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.

Consequences: Good and Evil, Part I

Good and Evil. They are only real within our minds, impossible to extract from a thicket of emotions and predispositions. They are inseparable from our consciousness. They are subjective, but they are real, they exist. It is impossible to set them aside for detached, objective analysis because they are a part of us. Studying them is like trying to study a raging whirlpool when you are caught in the middle of it. Their existence predates that of our species by millions of years, and they first evolved in minds incapable of even attempting to understand or second guess them. We have inherited them from our hominid ancestors, and experience them as absolutes, just as other animals do. They defy understanding because they are part of us, can never be “turned off,” and so are not subject to cool, logical analysis from a distance. We cannot think about them without feeling them in the background, insisting, “Yes, we do exist outside of your mind, yes, we are real, yes, we are absolute, yes, we are universally valid.” It is easy enough to understand morality and why it exists. It is much more difficult, once we do understand it, to come up with logically supportable, objective reasons why we really “should” do anything at all. Obviously, we cannot deal with the topic of human moral behavior and all its ramifications in a single post. We will make a start.

To begin, let us consider why morality exists to begin with. As with everything else I will write on the subject, what I write here are hypotheses. Some of the hypotheses will be “stronger” than others, depending on how much supporting information is available to back them up. When it comes to understanding the fundamental nature of morality, it seems to me the hypotheses presented here are very strong in that respect, but certainly not complete. To confirm them, we must understand the fundamental physical processes in the brain that result in consciousness, including consciousness of what we perceive as right and wrong, and how those processes are affected by what we experience. Such knowledge is not beyond our reach, and I am confident we will acquire it as long as we remain free to search and inquire.

My first and basic hypothesis, then, is that morality is an evolved characteristic. As I pointed out in an earlier post, it is not difficult to understand why it evolved; “We all have desires. However, others desire the same things. A state of affairs in which each individual laid claim to the same scarce resources, and was willing to battle all others to the death to acquire them would not be conducive to our survival. On the other hand, if something in the consciousness of the individuals in a group caused them to share the available resources according to rules familiar to all, derived from certain fundamental principles, it would enhance the chances that the individuals in the group would survive. It would give them an advantage over others not possessing the same quality.”

The concept of morality as an evolved characteristic, hard-wired in our brains, appeared shortly after Darwin published “The Origin of Species.” Indeed, Jean Meslier had suggested that our concepts of good and evil existed as a result of natural causes more than a century earlier; “The law that compels man not to harm himself, is inherent in the nature of a sensible being, who, no matter how he came into this world, or what can be his fate in another, is compelled by his very nature to seek his welfare and to shun evil, to love pleasure and to fear pain.”

Much more could be said about the reasons for the hypothesis that morality evolved. Those reasons have been set forth convincingly and in great detail by many writers more capable than me. For example, copious supporting evidence as well as citations of much related work by others may be found in the works of Robert Ardrey and Sir Arthur Keith. In particular, see “A New Theory of Human Evolution” by the latter. For more than a hundred years after Darwin published his theory, these thinkers were largely ignored by those whose minds were closed by blind faith in religious or ideological verities. It’s encouraging to note that, as these religious and dogmatic blinders have weakened and frayed, a little light has begun to trickle through. Forty years ago the very mention of human nature based on innate predispositions was politically incorrect. Today, it is accepted almost as a commonplace.

What, then, are the consequences? If morality, like everything else about us, exists because it has evolved, the theological basis for good and evil disappears. If they did not come from God, then the basis for claiming that they are absolute and have an objective existence independent of the human mind disappears as well. If we accept the hypothesis, then morality is subjective. If human beings ceased to exist, then human notions of good and evil would cease to exist with them. In later posts, we will examine the implications of these conclusions.

Does God Exist?

Jean Meslier
Jean Meslier
In my opinion, no. I am not certain that I am right, but none of us can be logically certain of anything. As human beings, we must be satisfied with probabilities, not certainties. There are few things that I consider more improbable than the existence of God, or any other supernatural being, for that matter. I shed my belief in God at age 12. Everything I have learned, experienced, and thought since then has confirmed that very fundamental conclusion.

Why fundamental? Because our conclusions about the nature of good and evil, the reasons for and purpose of our existence, and the logical basis for our goals in life must depend on whether we believe in God or not.

We often see discussions about whether belief in God has been useful to society or not, whether it has lead to destructive behavior or not, whether it has been responsible for one historical disaster or another or not, or whether it is necessary to motivate people to act morally or not. All these are moot points. The question we must answer is not whether belief in God is useful, but whether belief in God is true.

For most people, religious beliefs are not based on logical thought. So much is obvious if we look at the differences between different countries. The population of one might be mainly Moslem, and of another mainly Christian. The disparities do not depend on the ability of one group of citizens to reason more accurately than the other. Rather, they reflect prevailing customs and traditions. Based on this evidence, we must conclude that the majority of people, whether they think more or less about the matter, end up adopting the beliefs of the society or group to which they happen to belong. This behavior is hardly surprising, given what we know about the nature of human beings. However, given the consequences, it is probably not something we should wish to emulate.

For example, most Christians believe, at least nominally, in the Trinity. According to the Koran, those who believe in the Trinity will burn in hell for quadrillions and quintillions of years, and more. In fact, they will burn in hell forever. I take a less drastic view of the matter. I don’t think that either Christians or Moslems will burn in hell forever because they disagree with me. I simply believe that it is better to base ones actions, goals, and the way in which one relates to others on that which is true rather than on that which is false.

Why do I reject belief in the supernatural? There are a great many reasons. I found some of them on my own, but most of them are not original. In the beginning I may have thought they were, but since then I’ve found many others who’ve thought the same thoughts, had the same ideas, and come to the same conclusions. These include Richard Dawkins, Chris Hitchens, and Sam Harris, who’ve all recently published books rejecting religious belief. However, of the many I’ve found whose ideas reflected my own, the greatest thinker of them all was a simple French priest named Jean Meslier. When he died in 1729, he left three copies of his Testament, in which he set forth what I consider the most thorough and the most profound rejection of religious belief ever written. Voltaire admired Meslier and did much to circulate and preserve his work, but commented that he wrote “in the style of a carriage horse.” His condescension was ill-considered. I am grateful to Voltaire. He probably did more to liberate mankind from the shackles of political and religious obscurantism than anyone before or since. However, I consider Meslier the more powerful of the two thinkers. Voltaire was a deist, and somehow found in Meslier’s work a confirmation of his own beliefs. In fact, Meslier demolished deism as thoroughly as the rest of religious belief. Somehow, Voltaire missed the point.

Meslier’s style may have been unpolished, but his case against religion was clear, concise, and thorough. His work includes virtually every argument that has ever occurred to me, and many more. I have read many apologies for religion, but none, in my opinion, that could even begin to stand up against Meslier’s logic. One feels a sense of awe when one recalls he wrote more than 100 years before the publication of “The Origin of Species.” One can occasionally find English versions of his work published under the rather affected title, “Superstition in All Ages.” I will have more to say about Meslier in future. In the meantime, do yourself a favor: read his book and think about it. Here are a few excerpts:

“What is God? What is spirit? They are causes of which we have no idea. Sages! Study nature and her laws; and when you can from them unravel the action of natural causes. Do not go in search of supernatural causes, which, very far from enlightening your ideas, will but entangle them more and more and make it impossible for you to understand yourselves.”

“Nature, you say, is totally inexplicable without a God; that is to say, in order to explain what you understand so little, you need a cause which you do not understand at all. You pretend to make clear that which is obscure, by magnifying its obscurity. You think you have untied a knot by multiplying knots.”

“I would admit without question that the human machine appears to me surprising; but since man exists in nature, I do not believe it right to say that his formation is beyond the forces of nature. I will add, that I could conceive far less of the formation of the human machine, when to explain it to me they tell me that a pure spirit, who has neither eyes, nor feet, nor hands, nor head, nor lungs, nor mouth, nor breath, has made man by taking a little dust and blowing upon it.”

“According to the notions of modern theology, it appears evident that God has created the majority of men with the view only of punishing them eternally. Would it not have been more in conformity with kindness, with reason, with equity, to create but stones or plants, and not sentient beings, than to create men whose conduct in this world would cause them eternal chastisements in another? A God so perfidious and wicked as to create a single man and leave him exposed to the perils of damnation, cannot be regarded as a perfect being, but as a monster of nonsense, injustice, malice and atrocity.”

“But if the choicest work of Divinity is imperfect, by what are we to judge of the Divine perfections? Can a work with which the author himself is so little satisfied, cause us to admire his skill?”

“Does it depend upon man to accept or not to accept the opinions of his parents and of his teachers? If I were born of idolatrous or Mohammedan parents, would it have depended upon me to become a Christian? However, grave Doctors of Divinity assure us that a just God will damn without mercy all those to whom He has not given the grace to know the religion of the Christians.”

“In calling mortals into life, what a cruel and dangerous game does the Divinity force them to play! Thrust into the world without their wish, provided with a temperament of which they are not the masters, animated by passions and desires inherent in their nature, exposed to snares which they have not the skill to avoid, led away by events which they could neither foresee nor prevent, the unfortunate beings are obliged to follow a career which conducts them to horrible tortures.”

“Their (the animals) peaceable ignorance, is it not more advantageous than these extravagant meditations and these futile investigations which render you miserable, and for which you are driven to murdering beings of your own noble kind?”

I am in awe when I read things like this. It boggles the mind to think that “my” reasons, and many more, for rejecting religion were all written down by this genius who lived more than 280 years ago. I will discuss some of those not touched on above in future posts.

What is the consequence of my conclusions regarding religion? Everything else I write here; my ideas concerning good and evil, human nature, the purpose of life or lack thereof, everything. Religious beliefs or the lack thereof matter. There are consequences for getting it right and consequences for getting it wrong, and they are very weighty consequences as far as our lives are concerned. For that reason, we must be particularly zealous in guarding freedom of speech concerning matters of religion. We simply cannot afford to suppress the critical discussion of religious belief because we are afraid of hurting someone’s feelings, or “insulting” their beliefs. There can be few better proofs that an idea is false than its proponents’ fear of criticism. The truth should not be afraid of confronting falsehood.

Robert Ardrey and the Amity/Enmity Complex


Robert Ardrey was a man who had the unusual combination of a brilliant mind, and a rare talent for explaining to a broad audience what he was thinking.  The series of books he wrote in the 1960’s and 70’s emphasized a common theme; the effect of innate predispositions, or human nature, if you will, on human behavior.  One aspect of our behavior that has had a profound and decisive impact on our history, and may well bring that history to an end one day unless we learn to understand and control it, is the Amity/Enmity Complex, our innate tendency to categorize others of our species into in-groups and out-groups.  Ardrey describes it in a chapter of his book, “The Territorial Imperative,” taking the reader through a review of the origins of the idea, salient observations of human and animal behavior that support it, and the logical basis for the hypothesis.  If you read nothing else of Ardrey’s writings, read this chapter.  If you do so with an open mind, I think some of the constantly reccurring manifestations of the Complex, including such notorious examples as the anti-Semitism that has stained the histories of so many European countries, the racism that has justified slavery and rationalized discrimination in the United States and many other countries, and the religious bigotry now fomenting such violence in the Middle East, although it is hardly unique to that region of the world, will begin to make a lot more sense to you.  One would think that the innumerable irrational and devastating wars that have been such a constant and persistent phenomenon in human history would have tipped us off by now when it comes to this aspect of our nature.  It seems that, when it comes to understanding ourselves, we are remarkably slow learners.

The Amity/Enmity Complex as an aspect of human moral behavior and most of the other ideas Ardrey presented weren’t really original.  He made that clear himself.  In addition to his other talents, he had a rare grasp of history, and was well able to follow the intellectual paths leading from his own theories back to their sources.  His books were very popular at the time they were published, and enlightened many.  They also made him many enemies, because his theories flew in the face of cherished ideological certainties posing as science.  Those enemies reacted with a vehemence and bitterness that had little to do with disinterested logic, but which I’m sure Ardrey understood very well himself. One can still trace the effects of their malice on the web today, where Ardrey’s “biographers” continue to bowdlerize his thought as “The Killer Ape Theory.”   Ironically, they proved his point.  By threatening the shibboleths that made up the ideological boxes they lived in, Ardrey put himself squarely in their “out-groups,” and elicited all the rage that he himself had so clearly described and predicted. 

Writing in 1966, Ardrey described the Amity-Enmity Complex as “the resolution of a paradox posed by Darwin, solved by Wallace, explored by Spencer and Sumner, revived and extended by Keith, and for the last twenty years cast aside under the pretense it does not exist.  The paradox may be simply stated:  If the evolutionary process is a merciless struggle among individuals to survive, with natural selection determining the fittest, then how could such human qualities as altruism, loyalty, charity, and mercy have ever come into existence?  If Darwinian evolution presents a picture of dog eat dog, then how did dogs ever get together?”

After describing some of the behaviorist and other psychological myths that, being more in tune with the preferred ideological narratives of the day, suppressed the theory for so long, Ardrey goes on;

“All, of course, are false.  What seems to have occurred to no one, excepting possibly Keith, is that the animal is a moral being, and that human morality is a simple evolutionary extension of a form of conduct which has existed in nature for many hundreds of millions of years.  But unless we inspect both the history of the falsehood and the history of the truth, we shall not in least part grasp our contemporary predicament.”

He goes on to do just that with compelling arguments based on a profound knowledge of the history of evolutionary thought.  In the process, he gives us thumbnails of the ideas of some of the great thinkers who contributed to the development of the theory.  One of them already mentioned above, Sir Arthur Keith, is almost forgotten today.  It would be well if we recalled some of his words, and took them to heart.  In one passage of exceptional insight cited by Ardrey he said,

“Human nature has a dual constitution; to hate as well as to love are parts of it; and conscience may enforce hate as a duty just as it enforces the duty of love.  Conscience has a two-fold role in the soldier:  it is his duty to save and protect his own people and equally his duty to destroy their enemies… Thus conscience serves both codes of group behavior; it gives sanction to practices of the code of enmity as well as the code of amity.”

It grieves me to think that ideas as seemingly simple and self-evident as this have not become commonplaces of human knowledge.  They explain so much, and could help us to understand and control so much that is destructive and self-defeating in our nature.  Must we eternally experience the misery, pain and death accompanying each new manifestation of the complex, slowly come to the realization that it is an evil that must be controlled, and then invent some new “ism,” whether racism, anti-Semitism, or what have you, to finally categorize the behavior as an evil and place it in its own out-group in turn?  Instead of dealing with each one of these manifestations of a common behavioral trait piecemeal, one-by-one, and applying palliatives after they have already done their damage, would it not be better to finally grasp and understand the unifying phenomenon that is the basis of them all? 

Sometimes it takes a long time for our species to grasp the obvious.  Actually, we have come a long way since Ardrey’s day.  Nowadays one begins to see many of the ideas about human nature he so ably presented accepted as commonplaces in the popular media, often described as if they were novelties of modern research, with no allusion to the fact that they have a history going back to the time of Darwin, or that they were suppressed for so long by ideological obscurantism.   Still, it is unfortunate that it has taken us so long to come this far.  I am confident that, as long as research into uncovering the secrets of the human mind can go on freely without ideological suppression of inconvenient truths, the recent encouraging progress we have made in understanding ourselves will continue.  One must hope so, because we have also been making rapid progress in acquiring the means of self-destruction.  Unless we learn to understand and control the Amity/Enmity Complex, it may very well become the reason for our final demise.

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.

A Note to the Professionally Righteous

I occasionally receive comments from people who are “appalled” and “indignant” about what I have to say. Allow me to suggest to those people that they take their comments elsewhere. I don’t care to let them use my little blog to announce to the world what it is they happen to be virtuously indignant about on any given day. There are many other blogs and forums that will be more than happy to pass on that urgent news for them.

The Evolution of Morality and the Shifting Standards of Political Correctness

Robert Ardrey
Robert Ardrey
An interesting article appeared in the German news magazine, “Der Spiegel,” recently. It was entitled, “How Mankind Learned Humanity,” and discussed recent developments in the field of evolutionary science relating to the evolution of morality in human beings. Why was it interesting? Well, there was a time when the appearance of anything of the sort in a left-leaning publication like Spiegel would have been virtually unthinkable. You see, back in the day, Marxists, socialists, and dwellers in various other ideological straightjackets found such notions politically unpalatable. They were in conflict with the preferred version of human behavior as infinitely malleable, and determined entirely by environment and learning. Creatures possessing such ideal characteristics were indispensible if the various utopias then under construction for us were ever to work as planned.

Back in the 60’s and 70’s, a brilliant thinker named Robert Ardrey and others like him began publishing books, such as “African Genesis,” and “The Territorial Imperative,” pointing out the rather obvious absurdities of such notions, and reviewing studies of animal behavior and other research that pointed to the conclusion that our capacity to act as moral beings had evolved, along with the rest of our characteristics. They were promptly demonized as fascists, racists, and “pop ethologists” by the puritan ideologues. Notions to the effect that there was any genetic component to human behavior became distinctly politically incorrect. References to such ideas in the popular media became few and far between. When they did, it was usually to the accompaniment of some slur about the moral turpitude of those harboring such notions.

For those of us who lived through those times, and witnessed the shameful attempts of scientific poseurs like Richard Lewontin and Ashley Montagu to silence Ardrey and his colleagues with ridicule and spite, the unconscious vindication of his ideas represented by the Spiegel article and many others like it is both welcome and encouraging. I never doubted that vindication would come, because it seemed that, unless the Lewontins of the world were somehow able to cow the rest of the research community into suppressing every “inconvenient truth” that didn’t quite agree with their ideologically conditioned preconceptions, the weight of evidence for ideas that really amounted to little more than common sense would become overwhelming.

In the end, it did become overwhelming. The Spiegel article and the ever increasing volume of others like it are a reflection of that fact. The genetic basis of morality, and of human nature in general, is now treated as a commonplace in the popular media, as it is in the scientific research community in general. To tell the truth, I never thought the day would come as quickly as it has. It’s a hopeful sign. In the end, as long as free research can continue, the truth really can prevail.

Morality – the Nature of Good and Evil

To understand morality it is necessary to understand what it is and why it exists.  Morality is a construct of our minds.  In other words, it is subjective.  It is a part of us, in the same way that our eyes, heart, and feet are parts of us.  Being a part of us, it exists for the same reason that our other parts exist.  It promotes our survival, or at least did promote our survival at some point in our past.  It is a characteristic which evolved, in the same way that all our other characteristics evolved.  We do not yet understand how it works, or what gives rise to it, or the detailed nature of its development as our conscious selves interact with the world around us during our lives.  We cannot see it, as we can see our hands and feet, or hear it, as we hear our voices, but still, we know it’s there, and is a part of what we are.  The thinkers among us have often noted its remarkable consistency across otherwise widely divergent cultures.  For example, in response to a M. Le Beau, who claimed that, “The Christians had a morality, but the Pagans had none,” Voltaire replied in an article entitled “Morality” in his “Philosophical Dictionary,”

“Oh, M. Le Beau!  …where did you pick up this absurdity?  …There is but one morality, M. Le Beau, as there is but one geometry.  But you will tell me that the greater part of mankind are ignorant of geometry.  True; but if they apply a little to the study of it, all men draw the same conclusions.  …We cannot repeat too frequently that dogmas differ, but that morality is the same among all men who make use of their reason.”  

The point I wish to make here is not that Voltaire was strictly correct in his conclusions about the absolute consistency of morality, but that he noticed that it is a part of our nature.  While it may not be exactly the same in one individual as in another, the similarities across cultures are remarkable.  We experience morality, not as relative or situational, but as an absolute.  It was this aspect of morality that Kant perceived when he associated it with a categorical, rather than hypothetical imperatives. 

It is not difficult to understand why morality evolved.  We all have desires.  However, others desire the same things.  A state of affairs in which each individual laid claim to the same scarce resources, and was willing to battle all others to the death to acquire them would not be conducive to our survival.  On the other hand, if something in the consciousness of the individuals in a group caused them to share the available resources according to rules familiar to all, derived from certain fundamental principles, it would enhance the chances that the individuals in the group would survive.  It would give them an advantage over others not possessing the same quality.  Therefore, like everything else about us, morality evolved.   Its basic framework is hard wired in our brains.  Its behavioral manifestations are moderated more or less in practice by our environment, by cultural influences.  

We experience morality as an absolute.  Why?  Because it functions best that way.  We experience good and evil as real, objective things because they are most effective in promoting our survival if we experience them that way.  In other words, we experience a subjective entity as an objective absolute because it works best that way.  The resultant conundrums and apparent logical inconsistencies in our perception of good and evil have busied philosophers through the ages.  In all likelihood, morality evolved long before our emergence as a species.  However, while other animals have moral natures, and can distinguish between “good” and “bad” actions, they were fortunate enough not to be aware of these logical difficulties.  We, with our greater mental capacity, have often run afoul of them.

The ancient Greeks were certainly aware of the difficulties.  Plato explores the problem in his “Euthyphro.”  The “hero,” Euthyphro, gives himself out as an “expert” on piety.  Socrates embarrasses him in his usual style when he is unable to provide any logical basis for distinguishing good from evil. 

In fact, morality is not really absolute, in that it is subjective, and has no independent existence outside of our own minds.  If we did not exist, one rock would not be more or less good or evil than another.  Unlike a rock, good and evil have no objective existence.  They are constructs of our minds.  How then, “ought” we to act?

As Voltaire pointed out, we all experience morality in the same way regardless of what ideological or religious dogmas we associate ourselves with.  There is no difference between atheists and the most zealous Christians in this regard.  Visit an atheist website, and you will see that professed atheists can experience righteous indignation and are quite as firmly convinced that they know the difference between good and evil as any true believer.  Neither, as Socrates pointed out long ago, can provide any logical basis for this conviction.  What “should” we do?  To the extent that there is anything that we really “should” do, we should survive.  There is nothing more immoral than failing to survive.  Morality is a part of us because it works.  It is, therefore, probably not a good idea to “overthink” the issue.  We should not try to be too coy with Mother Nature.  On the other hand, morality evolved long before the emergence of modern human societies.  It may prompt us to do things which had survival value when we existed as small groups of hunter-gatherers, but would be disastrous in the context of modern civilization.  See, for example, what I have written below on the different moral standards we apply to “in-groups” and “out-groups.”  The outcome of nuclear war was not possible when morality evolved. 

Perhaps, then, we should act as enlightened moral beings, seeking to do good and avoid evil as we perceive them, but keeping in mind the reason that morality exists to begin with.  In other words, act morally, but not self-destructively.

Torture: Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow

We are told that torture is essential to defend our “security.” Here are a few examples of how torture has contributed to the “security” of society over the years.

From “The History of the Franks,” by Gregory of Tours (in 584 AD a nobleman named Mummolus annoyed Queen Fredegund. Gregory continues with the story):

(The Queen) had a number of Parisian housewives rounded up, and they were tortured with the instruments and the cat, and so compelled to act as informers. They confessed that they were witches and gave evidence that they had been responsible for many deaths. They then added something which I find quite incredible: “We sacrificed you son (a young boy who had just died of dysentery) O Queen, to save the life of Mummolus…

Chilperic (the king) immediately sent his men to seize the person of Mummolus. He was interrogated, loaded with chains and put to the torture. Then his hands were tied behind his back, he was suspended from a rafter and he was questioned about these sorceries…Mummolus was extended on the rack and then flogged with treble thongs until his torturers were quite exhausted. After this splinters were driven beneath the nails of his fingers and toes. So things continued…

From “Red Victory” by W. Bruce Lincoln, describing the methods of the Cheka, the first of the infamous Communist security organizations, during the civil war that followed the 1917 Revolution:

Rapes of female prisoner by Cheka guards and interrogators were so commonplace that they occasioned comment from superiors only if performed in some particularly brutal or perverted fashion…

…each Cheka headquarters evidently developed certain specialities. The Cheka in Voronezh rolled its prisoners around inside a barrel into which nails had been driven, while the Cheka in Kharkov used scalping as a preferred form of torture. In Armavir, the Cheka used a “death wreath” that applied increasing pressure to a prisoners skull; at Tsaritsyn, they separated prisoners joints by sawing through their bones; and, in Omsk, they poured molten sealing wax on prisoners’ faces, arms, and necks. In Kiev, Chekists installed rats in pieces of pipe that had been closed at one end, placed the open end against prisoners’ stomachs, and then heated the pipes until the rats, maddened by the heat, tried to escape by gnawing their way into the prisoners’ intestines.

From a U.S. military autopsy report:

Final Autopsy Report: DOD 003164, (Detainee) Died as a result of asphyxia (lack of oxygen to the brain) due to strangulation as evidenced by the recently fractured hyoid bone in the neck and soft tissue hemorrhage extending downward to the level of the right thyroid cartilage. Autopsy revealed bone fracture, rib fractures, contusions in mid abdomen, back and buttocks extending to the left flank, abrasions, lateral buttocks. Contusions, back of legs and knees; abrasions on knees, left fingers and encircling to left wrist. Lacerations and superficial cuts, right 4th and 5th fingers. Also, blunt force injuries, predominately recent contusions (bruises) on the torso and lower extremities. Abrasions on left wrist are consistent with use of restraints. No evidence of defense injuries or natural disease. Manner of death is homicide. Whitehorse Detainment Facility, Nasiriyah, Iraq.

Such acts really do merit moral condemnation, but we’ve become jaded to moral condemnation. We’ve been afflicted by the professionally pious with their ostentatious displays of superior virtue and their holier than thou preening for so long that we dismiss moral revulsion as a pose, because that’s what it usually is. For the professionally pious, the pose is everything, and the reality nothing. When the reality really is an outrage to human decency, we tend not to notice, dismissing any reservations about, for example, torture, as just another pose, just another facet of someone’s political narrative.

Well, a healthy conscience and a conventional sense of right and wrong aren’t really necessary to understand why it’s necessary to resist the legitimization of torture. It can really be boiled down to a matter of self-preservation. Read through the above incidents, and multiply them hundreds of thousands of times. That’s been the reality of human history. Can anyone really still be so naïve as to believe that what goes around will never come around, that they will never be the victim of what they gladly condone when applied to others? As state power continues to expand exponentially, not only in the US, but in virtually every other country on the globe, who can still be blind enough not to see that, if they legitimize torture, they will eventually become its victim, or, if not them, their children? Has “security” become the sine qua non of modern society, trumping habeas corpus, the right to a trial by jury, the right to confront ones accusers, and the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness without hindrance except by due process of law? If so, then I submit that security is not to be found by the legitimization of torture, but by its final, unequivocal condemnation as a legal instrument of state power.

If security has really become the ultimate social value, then perhaps, when it comes to torture, it would be wise to forget the terminological hair-splitting one finds here, there, and everywhere on the web these days, and coolly consider the odds of ourselves becoming victims. Do you really want security above all else? Then work to put the state out of the torture business once and for all. You’ll be a more secure.