It is still a widespread view that morality is the key element of being human, and the ability to make the destinction between (absolute) good and evil is the only way to be able to live an acceptable life.
This is why it might at first sound like a paradox to some to criticise morality, and furthermore claim that absolute morality could in fact be one of the biggest obstacles in the way of humanity’s survival – so I ask you to bear with me for a couple more paragraphs.
Morality and Emotions
First of all, learned moral code tends to have a very strong emotional affect on us, that can prevent us from understanding the real chain of causes and effects that has lead to the situation under consideration, and therefore, also prevent us from finding solutions to change similar causations to our favor in the future. For example, the case of Josef Fritzl causes such a strong emotional distress and feelings of disgust, you simply don’t want to think about it beyond the notion that Fritzl was, simply, absolutely evil. But if we submit to our first emotional reaction, and accept this conclusion without question, what tools do we have to prevent this from happening in the future? Try to find and catch all the evil people in the world?
But if, in the name of deeper understanding, we try and see through the layer of emotional and moral distress, we just might to be able to look into the causality behind the horrible situation. What was Josef Fritzl’s childhood like? How did World War I and II affect his personality? What else do we not know about the background of this person? If we studed the subject thoroughly, we could perhaps find out some of the probable reasons why this happens, notice similar causations in the future and maybe even be able to prevent similar cases beforehand.
Understanding instead of Resentment
In my opinion, the same pretty much applies to viewing human behavior on a global scale, too. The more you learn about the mechanics of our culture, the easier it is to resort to thinking that people are generally ‘greedy’, ‘evil’ and so forth – in other words: to moral resent. The problem with this mindset is, it tends to lead nowhere – no new solutions, no deeper understanding, just feelings of guilt and/or anger, that admittedly might lead to spontaneous action now and then, but rarely to long lasting change in your behavior.
Again, I have a strong feeling that a more constructive approach would be to try and look through the layers of morality and emotional impact, and tap into the causality behind the phenomenons we’re trying to figure out. Why are we ‘greedy’? Why do billionaires keep wanting yet another 100 million, even if its affect on the quality of their lives was practically nonexistent? Why do the morbidly obese want yet another bag of chips even if they know it could kill you any given day? Looking behind moral assumptions, the answer could perhaps be found in the history of our species, and the behavior of other species as well.
Human development has lasted for about a million years, depending on its definition. Only a couple of thousand of years of it has happened in a culture resembling anything like ours, and less than a century in an environment that requires profound understanding of global mechanisms and resources. Therefore, it’s pretty safe to say that biologically, the post-industrial age hasn’t had time to affect our evolution practically at all. This seems to lead to the conclusion, that the basic properties of our problem solving capabilities have basically not changed after the times we lived on mercies of the nature. Of course we have a lot more information to help us understand our surroundings, but the basic mechanics of thinking and feeling haven’t really changed.
In this light, our behavior is only logical. When we lived without the support network of modern society, eating whenever possible was the wisest thing you could do – the everyday struggle for survival made sure all-you-can-eat was never too much. And the ones who most diligently collected foodstuff, medicinal plants and materials for building better habitats – in other words, wealth – had the best chances of survival. The tragical irony here is, that as descendants of these survivors, our own survival instincts are still so strong, they just may end up killing us. Luckily, we do have a secondary system of problem solving, namely critical thinking; whether we use it to rewrite our instinctive behavioral models to meet up to today’s needs, is up to us.
The Paradox of Absolute Morality
The obvious problem in absolute morality is that it tends in fact to be relative. The fact that there’s a lot of different views on what’s absolutely good or bad, automatically leads to feelings of moral superiority towards each other and basically devastates all possibilities to form respectful relations with one another and learn from each other. So, while understanding this may offend someone – my apologies – I want to make it very clear that no philosophy, theistic or atheistic, will have automatic dominance over any other here. Any and all defaults will be analysed and criticised here whenever necessary.
Causality and Empathy
I understand someone could interpret all this as a some kind of a weird eulogy for sociopathy. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Admitting that morality is relative to species and to some extent, even individuals, does not automatically lead to indifference and unscrupulousness. Instead I’d like to highlight another of our naturally evolved qualities: empathy. The bigger our communities became, the bigger role empathy played in our survival. For some reason, you often hear the claim that only our selfish properties are natural or animal, and all our altruistic properties are the result of civilization and rational thinking.
I find this line of thought utterly strange. As I see it, empathy is most natural, and it’s in fact been one of the keys to our survival as a species. And when we begin tackling our biggest challenge so far – combining sustainable living with modern culture – its significance grows even greater. I believe strongly, that understanding of causality and the ability for empathy are the single most important components of our survival over the coming centuries. If we understand why we behave the way we do, and are able to identify with others’ situations, we will end up making decisions that allow us to develop towards sustainability and wellness – with or without a given moral code. Gladly, there’s a lot more uniting than disjunctive causes between all major philosophies – whether you believe it’s because of a higher force that’s affected all our philosophies, or simply because we all share a set of basic principles to secure our species’ survival, is up to your personal beliefs.
I think that there’s now enough background information for you as a reader to be able to decide whether you want to be part of this, and for us to start the actual brainstorming. I think I’ll post a short, non-definitive overview on the global environmental problems we’re facing, just to make sure we’re on the same page, and try to persuade more people here to actually get some discussion started, and then we can begin thinking where and how to collect the actual ideas of how a sustainable society could work. You’re warmly welcomed to discuss, share your thoughts and educate me and other readers about anything posted here – as I’ve said earlier, I’m not an expert on any of the fields discussed here.