Virtuous indignation is a crutch for the intellectually crippled.
Virtuous indignation is a crutch for the intellectually crippled.
You were a brave man. Once again, after egging on the murderers and bombers, the “pro-life” crowd treats us to more hypocritical handwringing and crocodile tears. What a fine “Christian” cause they represent; the usurpation of state power to force their point of view on the rest of us. No doubt that’s what Jesus had in mind when he said, “Judge not lest ye be judged.” Meanwhile, standing on the steps of the Supreme Court, they remind us once again that it’s not a question of rendering to Caesar, it’s a question of becoming Caesar.
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.
It would be difficult to overestimate the role of what Robert Ardrey called the Amity-Enmity (AE) complex in our development as a species. It is an aspect of our behavior and our nature whose expression is ubiquitous in our relationships with other individuals and other groups. It is fundamental to any coherent understanding of human history. Why is the AE complex important? Among other things, it has played a decisive role in motivating, provoking, and/or justifying virtually every one of our countless wars since the dawn of recorded history, and, presumably, long before that. It is the reason we associate good, justice, honor, heroism, and similar positive qualities with our in-group, and evil, impurity, dishonesty, and corruption with our out-group(s). It affects the way in which we perceive and categorize every other human being on the planet. Indeed, we have categorized many manifestations of AE behavior, such as racism, patriotism, and religious bigotry, and assigned them “good” or “evil” connotations, without ever understanding the one basic predisposition at the root of them all. It is impossible to correctly understand our group and individual behavior without taking it into account. Given the decisive role it has played in our past and will continue to play in our future, it certainly behooves us to study it and understand it.
Unfortunately, there are aspects of our nature, including the AE complex itself, that hinder an objective approach to the subject. For example, many in-groups are defined by ideology. Beliefs in certain ideological notions are the touchstones for membership in the group. Some in-groups must believe that human behavior is entirely determined by environment, and lacks any innate component, hard-wired in our brains. To believe otherwise would challenge the ideological construct that defines the in-group itself. For example, Marxists in the former Soviet Union believed they could call forth the “new Soviet man” merely by providing a “correct” environment and educational system. The “new Soviet man” would fit perfectly into the Communist future that they also believed in as a defining concept of their in-group. The reality of innate predispositions would make the “new Soviet man” impossible. The reality must, therefore, be denied. It has been denied, by Marxists and others whose ideologies have been challenged by its implications, with a fury that is difficult to understand unless one understands its in-group based ideological motivation. One may find interesting examples of this denial in the works of Ashley Montagu and Richard Lewontin, both of whom enjoyed significant “scientific” credibility, and there are many others like them. When writers like Ardrey insisted that the AE complex existed whether they chose to wear ideological blinkers or not, they did not limit their responses to dispassionate logical arguments. Rather, they vilified anyone who proposed such arguments, claiming they were fascists, racists, or associated with some other evil. In other words, they assigned qualities to Ardrey and the rest that they associated with their own out-groups. In doing so, they proved his point.
Why does the AE complex exist? Like all of our other important characteristics, it evolved, because, at least at some point in our existence, it helped us to survive. AE behavior is seen in other primates, and has likely been around since before our emergence as a species. When we lived in small groups of more or less closely related individuals, such behavior tended to spread us out so as to take maximum advantage of the available resources, and increase our chances of surviving local depletion of resources or environmental catastrophe. Unfortunately, evolution cannot plan ahead, and it could not foresee the emergence of nation states containing populations much larger than the small groups of hunter gatherers that had been the rule for many thousands of years. Perception of the others of our species in terms of in-groups and out-groups results from an innate predisposition. It was not a manifestation of conscious, logical thought when it evolved, any more than it is today. However, in a world of nation states armed with nuclear weapons, AE behavior’s value in promoting our survival is dubious at best. In fact, our survival is threatened unless we finally grasp its fundamental impact on our thought processes and our actions.
Writers throughout history have commented on the seemingly illogical and absurd manifestations of the complex. The Byzantine historian Procopius recorded a visit by Christian clerics motivated by a dispute over points of doctrine, remarking that the matters at issue were so absurd that he declined to record them. AE behavior often assumes a façade of rationality because the members of human in-groups are able to use ideological markers to distinguish themselves from “the others,” in addition to the physical traits our primate cousins must rely on. For example, Procopius also recorded the antics of the “Blues” and “Greens” of the circus. Later historians have claimed to “understand,” and, occasionally, justify their seemingly irrational mutual slaughter by pointing out that one side or the other associated itself with demands for lower taxation, less oppressive government, etc. The manifestations of the AE complex in our own day, similarly shrouded with ideological camouflage, have become increasingly destructive. Instead of relatively harmless assaults of one group of a few score primates on another, similar group in an adjoining territory, we have seen the slaughter of millions of Jews by the Nazis, tens of millions of bourgeoisie by the Communists, including the decapitation of Cambodia by the Khmer Rouge, and the butchery of the Tutsis by the Hutus. It has been difficult for us to understand the fundamentally irrational and emotional nature of this mayhem because all of us are subject to the same primal predispositions. Once we have made the subjective identification of the victims as “others,” it becomes an easy matter to rationalize mass murder by simply buying into the ideological façade. Henry Ford and countless others like him were able to accept and justify the Holocaust as a “reasonable” response to the “Jewish world conspiracy.” Hundreds of thousands of Communist sympathizers accepted the mass murder of millions of innocents once they had convinced themselves that the victims were “bourgeoisie.”
Meanwhile, the mayhem continues. It will not end until we are able to understand ourselves, grasp the nature of our behavior, and finally undertake a conscious effort to control it. We cannot make our predispositions disappear, because they are every bit as much a part of us as our arms, legs and other physical characteristics. Evolution has hard wired them in our brains. As a result, we must belong to in-groups, and we require out-groups to serve as the evil enemy. If one in-group no longer serves, and begins to disappear, another invariably emerges to fill the vacuum, as, for example, political Islam emerged as a potent force in the world following the demise of Communism.
What is to be done? First, we must understand the nature of in-group/out-group behavior, and grasp its immense significance. We must begin to see clearly the decisive and destructive role it has played in our history. The solution will certainly be easier once we understand that we are all potential victims, and that we are all threatened, and that we ourselves, and not just the “others” might easily belong to the next out-group slated for mass slaughter.
It will also behoove us to devote every effort to understanding the function of our own brains at the most fundamental level. We must seek to explain the physical basis, not only of in-group/out-group behavior but of human morality and all the rest of the emotions that shape our behavior, our perceptions, and our relationships so decisively. We face no scientific challenge more grand than this. Our survival as a species may well depend on our ability to find the answers we seek.