Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Some Musings on Naturalistic Ethics (16 January 2011)

“It is the mark of an instructed mind to rest satisfied with the degree of precision which the nature of the subject permits and not to seek an exactness where only an approximation of the truth is possible.”
                                              - Aristotle
                                  Nichomachean Ethics

I was out in the woods walking through winter landscapes yesterday, wondering as I went, when an inspiration came over me, and I said to myself, ‘there just seems to be no reason, at this point, that we can’t ground an understanding of morality and ethics in naturalism.’  Moving amidst the snow covered deciduous trees denuded of their leaves and the conifers with their snow laden boughs, with the afternoon sunlight making the landscape shimmer and shift as I went, I wondered seriously why it is so hard for people to give up the ‘skyhook’ of God as the justification for their morality?[1]  Why do we think that we can’t be moral on our own?
There seemed to be something in the beauty of the day and the freshness of the air – chilled as the day was (– 3° C); that gave me confidence that Nature really is the source of our 'nature,' and that out of Nature arises the basic inspiration for for us to be the best we can be.  The beauty and wonder of Nature is an inspiration; an impetus to a higher consciousness of ourselves, and this seems to me to be the unadorned touchstone of all ethical systems and moral choices.  Though Nature has also endowed us with all of the faults that make us what we are at our worst, the choice remains with us, and a spiritually driven choice it always is, whether we are religious or secular in our approach to life.  We have evolved as beings with an ability to choose one behavior over another.  Ethics is always about making the choices that best edify and sustain us, individually and as a species.  Even religious morality – when it isn’t dysfunctional and dehumanizing – is about self-realization and the creation of edifying, sustainable human communities.
A naturalistic ethics starts, so far as I can tell at this point, with the fact of our having an evolutionary history; we live on a planet where we are related to every other person of our own species and where we are more distantly related to every other life form in the biosphere.  Scientists have discovered no living thing – from microbes up to the largest plants and animals – that would indicate descent from more than one ancestor (the recent news about a life form that substitutes arsenic for phosphorus in some of its DNA does not appear to challenge this basic fact).  All living things are descendants of a common life form (or perhaps a life-community) in the now long-distant past; all life on Earth shows a family resemblance.
This relatedness offers a good starting point for thinking about how we should behave.  We are not ‘strangers’ here in the Earth.  We are not ‘above’ other species.  We are not ‘passing through.’  We belong here; we have evolved here, and we will ultimately play out our fate here on this planet or on some other planet where we have found or created an environment enough like our home planet to sustain us.  Whether or not there is a God; whether or not there are supernatural beings, ghosts or an afterlife--makes no difference to this basic ‘earthen’ reality of our being the children of Nature.  Even religious systems of morality have to make it possible for us to play out our lives in the bioshphere of this planet.  We are Nature reflecting on itself!  If a God has created us, then (s)he has done so by evolutionary processes and made us the animals we are; who are at-home in this biosphere!
This common ancestry with all other indigenous life forms on the planet is ennobling.  Yet, there is a uniqueness to our species that makes us wondrous in a very special way.  Every species has something that sets it apart; and while certain groups of species share more or less of their uniqueness with others, there are some really spectacularly unique species around, in both the plant and the animal world.  I don’t think it a species bias to say that humankind is unique in a very secific way.  Just as the long arms of a macaque monkey makes it unique, or the ability of an octopus to change colors make those species unique, the very fact that I can sit here thinking about these questions sets me apart from every other plant and animal on the Earth (so far as we know).  It doesn’t make us ‘better,’ but it does make us unique.  We are Nature thinking about itself, reflecting on itself, and even altering the direction of Nature's changes!
This way of looking at things makes me feel very different about moral and ethical questions than does a religiously grounded system of morality, which is almost always motivated by an ‘external’ criteria; whether a deity or some kind of spooky ‘force.’   Naturalistic ethics locates the responsibility for either acting well or behaving badly in me; I cannot blame anyone else -- either within or outside of our species -- for what I do, whether good or bad.  As I see it, in naturalistic terms I must accept that what I do reflects my own moral progress – or lack thereof.  Furthermore, a naturalistic ethics is going to be grounded in facts – cosmological & biological – that are verifiable and that can be trusted because they have been substantiated; facts about the human mind and our nervous system, facts about our environment and the impact – for good or ill – that we have had and will continue to have on it, etc.  Science does not make us ethical; but it does provide the information about the objective dimensions of reality that make moral decisions and ethical thinking successful.
Choice is an important touchstone for a naturalistic ethics.  The fact that we are able to ‘choose’ one thing or another is an ability fostered in us by evolution; by the specific path that our species and its ancestors have travelled through the deep past.  Whether or not ‘free will’ is objectively real, subjectively we all know what it means to make choices, and we experience the consequences of these choices, day after day.  Who and what we are at any point in our lives is the sum total of the choices we have made, whether good or bad, since we came to the age where we were able to choose on our own.  A naturalistic ethics is made possible by the fact that we have evolved as animals that make choices and can decide to do ‘this’ or ‘that’ – and we know that some of those choices are better for us, while others are harmful.  From an evolutionary standpoint, morality is simply part of the toolkit that we Homo sapiens have inherited from our ancestors.
So why are people ‘bad’?  Simply because we can choose ‘this’ or ‘that,’ and we sometimes choose things that harm rather than helping or edifying ourselves or others.  So then, don’t we need someone (a big ‘S’ someone in the sky?) to tell us what to do?  Not at all.  Whether or not there is a certain “Someone” to appeal to, we are fully capable of figuring out what’s good for us and what’s not, even if allways provisionally and imperfectly.  We’ve been doing it for at least a couple hundred thousand years!  And if we as individuals cannot figure it out, there are plenty of moral traditions and ethical systems handed down across many generations that we can consult for help.  So why would people want to be moral?  Because, ultimately, it will improve their quality of life and make them better able to realize their full potential.  Why is morality a communal as well as a personal issue?  Because the individual will always live in a larger community on which he or she depends for sustenance and the social bonds that deepen our ongoing experience. From birth to death (and beyond, if there is such a place).
While long justified by religions and grounded in supernaturalism, I believe this moral ‘tool-kit’ can now be expressed in naturalistic terms, because (1) it is rooted in the desire for survival and (2) it promotes human flourishment (Gk, eudaimonia).  A naturalistic morality is not relative; neither is it absolute.  There is a middle way that arises out of living life listening to the wisdom of our elders and ancestors and then deciding how best to apply the most insightful intuitions about what it means to be human and be ‘happy’ (in the Greek sense of eudaimonia, ‘fullfullment’ or ‘flourishment.’).  While it has been expressed in unique ways in various cultures and societies down across time and all around the globe, and while some cultures have valued some tenets over others and ignored various ‘tenets’ (beause their culural context didn't force them to consider certain questions) it seems there is a general ‘core’ of more or less ‘universal’ dispositions that all human groups would basically accept.  I like the idea that the reason there are universal moral imperatives – like the injunction against murder and the ‘Golden Rule” – is because our ancestors found some behaviors more beneficial to themselves and more likely to result in healthy group and individual life than others.  To kill others of your group generally reduces survival fitness.  To treat others in ways that would be disadvantageous to you likewise generally reduces group fitness (if it harms you, it would probably harm someone else).
Though there are always exceptions, we human beings usually know what pleasures and benefits us, as individuals.  Human groups are also usually able to figure out what is in their own best interests.  _And if they don’t, they go extinct!  The behaviors that we generally call ‘moral’ have been discovered, over and over again, throughout human history.  They are generally not ‘new.’  People who think that the moral injunctions they value are unique to their own culture or religion, have simply led a too-closeted life; they have not studied other cultures or their religions!
Then I think about our morality being passed down from one generation to another, and how this gives it a kind of ‘authority’ that transcends the individual and present circumstances.[2]    Yet we are able to take what is handed down to us, and either accept it  or re-think it in terms of (1) present contexts and what is beneficial to us here and now, as well as (2) a deeper insight into what makes us human than our ancetors were aware of.  For instance, though we in the Euro-American West inherited a morality that denigrated women and kept them tied to “kirche, kuche, kinter" (in the old German formula), we have altered our ethical thinking by gaining deeper insight into being human and as a recult have enfranchised women (for the most part); acknowledging their personhood and rights, granting them freedom to be just as self-determining as men.  We are also transfiguring the moral landscape where race and sexual preference are concerned.
Ultimately, I think, our species will create a pan-human planetary ethics, and this thought stuns me.  To reach that point, the moral traditions of various cultures will have to come into dynamic conversation even more than they have done to date.  Ethical thinking is always evolving, owing to our changing circumstances and the expansion of our existential and technological horizons; morality following – if only slowly and hesitatingly – where it leads.  But we can all take the moral and ethical traditions we have inherited, and work them out for best effect in our present global circumstances.  Science reveals the objective world in which we all live; whether we are Americans, Africans, Asians or Europeans, Australians or from any other place on the planet.  As such, the revelations of science should be treated as the ground for our ethics and moral all systems as well as for our various spiritualities.  We must transform our cultures from within, in order to become a truly planetary species.  We can do this on naturalistic terms, and come to a new horizon for human potential and possibilities, if we can but liberate our spirit and imagine it!
We will need a spirituality to accompany such a consummation of consciousness!  _But this is enough musing for one day!

“In order to make progress, one must leave the door to the unknown ajar.” -- Richard Feynman

[1] Daniel Dennett’s term from Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life, 1995
[2] I first came to understand this by reading Michael Shermer’s The Science of Good and Evil (2006).

No comments:

Post a Comment