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Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Philosophy part V: Are People Good or Bad?

Augustine: Don't let evil into your heart
For most of the dark ages, philosophy was also dark.  Basically a bunch of monks sat around in their stone monastaries, brewing great beer because, well heck, what would you do if there weren't any woman allowed?  But they also spent endless hours and ink talking about incredibly boring and complex theories of why the Holy Spirit was different (but the same) as God.  Finally someone with something interesting to say came along, his name was St Augustine.  He is probably most famous for his belief in the Ultimate Guilt Trip that poor Christians have been burdened with ever since, but he also said something about inherent human nature that I like.

He said the Evil in humans is only a lack of Good.  Much like a wine glass is orderly and beautiful in its original intended state, when thrown against a wall it shatters.  I love this analogy, because I think all humans are united by this single fact: they all want to be happy.  In other words, all humans are born "good", and only become "evil" when their path to contentment has been blocked so completely that they have to resort to other measures to fulfill their needs.  In this way, even a criminal can be viewed with compassion, as someone who lived a hard life and resorted to a life of crime only out of desperation.  The Dalai Lama has a similar view on human nature.

Chimps: a Mirror on Mankind
Now, I recognize that this is perhaps a rosy view on things.  Jane Goodel's shocking discoveries on chimpanzee behavior shows us that perhaps evil is inherent in humans after all--chimps are our closest living relatives.  But, Jane also found that there is intimate and caring behavior, even altruistic behavior in chimp societies.  It is a mirror on us all.  So, in the end, I suppose it comes down to this:  Like religion itself, the answer is somewhere in between.  Humans are born with both egoistic and altruistic tendencies, both necessary for survival.  The ego, which knows it must eat and take things to survive, when left unchecked results in acts that would violate others.  This could be called our Evil nature.  But we are also social animals, born with an innate desire to rely on others in our tribe or community to survive.  And this necessitates charitable acts in order to maintain friendships and group harmony.  This could be called our Good nature.  Thus, we are born with both Good and Evil in us, combined with a Drive for Happiness.  If that Drive for Happiness results in contentment, we end up as Good people.  If that Drive is blocked by real hardship or illusions of what is really Good (such as accumulation of wealth for wealth's sake), than a person's Evil nature may surface.

In then end, its up to us, we are free to decide.  And for someone like me who lives in a modern Western world of relative luxury, that choice should be easier than ever.  But the reality is that instead the modern world is a confusing place full of many mixed messages, and what is taught to us as Good through television and society often turns out to be illusion.  And that is why its more important than ever to understand the wisdom of the philosophers.

(to be cont.)

1 comment:

  1. Being a science type, I've always been interested in what science had to say about morality. Now to fully disclose, I do not think the science is capable of telling us about right and wrong. The universe doesn’t care. But what it can do is clarify what is natural to our species. So I would consider myself, like a lot of science types, an "Ethical Naturalist"

    One trap for this science driven moral viewpoint is what David Hume discussed as the "is-ought" problem, which argues that just because something is a certain way, it does not mean it ought to be that way or it is right.

    As an example, suppose science finds that humans are geared to be tribally genocidal towards outsiders. Is it then ok to kill other tribes? Just because this "is", does not mean it "ought" to be, or is morally right. Herbert Spenser is the classic example of this type of fallacy.
    With that caveat, the most fascinating work from science (to me) on morality has come from reading David Sloan Wilson's books: "Unto Others", "Darwin's Cathedral" and the most easily approachable "Evolution for Everyone". In the 1970's, most evolutionary biologists became convinced that altruism didn't really exist and it was all about selfish genes. Wilson is part of a revisionist group advocating a revival of group selection, which says that evolution doesn't just work on individuals, but also on groups. What this means for altruism is that it only develops when group selection is actively driving a particular trait. And of course the relevant point here is that humans are hyper-social apes, who are very strongly group selected. In fact you could argue this is what made as human, with intelligence just one byproduct.

    The interesting theoretical finding here is that group selection works best when groups compete actively against one another. Hence from the math it says that altruism toward your own group and hatred of outsiders are flip sides of the same coin. So you would expect humans to be genocidal towards other tribes but fanatically loyal towards their own groups. Further, group selection works best if people inside a group can’t cheat. This explains strong norms in society, where people are naturally inclined to follow the rules of their group and catch cheaters. Religion being the clearest example. What matters from an evolutionary point of view is religion binds a group tightly together so they know who is loyal and who is not. Selection drives behavior, it doesn't care if the belief driving that behavior (religious or otherwise) corresponds to the reality of the world.

    How does this relate to older philosophers? Well, it gives the concept of selfish and selfless a new context. Biologically, these are traits are not opposites but two sides of the same behavior set. It just depends on whether you are talking about people in your own tribe or people in another tribe. There is a progressive tradition which says that extending everyone’s moral viewpoint to consider larger and larger groups as fully human is the fundamental driver of progress for humanity. At first, only your tribe is fully human. Then your neighbor’s tribe. Then people of other genders. Then people of other races. Then possibly even the more evolved animals. Then all life on earth. I think this last view is probably in alignment to your own thinking. Of course for me, I draw the line at humans and grade on a curve for the higher animals. But this framework of morality being loyalty to groups, and then trying to extend the group beyond it's traditional limits as the key to progress is a big part of how I see the world after reading Wilson's books.