There are no objective oughts, no objective goods, no objective values, and no objective moral virtues. That is a simple statement of fact, and implies nothing whatsoever regarding how we ought to behave. Facts bear no implications about what we should do, except as means to an end. We must decide for ourselves what ends to seek. Objective facts may then inform us what we “should” do if we want to achieve the goals we set for ourselves.
Whatever the goals we set for ourselves happen to be, in large measure if not totally, they are a response to our “nature”; predispositions that are as much innate as our arms and legs. These predispositions are similar but not identical among human individuals, and they exist by virtue of natural selection. In other words, at some point and in some environment, they promoted the survival and reproduction of our ancestors. It cannot be assumed that their influence on our behavior will have that result in the very different environment most of us live in today.
Our nature does not determine our behavior, in the sense that it does not dictate what we must do in this or that situation. Rather, it inclines us to act in some ways, and not in others. It is fundamentally emotional, in humans as well as in other animals. We happen to have very large brains, and so can ponder over what our emotions are trying to tell us. We can reason about how we ought to respond to them. However, our reason is far from infallible. As the reasoning process becomes more complex, the outcome regarding what we “ought” to do will vary increasingly among individuals. This is doubly true by virtue of the fact that most individuals respond to their emotions blindly, never considering or taking into account why those emotions exist to begin with.
The above is illustrated by the response of our societies to the spread of COVID-19. The situation is anomalous, in that few of us have experienced anything like it. As a result, an appropriate response to it is not neatly packaged among our preferred or habitual responses to everyday occurrences. One result of this is that we find unusual differences of opinion about how we should react to the virus, even among those whose ideology, whether “liberal” or “conservative,” was formerly a reliable predicter of what their response to a given situation would be. Two factions have formed; those who tend to agree that we ought to take extreme measures to control the spread of the virus, and those who tend to believe that this “cure” is worse than the disease. At the moment the former faction has the upper hand, although the latter hasn’t been silenced completely.
Both factions present their arguments as if they are defending an objective truth. In fact, that is impossible, because objective “oughts” do not exist. What they are really defending is something they want, or value, and what they want or value represents their response to emotions that exist because they evolved. That statement applies not just to our response to a virus, but to every other form of conscious human behavior.
Emotional responses are bound to vary to some extent across populations that have been widely separated by time and space, but they tend to be quite similar, as one would expect of traits that happen to promote survival in a given species. Fear and avoidance of death is one trait almost all of us have in common. The emotional root cause of this fear probably hasn’t changed much, but in creatures with large brains such as ourselves, our behavior isn’t rigidly determined by our genes. We think about what our emotions are trying to tell us, and how we should behave in response. Needless to say, we don’t always all come to the same conclusions, regardless of how similar the underlying emotions happen to be.
In the modern human societies that exist in western Europe and North America, fear of death may well be a greater motivator than ever before. We have few children, and can reasonably expect that those children will survive to adulthood. That was not the case in societies that are more typical of our past, where a large fraction of children didn’t survive past their first few years. Death was not exactly welcomed, but we were more likely to accept it as a matter of course. Now we are more inclined to treat it as an unmitigated calamity, and one that must be staved off as long as possible at all costs. In the case of the virus, it almost seems some of us believe they will be immortal if only they can avoid catching it. Under the circumstances, such drastic steps as shutting down complex modern economies appear to be completely rational. We hand wave away any negative affect this may have on our own and future generations by simply assuming that the global economy will quickly recover afterwards. If we follow the chain of logic that is used to justify this behavior to its ultimate source, we will always find an emotion. The emotion is followed blindly, without regard for the reason it exists to begin with. That reason is that it once enhanced the odds of survival and reproduction of the genes that give rise to it. The question of whether it will have the same result if blindly reacted to in a completely different environment is treated as if it were entirely irrelevant.
In the case of the virus, our innate fear of death has triumphed over all other emotions. We don’t take into account the fact that, while that fear exists for a reason, the programmed death of our physical bodies and consciousness occurs for exactly the same reason. Our fear of death and our programmed death both promote the survival of our genes. Our genes don’t protect us from death indefinitely. Rather, they insure that we will die, but at a time that is optimum for insuring that they will not die. They have been around, in different forms but in an unbroken chain, for more than two billion years. For all practical purposes, they are potentially immortal. I happen to share the goal of my genes. That goal is no more intrinsically good or virtuous than someone else’s goal to accomplish the opposite. However, it does seem to me to have the virtue of being in harmony with the reasons I exist to begin with, and to be formed in full awareness of why the emotions that motivate it exist to begin with as well.
It does not seem “better” to me to be blindly blown about by the shifting winds of my emotions in a completely different environment than the one in which they evolved. The blind fear of death can be and often is trumped by an equally blind response to other emotions. Consider, for example, such slogans as “Death before dishonor,” “Give me liberty or give me death,” and “A fate worse than death.” Those who coined these slogans and those who were moved by them were no hypocrites. In the past we can find myriad examples of such individuals laying down their lives in defense of their principles. These principles were based on other innate emotions than fear of death, perhaps including hatred of the outgroup, or territoriality, or the struggle for status. Thus, while emotions are the basis of all our actions, they can motivate goals that are diametrically opposed to each other in different situations. I merely suggest that, instead of reacting to them blindly, we may find it useful to consider why they exist to begin with. That seems to me particularly true in the case of events as profound as global pandemics.