Moral values originate from an arbitrary line we draw between what is acceptable and what is not. I imagine any moralist worthy of the name would find this an immoral view.
However, historical experience shows the moral line moves profoundly over time and geography. Morality draws its line somewhere along the ‘food chain’ between the user and the used—predator and prey—and with which of these two the moralist identifies.
Vietnamese eat dogs; Swedes eat horse; both practices are probably illegal in America. Abortion and the death penalty, in particular, exemplify morality’s moving red line. Chapter 2 speaks to the arbitrary, co-generating quality of morality’s good vs. evil…
Truth-be-told, human morality is simply an emergent property of natural ‘morality’ occurring throughout nature, especially noticeable in social mammals. What we deem acceptable vs. what is not is obviously a ‘food chain’ issue. However, this power play in human culture is typically more subtle, hidden behind veils of rationalization. Nevertheless, doesn’t it still boil down to this simple principle: ‘good’ = what attracts me; ‘evil’ = what repels me.
If It Isn’t Evil, Then What Is It?
Horrific man-made events that fill the news are particularly disturbing when inexplicable. We evoke the ‘devil’ or ‘evil’ to explain the inexplicable. Fortunately, there appears to be an improving recognition that these acts are not ‘evil’, but rather the acts of emotionally unstable people.
Warfare, rape of the environment, and other injustices that have followed humanity throughout its history are not ostensibly the result of emotional instability. In many of these cases, it is just the ruthless pursuit of what one individual or group wants. Naturally, this describes thieves perfectly. The thief is just taking what he wants without any qualms about his victim (1). Doesn’t this thief vs. victim dynamic also apply to predator vs. prey? Taking always requires a ‘thing taken from’; any gain here necessitates a complimentary loss there. This is the ‘food chain’. Whether it is moral or not is just a matter of social convention. This is why Taoism has little use for morality. As D.C. Lau put it, It is the way of heaven to show no favoritism. Conversely, human morality, at least at the self-righteous, hypocritical, and partisan level, plainly amounts to playing favorite.
Escaping the Food Chain
Stepping back for a broader view, I see our species at the very top of the earth’s food chain. If any species gets in our way, we destroy it; if any species serves our purposes, we exploit it. We have cleverly managed to position ourselves at a point in nature where, like thieves, we ostensibly don’t need to pay our way; we can take what we want and give as little as we wish. We have few natural predators (mostly bacteria and viruses) and strive hard to safeguard ourselves from even those. I imagine, had other animals the capacity to judge us objectively, they would all think our rapacious nature very immoral (2).
Indeed, we are hell-bent on escaping the food chain entirely! Does this feel balanced? Would nature abide this out-of-balance situation? I say “no way!” Simply put, we cannot outmaneuver nature because nature is the crucible in which we exist.
Nature balances our imbalance
Personally, it helps me to see our man-made ‘evils’ as acts of self-predation. Eliminating our potential natural predators like lions, wolves, and such, and turning into the planet’s most proficient predator (thanks to tools), we’ve meddled profoundly with natural balance. Self-predation should undoubtedly be a natural consequence of this imbalance. War is a perfect stand-in for carnivores. Even the deranged acts of insane people would seem, in their derangement, a natural consequence of what became increasingly out of step with natural balance… and through their deranged actions, they end up playing the role of predator. They are substitutes for the natural predators we have wiped out.
Is it possible to avoid the injustices that disturb our peace of mind? I don’t see how, as long as we feel we deserve all we can get, or that we have a ‘God given right’ to take what we want, and pay as little in return as we can get away with. ‘Peace on earth’ has been a dream of humanity throughout history, yet when the rubber hits the road, we want what we want, we want it now, and we want it free—if at all possible!
Similarly, environmentalists dream of being good stewards of the environment. Alas, most of this is lip service, coming from the mouths of those who have no vested economic (survival) need to ‘rape’ their way to survive. As soon as environmentalists find themselves in seriously deprived circumstances, their rising survival needs will blind them to their egalitarian ideals—and naturally so!
We are just animals, albeit with an outsized capacity to innovate. Being animals, biology determines our behavior. Needs and fears pull the strings. Again, nature, and biology in particular, is the crucible in which we exist. When need and fear are quiescent, we can imagine ideal scenarios where we can have our cake and eat it too. When we ‘wake up’ and live our daily lives, we find nature pushes back on us at every turn. The more we resist, the more nature will push back to maintain balance. It is really a no-win situation, but we only learn this truth through a lifetime of experience. Nature balances our imbalance; there is no escaping this ‘natural law’.
A Bird in the Hand Is Worth Two in the Bush
If averting global warming meant any profound reduction in our standard of living, there would be few, and perhaps no one, actually willing to do what was necessary. Simply put, we care much more about current gains and losses than the promise or threat of future gains and losses — ‘A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush’. Even now, with only minor costs to us, there is little will to lessen our future impact on the environment. We only act when we really feel pushed into a corner. We only react to actual threats we experience, not ones we imagine. The disasters happen, then we prepare! This is just the biological reality. As chapter 16 put it, Not knowing the constant, rash actions lead to ominous results. That says it as it is. Yes, we can ‘know the constant’ somewhat, but only gradually through life-long experience.
Nothing is truly going to change until the time comes when we are mature enough, as a species, to cease wanting to have it both ways. Our lack of emotional maturity is the hang up. In a sense, our intellect’s cleverness is out of balance with our emotional ‘intelligence’ (3). We innately want something for nothing, which in the wild would always be counterbalanced by nature’s ruthless side. Our clever use of tools allows us to evade those balancing forces… or so it seems! What will it take to become mature enough as a species? I have a few ideas on this. See And Then There Was Fire.
(1) Do you see the problem here? I see hypocrisy just waiting to spring up. Taking what we want without any qualms defines us all at some level. Even the eating of plants amounts to killing and taking without qualms. This applies to all animal life on earth. Thus, any lines we draw are arbitrary; being honestly straightforward about this is the only way to avoid hypocrisy, in my view. Everyone acknowledges that hypocrisy is problematic, so why is this so difficult? In the end, we can only see what we desire to see. Straight and honest words seem inside out if they contradict what we desire.
(2) The shame of all this human rape of the planet lies more in the ignorance and arrogance than the actual actions. The spoiled childlike, “I deserve it” sense of entitlement is even embedded in humanity’s so-called spiritual paths to a degree by the Christian view that we are God’s favorites, or the Easter view that we’re endowed with superior levels of consciousness—a hierarchy of consciousness if you will. Of course, if we had more humble, less species-centric view, we would be more reverent and moderate in our spaciousness.
(3) Raw mental intelligence (I.Q.) appears to be mostly an innate genetic endowment, ‘nature’ more than ‘nurture’. Alternatively, it just develops much faster than emotional intelligence. Emotional intelligence (E.Q.) appears to be mostly a learning process, influenced by circumstances in youth — ‘nurture’ more than ‘nature’ — and evolves steadily over our lifetime.