On Good and Evil

Good and evil have no independent existence outside the mind.  They have a subjective, but not an objective existence, in the sense that, if there were no minds capable of being conscious of good and evil, good and evil would cease to exist.  They are not “real,” in the sense that they would not continue to exist, as a rock or a planet or a star would continue to exist, if all living creatures suddenly died.  However, we perceive them as real, absolute categories, for all that.  The reason is that the ability to perceive the world in terms of good and evil, like all our other abilities and characteristics, is the result of the process of evolution.  It has helped us, and, presumably, the thinking creatures who were our ancestors, to survive.  We experience good and evil as having a real, absolute existence, not because they really do, but because that has been the mode of perceiving them that has maximized our chances of survival. 

Of course, many thinkers through the ages have come to the intellectual conclusion that good and evil are subjective, matters of culture, or relative, depending on the situation.  The number of individuals who actually experience good and evil in this way, however, must be vanishingly small.  To demonstrate this it is enough to look at the actions of the individuals expressing these thoughts.  In the end, they are just as judgmental and act as moral beings in just the same way as everyone else.  It is difficult to escape ones nature.  I experience good and evil in the same way.  I make moral judgments just as easily.  The predisposition to develop a morality is as much hard wired in my brain as in anyone else’s.  I act as a moral being, as everyone else does, not because of religious or philosophical teachings, but because that is my nature.  Intellectually, however, I realize that good and evil do not exist absolutely, as I perceive them.  To the extent that they have any real existence at all, they are “figments of my imagination,” electro-chemical constructs of my mind. 

This realization leads by no means to the conclusion that I should act immorally or amorally.  If nothing else, it would be very inefficient for me to attempt to rationally examine all my possible courses of action, and come to intellectual conclusions regarding what I should actually do in any given situation.  Realization of what morality is and why it exists, however, may qualify my actions.  Good and evil exist because they have helped us to survive.  I claim (and will have more to say on this topic later) that there is one paramount thing that we really “ought” to do.  We really ought to survive.  To the extent that our lives have any point or purpose at all, that is it.  (Far from seeing that as a meager purpose, by the way, or a reason to despair, I consider life wonderful, improbable, and gloriously worth living in light of this “purpose.”  More on this later, as well.)  We ought to examine all our other actions in the light of this paramount “good” of survival.  There can be nothing more immoral than failing to survive.

There is nothing, then, that trumps survival in considerations of whether an act is moral or not.  By survival I mean the survival of that which is essential about us, namely, our genetic material.  (In this sense, it is possible in rare circumstances to act in a way that promotes our survival even if it leads to the death of the consciousness and the physical body that we normally perceive as our “selves.”)  If nothing trumps survival, then, it is quite possible for situations to arise, particular in this modern world, which is not the world we are adapted to survive in, when actions we perceive as highly moral are really self destructive.  In such cases, we “ought” not to act in the manner that seems “good,” but in the way that promotes our survival.  For example, it has been deemed highly moral and heroic to throw one’s self on a live grenade to save the lives of others.  However, we “ought” not to act in that way.  In an example highlighted in the election of 2008, many thought the vice presidential candidate, Sarah Palin, was acting morally by deliberately deciding to carry a Down’s Syndrome infant to term and care for it.  Indeed, in the context of her culture and background, it is quite possible to argue that her act was, in fact, “good.”  It was also self destructive.  Objectively, she “ought” not to have done it.

I am certainly not arguing here that one ought constantly to try to outwit Mother Nature, and deliberately decide not to act morally.  Morality exists because it has promoted our survival.  We are social beings, and can best promote our survival by living harmoniously with others of our species.  We can generally best accomplish that by adhering to moral rules.  We are not ideally intelligent creatures.  It is unlikely that we are smart enough to attempt to live outside the context of morality.  To promote our own survival, then, we must live within it.  However, we should not lose sight of what morality is, and why it exists.  While we are predisposed, by our nature, to perceive it as an absolute, we must not forget that it is not really objective and absolute, but is subjective, and a construct of our conscious minds.  Normally, we will survive by being virtuous.  However, when the choice is between virtue and survival, we must choose to survive.

Influences

One hesitates to name those who have influenced one’s point of view in this day of ostentatious public piety.  There is hardly an individual of any significance who has not been condemned as “immoral” for one reason or another.  Often this is done by those who, if challenged, could not explain coherently why one thing is morally “good” and another “bad.”  Their moral judgments are built on a foundation of sand, but they are, nevertheless, cocksure they are right.  The writer who most profoundly influenced my own attitude towards morality and ethics was probably Robert Ardrey, author of books such as “African Genesis” and “The Territorial Imperative.”  Ardrey was a remarkable man.  Trained as a statistician and later employed as a playwright, he turned his attention to anthropology and the behavioral sciences in the 1950’s.  He traveled widely, met and learned from a great number of scientists in the field, and thought deeply about what he had seen.   The overriding theme of his work was the deep connection between human behavior, and our evolutionary past, the “animal” basis of what we are, if you will.  Ardrey popularized the work of many scientists and students of animal behavior, noting the frequent human analogs of that behavior, especially in the primates.  He also hypothesized about the influence on human behavior of our evolutionary past, suggesting that “innate predispositions” influenced a host of human behavioral traits, such as our tendency to perceive the rest of humanity in terms of “in-groups” and “out-groups,” the predisposition to acquire a morality, conditioned by culture, but with many common features in all human societies, and even apparently “altruistic” behavior.  Ardrey was attacked by those who claimed he put too much emphasis on traits they objected to, such as aggression.  However, they missed the point.  Ardrey himself never considered such notions more than hypotheses, as evidenced by the title of one of his books, “The Hunting Hypothesis.”  The fundamental point of Ardrey’s work was that there is a genetic basis for human behavior, that we act the way we do and perceive the world the way we do, in part, because that’s the way our brains are wired. 

 

In fact, Ardrey’s most bitter enemies, people of the likes of Ashley Montagu and Richard Lewontin, did not merely differ with him about the nature of the genetic influence on human behavior.  They denied, in works such as Lewontin’s “Not in our Genes,” and in Montagu’s claim that the human brain at birth was a “tabula rasa,” that such an influence even existed.  One might consider the decades since Ardrey’s death in 1980 a triumphant vindication of his work.  Research has generated such mounds of evidence supporting his fundamental ideas that the Montagu school of behaviorists has now all but disappeared.  However, in spite of the current almost universal acceptance of the notion that genes influence behavior, a fact that would have seemed astounding to anyone following the debate in the 60’s, Ardrey has hardly been proclaimed a genius in retrospect.  The reason for this is probably one of the very human behavioral traits Ardrey pointed out, the amity-enmity predisposition, the tendency to categorize our fellow human beings in terms of “in-groups” and “out-groups.”  For a host of reasons, Ardrey’s ideas were unwelcome to the political left of his day.  Leftists preferred to believe that human beings had an unlimited capacity to acquire whatever traits were needed to make them perfect denizens of the Marxist and other utopias that were being concocted for them.  For that reason, they put Ardrey into their “out-group,” identifying him as a “fascist,” a “racist,” and a supporter of all the sinful tendencies the political left of that day associated with their enemies on the right.  He remains in that out-group to this day, even though modern leftists have been forced to accept the truth of his fundamental ideas, and there he will probably stay.  He is still, like many other thinkers who have been condemned for shaking the ideological cages on the left or the right too harshly, well worth reading.

 

Introduction to a World View

 

Why am I writing?  I suppose for the same reasons that others write.  Perhaps, in the process, I will provoke an occasional thought, or entertain (intentionally or not), or record something useful, to justify the effort.  I will try to avoid being too self conscious, and worrying overmuch about the effect my remarks may have on others.  I will try to be truthful, and avoid self-flattery.  Finally, I will try to remain uninhibited by the real or perceived moral judgments of others.  In short, I will try, as best I can, to reach an unreachable ideal; objectivity.  In the process, I will try not to delude myself about my capacity for discerning the truth.  I have watched many others before me come to grief as they wandered far from the realm of facts demonstrable with repeatable experiments into swamps of speculation about the complexities of human existence.  Like them, I am human, and, therefore, fallible.  I will try to avoid the intellectual hubris of unwarranted certainty, and preserve an appropriate sense of humility in my remarks.

 

My intent is to record my perception of the human situation, to set forth my thought and reactions to what I have experienced as systematically and coherently as possible.  Beyond that, I will set forth my observations on subjects that interest me from time to time as the spirit moves me.

 

Our world views are conditioned by religious beliefs, or, in my case, the lack of them.  I don’t believe human beings can ever be absolutely sure they know the truth in such matters.  However, with that caveat, I don’t hesitate to call myself an atheist.  I am in what Richard Dawkins refers to as the sixth of his seven milestones in the spectrum of religious beliefs; I consider the likelihood that God exists “very low probability, but short of zero.  De facto atheist.  ‘I cannot know for certain but I think God is very improbable, and I live my life on the assumption that he is not there.’”  Again, with Dawkins, “I am agnostic only to the extent that I am agnostic about fairies at the bottom of the garden.”

 

Why don’t I believe in God?  I doubt that I have any substantial reasons that haven’t been set forth many times before me by others who have come to the same conclusions.  It seems to me those conclusions tend to occur naturally to anyone who is willing to devote some effort to reasoning about the existence of God or other supernatural beings, assuming they haven’t made up their minds in advance.  They were set forth very simply, clearly and convincingly by the brilliant French cleric, Jean Meslier, in his Testament, which was given the title, “Superstition in All Ages” after his death.  According to Voltaire, Meslier’s Testament was written “in the style of a carriage horse.”  I take a more charitable view of this astounding man.  He demolished the rational basis for belief in the supernatural more than a hundred years before Darwin published “On the Origin of Species.”  His style may have been unpolished, but his Testament was, nevertheless, a thorough and concise refutation of religious belief in general and Christianity in particular. 

 

More recently, Dawkins, Hitchens, and others have reasoned convincingly against religious belief.  Many books and articles have been published against them in response, but none of the authors that I have read have made a serious attempt to even address their most significant arguments.  The fact that they have failed to do so indicates that they are unable to do so, further confirming me in my own beliefs.  

 

For example, believers seem incapable of telling us why it is logical to explain something as admittedly complex and intricate as the universe by assuming the existence of a God who, by his/her nature must be even more complex and intricate.  In other words, they would have us believe that something complicated can be explained by assuming the existence of an even more complicated creator.  They fail to explain how it is that a God intelligent enough to create the universe can be motivated by human emotions such as anger, jealousy, and love towards creatures who must be, as Voltaire pointed out, as inferior to him as insects are to us.  One can only assume they have no explanation.  Certainly, none occur to me.  The existence of emotions in human beings is easily understandable.  They are there because they have promoted our survival.  However, as attributes of a divinity, particularly as directed against creatures, as Voltaire put it, infinitely more inferior to Him/Her than insects are to us, they can only be understood as a simple-minded attempt to assign human attributes to an imaginary Supreme Being.

 

The fact that the prevalence of various religious beliefs is so obviously a factor of culture and geographic location is further evidence that they do not result from any process of logical thought, particularly in view of the fact that these beliefs are often mutually exclusive, as in the case of most versions of Christianity and Islam.  Each side firmly believes that their God will punish those on the other for beliefs those others are convinced are true.  In other words, they believe God will punish the others for beliefs which they cannot change at will, and which they are convinced are in accordance with His will.  Obviously, both sides can’t be right.  It seems more logical to conclude that they are both wrong.  The same can be said of miracles and supernatural manifestations, which all major religions claim.  Both sides cannot be simultaneously right in claiming that their miracles are performed by mutually exclusive Gods.

 

I find the continuing prevalence of religious beliefs, including recent manifestations of extreme fanaticism, disconcerting in view of the continuing accumulation of scientific evidence that flies in the face of, for example, scriptural accounts of creation.  One feels as if one were living in an asylum, surrounded by lunatics. 

 

In a word, then, I am not a religious person.  I have concluded that the existence of supernatural beings is extremely unlikely.  The world view that I will set forth in the following sections is based on the assumption that there are none.