We have personal norms of behavior. These norms guide us even when we are alone living in a forest. What are the sources of these norms, these ethics, these guides to behavior, like “brush your teeth at least twice a day” or “pay back what you borrow”? In these days and times, it is surprising that our source for ethics, and also our justification for ethics, is still based on religion. For most people, this is good enough. For intellectuals like us, it’s not good enough.
I say ethics is founded on the idea of survival. As a society, we demand a certain minimum good behavior by way of laws. No society can survive without demanding minimum good behavior from its citizens. For example, the rule that says “don’t kill a member of society” or “don’t steal” are basic demands without which a society cannot survive.
Laws are laws but ethics is something else. Ethics demands something more than following explicit rules. It requires us to think about what is ideal behavior. At the societal level, there are laws, but at the personal level, there is ethics. For example, there is no law that says “brush and floss your teeth after every meal”, but this behavior can be deemed essential to maintain one’s health: the ideal is to maintain healthy teeth until we die. If we form the habit of this behavior (brushing and flossing of teeth), we avoid the pain of having bad teeth.
At the fundamental level, ethics means behavior that enhances our well-being and increases our capacity to survive. We are genetically “designed” to be ethical because our survival depends on it. Even our five senses allow us to feel pain just so we can avoid certain things that, if we don’t, could harm us. We feel sick whenever our body demands care.
“Basing one’s behavior on survival sounds crude and won’t work”, you say. We can justify shooting somebody dead by saying: “if I hadn’t shot him first, the intruder would have killed me”. Yes, of course. What is wrong with that? The law that says “do not kill” does not mean you cannot defend yourself. Laws are there to preserve a society.
Personal ethics are something else, though. It doesn’t seem like we can formulate ethics from the standpoint of survival alone.
After all, survival in the context of the jungle means you kill or be eaten alive. Wild animals behave based on who is stronger: an animal survives by having those qualities that allow it to survive, like strength or speed. This is the basics of jungle existence: you survive either by being subservient to some leader who is strong, or you are strong yourself. It’s simple but violent and brutish. Surely, we can’t base ethics on “survival of the fittest”.
Here’s the thing, though. How did we humans survive when there’s not even hope for us to be stronger than the lion? We have not evolved to have teeth like the lion or the tiger, teeth that can tear meat off of the limbs of prey. Instead, we have evolved grinding teeth, fit for feeding on rice or wheat. (We feed on meat too, but we cook it first. We consider ourselves more refined than lions and tigers who don’t have to cook meat to eat it lol.)
We have dominated earth at the expense of lions and other wild animals because it’s not strength alone that counts. What we have is intelligence: the ability to use tools, the ability to form and use language, to think in abstractions so we can see beyond the moment. A tiger doesn’t see beyond a minute ahead (what’s going to happen next), but we can plan on what to do the following day, even the following week, or month, or even years ahead. Birds migrate to other parts of the world, you say, and they can seem to plan what to do next in a longer timeframe than a minute. Yes, that’s true. Still, we go beyond that. The survival of a human society goes beyond planning for a season. We think in terms of years and decades, a century even.
We can even think of abstractions such as “ethics”.
Ethics is survival, not at the level of the jungle, but way beyond it. Within society, we have family and friends. Survival within our micro-community of family and friends means being able to navigate successfully this complex system of relationships. We can connect this to survival because, if we can’t be successful even within our micro-community, our micro-community can reject us and life would be more difficult. Success within our tiny community of family and friends means survival in the larger context of society.
Just as an illustration: some of us have pets at home, like a dog. My family has a dog, a handsome golden doodle we call “Butter”. Butter is a very well-behaved dog. I say Butter behaves “ethically” because he doesn’t just grab food that we often leave on the table. He doesn’t bite us even though he is equipped with teeth that can tear meat off our arms. Instead he wants to play all the time. Sure, the dog really doesn’t have the will to do good or bad. Butter’s behavior is mostly genetic (i.e., automatic), but of course, it’s also determined by how we treat him (his environment). Nevertheless, we can say his behavior is ethical. Butter’s hierarchy of habits is very simple, and we humans have a much more complex hierarchy of habits and norms of behavior. But as much as we can ascribe ethics to our behavior, we can also ascribe ethics to Butter’s behavior.
Imagine a dog that is mean and vicious. Nobody wants such a dog. We humans have always rejected such dogs from time immemorial and by doing so we have unintentionally designed the current genetic makeup of dogs. Only breeds that we liked have survived. We have therefore detemined what is proper behavior for domesticated dogs, and we have partially determined a breed’s genetic makeup by our choosing. The survival of Butter (even the suruvival of his breed) clearly depends not just on his outward behavior, but on his inner hierarchy of habits.
For another illustration: imagine your friend who borrowed money from you promising to pay it back in a month’s time. Months have passed and that friend hasn’t paid you back, even after reminding her several times. You would feel angry. Beyond the question of ethics, the practical question is, would you lend her money again? Of course not. She has lost something more valuable than the money she earned by not paying back. She would have lost your trust.
Can ethics be really that practical? With religion, we can imagine a god that can punish for sins committed. But without a god, can we still have ethics?
Let’s reconsider the example above of a friend who do not pay back loans. Eventually she would run out of friends to borrow from, which would be even of greater loss for her. However, imagine a bad person who takes advantage of his forgetful friend, who cannot remember anything that happened a day ago. Everyday he would “borrow” money from his friend and everyday the friend does not remember all the sum that this guy has borrowed. He survives because he can do this until the money runs out. (Let’s say the friend has a lot of money.) Clearly this is unethical, but the delinquent borrower survives, for a long time. Can survival be really the foundation of ethics?
Even that innate instinct called “conscience” doesn’t help here. The delinquent borrower survives, even though his conscience eats at him everyday. He treats his wealthy friend really well, but he steals from him. He justifies his behavior by saying to himself: my friend has a lot of money and I don’t – what I am doing is “social justice”. This kind of thing is not uncommon, in which somebody doesn’t seem to run out of money (because he is a parasite) and even gains more friends, by always having a party. He soothes the pain of conscience by being drunk and having friends around him all the time. He survives and even gains more friends.
Even in nature there are parasites. We normally don’t consider parasites as ethical animals. We protect our bodies from small parasites like leeches.
The delinquent borrower survives, but at the societal level that kind of behavior is not only unethical but also unlawful. The parasite is taking a big risk and, as long as he is not caught, he survives. The existence of parasitic relationships therefore does not negate the idea of ethics for survival. The parasite is taking too much risk. Such risk can be fatal. And, as long as we understand that risky and unlawful behavior is unethical, survival as source of ethics makes sense. In fact, some risky behavior, like too much drinking, can still be lawful and yet unethical because it is bad for the health of the individual.
Let me qualify what I mean by survival. By survival I mean long term survival, the longer the better. When you consider whether an act is ethical or not, think of your progeny. Also, it’s not just about basic survival, but rather also well-being and wealth. The more health and wealth you can bequeath, the better. You don’t want your progeny just to survive, you want them to have the best that life can offer.
Thinking long-term makes us think twice about our actions, every decision that we make. We humans have a long-term horizon and therefore ethics for survival makes a lot of sense.
Ethics in the grand scheme of things …
Ethics is about good and evil, not in the sense that religion teaches us, but in the sense of our reality – the reality of a spec of dust called earth within the infinitely vast universe. This universe is ruled by something called entropy, the god of chaos. It seems that, as much as time is an arrow that can fly in only one direction, things in the universe go in the direction of chaos because of entropy. Entropy is evil and we are perpetually fighting it, from the time the first single-celled animal survived, until we lose.
Ethics is order in the face of abundant chaos. We are fighting against entropy, swimming against the tide of disorder. If we are alone in this universe (statistically improbable), then even within our galaxy we have come very, very far in terms of evolution. Evolution, by the way, is the mortal enemy of entropy. Evolution represents the good, the march towards order; while entropy represents the march towards chaos. Ethics, then, lies within the next phase in the war between evolution and entropy, a strategy that intelligent beings like us use as a bulwark against chaos.
More about ethics and evolution versus entropy later …
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