Saturday, December 27, 2008

On the spectrum of morality, right and wrong

I got a cool gift from myself for Xmas this year, the BBC's Planet Earth on dvd. Last Xmas, I bought the same for my parents and I got to watch a little of it after dinner was over, so I knew I was eventually going to buy it myself. I also have the BBC's Blue Planet, which is comparably spectacular. Today while watching it I asked myself what it was I liked so much about the program. My answer was... the spectacle displayed on the screen of the world at it's largest, it's massive life-herds, landscapes, and planetary isolation in the sort of context that could only be providedby a satellite view. Seeing the world I live on from this vantage, was and is both breathtaking and humbling. Seeing horizon-spanning flocks of birds mid-migration, a continuous shot showing the actual spanse of the horizon as the flock extends past it, is eye-poppingly wondrous. For those who have never seen this documentary, do yourself a favor and buy it, rent it, check it out from the library, something, but see it. It will be worth your while.
So after asking myself what I liked about it, I asked myself what I thought my very religious parents probably like about it. I came up with the same answer, the sheer spectacle of our world.
I found this an interesting thought to pursue, so I continued my self-interrogation roughly as follows.
Question: What do my parents see in the grandiosity of our world that I do not?
Answer: Nothing, we see the same beauty.

Q: So where do my parents think the beauty of the world comes from?
A: God.

Q: And where do I think the beauty of the world comes from?
A: Nowhere. The beauty of the world does not exist in the world. In other words, it is not a feature of the world, but an interpretation within the confines of my mind, of the world as it exists. If I were not here, or for that matter, were no humans at all here, then beauty being an idea would not exist. Beauty is a thought that we are capable of having, and thoughts are without a doubt confined to the mind. Without our minds, beauty's state of idea-ness could not exist and thus would not exist. The world is what it is, the mountains we look at are big to us because we are comparing our size with their's, the rivers are blue to our eyes, the diversity of life and it's various manifestations are noteworthy to humanity only because we can compare them (since they exist) to the idea of them not existing, an ability which is unique (probably) to humans. The act of comparison is what creates our ideas including that of beauty. So again, I do not attribute the world's beauty as having come from somewhere, much less a god. It is of our own devising, and our ability to do such a thing is the direct result of our brains being developed as much as they are. And just to be clear, the notion of ideas being planted in our minds (by some outside interloper) can be adequately put to rest when you consider the alternative of comparison generating discrimination. We compare. We then discriminate, assigning beauty to one side and ugliness to another, with banality somewhere in the middle. Our minds, in the act of comparison, are the generators of what we say is beautiful.

My parent's see the beauty of the world as the proof of god's existence.
I see the beauty of the world as the beauty of the world, as my mind determines it to be, through comparison and subsequent discrimination.
But, here's the real point, we both see the beauty of the world. It is the world, visible, measurable, and tangible to which, at least in part, those who believe in god point to as a reason to harbor such a belief. These people are relying on evidence for their belief. Evidence in the form of the extant world and it's vastness. The sheer size of the world as displayed by the BBC's documentary is proof of god's creativity and handprint, to my extended family.

But the thing is, the evidence they are relying on to solidify their position is, in this case, evidence for the exact opposite as well, namely that the world is tangible and explainable. The mountains majesty is there for all to see, and if so desired, to touch and analyze. the rocks and elements that comprise the mountain can be discovered, named and repeatedly recognized, thus pulling back a little bit more of the veil of the physical world. Indeed the physical world we see has an explanation completely devoid of divine invocation. Infact, the explanations offered by the last few centuries of ever-progressive scientific discovery reveal complexities of nature that no religious text has ever even described, much less adequately explained away. For instance, there are cave systems throughout the world that house life forms that simply were unknown to the arabs and jews of the 1st century a.d. Animals that are pigmentless, and eyeless, because these physical characteristics were and continue to be unnecessary to them, have lived in these isolated areas of the world for more time than the bible recounts. To the testimony of these animals, the great flood of noah as described in the bible, is incompatible. It is understandable that the authors of the middle eastern religious texts did not know of animals like these, or others (emperor penguins, carrier pigeons, dwarf mastodons (who were alive at the time of the writing of the old testament)). And without the knowledge of these animals, or better said, with only the knowledge of the largely agriculturally-domesticated animals with which they were surrounded( such as rams and goats), the civilizations who passed these stories of man's superiority over the animal kingdom (and interestingly enough also the plant kingdom, but not the fungus or slime-mold kingdoms) are easily forgiven for concocting a story to describe, as best they could with the information they had, the world as it appeared to them. What is harder to forgive is the determination through time to cling to these abhorridly incomplete descriptives of the world we live in. We know polar bears exist, but the biblical authors did not. Should we then trust that these stories created so long ago, and designed to describe the natural world and our kingship over it are still representative of the truth of our world? Of course not. We cannot allow ourselves to "believe" in something that has been overturned by a wider discovery, yet that is exactly what the world at large has been doing for more than 2 millenia. Religions request that we suspend our disbelief quite in the face of more satisfying and sensible explanations. To that end, over time, religions have surriptiously altered the arena of disparity to another more slippery slope, that of the mental accuity of humankind.

The soul, the consciousness, the human condition is undoubtedly what my family would now point to in defence of their belief in the religious. There is, in their minds, something which has yet to be explained, the human condition and all the stuff that goes along with that; concepts like morality, right and wrong. To the religious, these are concepts about which science can offer no insight, or better said, the natural world has not nor could ever have a way to explain. They also would maintain that morality is something that transcends humanity and is part of a divine set of laws laid down long before mankind ever stepped foot out of the good-ol-garden . I would take issue with these concepts, and infact I do. Here's how.

Morality is commonly accepted as the umbrella term for defining right and wrong, but the word actually offers no clear definition of anything. It harbors the other two terms but does little else. Ask yourself " what does morality mean". what answer do you come up with that doesn't invoke the words right or wrong? Morality is only a word, one which at best simply makes reference to a particular realm of humanity. In this respect, it is just like the words right and wrong. Ask yourself "what does right mean" or "what does wrong mean". What answer do you come up with that doesn't invoke the words morality or right or wrong. Instead of offering definitions, all three of these words rely on the assumptive practices of those who say them to divert the attention of those who hear them uttered or see them written on a page. The word morality assumes that there is an outside standard to which all behavior is measured, a spectrum that at one end reflects universally acceptable behavior, and at the other end, universally unacceptable behavior. These poles of universal acceptance or rejection are what the words right and wrong are in reference to. The words right and wrong are not descriptors, they are instead judges of what is acceptable and what is not. Something intersting yet subtle to notice is that these words also rely on the assumption that this spectrum actually exists, that there is some universal standard, removed from the behaviors themselves, to which the behaviors can be judged. Now I'm not sure how far Heisenberg's uncertainty principle can extend (that which you observe you change i.e. if you know the position of a particle you cannot know it's velocity and vice versa) but what is clear is that none of the words include a description or even a measurement of what is most important, behavior.
Morality refers to the entire spectrum, Right refers to the acceptable side of things and Wrong refers to the unacceptable side of things, but again none of the words properly addresses what the spectrum should be used for, actually measuring behavior(s). The words morality, right and wrong don't describe actual behaviors, they only report where along the spectrum behaviors might fall. So in this sense there is no value to use words like right, wrong or morality, because at best they simply place undescribed behaviors along a possibly non-existant spectrum of judgement mostly, as we will see, in an deceptively arbitrary manner. Again, all three assume there is such a spectrum. But when that assumption is abandoned we can see that such judgemental practices become silly. To return a previous point, without the human mind, ideas simply don't exist, and this applies to idea that a spectrum exists with which to assign a place to human behavior(s). We created this spectrum, without us, there is no concept of morality. Just look at the idea of killing. Non-human animals do it all the time and show no remorse for their victims. It's all in a day's work so-to-speak. Certainly these predators recognize that their prey are alive, yet they commence to killing them anyway, and as if that was not bad enough, they then EAT what they killed, and why, because they "know" if they don't eat they will suffer and maybe they know they will die. There is fear present in predators. And certainly the prey animals recognize that predators are trying to kill them, so one cannot say that they do not display fear of pain or death. If such was the case, and these animals showed no fear of predators, then they certainly wouldn't be the excellent runners they are, or so adept at camoflauge, infact the entire arms race between predator and prey would have never gotten off the ground, because the predators would have wiped out all the prey, seeing as how the prey didn't resist, which would have of course led to the demise of the predators themselves, because if you don't have a steadily resupplying reserve of prey, eventually you will run out of food and die yourself. So fear of death most likely exists for the prey and predator alike, yet the killing still goes on. Such "emotions" don't cause the predators to stop their hunt or the prey from standing idly by. No, the predator-prey relationship abounds and has done so since the beginning of life. Predators don't feel bad for their prey, certainly not enough to not go after them. Rather, murder (the premature and intentional ending of a life) is a natural part of the life cycle. It is we who have villified the practice.

Now of course we qualify murder as the killing of someone for the sake of killing someone. The choice to kill someone (of our own species) is what has made the practice fall at the "wrong" end of the spectrum. But, and this is crucial to keep in mind, the act of killing is no different to a lion as it is to us, the only difference between our two species is the reason behind the killing. And where does reasoning come from, the human mind. So the origin of morality's spectrum is again revealed to be a concoction of the human mind.

Cannibalism is another good example to look at. Across the animal world, cannibalism is not a universally accepted behavior, but it is also not a universally unacceptable behavior either. In some species, it happens all the time, as a part of the life cycle. Even plants practice it, although the process is much longer, and consequently doesn't cause humanity to cringe at the thought, like we do when considering animalistic cannibalism. Since the practice is not universal on either side of our spectrum of judgement, then it must lie somewhere in the middle. Well, but, murder is also acceptable in some instances (self-defense, war-times, capital punishment) so shouldn't it too be considered to fall somewhere in the middle of our spectrum, rather than at the polar end of unacceptable behavior? (Notice again, the spectrum does not describe the behavior, it only assigns a judgement to the acceptability of it). Cannibalism is interesting in that most everyone would agree that it is a "wrong" behavior, but how so? In the same manner that we think murder is "wrong"? Mind you, I am not condoning either practice, I am only discussing the idea of whether or not there is an outside standard of comparison which exists, by using familiar and extreme behavioral examples such as murder and cannibalism. For the record, Don't kill anyone or eat anyone. Caveat done, back to the blog.

Well what about, the good or "right" side of things? We talked about murder and cannibalism, and have shown that the spectrum doesn't provide the definitions we think it does, and also incidentally we have shown that, at least the polar end of universally "wrong" is not so polar afterall, since the extremes of human behavior actually fall in the middle.
So let's look at altruism. That seems like a behavior that would certainly fall at the "right" polar end of our spectrum. What altruism is, our spectrum doesn't tell us, it again only assigns it a place of "rightness", and again only within our minds. If we weren't here, altruism (doing good for others regardless of effect on the doer) would not exist. All we have to do is look at the non-human world again and we can see that the closest non-human animals, and plants for that matter, ever come to altruism is through the phenomenon of symbiosis (where two species perform services for each other to the mutual benefit of both). It may be a uniquely human concept, altruism, but before we can examine it's place on our spectrum we must ask does it really exist at all? Well what are some altruistic behaviors we could examine? How about military service in times of war? That seems like a good one, especially right now. Except, military people get a paycheck when they are in the military, whether or not there is a war going on, so nope, military service does not meet the criteria of being altruistic because there is a benefit to the doer (paycheck). Brave and to be commended, but not altruistic.

What about religious persecution, standing up for your beliefs? Well, we all know that those who are religiously fervent enough in their beliefs to be persecuted for them, are also banking on the paradise that awaits the martyrs of the faith, so nope, the benefit to the persecuted is there (at least in their minds) and thus religious piety does not qualify as altruistic either. But let's say somewhere in the world there is an example of pure unsullied altruism taking place right now. what does it matter if that example is being performed by a human to a member of a different species. Nothing. It is only altruistic if it helps our fellow man. Before the animal rights folk jump all over me, let explain a bit further. Let's say the unsullied example of altruistic behavior took place in a world where no humans existed save our one hero, instead there were only non-human animals incapable of creating a concept like altruism. This human constantly behaved altruistically, to the other animals around them, but with no accolades or reciprocity (thus adhering to the qualifications of being considered an altruistic individual), how would this person ever go about discerning that their behavior was altruistic? To this individual, altruism would simply be the way of life. Having no other humans (individuals capable of coming up with altruism) with which to compare their behavior, this human would not really be altruistic so much as they would just be a (the) person. In such a scenario, we can see how altruism is another concoction of the human mind, and as such, it easily falls onto the "right" end of the equally concocted spectrum of judgement.
Now we can ask whether altruistic behavior isreally deserving of being on the "right" end of the spectrum. What about the case of euthanasia? For a doctor to perform this procedure to a dying cancer patient, who clearly has expressed the desire for it to be done, would result in imprisonment for the doctor (Dr. Kevorkian), and before you say "well there's your altruism for you", remember that Kevorkian got paid for his services, so he might have had some detriments to weigh his decision against, but there were also some benefits, so no altruism there on his part. So if the procedure takes place, is it right? Certainly to the patient it is, and probably to the doctor, but not to the opponents of the practice. So again we have muddy waters here. If euthanasia cannot be qualified as absolutely altruistic (again in our human minds) then it certainly cannot fall at the "right" end of the spectrum, but rather like the concepts of murder and cannibalism, it should and does fall somewhere in the middle.

So now I must ask, do we really even have a spectrum? Examples from both ends, seemingly clear cut examples, don't fall where we superficially think they do. It's more like a big cauldron of behaviors that sometimes allow certain behaviors to roil up to the top and be deemed "good" or "bad". The surface behaviors are really only that surface ingredients, that periodically burst forth to our eyes, long enough for us to denounce them or glorify them while all the rest of the time the cauldron is mixing everything together creating the soup of the human experience.
We make our own rules, like it or not. We determine what we think is good, bad or indifferent. We compare, discriminate and isolate everything around us, especially ourselves. There is no spectrum chiseled in stone tablets, sent from above by some invisible yet all powerful overlord. We have made it up and it is not true. The world is not the handiwork of god, nor is it the handiwork of us, it is the handiwork of it. We call it beautiful because we have decided it is. When we are gone, the world will still look like whatever the world will look like then, and no one will be the wiser. Happy new year, everyone, and thanks to those who have been periodically reading this blog over the past year.