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.

Quote for today – Voltaire

“…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.” 

Voltaire, in the article titled “Morality” in his “Philosophical Dictionary.”

The Supernatural Shakespeare

Let me stand aside for a moment and allow Shakespeare to elaborate on yesterday’s post for me.  To wit, from Sonnet XIII,


“O, that you were yourself! But, love, you are

No longer yours than you yourself live here.

Against this coming end you should prepare

And your sweet semblance to some other give.


It’s hard to read Shakespeare’s first 15 sonnets with any biological insight and still conclude the man was a mere mortal.  It beggars the imagination to think he could have written something like that 250 years before Darwin.  The world is burdened with the tomes of philosophers who completely missed the point, but this man nails the essence of human existence with a few lines of poetry. 

The Fear of Death

These remarks address death and the fear of it.  Being an infidel, I address these remarks to my fellow infidels.  One might expect us to have a particular fear of dying, as we have no hope of a life in the hereafter.  In general, however, that seems not to be the case.  In fact, it seems to me there is little rational basis for fearing death.  However, fear is an emotion, and our emotions, like almost everything else about us, exist because, at least at some point, they helped us to survive.  I think the survival value of fearing death is obvious.  The problem with humans is that, because of our big brains, we can imagine our own death, and are aware of its inevitability.  As a result, we can become obsessed with the fear of death, to the point that it poisons our lives, and makes us miserable.  Being miserable is a terrible way to waste the time that we do have, so we need to control the fear.  To do that we need to understand who and what we are in the context of existence.


In the first place, we need to put ourselves in perspective.  We perceive ourselves as conscious, thinking minds.  Our consciousness is what we know about ourselves, so that is what we consider “us,” the essence of what we are.  Now, consider for a moment whether it is logical for a conscious, intelligent mind as complex ours to suddenly spring into existence, and then die without a trace.  In fact, it is illogical, and no more reasonable than belief in a supreme being.  The death of that which is really essential about us would be an absurdity.  Therein lies the problem.  We experience ourselves through our consciousness, and therefore naturally regard our consciousness as the essential “us.”  Suppose, however, that we define the “essential” us as that which does not, illogically, spring into existence, remain for an instant, and then disappear.  In that case, “we” cannot be our conscious selves. 


There is, in fact, something about us that is essential in the sense referred to above.  There is something about us that doesn’t come and go in an instant, but has, in fact, been alive for eons, and is, potentially, immortal.  That is our genetic material, and our genetic material is, again, in the sense noted above, that which is essential about us.  If the genetic material we carry had ever died, in the billions of years life has existed on our planet, we and our consciousness wouldn’t exist. 


The train of thought above helps me, at least, to put my fear of death aside, to avoid being constantly preoccupied with it, and to love and enjoy life.  It puts “me” into perspective by revealing that conscious “me” as merely an ancillary existence.  What I perceive as “me,” my conscious self, is merely an evolved construct of my genetic material.  It exists because it has promoted the survival of that genetic material.  In fact, if “we” is defined as that essential thing about us that has existed for many hundreds of millions of years, and is potentially immortal, then “we” are our genetic material.  “We” are not our conscious selves.  Rather, our conscious selves are just secondary constructs, evolved to promote the survival of the real, essential “us.” 


Anyone bothered by the thought of dying, then, should keep in mind the fact that what is really essential about us has been alive for countless ages.  For anyone worried about the death, the solution is obvious.  Have children.  In that way, while the ancillary consciousness that existed in the first place solely because it promoted the propagation of the essential about us may die, the essential, potentially immortal essence of what we are will live on, potentially, forever.  I am by no means suggesting that, according to some universal morality or ethic, everyone “ought” to have children.  The fact of anyone’s procreation would, in no sense, be an absolute or universal good, as far as I, or anyone else, am concerned.  It would simply be a way of avoiding the death of what is essential about that individual.  It would be a rational response to the realization that consciousness is not the essential “us,” but exists because it promotes the survival and continued existence of the real “us,” our genetic material.  It would seem then, that passing on that genetic material to another generation is, at least, a healthy and reasonable thing to do, although, again, there is certainly no moral imperative connected with it. 


If we fear death, then, we must begin to perceive the consciousness whose dissolution we fear as “death,” as the secondary thing it really is.  We must realize the absurdity of anything that is really essential about us suddenly springing into existence and then quickly dying, leaving no lasting trace of its existence, apparently without purpose.  We must grasp the reason.  We must ask, “What for?” 


Regardless, it is a wonderful, astounding, improbable truth that consciousness exists at all, even if it doesn’t go on forever.  As a consequence, we get to go along for the ride in this complex, stimulating, and highly enjoyable world, for however brief a time.  Enjoy the ride!  Don’t moan and complain because it is too short.  Be glad that you’ve had the incredible good fortune to experience the ride at all, and experience it to the fullest.

The Blithedale Romance

At the moment I’m reading Hawthorne’s “The Blithedale Romance,” a fictional account of his experiences during the year he spent at the experimental community of Brook Farm.  I haven’t picked up Hawthorne for a long time, probably because I was unimpressed with him when we were required to read his works during high school.  Perhaps it’s better to leave the more serious and complex authors to a later time, when one is better able to appreciate them.  In any case, I’m seeing a lot in Hawthorne I never saw in high school.  I suspect I’ll be looking at more of his work.  The quote for today is from the book, and describes Hollingsworth, a specimen of what H. L. Mencken would later call the “uplift.”  He is one of those familiar characters who is out to save mankind in one way or another.  In Hollingsworth’s case, the passion is prison reform.  However, Hawthorne’s description of him is an excellent fit for the professional saviors of the world of a later time; Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, Pol Pot, et. al.  His words have a prophetic ring today:  “This is always true of those men who have surrendered themselves to an over-ruling purpose.  It does not so much impel them from without, not even operate as a motive power within, but grows incorporate with all that they think and feel, and finally converts them into little else save that one principle.”  “They have no heart, no sympathy, no reason, no conscience.  They will keep no friend, unless he make himself the mirror of their purpose.”…and, completing the banner quote-  “They have an idol, to which they consecrate themselves high-priest, and deem it holy work to offer sacrifices of whatever is most precious, and never once seem to suspect–so cunning has the Devil been with them–that this false deity, in whose iron features, immitigable to all the rest of mankind, they see only benignity and love, is but a specturm of the very priest himself, projected upon the surrounding darkness.”  Nuances of Turgenev’s Bazarov, no?  I suppose we’ve been warned about these types in every age, but never took the prophets seriously.

Jordanes and human nature

Today’s quote (“Or else, as some maintain, they exposed the males, destroying the life of the ill-fated child with a hate like that of a stepmother”) drew my attention because it shows that the ancients (or near ancients – Jordanes, the author, lived in the 6th century) were well aware of certain aspects of human nature.  Cinderella, of course, is another, more recent example of awareness of the phenomenon Jordanes refers to.  In order to believe that obvious human traits don’t exist, one must, somehow, be able to overlook what Jordanes and so many others have considered self-evident.  The trick is to blind ones self ideologically, in the fashion of Ashley Montagu and Richard Lewontin.

In Groups and Out Groups

 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.


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.