Saturday, May 30, 2015

Good and Evil are Social Constructs

If you follow American news, you will have noticed the popularity of the word "evil" among politicians. George W. Bush liked to use the phrase "axis of evil" in reference to states that support terrorism. Barack Obama vowed to destroy ISIS's "brand of evil" and called the beheading of Peter Kassig by ISIS "pure evil." Between countries, this kind of language works both ways, and it was Ayatollah Khomeini who started the present trend in 1979 by calling the U.S. "the great Satan." For someone like me, who is not religious and doesn't believe in the objectivity of moral systems, this is in turn annoying and amusing. In academic circles, where ethics is studied as a subject, we are theoretically supposed to be able to resolve these kinds of differences, but I think it is impossible given the current literature, which is written by philosophers more often than by scientists. In political circles, conjuring "evil" is akin to calling for "patriotism," which, as Samuel Johnson put it, is "the last refuge of a scoundrel."

In my conceptual scheme, morality, good and evil are nothing more than manifestations of our genetic and cultural predispositions to behave eusocially. We have a vague sense of wanting to help and cooperate with other members of our group, and in the absence of any obvious justification for this we make up moral theories and ascribe authority to imaginary supernatural beings. The truth is that there is nothing that intrinsically binds all of humanity together, and one of the greatest challenges that we are currently facing is how to trick ourselves into thinking that we all belong to the same group. Thus, when political leaders call foreigners names, they are inadvertently perpetuating world strife. There aren't many options here, because even if, for example, ISIS is a deranged group of mindless murderers, we are not convincing them that their belief system is incorrect. They are equally determined to prove to us that ours is the one that is defective, and there is no higher authority recognized by both sides to mediate the conflict.

When you look at our animal past, all of this chest pounding and violence is easy to understand; it is so easy to understand that no explanation is required. Especially within the political sphere, where politicians vie for public support, the appeal to the lowest common denominator usually prevails. What bothers me more is how intellectuals insinuate themselves into these kinds of decisions and, while pretending to shower us with the benefits of their knowledge, they often only add an unnecessary layer of obfuscation if not outright falsehood. The fact is that most of the thinking about morality in the West can be traced directly to Christianity, and even if grains of truth can be found there, it is essentially one worldview among many and has no particular claim to validity in the universe of belief systems. A more plausible approach, I think, involves recognizing our animal natures, abrogating religion, and shifting the dialogue to empirical research about human nature and plausible methods of conflict resolution. It seems to me that in the West, particularly the U.S., a more conscious effort is needed to break away from the "Christian values" mentality that permeates everything from politics, law and academia to the media.

You've probably heard the term "situation ethics," and I propose as an alternative the idea of "situation atheism," which, if you define atheism as the absence of any historical belief system, might offer a value-neutral way to arbitrate conflicts between groups when cultural beliefs are a primary contributing factor. The idea would be for groups that don't see eye-to-eye to find solutions that optimize outcomes for each group while eliminating all factors from consideration that relate to beliefs. Thus, for example, ISIS might be given land somewhere in the world where their members might practice their religion as they chose as long as they did not violate international law. The U.S. and its allies would agree to the same and not attack ISIS as long as ISIS held to the terms of the agreement. Thereafter, each party could, if it so chose, live according to whatever belief system it favored, no matter how bizarre or ludicrous. An experiment along these lines has already been done with the State of Israel.

My hope is that culturally and theologically neutral super-intelligent computers will one day arbitrate major human conflicts using algorithms which may then be beyond our comprehension. Unfortunately, animals that we are, it is difficult for us to expunge nonsense from our decision-making processes. In the meantime we will have to continue listening to our theoreticians and political leaders spouting out useless or crowd-pleasing nonsense.

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