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The window is dirty

February 22, 2009

There is no Eden. There never was. What was that Eden of the wonderful mythic past? Is it the time when infant mortality was 80%, when four children in five died of disease before the age of five? When one woman in six died in childbirth? When the average lifespan was 40, as it was in America a century ago. When plagues swept across the planet, killing millions in a stroke. Was it when millions starved to death? Is that when it was Eden?1

I’ve meant to make this post for several weeks now and have struggled in putting it all together.  I’ve made it a goal of mine to find a middle ground when I try to express an idea.  I seem to have two modes: extremely short and to the point, and on the other end of the spectrum, trying to elaborate on every single detail (I say trying because I don’t always succeed).  I’m kind of throwing complete coherence out the window with this one just to get the ideas across.

Above is a passage from a piece called “Environmentalism as Religion” by Michael Chrichton.  Being that he is dead he cannot answer any of my questions, but I have some anyway.  Most are on a range of topics from the mythical Eden to the mythical nobel savage, but for the sake of cohernece I’ll ignore them.

The big one is this: What makes longer life, lower mortality, control of disease, and abundant resource availabilty good?

Can this good be demonstrated?  These things are good according to whom?  Does Nature care?  Or is it we who care?

Evolution does not reward on the basis of who survives the longest or who has the highest quality of life; evolution rewards based on who reproduces.  Most species have short lifespans.  What is “good” doesn’t matter in evolutionary terms, and because of this these things are not demonstrably “good” in any meaningful sense.  It’s only good because we say it’s good.  It’s our own moral projections that determine what is good.  What is good has no foundation in nature whatsoever.

Looking at nature through a moral lense does not work and provides no meaningful insight.

“Wolves were here before we were and deserve a place,” said Lang. “But that doesn’t mean some of them aren’t going to die if they misbehave.”2

And here, more of the same.  Whose rules are the wolves breaking?  Certainly not their own, and certainly not the rules of nature.  The wolves are breaking human rules.  Certainly there has always been competition between species for resources, but never has one species hoarded so much food and declared it completely off-limits to each and every other species.  It’s not common for animals to fight to the death over anything in the natural world, but humans do it all the time, especially when facing other species.  Since the wolves are breaking human rules by occasionally eating cattle, the ranchers execute them.  That’s another human rule: exterminate everything you don’t like.  The wolves aren’t misbehaving in the least, but doing exactly what wolves do.  Cattle are easy kills, so the wolves kill them.

Looking at nature through a moral lense does not work.

The majority of mating throughout the world is rape.  Often females run away from males, initiating sometimes very lengthy chases that inevitably end in the male dominating the female, mounting her, sometimes biting or clawing at her, often to the sounds of her screams.  And without this rape an incalculable number of species would go extinct.

I would say there is logical right and wrong. There just is. And that’s why I’m willing to pass judgement in other cultures. I say female genital mutilation is wrong. I don’t care if it’s part of your culture. I don’t care if it’s been passed down from generation to generation. I don’t care if I don’t understand it. I’m going to say it’s wrong. Do I need God to come in and intervene and explain to me that female genital removal is wrong, that female circumcision is wrong? No. I have deductive reasoning. I have brain cells to rub together, and I know it’s wrong.3

Here I basically agree with the premise, but I don’t understand the insistence on the presence of morality.  Yes, an action can be right or wrong in the sense that it can be correct or incorrect, or at  odds with reality or in line with reality, but why in moral terms?  The question remains: Wrong according to whom?  I agree that there is probably no basis in reality for female circumcision, but the same cannot be said for infanticide or polygamy, for instance, which both actually have real-world justification.

One does not need God for morality, but to run with that idea, one does not need morality to live.  And to live without morals is not to live immorally.  We will all construct what we could call morals within our own lives, and so it is in our best interests to make these boundaries which we insist on labeling morals compatible with physical reality and nature.  I do not kill because I see no reason to kill, no justification, and I would feel unpleasant if I were a killer.  I do not rape, steal, or cheat for the same reasons.  I do not kill, rape, steal or cheat not because these things are wrong, but because I can find no basis in reality that would suggest I do so.  If it became necessary to kill I would do so, but since it is unnecessary and unpleasant in most instances, I do not.

Notes and Links

  1. Environmentalism as Religion at michaelchricton.com
  2. Wolves and the Balance of Nature in the Rockies at smithsonianmag.com
  3. Adam Carolla on Religion at youtube.com
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