Saturday, November 11, 2006

Only the Good Die Young...

So what is the basis for someone being moral who claims no ties to a higher being? One would reasonably expect, if one assumes that "all goodness comes from god," that anyone who disbelieves would be a thief, murderer, liar, adulterer, or any number of social taboos. The fact that not everyone who believes in a "higher power" isn't a murder would lead one to logically conclude that goodness, then, doesn't come from god. Further, one would expect that, if still concluding that all goodness does come from a higher power, that those who subscribe to God Monthly Magazine would never commit the social taboos that their higher power frowns upon. But we know neither is the case.

For goodness to flow from a source that
  1. not everyone knows about
  2. not everyone believes in
  3. has no evidence other than others' word-of-mouth testimonies
would require a world much darker, much deadlier, much more chaotic than the one in which we currently reside. In fact, the sheer magnitude of diversity within Christianity alone, one would expect a force of evil and "bad" deeds so numerous, the fact that good even existed would be lost within the magnitude of the "badness" that surrounded anyone who had an ounce of common sense to look for it.

So why, then, as a nonbeliever, do I, the homosexual atheist, enemy of all that is godly, still do good? Or, to phrase it in such a way that Darkmind would appreciate (I think), why isn't there a consensus between all god believers about what is "good," and why is there no consensus about what is "bad"? Why all the gray areas? The relativity, as it were? If good has one singular, other-worldly source, how can it be that those who don't believe in the other-worldly source still have an ability to sense what should be done and what shouldn't be done?

It actually all goes back to evolution: survival of the fittest. Further still, a specific trait that we and very few other animals on our planet have evolved: Empathy. The ability to place ones self in another's place and sense, perhaps even know, what they are feeling within reasonable and logical ramifications.

Now, of course, there are some persons in this world who have a higher sense of empathy than others--that is, an easier time placing themselves in another's place and feeling that urge to help someone whom they "feel" is in need of help, or comforting. And there are others whom have none, who show no concern or care for their fellow man, and are hence much more capable of committing social taboos on a scale that would shock the rest of us. Add in the whole gambit of in-betweens, and you can observe that, while empathy overall is a very general presence for which most of mankind benefits, one must also take into account why some would claim that it must be from an unearthly source from which we derive this ability.

I mentioned earlier "evolution," a term which made some of you cringe, come to the conclusion that I must have eaten too much trail mix, and hence crapped my brain out before I had a chance to use it. Not only would you be wrong, but you're actually engaging a form of empathy that tells you: "I know what he's thinking." No one ever said empathy was always correct; in fact, most times we are basing these feelings and chemical reactions in our brains off of small facial clues or slight physical movements that alert the most primitive part of our brain, the amygdala, that something is amiss, and we must be prepared to do whatever it takes to survive. But before you start training for the triathalon, another part of your brain, a more advanced portion, filters these physical clues and ways, "Wait--we've seen this before. What were the circumstances? What did we do last time?" And before we know it, we're experiencing all over again something we've experienced, based on the physical clues in front of us, that tell us what this person may be going through, and that triggers another chemical reaction in our brains in which we react. It could be to put an arm around them, to hug them, to flee from them--whatever the case may be.

We learned to look out for one another when we were nearer the bottom of the food chain. When we depended on each other for warnings, for food, for keeping a look out when others were trying to sleep. We see these kinds of interactions all around us in the animal kingdom: One deer always has its head up, ears constantly moving, keeping a watch over the rest. One bird not on the ground pecking at the seeds, ready to sing out and make the others fly away if danger is sensed. One monkey sitting on the rock while the others groom or sun bathe. We learned that by sticking together, we had a much better chance at making it through to the next morning, as opposed to becoming lion lunch or dinosaur dinner. This very primitive need for species survival is at the root of what keeps us within accepted social norms.

Now, as with any grand genetic pool, some inherit a greater disposition toward more chemical reactions, and some inherit almost none, but most are somewhere in the middle of the scale. One thing we also evolved over time was not only survival of the species, but an awareness of self. An ability to say, "I know I am." Or, to quote an oft overused phrase, "I think, therefore I am." We came to be in charge of our feelings and emotions to a degree that allows us to willingly go against instinct and emotion, as we learned that following instinct isn't always for the best, doesn't always allow us to survive, whether as a whole or as an individual. Hence, we can choose willingly to not follow instinct if we feel, through our observations of the world, that our perceptions of the threat are not as fearful as we feel at that moment.

Take, for example, my mother's story from earlier, about how she nearly scared herself to death when, cleaning something, her rocker recently moved to a new position in the living room bumped her back. She screamed, but she did not automatically run for the hills (like she could anyway :D) as she has learned (probably many times over) that when she bumps into something in her home, it isn't something that will threaten her life in any way. And although the primitive parts of her brain were screaming "Danger! Run!" and hence, the automatic release of a scream to alert any other persons who may be about, the more highly analytical parts of her brain quickly kicked in behind to say, "No, look, see? Just the rocker..." Of course, by that point, the amygdala had already started her adrenaline pumping and her eyes dilating so that, if indeed she was in mortal danger, she could flee as fast as she could. And all of this happened in the course of a split second. It wasn't something she had to sit and ponder over a cup of coffee (although it might have helped!). Herein lies the root of empathy.

Now, when someone tells Mom a story about how they were walking past the fridge, and their dog bumped their shin letting out a howl of fear, Mom can laugh and say, "I know just what you're talking about! Yesterday when I was in my living room..."

Of course, it could be an entirely differing story about an actual intruder, but Mom has experienced that fear, and knows exactly what that other person was feeling, even though in her case, the presence of the fear was fleeting when the rocker presented itself. Her feelings of empathy could also come not from what she could have personally experienced, but what she personally observed. She's seen someone who has lost a loved one through murder, knows by observation the pain that person went through, and thus, may know better how to interact with that person in their grief. She also could have come to this knowledge in other, various ways, perhaps intrinsically, through genetic memory, much like "fight or flight" but on a less personal, more intrapersonal scale.

Similarly, when Mom observed another with tears, or perhaps tensed shoulders, the quirk of an eyebrow, although she may not be thinking, "Hmm, look at the way their nose is flaring. They must be _____." Her brain recognizes these clues before she cognitively does (if at all), and she experiences the appropriate chemical reaction that allows her to feel what they are feeling, or fear them in a more predatory way if the physical clues are pointing toward danger.

I know this is all very cold-sounding and very analytical for a topic about emotion, but this is in essence what allows a non-subscriber (and even the subscribers) of the higher power to do good without a higher power actually holding the power. The ability to empathize, the ability to analyze, the feeling of feeling what others are feeling. This is why most people aren't running around murdering people. Not because a sky god told them "Thou shalt not kill." But because we have an inkling, a feeling, knowledge through past experience of what killing entails. Pain, both emotional and physical. Consequences. A ripple effect through the "herd," of you will, of what murder leads to, as well as a comprehension of "other," and you will know why most people don't murder. As I've said earlier, though, some (a very few) don't inherit empathy (whether through a genetic fault or mutation, or a multitude of chemical reactions in utero, or maybe both or maybe neither--science is still looking into this; as an example, serial killers who don't care about their victims or what they might be feeling are an example of non-empthetic persons...) while others become mere victims of instinct (crimes of passion, as it were).

It isn't sky god which makes me a good person. It is the ability to be a person which makes me a good person. The practice of saying to myself, "How would I react to this?" or "I remember when I..." that allows me to care for my fellow man, and to know what to do to help my fellow man. Right is more often determined by how it helps us collectively more so than how if honors a spook in the clouds. Good is determined socio-psychologically, not spiritually. It is determined by how we feel both individually and societally in placing our feet in another's shoes. By acknowledging one another's feelings and emotions and thoughts and how they relate to ours, both cognitively and subconsciously. On the flip side of that coin, Bad and Wrong are determine by the harm an action or thought causes both individuals and society as a whole as determined from past experiences and observations as to what has helped protect the species and what has hampered the species. Nothing more, nothing less.

I know-chemical reactions are all very non-romantic and sterile. Much better to imagine a great paternal figure that has it all already figured out and taken care of, yeah? The problem with that scenario, though, isn't just the illogic (although for some that is enough), it is how it doesn't take into account the relationships, the traits, the commonality across the board of interspecies interaction. While it may be all well and good to state "Thou shalt not kill," reality states, as does instinct, that sometimes killing is necessary, whether to protect yourself, or your loved ones, from one of our own; or to prevent a possible greater societal harm that may come in not murdering, or not killing, now. (Please don;t take this out of context to assume I condone murder, or even the death penalty--these are simply logical, reasonable assessments...) Even sky god felt the need to smite when his "chosen persons" were not being given their due to ensure their survival! And a grand "Thou shalt not kill" simply doesn't cut the mustard, period.

Thought or comments?

7 comments:

Darkmind said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Jason Hughes said...

I don't think that empathy and morality are the same thing, but I think the ability to empathize is what gave rise to the "moral movement" as it were. This soemtimes inherent ability to perceieve what others could be thinking or feeling allows us to determine on a grander scale what could be "good" or "bad" for the general population, as it were :)

And while I agree (and think I touched on briefly) the ability to overcome instinct in regards to empathy due to cognitive processes, the ingrained portion of our nature still dominates more of our conscious than I think we are willing to allow.

I also agree mostly on the subjective nature of "good" and "bad" as they are susually defined and accepted.

Great post, awesome thoughts!

Ergo said...

Jason,

Another friend of mine proposed the exact same line of argument you have put forward here: morality arising from empathy.

Ofcourse, if you know me, you would know that I disagree with these arguments on multiple levels:

The "socio-psychological" basis for morality ignores the vast diversity in socio-psychological patterns of behavior across cultures. Thus, morality becomes a very flimsy fabric that flutters with every little gust of a cultural wind.

For example, a woman being stoned to death for adultery by her peers and societal members in Nigeria might be the moral practice to them based on this "socio-psychological" model. There, presumably, the "empathy" factor is either non-existent or resides within people feeling sorry for the husband of the adulteress.

Similarly, moral notions in India are so radically different from morality in the US--in property rights, in freedom of expression, in human rights, in matters of justice and law--that the notion of empathy is woefully inadequate to guide or direct anyone toward a commonly accepted ground for morality.

On another level, claiming that morality arises from our abilities to empathize is collapsing into materialism: the notion that all morality can be brought down the psycho-physiological interactions in the brain.
Upon closer examination, you will realize that this is a self-defeating argument. If everything is reducible to chemical reactions in the brain, then you will have to concede deterministic principles based on which these chemicals interact and produce determined effects (like empathy, for instance). In this case, you have reduced morality to determinism, eliminated free-will, and thereby negated the entire justification for having morality in the first place!
Morality is meaningless without free-will.

Ergo said...

Your correct identification of the fact that we are not instinctual beings, notwithstanding, all moral claims that reduce to materialism, i.e., that claim morality resides in the brains of the subjective individual, have to tackle the self-defeating nature of this argument.

Jason Hughes said...

Yeah, um, I'm gonna have to think about this. You pose some great points, Ergo. Did I mention how great it is when people can challenge thinking with actual arguments? (Yes, Anon's, I'm talking to you!)

Catch ya later!

Jason Hughes said...

Yeah, um, I'm gonna have to think about this. You pose some great points, Ergo. Did I mention how great it is when people can challenge thinking with actual arguments? (Yes, Anon's, I'm talking to you!)

Catch ya later!

Ergo said...

Jason,

Another friend of mine proposed the exact same line of argument you have put forward here: morality arising from empathy.

Ofcourse, if you know me, you would know that I disagree with these arguments on multiple levels:

The "socio-psychological" basis for morality ignores the vast diversity in socio-psychological patterns of behavior across cultures. Thus, morality becomes a very flimsy fabric that flutters with every little gust of a cultural wind.

For example, a woman being stoned to death for adultery by her peers and societal members in Nigeria might be the moral practice to them based on this "socio-psychological" model. There, presumably, the "empathy" factor is either non-existent or resides within people feeling sorry for the husband of the adulteress.

Similarly, moral notions in India are so radically different from morality in the US--in property rights, in freedom of expression, in human rights, in matters of justice and law--that the notion of empathy is woefully inadequate to guide or direct anyone toward a commonly accepted ground for morality.

On another level, claiming that morality arises from our abilities to empathize is collapsing into materialism: the notion that all morality can be brought down the psycho-physiological interactions in the brain.
Upon closer examination, you will realize that this is a self-defeating argument. If everything is reducible to chemical reactions in the brain, then you will have to concede deterministic principles based on which these chemicals interact and produce determined effects (like empathy, for instance). In this case, you have reduced morality to determinism, eliminated free-will, and thereby negated the entire justification for having morality in the first place!
Morality is meaningless without free-will.