Letter to Peter

Chapter 6: Morality and Behaviour

Evolution, Community Rules and Guilt

The discussion about whether good and evil are real or apparent has another twist, compared to discussing whether we, or underlying scientific descriptions, are real. With scientific theories, and ourselves, we said that we believed in the truths of theories, whenever it was too complicated to believe in bizarre alternative reasons as to why they might seem true, whilst being false. When we start to look at notions of good or evil, we may have an alternative set of explanations, which are not so bizarre, on why they might appear real yet be illusions.

We are community animals with a psychological build-up that has been programmed in such a way as to mean that we co-operate partially with other people. The "programming" which I refer to is the subconscious part of what is discussed in "Evolution of belief systems" on cultural beliefs.

Deeply ingrained rules of co-operation evolve, with the prospering of those communities that develop the most successful ones. A lot of the ways we behave are determined by our psychological make-up, by feelings of guilt or obligation buried deep inside our psyche. A community, which, through genetic selection or behavioural habit (the way it corrected its young?) managed to instil unpleasant feelings within uncooperative individuals, would have some advantages over a community that did not. Individuals susceptible to such feelings might themselves have a disadvantage however. Freud recognised the evolutionary nature of such subconscious rules, but unfortunately then overcooked his theory with a lot of speculative assertions.

I would like to explore "community versus self" issues a bit further:

There is an illustration (not a paradox, I think) of two men accused of crime. The police can prove that both committed a minor offence, which would bring them a year in prison, but cannot prove conclusively that they both committed a second more serious offence worth ten years. They are in separate rooms. The police inform each that if one confesses, implicating the other, the confessor will get let off, but the other will get ten years. If they both confess, they will both get five years. Suppose we forget the justice element and think of how they could optimise their position. If they have a "criminals" code of conduct "not to grass", and both respect the code of conduct they will get one year each. If one of them acts selfishly (relative to the code of conduct) the total sentence will go up, but he will serve less time (although he may only live ten years and a day consequently).

This is a example of a widespread embedded principle in community living: if no-one steals we all gain, if everyone steals we all lose, if a few people steal they gain selfishly. In our behaviour, there is always this trade-off between doing things in our own interest, to the detriment of the community, versus doing what is in the best community interest. The trade off is generating a small risk to the whole community, in return for a large advantage within it. The "optimal" strategy is not to be an angel.

Putting aside, for a moment, the question of what our interest is, the trade-off for the individual, between own and community interest is one part of "what is wrong with the world". We can never hope to live in a perfect trusting world, and some of our own lack of contentment derives from people who are selfish, or the tension within ourselves between the behavioural inhibitors (conscience, guilt) and our "natural" desire to go against them.

What does this perspective give us as indicators of good and evil? We are good, in this sense, each time we decide to do something in our community interest not our own. We get our reward from the self-satisfaction we are programmed to get from doing this. Does this sound like we have been robbed of individual responsibility ("It wasn’t me, your honour, it was me glands")? Are people capable of acting in anything other than a selfish manner or is self-sacrifice another route to self-satisfaction? Are good and evil real concepts?

Consciousness replaces the selfish gene.

Key to this whole discussion is the question of how to define someone’s interest or the community interest. As earlier, one starting point is looking at the gene-pool advantage. Is your interest anything that increases the level of representation of your genes into the future?

But by some extraordinary route, as well as being a product of the way we come about, we have ended up as conscious beings, capable of taking charge of our own destiny. We are all free to do what we decide to do. Once we are people, we find ourselves looking at other people, trying to decide how we should treat them. It may have been to the advantage of your genes to make you conscious in the first place, so that you would compete better. It may have been to the advantage of your genes (in dynamic with your community), to program you to have certain instincts and beliefs. However, now you are conscious, your genes have lost it; they cannot put the toothpaste back into the tube.

Consciousness is the point where you cease to be bound to help your genes, it becomes a choice. It is also the point where you cannot blame your glands for your crime; you are expected to master them (to a degree). For a conscious individual, things that we seek, like pleasure or happiness, can not be exactly equated to the interests of our genes any more. A lot of instinct and sensation (food, sex and so on) is built around this drive, and we struggle to shrug off the instincts we inherit. However, you have an interest of your own beyond your genes or your community, although you may have to fight through your own cultural programming in order to establish this.

Is the sum of global happiness a basis for morality?

Which brings us back to the question of what is your interest versus the interest of your community? Perhaps happiness is the aim of the whole show (counting suffering, for example, as negative happiness). There is a way of constructing morality in terms of maximising the "sum of global happiness", which you is worth a quick thought. A course of action, in this perspective is "good" if it increases the sum of all human happiness and bad if it decreases it. You can judge if your actions are good or evil on this basis. It is quite an entertaining definition. It allows you to have a crack at questions like" Why do we think economic growth is a good thing (are people in a rich country happier than those in a poorer one)?", "Where is the value/happiness actually created in a society?" I will give you a short caricature example of the fun to be had here:

People want newer, better, and faster cars. They do not need them, but having one makes them feel happier when they sit down after work in the evening; they have more status. Then an advertisement on television raises their aspiration and makes them unhappy again. So they work harder, earn more, buy a better car, bring their happiness up to the old level and the cycle starts again. We have not got any happier from going round this cycle; the happiness made was equal to the happiness destroyed by raising the aspiration. Does it look like raising aspirations in this manner is evil? This question is almost guaranteed to wind up your typical right-wing economist, who could never possibly accept that an advert which raised aspiration was evil, after all, without such adverts there would be no sales growth, no economic growth and no means of providing (unnecessary and polluting) improvements in cars. Maybe other things that come in parallel with the economic growth are good things? Retiring earlier on more money to buy a better car? Living longer unhappily in hospital care? Seriously, though, it seems strange that the whole of the global economy could be driven by what makes someone sit down in the evening and give a contented sigh. Perhaps if you want to reduce environmental destruction from development, the key is to educate people to derive contentment off things that are not environmentally harmful to produce or use. However, a large proportion of the world’s commerce competes in the arena of how people derive contentment, so be careful lions do not eat you!

Anyway, using the sum of global happiness as a basis for good and evil, in my view, it is another good idea, which fails when you try to stretch it too far. It remains as an interesting measure to check things by, but is not the ultimate measure. Were the epsilons in Brave New World happy when given their dose of Soma? Here is another illustration which draws attention to a different weakness of the idea of "maximising human happiness" as a base for morality, sometimes called the reverse lottery case:

Suppose everyone except one person in the world has a box with a button on it. Suppose when we press the button the box gives us £1 (money is here a proxy for happiness) but causes 1p worth of additional pain to the one person who does not have a box. Everyone could press the button all the time, take the money and leave the poor chap in unspeakable agony. Are these people doing wrong, if their £1 is worth more than his penny?

If this example seems too ridiculous for you, there is an analogous, but slightly more involved illustration on wrongful convictions. Wrongful convictions are certain to arise in any legal system, since no conviction is certain. Society has to fix the level of certainty required to convict suspects of a crime, for example, deciding that the requirement is "guilty beyond all reasonable doubt". When society makes this decision, the net balance is between a very few people unfairly suffering versus society gaining from the benefit of many more correct convictions. We cannot compensate the wrongfully convicted because we will never in general know who they are.

Returning to the lottery case, what does our maximum happiness principle tell us we should do? Obviously, that depends on how we add up and weigh agony and happiness. However, we could always fix the maths to make pressing the button look like a decision in the interest of maximising human happiness. Instinctively however, we feel the decision is not moral. We know instinctively we should not decide to make this person suffer in this way, but on what basis do we declare it wrong? Perhaps we would be violating their human rights?

Human Rights

Unfortunately, although I support the international legislation on the issue, I do not think that human beings, morally speaking, have any rights at all. How can you claim that people had a fundamental right, say, not to be tortured, when there are incurable diseases which are torturing people? As individuals, we are, somewhat, at the mercy of nature, or luck, or God, but none of these three will take any notice of what rights we think we ought to have. People sometimes really do seem to think, if anything goes wrong, their rights are violated and they should sue someone. In reality, you have no rights, not even to one second of pain-free happy life.

Perhaps it is equivalent, but I believe what we all do have is obligations. We are obliged to be considerate to our fellow humans, which would rule out torture and oblige us to intervene with other people committing torture. What we are able to do, in consideration for others, is clearly limited to the resources available in our culture and community. Every society has some financial (or other resource) constraints on what it can spend on medical care, for example. We might also decide that we had other obligations that were not defined around people (towards animals or the environment for example), and that we had to work out priorities.

I have completely failed to explain why I think we have obligations to be considerate to other people. Without reference to any religious beliefs, the closest I can come is a re-run of the argument in the first section of this Chapter. Once you think there are other people the same as you, it is in everyone’s best interest to make some symmetrical assumption that you will be dealt with as you deal. I should "do unto others as I would have them do unto me", but, this time round, I regard them as conscious individuals, who think about the implications of what they are doing, rather than instinctive animals. Unfortunately, we can not get away from the fact that we are all still both.

Legal Systems and Morality

Legal systems could be considered as the ultimate embodiment of community rules. As such, they could have a real foundation in morality. Unfortunately, legal systems themselves are tainted not only by the way they are used by corrupt or diseased governments (democracy does not offer immunity to corruption), but also by themselves being in part a product of evolution. I think this makes them inevitably patchy.

There are a lot of pieces of international law, which I happen to believe are morally wrong. For example, I happen to think that, whereas a government has certain rights over the physical infrastructure of a country and could secure debt against them, no government has any moral right to secure debts against the country itself (i.e. future national revenue, or future production of natural resources). Debts built up to build non-performing assets should, in my view, be non-recourse (i.e. the lender loses when the asset fails). Whilst I think the world would be a much better place without international recognition of what should be considered illegal debts, the law will remain as it is, especially in view of the massive vested interest of financial institutions in some major countries in the issue.

So what should I do, if I do not agree with the government? There is a whole category of questions in ethics to think about here. For example, suppose I decide that the suffering of hens is more important than the suffering of people, but that I live in a community, whose laws and culture prevent me from protecting hens against suffering in battery farms. Is it, then, morally defensible for me to break the law to improve the fate of hens, regarding this as a lesser evil than allowing the suffering of hens to continue? There are anti-abortionists who kill doctors in the US for analogous reasons.

This question can take many forms; one of which is above. Others include people taking the law into their own hands when "justice" is impotent (something some police officers have been found guilty of). Another is refusing to pay taxes to a government I do not recognise, another assassinating Adolph Hitler. Are such acts ever morally defensible? Does it make a difference what the basis for government in the country concerned is?

I have several remarks about this question:

The first is to say that we have to recognise that if we ever do anything (treason or terrorism) which usurps such a formal legal system we must expect the system itself to react in the severest manner. Any system without this reaction would not have survived, but it is a shame to see taking the law into your own hands, contempt of court and so on dealt with quite so severely.

The second is to say that if we totally reject the rules that govern our land and take things into our own hands (we opt out) we must accept the extreme case of consequential anarchy. This outcome has to be seriously weighed in balance against imperfections we may perceive, and is an argument for tolerating dictatorship.

The third is to say that in some countries (such as the UK) there seems to be virtually a second unwritten code, on how far you can go beyond the law. The process of trial by jury or the democratic processes may finally intervene.

The fourth is that you have to admit that most of the terrorists who have existed historically have been misguided in their outlook, often by belief systems such as the ones we have discussed. We should take some convincing that we are definitely different; that we alone see clearly.

Notwithstanding all the above, treason or terrorism may be at least intellectually defensible, in some cases. Not paying tax because you do not like what the government spends the money on is harder to justify.

Sex and sexuality

I suppose I ought to say something about sexual ethics, especially if you are like I was at sixteen. Let us set aside the question of abuse or deviancy (which are worth another book as concepts), and look at sexual behaviour between equal, consenting people. Should such sexual relations be limited to inside marriage? For fornication (rather than adultery) this looks like quite a symmetric situation, unlike the situation where "maximising global happiness" gave us answers we were uncomfortable with. If everyone opted to wait for a single faithful relationship within marriage (like I did), would everyone be happier than in, say, a free love culture?

Those people who look to the Bible for guidance concede that when the Bible was written there was no contraception. The "maximising global happiness" calculation was different, since the position of children in a "free love" world presumably weighs heavily against this model of behaviour. A new calculation does not imply a new answer, of course.

The problem is that, as a young single man with a healthy sexual appetite, I did not think that I would be capable of objectively deciding that the balance today allowed me to do, as I wanted. I certainly do not regret that decision now. I still believe that there are lots more important things than short-term pleasure. A stable marriage within a stable family is such an important potential component of happiness that we should avoid doing things that put it at risk. However, I can see that in the face of certain short term attractions this may be easier said than done.

Besides, one thing you notice in science is that without constraint there is not freedom but anarchy. This is true in a fundamental sense, but as a simpler illustration, if your leg-bones were not constrained to stay straight and the same length, you would fall over. There is a need for a certain framework of self-discipline in life to achieve anything. Freedom would not necessarily allow you to do more with your life, and maybe less. I believe that in Hinduism, one image of hell is your own arms and legs becoming independent of you.

Good and Evil from a Christian perspective

The description above has helped us to understand a lot of our instinctive feelings about right and wrong. However, if we believe we are meaningful and conscious it matters how we behave and how we treat each other. If we are meaningful, the discussion about community versus self is still profound in the context of a world of conscious beings deciding how to treat each other. We do good in this context if we always thought of our behaviour as representative ("what if everyone did the same") rather than marginal ("what difference do I make"). Does this sound a bit like "do unto others what you would have them do unto you"?

There is a fundamental point about Christian teaching on good and evil, which I must add. In Christian tradition, the aim is not knowledge of good and evil, rather knowledge of good and evil is part of the problem (it was the apple which Adam and Eve ate ). The nature of people is such that, we are not impartial observers, we are a blank sheet of paper, what we know about good and evil affects us, as does what we think on, and do. Seeing good and evil also has a profound effect on us (something underestimated by the media). Perhaps at some deep psychological level, we pitch our own level of violence, aggression and selfishness, based on what (at some deep level in our minds) we think we need to survive in the community. Constant viewing of violence makes us violent.

But herein lies the rub: do we have a meaning and does anything matter? If nothing matters then certainly, good and evil are illusions like everything else. If Christianity is correct, it actually matters what you are, and what you become. A second major point of struggling with good and evil is to make you, yourself, into something better.

Letter to Peter next chapter

If you have any comments please email:  book @ catesfamily.org.uk

Published on www.catesfamily.org.uk