Discussions on the History of Conscience and Ethics
Evolution and Morality
I thought it might be useful to give some personal background showing the context of my own take on the cultural and historical facts surrounding these documents of conscience. My take has been greatly influenced by the public events of our time. I have pursued certain lines of thought without necessarily subscribing to each and every conclusion reached here.
My interest in these texts of conscience was initially sparked by a growing realization that modern civilization was learning some lessons that entailed a de facto combination of the idealistic with the pragmatic, a combination perhaps hinted at in the past but never(?) so starkly presented to humanity. For example, the adjuration "he that lives by the sword dies by the sword" became--suddenly--all too true during the Cold War. This meant that the (idealistic?)commandments to "love thy neighbour as thyself" and "love thy enemies(!)"--in place of a "bristling fortress" pragmatism--became the only conceivable recipe for outright--pragmatic--survival. Likewise, storing up goods for oneself without consideration for one's fellow creatures became a reckless endangerment of one's very own biospheric patrimony. Thus the corporate depleter of forests and of the eco-system only deprives himself in the end of oxygen and of protection from our star, the sun. So even a strictly self-interested perspective shows up such seemingly selfish, predatory, and acquisitive acts as the ultimate in personal heedlessness, not personal self-regard.
Could such heedless actions also be taken as the nth degree of evolutionary retrogression and--finally--annihilation? Well, let's try that on for size. Let's start with a fundamental premise: an assumption that Darwin was right, that a healthy species, sooner or later, will evolve some kind of instinctive "feel" for what is needed to preserve itself; thus, failing such a healthy evolutionary "instinct," the species isn't going to be good for much in the long run. Might it be worthwhile then to estimate the extent to which certain social, philosophical, political, ideological or spiritual doctrines throughout cultural history help or hinder our species' survival, given the parameters of the crises we face today? Do such doctrines gibe or clash with the lessons we seem to be learning today? Can one estimate the extent to which each doctrine reflects a healthy or a dangerous evolutionary instinct? Clearly, the very invoking of the term "instinct" in this context is a bit of a leap, for aren't these varied sociological doctrines as much a matter of cultivation as of instinct? Not necessarily.
Here is where I also accept yet another corresponding assumption. I accept the notion that certain philosophies, assumptions, ideologies, and so on, are related to other healthy or dangerous "evolutionary"(?) instincts. In other words, contextually, it is unlikely that movingly selfless doctrines for living in harmony with one's fellow man will emerge from mass-murderers, just as it is unlikely that adjurations leading to mayhem and destruction will come from paragons ready to lay down their lives for their fellow creatures. This means that any individual's doctrine must be judged against the implications of the same person's larger pronouncements on moral responsibility in general. This is because these pronouncements may tip us off as to the "evolutionarily" healthy or dangerous connotations of an actual doctrine in the first place. For this reason, it does not seem far-fetched for us to judge the validity of any spokesman's doctrine by examining the basis of that spokesman's possibly unrelated--but critically relevant(?)--take on individual ethics. In this way, a spokesman's take may indicate the healthiness or danger of any essential perceptions lying at the base of his/her doctrine.
Could the evolutionary "healthiness" or wisdom of one way of living, understanding, and co-existing with a known universe--as opposed to another-- be not so very hard to gauge, then, after all?
In the end, what other yardstick than this one shows us so clearly just how fraught with peril is the prevailing notion of indiscriminate retaliation as the "pragmatic" way of nations? In fact, this notion appears fraught with peril on the most basic self-interested level, while the salutary "evolutionary" prudence of the "live-and-let-live" approach to ideological differences espoused in Jefferson's first inaugural address seems clearly demonstrated in our own time. In this instance therefore, the path conducive to evolutionary survival vs. that conducive to evolutionary annihilation can easily be guessed.
This is how the dictates of both survival and morality may meet in the end.
In a recent posting (1/22/97) for the Sense of Morality thread at talk.origins, a party calling him(?)self firstname.lastname@example.org posted the following:
"The only universal morality is survival. Granted, the 'fittest' survive, but the fittest at what? A bunch of funny little plains apes that have the more social inclinations of reciprocal altruism are more likely to survive and procreate than a bunch of funny little plains apes that each look out only for themselves. Cooperation, generosity and self-sacrifice thus become strategies for survival of the species."
Well put. In this quote, my central point is summed up in a useful enough way for us to--left-handedly--examine in turn three related questions: a)to what extent can ethical questions surrounding non-humans be related to homo sapiens, b)to what extent can we canonize Darwin as the gateway to "evolutionary-cum-moral" truth and c)to what extent can the good of homo sapiens be related to some absolute moral good for all of Planet Earth, the solar system or whatever?
a) NON-HUMANS. When it comes to the non-human members of the animal kingdom, a lot of ink has been spilled defining what precisely sets humanity apart from the other animals. The notion of a higher moral sense has occasionally been trotted out, only to be scotched by the oft-quoted reminder that Man only is the common enemy of Man. So morality won't do.
General brain power is then trotted out, and the notion of language as the distinguishing mark of humanity is cited, only to be dashed by recent televised experiments with the ape kingdom, showing that they are quite able to grasp the concept of linguistic symbols, thank you very much.
But surely their brains are of smaller size relative to the rest of their bodies than are ours?
Yes, they are. . .BUT how about the larger brains of a dolphin? (Ha, ha, ha!)
As a consequence of all this, many today correctly view the assumed superiority of humanity here on Earth as being in grave question. But this view has induced some to believe that we are consequently excused from certain critical moral responsibilities. I do not accept that.
I do accept that our critical importance in the Earthly scheme of things has nothing to do with any intrinsic qualities in brain power, in language, in moral fitness or, even, in certain intangible combinations of all these three qualities and more. We still remain critically important to the affairs of this planet though, and not because we are inherently superior.
How, then, are we so important? Because, in a de facto way, we have become the stewards of this globe through our terrifying capacity to destroy it. There is a brand new book, Larry Rasmussen's Earth Community, Earth Ethics (1996), that makes this point tellingly. On the one hand, some may admire, while others may regret, his placing the demand for intricate, practical, ecological action within a highly devout context of deistic worship. But, on the other, his book is scrupulously--and devastatingly--scientific in its anatomization of a moral dilemma that is as central to the human condition as slavery.
Whether in science or in scripture, humanity's status as the steward responsible for entailing the planetary patrimony over to posterity cannot be evaded. While it is possible that dolphins may exert a degree of environmental impact over the oceans that we are not aware of, they don't appear capable of depleting ozone or plankton. Only humanity can do that.
b) DARWIN. Humanity can also wilfully destroy opposing societies. Maybe dolphins have done that too amongst their own kind. The consequences of their exercises of such power, though, remain unknown. On the other hand, the consequences are quite well known when it comes to the depredations of humanity--the depredations of colonialism particularly.
Unfortunately, Darwin's take on colonialism, in a letter written late in life, was as something betokening the inevitability of superior "races" of man "rightly" overcoming the inferior ones:
"Remember what risk the nations of Europe ran, not so many centuries ago of being overwhelmed by the Turks, and how ridiculous such an idea now is! The more civilized so-called Caucasian races have beaten the Turkish hollow in the struggle for existence."
He goes on to assure his correspondent that the actual removal (Oh yes!) of "lower races" by "higher civilized races" was the mechanism by which the continuing improvement (Oh yes!) of mankind was maintained! For these savory(?) comments of his, I am indebted to a fascinating, new Darwin biography by Adrian Desmond and James Moore, Darwin: The Life of a Tormented Evolutionist (1991), p. 653.
I am not citing this to debunk evolution--any more than I would cite Newton's (practical) conniving at the killing (sic!) of an associate in order to debunk gravity. Rather, I am bringing this up as a way of showing how the roles of scientific pathfinder and moral pathfinder must be carefully distinguished. I regard the soundness of the theory of species evolution as something amply demonstrated in our own century through the most rigorous empirical trials. But that doesn't mean that the historic figure responsible for first describing biological evolution must be thought of as morally impeccable when it comes to ethical mandates for humanity's social and cultural evolution.
Darwin's exterminationist(?) remarks show up something else instead. Today, we know that the depredations of colonialism can rear back and bite the colonizer. Colonialism entails a ruthless pattern of abuse by one nation over another that merely breeds generations of contempt and hatred, an endless cycle of violence and bitterness beneficial to neither party. Beyond colonialism as an individual fault therefore, we come face to face here with the eternal "evolutionary" unsoundness of doing less than loving our enemy. So Darwin's scientific unawareness of the dictates of healthy moral and social evolution, an unawareness shown in his ill-advised praise of the perceived "evolutionary" benefits of a noxious intranational practice recognized as counter-productive in our own time, is what is shown up in his unfortunate statement. So it is, then, by being shown up in this way that we can appreciate the inadvisability of canonizing Darwin as an infallible yardstick by which to measure all of reality.
I am not suggesting that our friend email@example.com is necessarily canonizing Darwin in this way him/herself, but pronouncements of the kind he/she makes concerning the true definition of "fittest," while entirely true so far as they go, can lead to a thoughtless elevation of certain concepts related to evolution. These concepts can include bugbears like Social Darwinism, which, applied too glibly, make for a dreary cycle of fear, resentment, violence, and, in the end, anarchy. This point is made brilliantly in an article by George Soros for the February issue of Atlantic Monthly, now available online at the Atlantic Monthly site.
Of course, even a figure like Darwin cannot be separated from the tendencies of his time. He cannot be thoughtlessly pilloried for prejudices shared with his contemporaries. This is merely a salutary object lesson on how far we can take the lionization of a human being who undoubtedly stumbled upon a correct theory of biological reality. In fact, lest we should be too hard on Darwin, he appears to have had a high-minded sense of obligation to his fellow creatures, even--occasionally--when it came to a sincere feeling of outrage at the way South American natives frequently suffered from the abuses of the white man.
In any case, for recognizing the vortex of injury begetting injury as a phenomenon that violates all social dictates of moral reality, we don't need Darwin. 2,500 years ago, Aeschylus represented this brilliantly and for all time in his Oresteia.
c) HUMAN SURVIVAL: AN ABSOLUTE GOOD? But is humanity's survival only "a good" for humanity? Is such survival, therefore, neither good nor evil for Planet Earth, for the solar system, the universe and so on? A perfectly generous, kindly friend of our family's once posited the notion that humanity is simply an infestation, that its possible rush to self-destruction is not inherently evil, that evolutionarily destructive patterns of behavior do not carry any values above and beyond themselves, that the Earth and the cosmos will little note nor long remember what we do here. This would mean that evolutionarily constructive or destructive actions are hardly the index to absolute morality I make them out to be.
This is worth pondering.
Let's look at what precisely, in Mr. Absolute Reality's terms (please excuse the whimsy), is involved in the environmental self-destruction of humanity?
Well, to destroy itself, humanity would simply have to continue on the disastrous path it has already chosen. Just keep those chloroflorocarbons whizzing around as neat as you please, don't get rid of a single weapon of mass destruction (perish the thought!), destroy more and more forests till the only hot air left on Earth is this pompous posting. The ecology and the food chain (and the photo-synthesis chain!) must be thoroughly disrupted. Horrifying wars, leading to the occasional nuclear detonation and biological subversion, must inflict global horrors of a sort to make nuclear winter seem like a pleasant family picnic. The full power of our star's rays must hit our loved ones unimpeded, and we must be sure not to preserve one tree, one bush, in our headlong rush to all-out suicide.
Is this delightful scenario one that permits the Earth and its non-human inhabitants--a few generations from now--the luxury of little noting nor long remembering what we did here? Clearly not. Missing in our acceptance of this perfectly ghastly scenario is the realization that, so far as we can see, the self-annihilation of humanity is entirely contingent upon the annihilation of everything around us. Thus, there may not be a single organism left to even note or remember anything for us.
So if we take morality as that which is conducive to the good of all living things, then the interdependency of the biosphere and humanity shows that what is good for humanity is good for all creation (please excuse the loaded term) and what is good for all creation is good for humanity. This brings us back with a jolt to the fact that we have become Earth's stewards.
Perhaps, the evolutionary considerations that seem tied to society's humane survival are a strong yardstick for measuring morality itself after all.
In fact, the notion that altruism itself is fully as much an instinct as the urge to propagate the species is developed at some length in an online article by William A. Spriggs, "Altruism, Eugenics, and Natural Selection." This article is available at
I find it interesting that some of the points raised in "Sources of Morality" were not raised again in "Evolution and Morality". A major fault that I found in the "Sources of Morality" discussion was what seemed to me to be a confusion between morality, good behavior, and violence. Coming from a bio-social background to this argument, I would argue that this is not the correct way of looking at morality.
Rather than being a force of its own morality should, more properly, be looked at as a societal measure. Once this is done morality can be looked at as a balancing act between two or more behaviors. I would argue for the presence of at least four behaviors: co-operative (more commonly called altruistic), competitive (more commonly called violent), intellectual, and emotional. Even with this breakdown there are ambiguities but the measure becomes more analyzable.
Co-operative behavior is necessary for any society to survive. This is often called altruistic behavior but this is incorrect. Altruism implies performing beneficial actions without reward yet nearly all actions in society result in a benefit (even if it is feeling good about oneself). Co-operative behavior covers most of the actions normally attributed to altruism.
I am wondering. Might the following constitute co-operative or altruistic behavior? I wish I could remember where the following anecdote comes from. It may come from Voltaire, since he was both a playwright and an inveterate theatre-goer, but I suspect it's slightly later than that. Still, other readers can correct me on this, I hope. At any rate, I'm fairly sure it comes from an 18th-century account of audience reaction at the Comedie Francaise.
The anecdote concerns a bunch of fairly rough young "sparks" who are painting the town red, going from watering hole to watering hole. They drop in at the theatre. It happens to be a tragedy that night (I don't remember which one, presumably something by Racine, Corneille, or whoever). One character in the play is down on his luck, and a profoundly moving scene practically reminiscent of the sufferings of Job is being played out before everyone. One member of the young "gang" feels intense sympathy for our hero and the stirring scene being enacted. He attempts with all his might to conceal his unwonted and excessive sympathy. He fears losing countenance with his peers. One or two of them suspect he may be moved and scoff accordingly. But--I believe--the sympathizing youth successfully convinces the other two--or three or four--that they're wrong. He conceals his emotions successfully. (I wish I could remember where this is from!)
Clearly, this is a tale about genuine human sympathy and the capacity to expand one's "identification of interests," to use Eyler's phrase. But let's see what happens as a result? Do the "weak" youth's sympathetic urges "result in a benefit (even if it is feeling good about oneself)"? Not really. In fact, he finds himself socially threatened by his involuntary response--practically like burping in public!
It is true GTolle is talking primarily of "performing beneficial actions without reward"--and, obviously, feeling sympathy with a stirring scene in the theatre is not exactly an action as such. But--I believe--it was precisely the emphasis on placing altruism strictly--and dubiously--within the context of some sort of immediate reward, either of "feel good" sensations or of social approbation, that occasioned this theatrical anecdote in the first place.
This much I do know. The Baron d'Holbach, a genuinely enlightened 18th-century believer in the capacity of universal education to lift everyone up to equal social, moral, and intellectual status, first wrote in his La morale universelle, I, 26 (I do not have the context):
"Several philosophies have founded morals on an innate benevolence, which they have thought to be inherent to human nature but this benevolence can only be the result of experience and reflection, which shows us that other men are useful to us, and in a position to contribute to our own happiness. A disinterested benevolence, that is, one from which there would result for us, from those who inspire it in us, neither tenderness nor a return, would be a feeling deprived of motives, or an effect without cause. It is relative to himself that man shows benevolence to others... We shall perhaps be told that virtuous people push disinterestedness to the point of showing benevolence to ingrates, and that others show it to men they have never known and whom they will never see. But this benevolence itself is not disinterested if it comes from pity, we shall soon see that the compassionate man relieves himself by doing good to others."
It was apparently d'Holbach's matter-of-fact interpretation of altruism or empathy as somehow bearing its own reward--emotionally/socially--that occasioned the above theatrical anecdote, showing the social and personal "embarrassments" of empathy, in response to, and friendly refutation of, d'Holbach's reasoning. If empathy, then, is as involuntary as burping, claimed the anecdote, what price "a benefit (even if it is feeling good about oneself)" now? The sympathizing youth did not derive any emotional satisfaction from his deeply moved response, rather discomfort, and, in addition, he had to bend over backwards to protect himself from the disapprobation of his peers. So he did not help himself after all by responding in such a full- hearted way.
I freely admit I may be badly misreading GTolle in all of this, but it seems likely to me that he may have fallen into the d'Holbach trap. Please, let us hear from GTolle himself on this. Thank you.
Competitive behavior is also necessary for any society to survive. At one extreme it can cover violence between individuals but this isn't its totality. It also covers the allocation of limited energy resources between individuals. Competitive can be as simple as taking an extra piece of food or nudging another lizard out of a prime basking position.
Intellectual behavior is the wild card in morality and also the long-term director. Population control might be a good example of this. In a non-intellectual society (such as, say, wolves) there is little or no attempt to curb population. Population increases until, generally, decreasing food resources either starve individuals or force them to leave the central society. In an intellectual society, other options (such as celibacy, hormonal intervention, abortion, etc.) become possible as long-term directing forces.
I realize I'm treading on very thin ice here. However, I recall there was a fairly recent sociological study of homosexuality through the ages. It seemed to show--and I'm by no means certain it was not challenged--that the higher a given population the higher the proportion of homosexual citizens. Mind you, the operative word here is "proportion." Naturally, there will be a greater number of gay members of society wherever the numbers in society are more numerous. What this study tried to demonstrate was the inevitable, natural, increase of the proportion, the percentage, of gay citizens where overpopulation seemed to threaten.
On the one hand, this kind of argument might be taken as an attempt to dehumanize the gay community as merely so many numbers conjured up in the course of a compensating chemical reaction to an unfortunate imbalance of forces (and therefore, in its impersonal take, morally and ethically questionable?--after all, how would you like being termed a "compensating chemical reaction"?!)
On the other, one could take this as Nature's supremely legitimate and instinctive way of validating the supreme worth of humanity as something worth preserving through an entirely natural and worthy increase of one vindicated segment, however atypical, of its population.
What all of this could mean, in the end, is that, however much we (and GTolle?) may pride ourselves on being an "intellectual society," certain of our own safeguards against overpopulation may be as much out of our control as any developments that confront helpless wolves.
Emotional behavior is, in general, pretty much just a wild-card. In the same situation, emotional behavior might cause a dramatic increase in co-operative or competitive behavior. At its extremes it might induce self-sacrificial or murderous behavior in a situation that might not otherwise have required such extreme behavior.
I believe that once morality is treated as a measure, rather than a behavior, it becomes much easier to analyze its components and develop a more logical (intellectually-imposed) moral code. It also becomes much easier to incorporate evolutionary, social, bio-chemical discussions into the basic framework.
Actually, I may have to backtrack--a bit--on my own invoking of evolutionary considerations, insofar as they have a bearing on all of nature in its various manifestations here on Planet Earth. The recent discussions, occasioned by the possible discovery of water flowing underneath the ice on the moon Europa, concerning the apparent strength of certain Earth life forms living deep in volcanoes and oceans, deprived of sunlight and, apparently, of photo-synthesis, suggests that not all of the ecology will go down to ruin in the wake of humanity's downfall. However, our possibly resorting, in this thread, to the admittedly circular argument, as a result, that evolutionary stupidity for humanity is evil strictly because it is evolutionarily stupid for humanity may not be so ludicrous as it appears on its face. Our clear responsibility towards our own species still carries with it formidable moral and ethical baggage.
Table of contents for "The Jefferson Bible"