Ethics and Human Nature

It is an unhappy characteristic of our age that certain ignoramuses have been elevated to the ranks of “public intellectual,” a category which seems to consist of men and women who provide sweeping theories of everything, especially of everything they know nothing about. Into this category fall certain writers whose sweeping theory is that, prior to the Enlightenment, everyone lived in abject superstition and physical misery. With the Enlightenment, reason and science began the process of sweeping away misery and ignorance, clearing the field for the flowers of prosperity and knowledge. Such a sophomoric view of human history and thought has the virtue (in their minds only) of rendering it unnecessary for them to acquaint themselves with a deep and nuanced knowledge of the past, an error which permits them to attribute all that is good in human accomplishment to the age of science and all that is bad to a dark past best forgotten.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the recent fad for publishing books and articles claiming that science, particularly evolutionary science, provides the necessary and sufficient basis for ethics. They argue that human nature, as revealed by the hypotheses and just-so stories of human evolution, particularly of the interrelationship of the evolution of the brain and human societies, explains all of human behavior, including moral behavior and beliefs. It does not bother them that we actually know virtually nothing of the behavior and beliefs of our prehistoric ancestors, inasmuch as behavior, thoughts, and spoken words cannot be fossilized, not to mention that there is currently disagreement as to how and when human beings in fact evolved and even as to which fossils are “human” and which are not fully so; nor does it bother them that the state of neuroscience is currently not far enough along to tell us how it is that human beings in fact have thoughts at all (by which I do not mean reflexive thoughts, such as “I’d like to mate with him,” but controlled thoughts, such as it takes to step through a syllogism or write a sentence like this one, which already is 133 words); nor do they seem to be aware that they engage in a verbal sleight of hand when they appropriate a term from the ethical tradition, apply it to certain behaviors of nonhuman animals, and then reappropriate it for their own new and improved brand of scientific ethics—such a word as “altruism,” the ethical definition of which is “an unselfish concern for the welfare of others,” which in the appropriated scientific sense now means “self sacrifice for the welfare of one’s shared genes as expressed in one’s kin,” a meaning which they then bring back into their so-called scientific ethics. For they believe that they have thus proved that altruism, thus defined, refers to a specific adaptation favored by natural selection, thus stripping the word of its original (ethical) meaning and ridding it of its encrustations of mysticism and what not. (It should be noted that this Darwinian altruism is derived from Herbert Spencer, who wrote that altruism is “the acts by which offspring are preserved and the species maintained,” and who by the way also coined the phrase “survival of the fittest,” suggesting therefore that what passes for science in this instance is simply laissez faire capitalism in science drag, otherwise known as Social Darwinism.) Conveniently, they find the best examples of this naturally selected “altruism” in what they call the social insects such as ants and bees, a fact which reveals the extent to which they have also appropriated the term “society” to their own purposes, conveniently forgetting or neglecting to mention where they appropriated it from. But these insect “societies” might better be named “crowds” or “mobs” or some other term that does not evoke unspoken analogies to “queens” and their courts and political intrigues and such like, none of which are found among ants and bees.

More tellingly, however, those scientists and others who attempt to base ethics on human nature or on Darwinian principles, when they get around to actually defining what ethics is, offer what is quite recognizably a Christian definition. For example, as a particularly concise and forthright statement, this from the introduction to Primates and Philosophers:

“. . moral goodness is something real, about which it is possible to make truth claims. Goodness requires, at a minimum, taking proper account of others. Badness [why not ‘evil’?], by the same token, includes the sort of selfishness that leads us to treat others improperly by ignoring their interests or treating them as mere instruments. . . . [these are] the two basic premises of evolutionary science and moral reality.”

Moral goodness (and therefore, one must suppose, moral badness) may indeed be real, but it is not real in any scientific sense, certainly not in any evolutionary sense, and even more certainly not a basic premise of evolutionary science. There is only one standard by which natural selection can be said to operate—reproductive success. If you and your descendents manage to continue to reproduce over time, you are a success, you have done well or good by your genes. If that entails eliminating your competition, by whatever means, that is no business of evolution. There used to be a bumper sticker that read “He who dies with the most toys wins,” but the Darwinist should display a bumper sticker that says “He who dies with the most offspring wins.” Thus, as just one example of the millions one could cite, when a lion defeats another lion and takes over his pride, the first thing he does is kill all of his predecessor’s cubs, eliminating the offspring of his competition and stimulating the lionesses to come back into heat so that he can sire his own descendents. In humans, this would be called murder and infanticide, but among lions, it is neither. In evolutionary terms, it is an adaptive strategy (although of course the lion does not know this—most likely, in the aftermath of a violent fight, with the aggressive hormones still flowing, he simply acts impulsively until he calms down; the survival-of-the-fittest end of his actions are an effect of purely momentary excitement).

Moral good and evil may be real, but they are so in the same sense that anything else developed by human beings, whether in technology or concepts, is real. And like all the great concepts of humanity, ethical concepts developed to their present state (or states, perhaps) over a very long time and through much thought and debate. The claim in the last sentence of the quotation, that the two very laudable principles of proper consideration of others and eschewing the treatment of others as mere instruments originate in evolutionary science, is a statement so laughable that one can only assume that the authors have never read any religious literature or the New Testament, nor indeed anything from the long tradition of Western philosophical ethics. A few sentences later they explicitly eliminate religion from the discussion, as of course unscientific and therefore irrelevant—which is rather like a grandson claiming that his grandfather never existed.

Perhaps they have never learned the origin of the admonition that he who is without sin should cast the first stone, or this from Matthew:

“For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.”

Or perhaps this, from St. Paul: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” Note that to no longer discriminate on the basis of race, station, or gender is, in fact, to take “proper account of others.” No doubt too they are unaware of St. Gregory’s statement on slavery:

‘I got me slave-girls and slaves.’ For what price, tell me? What did you find in existence worth as much as this human nature? What price did you put on rationality? How many obols did you reckon the equivalent of the likeness of God? How many staters did you get for selling that being shaped by God? God said, Let us make man in our own image and likeness. If he is in the likeness of God, and rules the whole earth, and has been granted authority over everything on earth from God, who is his buyer, tell me? Who is his seller? To God alone belongs this power; or, rather, not even to God himself. For his gracious gifts, it says, are irrevocable. God would not therefore reduce the human race to slavery, since he himself, when we had been enslaved to sin, spontaneously recalled us to freedom. But if God does not enslave what is free, who is he that sets his own power above God’s?

It is worth noting also that in the view of Thomas Aquinas (following Augustine’s lead), evil is a loss, a negative or subtraction from a being’s nature, which in his view of humans means loss of reason, which does not sound unlike “ignoring their interests or treating them as mere instruments.” It also points to the role of reason in ethics (see also Kant), as opposed to impulses, drives, or instincts (which determine the action of the triumphant lion). Not to belabor the point any further, it is clear that the authors cited above have done nothing more than distill Christian ethics down to its most basic essence. And by doing so have fatally undermined their thesis.

But in failing to see that their idea of ethics is derived from the Christian tradition rather than from evolution, the authors have revealed the agenda of the effort to base ethics on a scientific understanding of human nature: that their real goal is not to better understand human nature for the purpose of constructing a science-based ethics but rather to better understand human nature for the purpose of changing it, and to change it to conform to their (prior non-scientific) notions of how human beings should behave, as opposed to how human beings actually behave. One writer claimed, for example, that the American habit of locking up a greater percentage of its population than any other country led to a decline in crime because the (mostly) men who were incarcerated could not procreate, thus reducing criminal genes in the general population. Such is what passes for ethical thinking these days, such is what passes for evolutionary thought in too many minds. This is the same path that has led to ideological totalitarianism and to Social Darwinism and eugenics (let’s create better humans by controlled breeding).

If there is such a thing as “human nature,” the truly scientific stance would be to describe what that nature is and to account for it in evolutionary terms; if, for example, human beings have a natural tendency to kill each other in order to achieve certain objectives (more mates, more territory, etc.), then that is an aspect of human nature which we have inherited from our ancestors because (as it does throughout the biological world) violence functions as a means of natural selection: to the victor go the genetic spoils. Any attempt to short-circuit that aspect of human nature is, virtually by definition, unnatural, originating not in biology but from, in a metaphorical sense, “outside” biology and therefore outside science—which explains why the ancients cited above were able to articulate a profound ethical philosophy despite their lack of science and especially their lack of the Darwinian theory of natural selection.

More seriously, this approach reveals a serious flaw in much of what passes for scientific thinking, among both scientists and non-scientists who appropriate science for non-scientific purposes. For example, the quest for perfect health and even for immortality is not a quest of science, even though science is recruited to serve those goals. Death and ill health are perfectly natural; there would be no world as we know it, with all its diversity of life forms, without death. In our efforts to create a humanly defined perfect world, we find ourselves not in harmony with nature but in direct opposition to it. Not so very long ago, we believed that we had triumphed over bacterial infections by the discovery and widespread deployment of antibiotics, yet today we are facing the unanticipated resurgence of bacterial diseases in the form of so-called superbugs; yet there is nothing actually “super” about them. Certain infectious bacteria have simply done what they, and all living things, have always done: they have evolved to survive in the new environments created by antibiotics, and they have done so in a simple and non-intentional manner, through the very natural process of vertical and horizontal transmission of resistant genes, genes which arise through random copying errors (mutations) rather than any teleological program by bacteria to resist our efforts to control them. Whenever we apply science to “improve” our lives, we act unnaturally, and very often we reap the whirlwind as a consequence—global warming, species extinction, global warfare, obesity, depleted aquifers, overpopulation, etc. The desire to use science to in effect defeat nature is roughly analogous to committing suicide to defeat death. But since it is also science which warns us of the consequences of our actions, and since we prefer to ignore those warnings, up to and perhaps over the brink, it is clear that science by itself cannot be the source of answers to our larger questions or solutions to our problems. The answers have to come from elsewhere.

That elsewhere is the long (religious and secular) philosophical tradition of ethics (ethics as a subfield of philosophy), that is from a tradition of thought that often explicitly rejected or suppressed instinct (i.e., “human nature”) in favor of a reasoned philosophy of behavior and attitude. We may today, in our anything goes consumerist culture, look down at the ancient ascetics for their abnegation of the body, but they at least understood, however imperfectly, that the various insistences of the body, of the biological self, could and did overwhelm people’s attempts to think clearly. Likewise, too much stuff distracted from concentrated thought, so it is not surprising that virtually every ethical philosopher warned against riches and accumulation of goods. A prime example of this is the Buddha, who abandoned his life as a rich prince living in the sweet folds of luxury, supplied with all the gadgets and amusements which the civilization of his time could provide, to wander the world without property or money and who achieved enlightenment after voluntary deprivations that nearly killed him.

Ethical enlightenment no longer seems to be an attractive goal in this our scientific and digital age. Politicians today talk of nothing but economic competition and national security, and educational reformers preach STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) while denigrating the humanities (including philosophy) because they don’t result in high-paying jobs. People no longer seek out saints and sages (Buddha, Jesus, St. Francis) but rather celebrities and technology gurus (the Kardashians, this month’s sexiest man, next month’s pop singer, Steve Jobs, etc.) who promise not enlightenment but power. Not power of the sort that allows one to pursue justice (the kind of power Martin Luther King, Jr., talked about when he said that “Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice”), but the kind of power that serves the narcissistic self. Precisely the kind of power that appeals to thoughtless human nature.


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