I was reading Stephen Pinker's excellent book The Blank Slate this morning and I had some thoughts about a topic that's been rattling around in my brain. In the passage I was reading, Pinker was asserting that humans are neither inherently good or evil, but that people most likely have both good and evil tendencies, and whether or not they are acted on is a function of each individual's neurological processes. His reference to "good and evil" without qualification inspired me to think once again about what is meant by this -- but this time, I was doing so in the context of Pinker's ideas about human nature.
In a previous post, I railed against the idea of relativism, both in terms of interpretation of factual data, as well as -- to a more limited extent -- in determining morality. I probably should have been a little more guarded when I maintained that some things were "absolutely" right or wrong. "Absolute" is probably too strong, but what I meant is that much of what constitutes morality is both non-arbitrary and independent of culture. Clearly morality does not exist on its own. There are no absolute moral laws woven into the fabric of reality in the same manner as physical laws.
This of course prompts the question: Whence this morality, if not from culture?
Perhaps the obvious answer is biology. The concepts of "good" and "evil" can be viewed as products of natural selection, a natural extension of various instincts we have evolved over time. In the case of altruism, this is not just speculation; as I'm sure everyone reading this post knows, there is growing evidence that genuine altruism is a side-effect of a sort of selfish altruism evolved by our primate ancestors. The so-called Golden Rule can be seen as the logical conclusion of our altruistic natures, i.e. the product of instinctual altruism multiplied by abstract reasoning ability is the mandate that others ought to be treated in a way we would prefer to be treated.
But there's even more to this. It seems obvious, but it is easy to ignore that the way we prefer to be treated is itself determined by our biology. Consider a harmless but painful electric shock. There is clearly no eternal abstract reason why a harmless jolt of electricity is undesirable, but we find it painful because it stimulates systems within our bodies which have evolved to warn against possible harm. In other words, the reason I don't want to be shocked is itself a byproduct of biology. And therefore, the reason it is not cool to go around shocking people with a hand buzzer is due not just to our altruistic nature, but to other features of biology.
To what extent can we take this without it becoming absurd? What if instead of a hand buzzer, I am talking about lopping off your arm? Is this only "wrong" because of instincts that make me want to keep my arm? Well, no, there are plenty of practical reasons why we might want to keep both arms anyway. But aren't those reasons also the product of our biology? Having one arm may make it harder to do everyday tasks like tying my shoes, but why do I want to tie my shoes in the first place? Isn't it because not wearing shoes damages my feet, and I have a biological imperative not to damage my feet?
Logically extending this idea, I could argue that it's only wrong to kill people because they have evolved the desire not to die. Well, maybe. But I am not entirely sure whether this takes us all the way to explaining all manifest morality.
What I mean by this is best explained by a thought experiment: Consider an alien race -- call them the Eschatolians -- which for whatever reason have not evolved an altruistic instinct. Perhaps their civilization is structured more like an ant colony, where loyalty to some "Queen"-like being is the driving moral code rather than a do-unto-others ethic. This of course might make them seem quite evil by human eyes, but I don't think that is entirely fair. Eschatolian individuals are not treated with respect, but they don't even have the evolved desire to be treated in this way. Who are we to judge that?
Now suppose the Eschatolians invent a technology that can please and protect their Queen -- the highest form of morality in their civilization -- but it will set in motion a process that will significantly hasten the heat death of the universe. The Eschatolians' sun will be long dead by this time, so it's no skin off their (or their Queens') backs, but it will lop untold trillions of years off the meaningful life of the universe.
Now is there some arbitrary standard that makes the Eschatolians "evil" -- beyond even our specifically human concepts of morality? Every fiber of my being wants to say yes: destroying the universe for short-term gain is wrong, independent of biology. But how can I say this without invoking some sort of morality from the clear blue sky?
I think today I have a partial answer, but before that, I want to digress into a different thought experiment, so that when I propose my answer to the Eschatolian problem, it will be clear what I am not saying. I was once challenged with the question, if only one human woman remained on earth, and she refused to have sex, would it be moral to rape her?1 To me, this is a fascinating question, and I still haven't made up my mind entirely. (Update 2010/08/17: FWIW, I am now leaning towards no.) Debating this question is beyond the scope of this post, but I want to address one particular fallacious argument against it.
When I first heard it, some who answered "absolutely not!" asserted that our desire to reproduce and to propagate the human race was nothing more than the parasitic effect of our "selfish genes", and that a rejection of those imperatives was necessary to "liberate" ourselves from the "tyranny" of our genes. (Some of this, I realize, is straight from Dawkins, but I don't know how much. I unfortunately have not read The Selfish Gene yet, so I am not aware if my objections to this line of reasoning would apply to his ideas, or merely to the interpretation of them presented by some folks on PZ's blog. I apologize if some of what follows comes across as strawman-ish.)
While I think it is incredibly valuable to have an awareness of how our behavior is shaped by evolution, and while I think Dawkins is quite right in pointing out that genes act in their own self-interest rather than in the interest of the collective of genes we refer to as an organism, at the same time I think this idea of becoming "liberated" from the "tyranny" of our genes is utter nonsense. Who, exactly, is being liberated? This smells like Cartesian dualism, like we are saying there is some ghost imprisoned in our DNA that is just waiting to be freed.
Hogwash! What are we if not the product of our genes and our environment? To dismiss our innate impulses and desires because they are also a product of our genes is a futile attempt to divorce our selves from our selves. Certainly, our instinctual preferences will conflict with each other, and an awareness of how these preferences have developed from the "selfish" nature of genes can inform the conflict and help us reach a decision. But even if we do decide to suppress an instinctual impulse, it will not be because of some external moral code that hangs in the air sui generis, or because of the willed choice of some mythical "soul" -- it will be because we have decided to favor a different instinctual impulse that is itself a result of selfish genes.
In the case of the Last Woman on Earth thought experiment, if we decide that rape is not acceptable even in a last ditch attempt to save the human species from extinction, it will not be because we have "liberated" ourselves from the parasitic impulse to propagate our selfish genes. It will be because the logical extension of our altruistic instincts -- also a parasitic impulse wrought by our selfish genes -- has convinced us that the rights of the individual are more important.
So if morality cannot exist independent of selfish genes, then what of the Eschatolians? Can we possibly say they are "evil" in some non-arbitrary sense for wanting to destroy the universe, without engaging in human chauvinism? Isn't there some meta-morality we can invoke, that transcends individual gene pools?
I am going to tentatively answer yes, though my reasoning relies quite heavily on speculative assumptions about the extent to which evolution is convergent on different planets (if life even exists elsewhere, that is, which itself is uncertain). This species-independent morality I am positing cannot exist independent of the phenomenon of selfish replicators2, but it is not tied to the specifics of an individual pool of replicators.
I think it is quite reasonable to assert that any successful form of life will have evolved biological imperatives which resist extinction. Individuals may not necessarily have self-preservation or self-reproduction impulses (e.g. ant worker castes), but must have some impulses which would be violated by pretty much any mechanism forcing the species into extinction, or else natural selection is going to get rid of such a species in a big hurry.
If we accept that morality must be a product of instinctual impulses, then I think it logically follows that from the perspective of species X, the extinction of species X is immoral. That doesn't mean the extinction of species Y is immoral from the perspective of species X, of course, but we have established here a species-transcendent moral pattern.
How much more would it take to transform this into a species-transcendent moral code? I suppose I might invoke a sort of vague "galactic utilitarianism" and argue that if a particular act -- e.g. destroying the universe -- violates the morality of enough species, then it is perhaps also immoral in some universal and non-arbitrary sense. Of course, utilitarianism almost certainly has its roots in our altruistic instincts, and it is clearly not the case that all species have a similar instinct. But I think we are almost there.
It is conceivable that altruistic impulses are a likely/necessary feature of sapient life. How realistic is it to envision a civilization with an ant-like social structure that has developed enough self-awareness to start talking about morality? Of course this question is impossible to answer, as it is asking about convergent evolution on an interplanetary basis, and for all we know the question itself is invalid.
But I think it's an interesting question nonetheless. Depending on the answer, this could establish some basic moral codes, not quite as immutable laws, but as an inevitable byproduct of sapience. There are not many things that fall into this category -- basically, just don't destroy stuff for no reason or for reasons which are insignificant compared to the destruction -- but it still seems like an appealing idea, not just because it provides a possible answer to the Eschatolian thought experiment, but because it provides a much firmer underpinning for environmentalism than might otherwise be achieved.
This still does not justify the absurd notion that we can be "liberated" from our selfish genes. If this transcendent morality is justifiable, it will still be because of selfish replicators, not in spite of them. To denigrate our instinctual impulses because they exist solely for the purpose of propagating DNA is to practice self-contradiction in the name of some mythical ghost in the machine. It is both Puritanical and delusional.
1Unfortunately, the rather shrill and unimpressive person asking me this question merely wanted to use it to accuse me of being a "rape apologist," which it seems to me relied on a rather preposterous definition of "apologist": that if you say X is acceptable under any circumstances you are by definition an "X apologist". If I think it is acceptable under some circumstances for police to forcibly detain and imprison an individual, does this make me a kidnapping apologist? If I think chemotherapy is a good thing, does this make me a poison apologist? If I think that yelling "Fire!" in a crowded theatre is not protected speech, does this make a censorship apologist? If I think a hysterectomy is acceptable for medical reasons, does that make me an apologist for forced sterilization?
This kind of context-free morality is not just absurd; it is dangerous. It is a close cousin of the kind of lazy and asinine reasoning that compels idiots to assert that gay marriage will lead inexorably to a legalization of incest and pedophilia.
2I steer away from the word "gene" from this point on, because I am now speculating about how life might evolve on other planets. Presumably, though, some kind of gene-like "replicator" would be necessary for natural selection to evolve life, so I will content myself to refer to it as such.
Jeffrey Taylor’s Sunday Salon secular sermon
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