The Nature and Origins of Ethics

Questions of ethics reduce to judgements about behavior.  We must decide if an action is likely to garner a desired outcome; when habitualization of an act or procedure is revealed to more likely result in attainment of what we aim for, that activity is preferred and becomes an inveteracy.  When habits have implications for our social group, they become a matter of appropriateness in relationship to the collective, which is the origin of interpreting behavior as having ethical import, constrained not just by functional consequences for ourselves but also impact on those around us.  

A vast spectrum exists between, on one side, high functionality with minimal social ramifications, and on the other, high social appeal with minimum functional necessity.  Constructing a shelter while stranded in the wilderness is vital to survival, and has little social meaning besides sustaining ourselves until rescued so as to resume a community role as well as reunite with family and friends, almost noncausal in these circumstances.  Waving goodbye has no practicality beyond the casual meaning it conveys, and dispensing with it would lack serious repercussions, but we like it so much that it is a universal symbol of affection.  Chatting with strangers can have the positive effect of increasing social health in a community, but sometimes prompts negative feedback or in rare cases attracts unwanted attention that might even get us attacked, so its ethical significance is ambiguous, left to informal, personal discretion.  Parking close to an intersection could be favorable in situations where it is the only spot available, but reduces visibility in such a way that safety is jeopardized, so everyone is expected to learn the regulations that sanction law enforcement to cite or tow offending vehicles.  But often the danger is negligible, such as in residential areas, so police do not trouble with punishing an occasional violation despite the law, for there are more important issues to surveil than parking in someone’s out of the way cul-de-sac for instance, unless residents call in a complaint.  Ethical standards, codes, systems of rules and associated behaviors arise from our effort to balance consequences for ourselves with communal consequences, which often involves a measure of complexity.  

Individual benefit frequently comes into conflict with social effects, and this is the source of ethical dilemmas.  Coughing profusely without covering our mouths while ill with a cold is practical for the individual as it ejects thousands of germs some distance away from the body, so much so that our biology is ingrained with the coughing reflex, but can infect those around us, so we are expected to keep germs to ourselves.  Inducement of coughing by pathogens is also of benefit to its population as contagion increases; we of course prefer wellness of our fellow human beings to the vigor of microbes that make us sick, so have no qualms about fighting our infections by obstructing millions of viruses and bacteria, and neither do our immune systems.  Unfortunately, many businesses have pressured their employees to work while sick under penalty of firing or withheld pay, so offices can be hotbeds of disease transmission.  Shaking hands is unsanitary and likely results in quite a bit of illness under the radar, but is a venerable tradition stretching back many centuries, with massive effort probably required to eliminate it from culture altogether, in addition to being a moot issue if we can get everyone to wash their hands.  Hugging is likewise unsanitary, but the sense of bondedness it engenders outweighs the danger, which is slight with diligence about bathing and washing our clothes.  Additional goodwill gestures of physical contact exist that put us even more at risk, but we apparently would not give them up for the world.

    Reasoning about the causality involved in ethical agency, where we assess the influence of our behaviors upon ourselves and those we are socially linked with, falls into a few categories.  Numinous causality is the result of what we regard as divine interventions in the course of worldly affairs, viewed as demanding obligations from human beings.  Synergistic social causality is behavior that emerges from efforts to act cooperatively, via collaboration.  Antagonistic social causality is the constraining of behavior by exaction or threat of either harm, deprivation or inequality, legitimizing the permanence of hierarchical authority in institutions by appealing to a wide range of both implicit and explicit criteria.  Mechanistic causality consists in dynamics of entities comprehended as analogous to technology, the component structures manifested while we observe substances and human nature in our quest for well-being.  And psychological causality is the product of assessing motivations of a relatively more personal or more social kind, including the machinations of sizable groups, mass assembly phenomena that substantially differ from the dynamics of single personalities.

We do not have certainty about the discrepancy between how these domains of causality played out in reasoning during the two hundred thousand year duration of precivilized living versus civilized circumstances, for written records of prehistory are of course lacking, and it is impossible to research a tribe while completely insulating it from the modern world.  However, some indication of what life is like in hunter-gatherer communities can be drawn from documentation made by pre-20th century European explorers of Africa, the New World as well as parts of Asia, together with some patchy modern research, and the essentials of civilization are common knowledge, so we can perform valid deductions, connecting some of the dots.

As we have seen, human motivation is complex, and its modes of expression can vary by culture, but in general, the simple influence of concentrating into a large population can explain why embarking upon civilization had such seachanging effect.  In the quintessential hunter-gatherer village on the cusp of transitioning to a civilized way of life, perhaps consisting of about a hundred individuals as an estimate, all its members are living off the countryside, hunting, gathering nuts and berries, with a bit of rudimentary crop-raising thrown into the mix.  They live on self-subsistent surpluses that require the same type of tool-making and tool-use by almost everyone in the tribe.  There is some primordial division of labor, as a shaman may fabricate implements of spiritual significance and provide guidance in exchange for food, a chief may also have his needs met by the group as a perk of leadership, but most households are engaging in the same sorts of behaviors, supporting their families by nearly identical means, and can usually function on their own just as well as in commerce with the collective barring competition with rival tribes and warring.  As population increases, some families set out on their own and found a new village with approximately the same lifestyle a distance away.

When humans first packed into towns and cities, conditions were much different.  The same amount of land had to support bigger populations, so almost full transition to large-scale farming occurred.  In order for farming to keep up with a swelling quantity of residents, this profession needed to become more technological, requiring specialized tool-making by nonfarmers in town, and necessitating that food producers devote the majority of their working life to tending the fields, altogether reducing degree of self-subsistence.  Agriculture is susceptible to changing seasons and climates, so although surpluses could be achieved, as in grain stored year round, sustenance of the population is impossible if crops fail, and at this juncture of development they inevitably would at some point.  Initial civilizations were putting all their eggs in one basket when it came to the food supply: if agriculture collapsed, specialized populations of high density did not simply hunt or gather instead nor pick up the operation and move to a new area, but either dispersed, calling it quits, or starved.

Between 10,000 and 6,000 B.C.E., civilizations went through periods of dissolution induced by mercurialities of long-term climate; this was especially true of the ancient Americas with their sometimes severe El Nino and La Nina effects.  But by around 6,000 B.C.E., stable growing seasons in Old World regions well-watered by river systems, such as Egypt, Mesopotamia, India, China and many parts of Europe, prolonged an advancement in farming and food distribution sufficient to permanently settle thousands of square miles.

Infrastructure and trade were indispensable for this full commitment to an agriculture-based lifestyle of specialization in large communities.  At first, the erecting of economies must have been local, an arrangement along the lines of Greek city states with their satellite colonies, pockets of high population at strategic spots such as river basins or areas defensible from attack.  Some light trading probably took place along stretches of river, modest impetus for large-scale organization, but the key event in the move towards highly enculturated antiquity was emergence of strong central authority, for it enabled civilizations to pool resources in service of engineering projects such as civic construction and man-made canals for irrigation or travel.  Powerful government was also more capable of securing vast populaces against inclement conditions – nomadic migrations, invasions by rivals, regional food shortages – with enhanced military and commercial organization.

Though centralized legislating offers some logistical advantages when suitably technologized, it originated with the obligation that populations give up their independence in order to seek, resist or capitulate to imperial conquering, and many of the first rulers and ruling classes considered themselves elites, committed to enforcing superiority over the public.  Popular psychologies that upheld this inequality across large spans of time involve some subtle variety, but the basic factor in their persistence is elementary to conceive, for it similarly obtains in the contemporary age.  A civilized society in which almost no citizens live a self-subsistent lifestyle depends on law and order for its very survival.  If efficient distribution and protection of goods and resources is not possible due to inadequate military presence or civic upkeep, crises such as famines and wars are more threatening to the population’s way of life, a vulnerability to natural cataclysms as well as violence from hostile cultures.  Civilizations in political chaos, a state of uproar and unrest, are eventually overrun by more unified outsiders as it is recognized that exploitative actions will not be capably resisted.  Citizens also often consider traditions sacred, with minds in antiquity all the way to the present day seeing a connection between the viability of social structures and the will of deities or their declared representatives, so that fear of divine wrath or belief in spiritual mandate lead to consent for all but the most egregious oppressions.  Thus, though no one likes to be herded around by authority, individuals are usually agreeable to suppressing some level of disgruntlement in order to ward off potential for utter catastrophe.

In a large, civilized populace, distinctive dynamics take effect.  As was mentioned, loss of self-sufficient living in communal territories providing for each household’s equivalent way of life means that individuals are more susceptible to misfortune from changing natural and economic conditions.  Citizens also simply differ more, as they have divergent professional and personal lifestyles, often with unintegrated ancestry that introduces the divisive effect of language barriers and variant manners, a partition of society into subcultures.  Citizens can lack common interest with many in their own or other neighborhoods, and may be unable to engage in spoken communication.  Materially, particular citizens matter less to sustenance of the community as a whole, with occupational roles quickly filled by someone new when professionals are no longer able to render services, and benefits often accrued by elimination of rival tradesmen from the economy.  Value placed on individual lives diminishes in a milieu of less trust, empathy, and solidarity against detriments such as poverty or abuse of power.

In antiquity, the relationship between populations and rulers could involve a conspicuous absence of oversight by commoners, contributing to a tendency for leadership to become corrupt, living large at the expense of subjects or manipulating public opinion for personal gain.  But logistical crises inevitably happen, flagrant neglects of the public good get exposed, and when citizenries become dissatisfied enough with the conduct of those in power to overthrow a government, opulence is practically helpless against popular revolt, especially if conditions grow so bad that even military discipline disintegrates.  Exploitation is a tough sell, and the earliest authorities stemmed the tide of any opposition to their sovereignty with immediate and harsh measures designed to scare so-considered “rabble” into apprehensive obedience, usually nipping any inclination towards disorder in the bud.  Combined with a lessening of empathy in civic settings of anonymity, competition, and subcultural differentiation, the administering of punishment waxed more than a little insane.

For hunter-gatherers by contrast, the most extreme response to serious nonconformity was usually banishment, simply kicking those who commit heinous offenses out of the tribe, and these communities were close-knit enough that a course of action such as this rarely seemed appropriate.  But overlord classes of ancient Egypt, Rome, and additional cultures whipped, beat and murdered enslaved demographics while denying them legal protection from even each other.  The Spartans of ancient Greece occasionally declared war on nearly defenseless slaves as preparation for real battle.  Slavery persisted in the United States until the mid-19th century, with enforcement left to the temperament and choice of slave owners.  Laws disenfranchising subcultures still existed well into the 20th century, for instance U.S. segregation and South African Apartheid.  Members of the upper class treated each other inhumanely as well, with power struggles constantly breaking out, leading to assassination and feuding.  Violent lawlessness was so pervasive that 18th century B.C.E. King Hammurabi of Babylon instated the first official code of law, which made the magnanimous move of proclaiming that anyone who destroys the eye of a gentleman citizen shall lose his eye.  Mauryan society of 4th century B.C.E. India was particularly lenient: the punitive measure for grand theft was severing of an offender’s hand, not even fatal.

Antiquity’s synthesis of antagonistic causality in a civilized context of law enforcement, power politics and war with primitive mechanisms by which to incentivize human nature, fed into by the paranoia, megalomania or Machiavellian impunity of many rulers, compelled justice towards incredible cruelty: excruciatingly painful tortures such as crucifixion, flaying, burning and dismemberment were a facet of common law for millennia.  Desecration of the human body and obsequious honor for families and classes were even further reinforced by beliefs about numinous causality, for many individuals and leadership traditions hold that deities demand humans submit their lives, sacrifice their health and well-being, even kill in order to demonstrate piety.  Spirituality exerts extensive influence over imaginations and lives, with a priestly class still existing in all societies, receiving a portion of the population’s wealth in exchange for mediating relationships to divinity by way of rituals and the formulation of doctrine.  In ancient Egypt, one of the earliest civilizations, religious authority did not merely represent the will of the gods, but Pharoahs were viewed by subjects as a literal incarnation of the deity.  Over the course of history, social planning has sometimes attempted to extricate religious devotion from the corruption that so readily materializes in political settings, which in the Christian world culminated as the principles “separation of church and state” and “freedom of religion”, embraced almost in full by the 20th century.  This did not diffuse all the violence endemic to many belief systems, but succeeded in reducing incidence of ideologically motivated military action.

Antiquity’s commitment to a lifestyle based around piety rituals, wealth amassment, arms races, conquest, and heavy-handed, sometimes brutal justice persisted without major contestations until about the 6th century B.C.E., when a spiritual awakening seems to have gathered momentum.  Movements inspired by what we moderns call ‘enlightenment’ began to take shape throughout the Old World.  In China, a political figure named Confucius wrote and taught extensively about the ethics of public life with an emphasis on facilitating scholarship and instituting an educational system, instilling a paradigm of synergistic social causality that would exert influence all the way to the present day.  Prince Siddhartha of India had a spiritual epiphany, then travelled around his region advocating mastery of one’s motivations by understanding and controlling the workings of the psyche as a path to salvation, the beginnings of Buddhism.  Mahavira, also of India, reached enlightenment as well and became a famed prophet of the Jainist religion, which seems to have grown into a subculture based around communal reflection.  As already discussed, the ancient Greek Thales, from a colony on the coast of Asia Minor, was one of the first recorded instances of philosophical materialism.  His poetic thought experiments proposed water as the fundamental substance responsible for causality in nature.  The Greek king Cleisthenes put in place a series of political reforms during his reign of Athens that were called ‘demokratia’, “rule of the people”, probably attempting to quell a chaotic era of struggle between quarreling factions by establishing a system of collectivist participation.  This was the origin of our democratic values, hugely impactful to the modernizing world.

So as early as the 5th century B.C.E., all the main strands of ethics had taken root.  Notions of numinous causality were ingrained as a long tradition of god worship and spiritual directive stretching back to prehistory.  Concepts of antagonistic social causality led to impositions of civilized power that had informed political life and the structure of institutions for millennia.  Key philosophical figures seminalized synergistic social causality – cooperative culture on a large-scale – as a central facet of some religions and political systems.  Materialism originated in Greece, a perspective that would lead to the knowledge of substance, nature and experience as mechanistic causal systems.  And Buddhist thought started to give a subjectivist account of the causality in mentality and motive with its significance for quality of life in civilizations.  Future analyses and practices of ethical import essentially mixed and matched these domains, putting more stress on some areas and less on others depending upon the thinker’s disposition.

Ancient Greek culture continued to develop intellectually, with what would be a permanent influence on Western academia.  Though many Greeks probably made contributions to philosophical theory of the time, detailed records of this thinking start with Plato’s 4th century B.C.E. outreach to a mass audience, his preserved popular works in the genre of Socratic dialogue.  In line with the highly public nature of Athenian lifestyle, his analysis of ethics focuses on the relationship between behavior and civic practice, inclined towards the social pole of the psychological spectrum.  He advocates commitment of the individual to furthering group knowledge with well-mannered collaboration, values his literary character Socrates emblemizes.  He shows great concern with crafting a seamlessly functioning polis, his utopian Republic, and combines promotion of standards for social synergy with attempts to theorize spirituality, the “godlike”, as well as human nature and the cosmos.  He intuits rational order as pervading existence, manifesting in the forms of both qualitative and quantitative ideas that make apt belief and action intelligible via the activity of reasoning, guiding us towards fuller notions of explicit truth, a systematic knowledge of causality.

  Plato’s pupil Aristotle progressed over the course of his career into the realm of small-scale relationships, and his philosophy was one of the inspirations for what has come to be known as ‘virtue ethics’, theories that regard character development as the means to ‘eudaimonia’: happiness in a good life.  This is a deeper delving into Socratic-style collaborative values, discussing the finer points of human interaction, outlining appropriate behaviors that do not diminish pleasure for our personal contacts or incur negative judgements, and those that are usually considered impolite, onerous to our acquaintances, or lacking in integrity.  So no matter how well Socrates states his point, if he flips the bird while conversing, Aristotle would not approve.

Alexander the Great, heir to the throne of Macedon, a principality on Greece’s northern border, was Aristotle’s pupil, and became one of the most successful conquerors in world history.  By the time he died at age 32, his empire stretched all the way from the Aeolian peninsula to western reaches of India.  He was entrenched in the tradition of antagonistic social causality, committed to manipulating power relations for the sake of glorifying his own status and that of the ruling class, but also seems to have imbibed some sophistication from instruction of his youth, for he was determined to spread philosophical culture to lands Macedonian armies annexed, building a civic infrastructure of knowledge – libraries and more – that ‘Hellenized’ much of Southern Europe, Southwest Asia and North Africa.  Prior to Alexander, invasions had largely been carried out for the purpose of plundering foreign territories to their detriment in order to increase wealth and prestige, but his blend of imperialistic domination and dissemination of academics made fostering growth in and commerce between a vast assortment of intellectual traditions precedential to Western governance, setting the stage for conceiving Europe and the Middle East of antiquity’s destiny for cultural synthesis.         

Uniting of the Western world would be actualized by the Roman empire.  Upon its improbable defeat of Carthage in the 2nd century B.C.E., Rome undertook an imperial expansion which by the beginning of the first century C.E. reached all the way from the Middle East to what is modern day England, with armies of Germania barely staving off conquest of the entire European continent.  Its governance began as a republic, with influence from a multiyear study of Athenian democracy by Roman officials.  Rome’s republic hybridized institutions of representative assembly and popular vote with an autocratic dimension responsible for military campaigns.  By the time the world reached the common era, autocratic rule had won out over representation, evolving from the command of renowned generals into a tradition of emperorship to which the Senate was largely subservient, but this did not hamper Rome’s hegemony, which would remain nearly invincible for almost five more centuries, internal power struggles notwithstanding.  Despite the decline of republican government, Rome’s division of the empire into districts of regional administration proved effective, with its willingness to tolerate some local autonomy that was answerable to consulates without being humiliatingly submitted by them working extremely well.  Roman taxation supported civil engineering that improved the Western world’s infrastructure, even accomplishing a measure of globalization, for trade with India and China thrived during the empire’s heyday.

Rome’s masterful synthesis of the antagonistic and synergistic in social structure prepared the way for what would become a pivotal moment in Western history, Jesus of Nazareth’s legendary ministry.  According to the Bible he was of Jewish descent, a carpenter by trade, but around the age of thirty began travelling throughout Judea, what is modern day Israel, attracting large crowds enthralled by reputed miracles as well as his teachings of peace and humble piety in a worldly civilization; hundreds of millions of course still believe he was God to this day.  For three years he preached on many subjects, but his core principle is encapsulated by what Christians call the ‘golden rule’: “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and all your soul, and all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself”.  This is a pithy synthesis of numinous and synergistic causality, touching upon their essence: the divine purveyor of the possibility of morality in human lives expects us to demonstrate respect for his creative purpose by reciprocating the gifting of existence to humanity through both honor for his divinity and deference to a universal moral agency with which he imbued the race, an ethic that can give our cultures a degree of liberation from mortal realities “of the flesh”.  As the story goes, leaders in the Jewish community resented his popularity and managed to get him arrested and crucified on false charges by Roman authorities.

This literary moment in which Jesus sacrificed himself for the sake of enlightening humans would reverberate through the ages, as Christianity, a local sect founded on narratives of his life, made a meteoric rise over the course of three centuries until it was a state religion of Rome, and by the start of the Medieval period had become the foundation of Western culture.  Jesus-inspired morality is a huge benefit to behavior management and peace of mind in many lives, but Christianity is quite the case study in hypocrisy.  The religion’s high leadership has at times extracted massive amounts of wealth from adherents while preaching frugality and simplicity of lifestyle.  Devout, would-be role models such as mystics, pastors and political figures have backed persecutions of rival movements and then denominations, in Europe stretching all the way from the Middle Ages to latter stages of progressing religious freedom in the 19th century.  And Christianized civilization has waged class and racial warfare despite the pacifist morality of both Jesus and key proselytizers such as 1st century C.E. apostle Paul.  This religion boasts many exemplary figures as well who seem to have fully embraced Jesus’ values of charity and love for humanity, but not enough to stem the tide of institutional secularization from the Renaissance onward.

Despite Medieval Christianity’s political corruption, religiously motivated war, persecutions, and the inaccessibility of theology for common laity due to reliance of priestly academia on Latin, Jesus’ essential message was preserved in the Bible, and the religion’s moral foundation thereby sustained to nurture future movements once technology for mass printing of books had been invented.  One of the central claims of Christian doctrine is that humankind is the zenith of God’s creation, entrusted with supervision of the world and capable of an immortal communion with the divine, positioned above the rest of nature.  This sense for the race’s privileged status combined with the timeless principle that we should treat our neighbors well, placed alongside Ockhamist philosophy and growing Greco-Roman influences enriching the intellectual worldview of mind and behavior as autonomous from the cosmos yet capacitated to profoundly understand it, gave rise to a humanist strain in even pious literature of the tightly regulated late Middle Ages and early Renaissance, a faith in our mandate for self-determination possessed by many “God-fearing” in addition to worldly individuals.  This humanism was the ethical heart of the Renaissance and Scientific Revolution, for no matter how far artists, technologists and natural philosophers strayed from the doctrinaire, there was a strong sense in the most enlightened citizens that acts of reasoning are of universal benefit to quality of life and universal relevance for our actualization, a means by which humanity can transcend immediate reality and improve a collective existence.

One of the modern incarnations of ethical theory is ‘deontology’, an approach that seeks to ground reasoning and motivation upon a concept of duty.  In an Early Modern society of the 17th century that was still devoutly religious, many philosophizers, even some as revolutionizing as Descartes, explained moral duty in terms of God-ordained necessity, required in order for true piety to be achieved, what is called ‘divine command’ deontology.  As mechanistic conceptualizings became more deeply rooted in the European view of not merely applied technology but nature as a whole, including a growing sense that workings of human minds, especially reasoning, operate according to analogous sorts of principles, justifications of duty became more pragmatically minded, elaborated as binding from out of an analysis of causality and practice.  Kant was the most influential theorist in this vein; he argued in the 18th century that consequences of our actions often involve unintended effects, so moral ideals cannot be derived solely from an assessment of situational factors, but an ethical domain exists which, if universalized, would make society work better under all conditions, including criteria such as not murdering, not lying, and not stealing: a core of standardized morality in civilized contexts.  Regardless of cause and effect, the possession of integrity – a “good will” – is only achieved by commitment to imperatives such as these, for they are the prerequisite for enculturated society to even be possible.  This outlook views ethical good as the rationally motivated adoption of especially universalizable guidelines for behavior despite the challenge.

Contemporaneous with Kant’s reason-based deontology was a somewhat less idealistic theory of ethics called ‘utilitarianism’, originated by Jeremy Bentham and his successor John Stuart Mill.  This view held that decision-making of an ethical kind is not universalizable as a function of its rationalizability for each individual, but rather according to the degree of pleasure or pain it produces for the majority of the population.  While these thinkers believed that much commonality in human nature and need exists, a condition for theirs or any general framework to be implementable, the standard for ethical good should not be personal beliefs but rather policies most justifiable in terms of practical consequences for public well-being, resulting in “the greatest good for the greatest number”.  This was a particularly optimistic version in a long philosophical tradition of trying to validate ethics with reference to effects of behavior, an array of perspectives encompassed in the 20th century by the term ‘consequentialism’.

So upon egression of civilization from its phase of reliance on oppression to more collective values, a chain of developments in beliefs about behavior sought to intellectualize the meaning and purpose of human action via an analysis of causality, with various theories placing emphasis on different kinds of causes: public, psychological, mechanistic, or spiritual.  This process of collectivizing behavioral concepts began in force with 6th century B.C.E. movements seeking to rationalize culture and facilitate personal enlightenment, often synthesized with politics to create notions of civic life as collaborative synergy, a particularly important event for ancient Athens, Rome, and governmental systems based on 18th century philosophies of the European Enlightenment which were heavily influenced by ancient democracy and republicanism.  World religions diversified into a plethora of movements and sects, each putting their own spin on ethics, in the case of Christianity becoming a more prevalent dynamic after the 16th century Reformation’s attenuating of persecution by the church.  Humanism was often concerned to integrate notions of collectivity with all the new empirical fact being generated by scientific investigation of the natural world.  As literary activity expanded its reach and academic paradigms spread to larger segments of the population, theoretical ethics came to rely more on technical sorts of arguments that sought rational foundations, such as advanced deontology or consequentialisms like utilitarianism, having impact on educational curricula and social policy.

The range of perspectives on ethics is vast, but if there is commonality it at least stretches as far as the concept of universality.  Theorists have always had an intuition that ethical reality is closely tied to features intrinsic to humankind as a whole, with some level of standardization relevant at all times and places.  Yet thinkers have always struggled to reconcile the intuition of plenary qualities in human behavior with complexities of specific situations, evoked by individuals’ divers perceptions and the unfathomable depth of total causality.  New facts of evolutionary biology and the undeniable truth that appearances are largely determined by the frame of reference from which they are viewed can, with a casual glance, seem to accentuate this dilemma: we have demonstrated it possible for the present to vary considerably from the past, traits are always mutationally diverging, causing even behavioral dispositions to transform in some ways, and as we acquire greater quantities of knowledge, especially of our instincts and ancestral origins, the world has looked more convincingly to be anything but amenable to propriety, despite the common sense of many moral ideals.  Like an active volcano, growing pressure from a magmatic mass of evolutionary and relativistic uncertainty can seem to bulge and warp the structural integrity of our social order, threatening to burst through conventional rectitudes with some empiricism-based revelation lurking beyond the horizon, erupting in cataclysmic destruction of enlightened truth.  Is the human mind closer to a rational intellect or an irrational animality?  In what proportion and in relation to which circumstances?  Do our traditional beliefs about ethical appropriateness resemble the Earth’s crust, no more than the slightest of veneers for forces churning at the core of existence, which will one day dismantle even our most cherished beliefs and championings of the collective cause?

The grand goal of universalizing society first took the form of building political institutions that operated within standardized legal parameters.  Technical knowledge progressed to the dissemination of philosophical systems and practices by master teachers.  Organizations integrated collectivist insights of philosophy into universal templates for collaborative problem-solving in civic settings.  Philosophy blended with spirituality to birth religions of mass appeal.  Collectivism incorporated empiricist experimentalism and theory into its pursuit of advancement.  And a huge proliferation of new facts and models in all the scientific disciplines was synthesized with philosophical and civic traditions of collectivism to formulate updated worldviews.  So why would insights about evolution and the relativism of perspective derail this juggernaut of civilization in any way?  If a seeking after collectivism has pervaded human living for many millennia, would we not expect modern discovery to merely necessitate one more simple upgrade to the episteme?

Contemporary thinkers may have duped their audience and perhaps even themselves into an impression that harmonizing the epistemology of evolutionary relativism with universal ethics is much harder than it actually is.  First of all, we can outline the conditions for behavior to be ethical.  Every human being needs food, shelter, clothing, health, safety, and usually some kind of community: acts that purposefully diminish the satisfaction of these needs are traditionally immoral, and upholding them is moral across the board.  This is the whole basis for an ethically “good” existence, exerting ourselves to sustain quality of life throughout the population so suffering is kept under control and we can all experience moments of pleasure instead.  The modern question, rather superficially construed, is whether some individuals, by virtue of majority status or superior ability, have the prerogative to regard their own pleasure and actualization as prioritized over even the degree of suffering in other segments of the population.  Would unqualified helping of the unfortunate obfuscate humanity’s evolution?

To start with, we should acknowledge that these basic needs are not mutually exclusive: lacking food, shelter, clothing, health, safety and community in any combination induces suffering, so consent to letting these conditions obtain is conventionally immoral, or at least a clear corollary of immorality.  For example, the borderline case: offering starving individuals food while trying to rudely offend them is fairly unethical, though not exactly an utter violation.  By contrast, if we assist someone enough to meet all their needs, no doubt exists that we have been impeccably ethical, helping the collective far beyond what is necessary to our personal interests, the whole basis for much of the economy, international intervention in political disputes, as well as charitable aid and kind gestures wherever they happen.  It is obvious that immoral acts spawn further immoral acts as humans give each other what they deserve, so widespread ethical behavior would tend to increase goodwill and lessen suffering in a population even when many recipients incline towards indifference.

Why should we care about the overall well-being of humanity in the first place?  When we look at real science versus the rhetoric of status-centric value judgements that sometimes dishonestly represents it, this issue is incredibly simplistic.  A distinctly human nature exists, molded by one to two hundred thousand years of subsistence under the almost constant social, technological and memetic selection pressures of a hunter-gatherer lifestyle modified in thousands of minute ways, but more alike than different, consisting of the the same sized populations with roughly the same psychical profile, solving the same sorts of cognitive problems.  Even more significantly, much of human physiology and behavioral compulsion is an extremely stable core of functionality derived from millions upon millions of years of biological ancestry.  We all have on average the same nervous system, the same type of brain, the same intellectual and emotional profile, and when placed in similar conditions we will end up acting in exactly the same way given enough consistency, becoming reflective, aggressive, passive, generous, distrustful or apathetic, and likewise with any human comportment.  Suffering is cognitively complex, but its essential cause – pain – can be understood by virtually all human beings via analogy with our own experience: even if we like a certain type of pain, it is undeniably a disrespect to inflict it on others against their will because unwanted pain is the root of suffering for all humans.

Of course the exact way justice should be administered using pain, deprivation, or some alternate means is a difficult issue to tackle.  Making sure that populations are empowered by education to reach maximum achievement rather than hampered by an inadequate system is also an important concern.  Enhancing medical treatment and technology in general is vital to prospects for quality of life.  Assuring we do not destroy ourselves with our own technological development is a salient dilemma.  Restraining our drive to have sex and desire to reproduce is also key for future well-being of the species.  We must avoid the destruction of our way of life with war.  Society faces many complicated problems, but the very possibility of these being stated in a universalized way implies that human nature is substantially universal; we all depend on institutions and participate in similar behavioral dynamics, so that much of what detracts from one life detracts from every life in approximately equal measure.  

Commonalities of need bearing upon relationships and the mechanisms of institutions have obtained for roughly ten thousand years, while the window of time within which human decision-makers must exercise themselves in the present to apply and augment social factors along with our institutional contexts is only a few generations at the most, a fraction of the single lifespan.  So in terms of evolutionary relativism, we can express this as follows: human nature changes very slowly relative to the timeframe of behavioral judgements, to such an extent that evolutionary fate of the species is nearly negligible for appropriate ethical action and associated engineering of society.  The species’ traits differ slightly, as do our personal and cultural histories, but from a practical standpoint, fashioning utopian existence for the human race by generally nonoppressive methods while excluding setbacks such as warlike radicalization of culture would require commitments to ethical behavior over the stretch of perhaps a few lifetimes, while evolution of our universal need is comparatively almost static, as ten thousand years of selection pressure upon at least a one to two hundred thousand year old suite of trait profiles.  Physical evolution is paltry when contrasted with the cruciality of appropriate behaviors, those most likely to positively effect any human life on a daily basis.  It seems that big, bad evolutionary relativism is a mere footnote in the conceptualizing of apt behavior, trifling compared to ethical reasoning’s universality.

So a truly science-based outlook regarding human evolution diffuses any quandary about whether ethical beliefs need to be adjusted.  The theory of evolution is a dab of new fact addressed to the same old run-of-the-mill human existence, and how could it be any different?  Thousands of years of recorded history have been compiled and analyzed to give us penetrating intuition into civilized human nature, and much of what captured antiquity’s imagination is no less provocative today.  A pity for some, who would have liked to justify the claim that their personal or subcultural pleasures, pains and potential should be put on a pedestal, lofted above the rest of the species.  

This gets at the very heart of simultaneous benefits and dangers posed by theories of evolution and innovative theories in total: we can acquire a deeper understanding of nature with progressive concepts, but the novelty of this information allows it to easily be misrepresented and misused.  Much of human civilization is starting to emerge from the 20th century darkness of Machiavellian exploitation it erroneously used the theory of evolution to advocate, with a contrary insistence on ideal rationality, factual fidelity and respect for uncertainty sprouting from analytical literature.  Prejudicial disingenuity is far from dispelled, however, as organizations everywhere try to twist knowledge into a form that serves their own interests at the expense of individual and collective well-being in the wider population.  Online communication has potential to counter this doctoring of new fact-based truths, but realistic belief in regards to human nature is still very much at risk.  Though all the information that would hypothetically empower collectivity and self-optimization of the individual has been assembled, access can be restricted such that less apprised mindsets persist and spread.

The question of how we get billions of citizens to act responsibly such that both goodwill and efficiency can be relied upon is a huge conundrum.  Even small groups can endanger lives and disrupt procedures on a regular basis, institutional intrusion is necessary to prevent this interference, invasive institutions drift towards exploitative methods that oblige them to waste time covering their asses, and the aforementioned rogue groups may have a legitimate gripe in some sense, which festers as the cooperation necessary to resolve tensions is a distant possibility under these conditions.  The means to overcome discontents is simple enough in principle: personal relationships in a structured environment where individuals involved commit within reason to their best effort at cordial collaborating and educating, what can be called “consciousness-raising”.  But how to get everyone on board with the project is a gargantuan difficulty, and real progress is hard to come by.  It seems we readily jump on a bandwagon for the sake of an experience or a feeling of accomplishment, as well as shuffle by each other unthinkingly for the better part of our days while wisely repressing any dissatisfaction with culture, but convention-busting discourse in a safe setting is far from accessible to most.  The objective of secure yet mobilized civilization is not a cinch to render attainable and well worth our contemplations, so let’s give it some thought.

A free download of the book Standards for Behavioral Commitments: Philosophy of Humanism, also available for preview below.  Topics covered include chemistry, biology, genetics, neuroscience, epistemology, the history of Western philosophy, cultural evolution, theory of cognition, ethics and much more.

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