Post No.: 0399
Human rights don’t arise from genetic evolution per se – nothing in genetic evolution or ‘survival of the fittest’ even says that people must behave morally. Humans have genetic instincts for both compassion and violence so does this make compassion or violence more ‘right’? I personally agree that underage sex should be illegal yet why is teenage pregnancy wrong if natural biology says that a person is technically ready to conceive a child right after puberty? In the conflict of interest between profit maximisation and ethics, where should the line be drawn between free market forces and human exploitation?
Would it be better for oneself to just stealth kill a far-away stranger and steal all of his/her valuable stuff if the odds of getting caught and punished are low? (Well the rational and selfish payoff is positive, especially because a stealth kill allows anyone to take down even physically stronger targets and it means that the victim’s family won’t know who did it in order to avenge them too.) Or would it be better to try to persuade him/her via verbal debate and hopefully gather a consensus to merely share each other’s stuff? The former option has a higher net personal payoff (take it all with a reasonably low risk rather than try for an uncertain chance of just sharing in the end) and so is arguably a fitter strategy, at least when looking at the scenario in isolation and if there are inadequate intervening deterrents against doing so. It’d be ‘dog eat dog’ as some would say (although I personally detest that phrase – woof!)
And that’s how religion, and later secular laws – by providing these deterrents – played and play a key role in civilising communities for the greater good of a large and growing group, which would in turn help it to out-compete other groups. I suppose one could live with one eye constantly on the lookout for lethal assassins but that’s a highly stressful life! Thus higher powers of one form or another can relieve so much stress from us.
Human rights may arise from cultural evolution then – learnt from trial-and-error and applied for progress, if not then for pragmatism. (And this ongoing cultural evolution is why traditional religions are generally being driven out by a ‘new enlightenment’.)
Yet lots of things that have culturally evolved today are arguably just as sub-optimal or immoral. For example, freedom of speech versus spreading lies, hate speech or violating people’s privacies. And determining what is ‘pragmatic’ isn’t always objective or moral either, such as austerity measures for the poor whilst subsidising foreign corporations in the hope they’ll invest and create jobs here. Which takes primacy in blasphemy – the free speech or the respect for someone’s freedom of religion? How do we reconcile a conflict between the freedom of religion and gender equality if that religion holds particular beliefs towards women?
Cultures can and do change, especially whenever a new generation comes along. But understand that just because cultures evolve, the cultural evolution process doesn’t necessarily lead us gradually towards greater truth, peace or another desirable outcome – just like genetic evolution doesn’t necessarily lead species gradually towards becoming ‘super beings’. This is evident with the rising concern of false conspiracies and general deception that culturally permeate and shape voting outcomes and widen divisions between people as a result, or the concern of unconstrained capitalism on the environment. So things can get worse as well as better via evolution. Natural evolution or unfettered markets have no objective direction, foresight or intended end goal. We might have our own individual hopes for the future but we cannot control these outcomes unilaterally – unless one literally becomes the one and only dictator of such outcomes!
Everything alive today evolved simply because it could and did (which involves a dose of luck) via the mechanism of selection. And this really includes artificial life too for if any type of life or individual wasn’t fit enough to survive then he/she/it logically wouldn’t be alive – read Post No.: 0193.
Just because a species may have evolved to behave in a certain way in historical environments, it doesn’t mean this species ought to behave that way in today’s environments – especially because evolution doesn’t stop i.e. things can change (e.g. humans may have lived in mostly male-dominated cultures up until now but that doesn’t mean it ‘ought’ to be or stay that way). Just because a species might’ve evolved for something as a result of natural selection, it doesn’t necessarily make it ‘right’ (e.g. parasites). This would be the fallacious argument of ‘is’ conflated with ‘ought to therefore be’. An ‘adaptive trait’ isn’t the same as something that’s ‘always good for us’ (e.g. humans evolved to crave sugar and fat but this craving isn’t always good in all environments). The same with what the market decides – a ‘popular/successful product’ isn’t the same thing as something that’s ‘good for us’ (e.g. cigarettes). Therefore ‘adaptive’ or ‘popular/successful’, for instance, aren’t reliable guides of what are considered moral, or even always optimal when just looking at maximising a desirable big-picture result.
We fear death because of evolved genetic instincts – those organisms that didn’t fear death enough probably did overly risky things and so didn’t last long enough to have any progeny. But still, evolution describes and creates what ‘is’ but not necessarily what ‘ought to be’ – what ‘ought to be’ will always be subjective. Well do plants and microbes, which are hugely successful according to their total biomass and number on Earth, fear death? (That’s a genuine query!) Do we ‘ought’ to only have, say, thin, fragile skin that’s susceptible to skin cancer or eyes only on the front of our heads?
From a scientific perspective, there’s no intentional design or ‘ought’ for anything here. There’s no higher or divine reason for life – it’s just a series of chance events that, subjectively, we might as well try to enjoy while we can; but it’s not for any higher objective reason or plan. The universe will probabilistically carry on and end (one way or another) all the same. The universe would’ve carried on and ended all the same had life not been in this universe at all – and if there are multiverses then an infinite number of universes would be just like that, as well as for any other possible possibility.
So that’s another benefit and appeal of religion, spirituality or other such beliefs – to give meanings and goals, including moral goals, to this world and life. Yet this is still going to be a personal decision. Meaning and purpose in life are still therefore going to be subjective, not objective or absolute. No one ‘ought’ to chase riches or fame, marry or procreate, for instance. For whatever goal society or individuals should aim for in life (a meaning or purpose ‘why’, as well as an ‘ought’, question) – whatever ‘majority-agreed measure’ we choose for it will still be a subjective one, especially since some goals can directly compromise other goals.
For instance, maximising pleasure can lead to costs elsewhere, such as consumption versus environmental conservation – how do we equipoise the two goals that compete for the exact same resources to say how more important is one over the other? If it follows the pattern of history, nature will self-correct and decimate or make the human species extinct if humans are too greedy, profligate or otherwise gets it wrong, like other species before – but that’s arguably okay because life in some form or another will likely carry on, even if humans bring down many other species with them. No need to worry about the environment then(!) Possibly a smarter species than humans will eventually become the future dominant species too, like how the extinction of non-avian dinosaurs was perhaps one factor that allowed the small mammals that evolved into humans to eventually flourish?
If an answer is right then for whom (e.g. an individual or collectively, for all humans or all life in total) and when (e.g. the short-term or long-term)? Maybe it’d be overall better for the rest of the animal and plant kingdom in the ultra-long-term for humans to get out of the way as soon as possible because what’s best for one species might not be the best for life overall? Or maybe precisely because all life on this planet is going to naturally die one day anyway (because the Sun will one day swallow it up, a large asteroid will strike or some other apocalyptic natural disaster) – why doesn’t everyone currently alive just have one massive energy and material consumption blow-out party?!
These are just thought experiments. I’m not trying to instigate how dogs and cats will inherit the Earth one day… Yet to ask, “Would that be so bad?” further highlights how ‘good’ and ‘bad’ are highly subjective! Having said that, most people wouldn’t think that any of the above extreme options are morally defensible – but I could say that this would be from a biased and subjective human perspective! And to further highlight another point – science, without politics, religion or personal biases, is indifferent to whatever outcome happens.
Facts are one thing but values are another. For example, is it better to live a longer but poorer-quality life or a shorter but higher-quality life? Which value is more rational if this question can be answered objectively? There are (subjective) ways to turn these (subjective) values into numbers yet must people even be rational if they don’t want to be? Morals and rationality don’t always align anyway (e.g. smothering a loud baby to save an entire family from being discovered and killed by enemy forces). Which values override which in any dilemma?
Some disagreements are down to disputes in evidence, but some are about values, ethics, (strong) moral commitments or about what teloses or roles things principally serve (e.g. is the telos of a doctor to save or to serve? Is the role of a combat medic to be a medic or a soldier first?)
Objective facts (which can be determined via science) should critically shape and anchor our subjective values, but they’re not the same things and they don’t answer the same questions. This means that even if everyone were educated to the same level and were exposed to the same facts, and everyone accepted them as facts, it still won’t necessarily mean that everyone will agree with the same subjective conclusions in all cases.
There are therefore a lot of perennial dilemmas in ethics and philosophy that’ll never be solved once-and-for-all by science, such as how far the harm principle should go. Is a failure to alleviate someone else’s fuzzy suffering a case of harming him/her? Should we be morally compelled to help a person who’s dying in front of us from a stab wound even though one didn’t cause this person to bleed? How about if they were starving or homeless then? Is winning in a competition bad because it causes suffering to the losers? Are someone’s sexual attitudes ‘prudish’ or ‘pure’? Is someone being ‘miserly’ or ‘careful’ with their money? Is a ‘Robin Hood’ character a good or bad guy? Is it rude to push in line or is it a case of ‘if you snooze, you lose’? What exactly do words like ‘appropriate’ and ‘proportionate’ mean in practice?
In the broad field of ethics, there are going to be more questions posed than clear answers given, and future posts on this subject will inevitably follow suit. The worth or utility is in considering them and understanding them as dilemmas, and the various sides of the debates, so that we don’t become arrogantly one-sided and blind to our own subjective biases and limited perspectives. It’s not about sitting on the fence on such issues but if we think the answers to many age-old ethical questions are ‘obvious’ then we likely haven’t considered them from a neutral position enough.