesn’t quite live up to the hype. In fact, our intellects are blunt tools. Normally, we respond to our environments emotionally, like other animals. By “emotionally” I don’t mean “hysterically.” I merely mean we act according to innate predispositions and preconceived notions that have little if any connection with intelligent thought. We really have little choice in the matter. It’s the way we’re programmed to interact with others of our species. If we tried to apply logical thought to each such interaction, we would be as awkward as someone who tried to apply logical thought to each step in walking. Our perceptions of good and evil are part of this mental software, and we perceive them as absolutes, just as other animals do. Why? Because they work best that way, or at least they did at the time our morality evolved. There weren’t a whole lot of philosophers around in those days, and morality didn’t promote our survival as something relative we had to stop and carefully think about each time we applied it. It promoted our survival as an imperative, as an absolute. Today we still experience it as in imperative and an absolute, as something having a real, objective existence of its own outside of ourselves. In fact, it really doesn’t.

This wasn’t a problem 100,000 years ago. Today, it is potentially a big problem. We have experienced vast social changes in a time that is very short when measured on an evolutionary timescale. Our mental software has had no chance to evolve in response to the changes. It is no longer clear that the way in which we perceive good and evil and act according to those perceptions promotes our survival. In fact, in the context of our current societies, “moral” behavior may well be self-destructive. Assuming we decide survival is still a worthy goal, we can no longer afford to be as self-assured as Euthyphro.

Perhaps the biggest problem is that we are programmed to have a dual moral code. I have already mentioned it in earlier posts as the Amity – Enmity Complex. As Sir Arthur Keith put it,

The process which secures the evolution of an isolated group of humanity is a combination of two principles which at first sight seem incompatible – namely, cooperation with competition. So far as concerns the internal affairs of a local group, the warm emotional spirit of amity, sympathy, loyalty, and of mutual help prevails; but so far as concerns external affairs – its attitude towards surrounding groups – an opposite spirit is dominant: one of antagonism, of suspicion, distrust, contempt, or of open enmity.

Hate is as intrinsic to our moral universe as love. But the result of hate directed against “out-groups” containing tens or hundreds of millions of members armed with modern weapons is quite different than that of hate directed against a small neighboring clan armed with sticks and stones. If the “other” is another country, the result may be a general war in which tens of millions of citizens on either side who have been inoffensively living their lives are marshaled into armies to kill each other, or slaughtered by bombing raids on their cities, or overrun by the enemy and subjected to all the familiar horrors of war. If the “other” is another social class, the result may be the murder of 100 million “bourgeoisie,” and, as we have seen in the case of Russia and Cambodia, the annihilation of a large percentage of the most intelligent and productive citizens, effectively resulting in national decapitation. If the “other” is another ethnic group, the result may be a Holocaust. If the “other” is another religious sect, the results may be the indiscriminate slaughter and devastation of another Crusade or Jihad, not to mention the butchery of hundreds of thousands of “witches.”

Sometimes, shaken by all this devastation, we try to adjust our moral systems, creating new “evils” to combat the old ones. Irrational hatred of Jews becomes the evil of anti-Semitism. Irrational hatred of other races becomes the evil of racism. Irrational hatred of those who seem to be better off than ourselves becomes the evil of class warfare. Irrational hatred of other religious groups becomes the evil of bigotry. The creation of all these new “evils” as a way to combat irrational hatred of specific out-groups is like trying to behead the hydra. In the end, the hatred is natural. It will always seek an object, and, if one is put out of bounds, it will find a new one. We must stop treating symptoms. Instead, we need to grasp the nature of the disease itself. We must come to grips with the reality that it is our nature to hate as much as it is our nature to love. We must understand the fundamental behavioral traits which give rise to hate and control them, because hate no longer promotes our survival, it threatens it. In a world full of nuclear weapons the stakes are getting higher every day.

If you’re looking for corroborating data, visit some Internet forums. You won’t find many disinterested philosophers. Rather, you’ll find lots of people whose “points of view” are easily recognizable as corresponding to some familiar ideological dogma. They are all busily demonizing people who subscribe to dogmas different from their own, with posts and comments that commonly call the moral virtue of their opponents into question, even as they rush for the moral high ground themselves. Take a look at what any one of these specimens says about any given ideologically loaded topic, that is, any topic that happens to part of the ideological box they live in in one fashion or another, and you will find that you can predict with very high accuracy what their opinion will be on any other topic that happens also to be a part of that particular box. This does not bespeak independent, logical thought. Rather, it is characteristic of a species with a hard-wired predisposition to adopt a dual moral code, and which happens to be intelligent enough to distinguish in-groups and out-groups in terms of ideas as well as more mundane features such as facial features and smell.

If we want to survive, we will probably have to learn to do a better job of controlling these behavioral traits. It won’t be easy. One finds some of the most intelligent thinkers around, people who reject the existence of supernatural beings and who accept the hypothesis that morality is an evolved characteristic without a quibble, turning around and, virtually in the next breath, referring to morality as if it were a real, objective thing, universally applicable not only to themselves, but to others as well. Take, for example, Richard Dawkins. In chapter 6 of his recently published book, “The God Delusion,” he explicitly accepts the evolutionary roots of morality. In the very next chapter, he turns around and presents the moral Zeitgeist, a version of morality that changes with the times, but which Dawkins otherwise endows with all the characteristics of an objective moral code and an absolute legitimacy that transcends anything that could properly apply to the subjective trait he describes in the previous chapter. He treats religious believers with all the animosity normally reserved for an out-group, and, at least in my opinion, happens to suffer from a rather commonplace variant of European anti-Americanism. You can read the book and see if you detect the tell-tale symptoms yourself. If a man as brilliant as Dawkins can’t escape the moral treadmill, things don’t look too promising for the rest of us. Still, I suspect it would behoove us to continue groping for a solution.

What might that solution look like? The problem is extremely complex, and I have no infallible nostrums. However, the solution will certainly not take the form of amoral behavior, or failure to act consistently according to a fixed moral code. However, it will need to be a moral code that, while compatible with the kind of creature we are, will promote our survival, rather than our self-destruction. It will also need to be one for which even Euthyphro could provide a rational justification. We will consider what such a code might look like in a later post.

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