I get discouraged every time I take another crack at educating myself in either religion or philosophy. A lot of the arguments are circular and really don’t make much sense. I have the impression that Plato and Aristotle were brilliant, the Old Testament prophets were inspiring, and Christ and his followers were lovable, but when you put them all together in a blender, as we have done with our so-called Judeo-Christian ethic, the result is a confusing farrago of ideas all based on a profound misreading of the nature of life in general and humanity in particular.
We are brought up to believe there is some kind of ideal person that we should strive to become, some abstract principle of right and wrong that we should follow, some utopian condition that our species can ultimately achieve if only enough of us follow the one true path. Good and evil, the moral absolutes. What is right is right because God says so, according to the true believers. The philosophers argue their case in more elegant terms, but when you get to the nub of what most of them are saying, it’s usually about how we can reason our way into discovering and then defining moral absolutes.
Darwin’s theories of evolution provide an antidote. Human societies evolved as did other species, not according to some preexisting design, but in response to the immediate circumstances their members encountered. There is no master plan. We muddle along, constantly adapting to changed circumstances. Some of the factors forcing us to change are external, while others we have caused ourselves, as side effects of our own decisions. But there is no human destiny as such, no ideal condition we will ultimately attain.
This is a tough pill for most people to swallow. When we start on a journey we like to know where we are going. And we feel reassured if we have someone we trust to guide us. The idea that we are stumbling along on a long trip through time, entirely on our own, can leave us feeling a bit lonely and, yes, scared. But sorry, folks, that’s the way it is. Evolution is too powerful a theory, and has explained too much of what we know about the world around us, to deny as “just another theory.”
Where does that leave us? Is there no divine authority? Are ethics, morality, and other values nothing more than creations of human minds? Is it possible that their authority within a given society derives from nothing more than a consensus of the individuals that comprise that society?
Well, friends, yes, it is entirely possible, and if you set the faith you were brought up in aside for a moment, and look around you with courage and clarity, you will see that it’s not only possible, it’s the only plausible explanation. Our ethics and values have evolved along with other aspects of our human cultures. The ones we like to think of as representing absolute truths have survived and are with us today because they are effective at resolving or mitigating conflicts of interest that arise within individuals, between individuals, between individuals and their groups, and between groups. They are social lubricants, the oil that allows many people to cooperate toward shared objectives.
Ethical principles are behavioral guidelines. They are for the most part simple dos and don’ts, concepts of right vs. wrong, that people share and support. They are general in nature and easily understood, as opposed to the law, which is far more detailed and specific. The law derives from ethics and is answerable to it, rather than the other way around.
This perception in hand, we can deduce certain conclusions about how ethical principles have evolved, and their role in contemporary society.
1) Ethical principles and the laws that apply them evolve in response to emerging human needs. There is no higher end or goal; they are shaped by humans responding to perceived discomfort with the status quo. Some of these adaptations work better than others, in the sense that they offer new and better ways of resolving problems that inhibit cooperation within and between groups. Over the long run these more successful adaptations survive, and human society evolves into increasingly large, specialized, and successful groups.
2) New ethical principles, that answer to new kinds of issues, are more readily accepted if they are seen to evolve logically out of other, already accepted principles. This is frequently but not necessarily the way they arise. Some new challenges, as for example those posed by the threat of nuclear annihilation, or some of the recent breakthroughs in biotechnology, cannot be met only by dusting off and reinterpreting the precepts of our forebears.
3) Radically new ethical principles are more likely to gain acceptance if the society trying to assimilate them recognizes that ethics are human constructs, not precepts handed down on tablets of stone by a divine creator. We need to recognize that just as we fashion law to meet our emerging needs, so must we constantly reexamine and revise our ethics–and that the ethics, being the more basic, are the more important.
4) Most people are insufficiently flexible in this regard. Humanity has always learned new rules of behavior mostly as a reaction to painful experience, with the outmoded habits of older people being replaced only as they die off. But the stakes are higher now, because the rate of technological change has accelerated. We who are alive and in control right now have to adapt, not just hang on until we are replaced. The problems we face are urgent and vital; we cannot afford to muddle through as in the past.
5) In sum, we need more humanists, and fewer dogmatic theists, and we need them now.
Carl Coon 11/22/01