But how? Part one: Good and Evil

Walkabout podcast – But how? Part 1

When you examine the justifications and reasons given for religious belief, there are numerous common factors that come up regularly; at the same time, identical or similar factors are what are presented in the face of atheism, secularism, and even the “scientific model” of the universe – if [a] god does not exist, how does one explain this?

Given how often I see these, I have decided to outline some of the more common ones. To me, it was the realization that yes, such things could indeed work very well without guidance or influence by anything more than natural physics, that made a non-religious view of the universe not just viable, but the most supportable. Not everyone will agree, and that’s fine – discussion is welcome. The posts prefaced with “But how?” are my own attempt to explain, not how it could be, but why it is likely. Why something could be is a poor rationale, one that assumes an answer first and then looks for support – this can be done with any viewpoint you care to name. One valuable lesson that the scientific method provides is looking at what actually stands in the way, attempting to disprove a particular standpoint, in order to test its strength.

So with all that said, let’s talk about good and evil.

Many, many people profess that one of the strengths of religion is its moral guidance; a significant percentage of those believe that one cannot even know what morality is without religion – this is perhaps the most distasteful thing about atheism, if you were to ask those who recoil in horror at the mere thought. Yet, at the same time, when someone points out that countless aspects of religious scripture not only outline behavior we find abhorrent, they even contradict other portions and laws therein, you will immediately (and without fail) find people excusing such aspects, pointing out the “good” portions and the “real message.”

Unfortunately, this defeats their very argument. How can someone fathom what the real message is from the very source of their criteria, the books that tell them what right and wrong even are? How does one figure out what the “good” aspects of scripture are (such as prohibitions against homosexuality and bestiality) and what sections can/should be ignored (such as prohibitions against cutting hair and sowing two kinds of crop in the same field)? These examples are from the same book, by the way: leviticus. Of course it’s idiotic to stone blasphemers, or to whip children, or to keep slaves. We just didn’t get these ideas from scripture, which condones such acts. These aren’t even parables or metaphors that let the reader determine for themselves what the subtle message was supposed to be; these are distinct laws. So where did we get the ability to choose among these?

We judge people and actions all the time, not by referring to some particular list of rules, but by how they align with our own interests, and what we consider beneficial. “Good” is not an absolute value, but a variable that depends on how our society works, on how we interact with each other, and even sometimes based on arbitrary values. As I mentioned before, many of our ideas of “good,” like traffic laws, marriage laws, business obligations, citizenship, discrimination, child abuse, and so on, have no basis whatsoever in scriptural guidelines, even vaguely – we managed to come up with these all on our own. Some of these aren’t even common agreement, but widely variable across the world. How young is too young for someone to legally engage in sex, or vote, or drink alcohol, or serve in their country’s military? In this country alone, those are (almost) all different ages, but why? Can anyone name any source for this distinction based on calendar days since birth? Is there any reason whatsoever to believe, boom, on the morning of your nineteenth year, you now know how to vote properly, or are competent and mature enough to die in battle? These are just numbers picked almost at random, mostly because something was needed as a guideline.

But okay, let’s go back to the things most people think about when they get into the realm of moral behavior. Is it possible to be moral without referring to scriptural guidelines? First off, we need to define what morality really is, and since this is one of those things that relies more on personal ideas than a dictionary definition, I’ll urge you to pause for a moment and pin down your own concept of “moral” in your head before we go on.

Merriam-Webster Online defines it thusly:

a : of or relating to principles of right and wrong in behavior : ethical <moral judgments>
b : expressing or teaching a conception of right behavior <a moral poem>
c : conforming to a standard of right behavior
d : sanctioned by or operative on one’s conscience or ethical judgment <a moral obligation>
e : capable of right and wrong action <a moral agent>

… which is no help at all, because it relies solely on other definitions. If we refer to the long-winded and often ridiculously philosophical Wikipedia, we find it not a hell of a lot better, and very frequently coming back to the idea that we should know what “right” and “wrong” really are. That, naturally, is the opening that is filled by many with religious scripture. Did your own definition head in this direction?

Okay, how about this: “behavior or principles that result in the greatest benefit for the largest number of people.” Close, perhaps, but still open for things like majority slave-ownership. Perhaps we add in, “recognition of the equality of individuals,” and maybe, “valuing trust, fairness, and community.” Is it starting to look like what you defined, and are you seeing how hard it might be to define it distinctly for every situation?

You might have caught on to something in there, too: we actually want such things like this, and not simply from the standpoint that it’s convincing in its benefit, but that we respond very negatively when such principles are violated. Again, it’s easy to say that this is drilled into us by religion and/or parental ethics, but is it? Or is it possible that we have this as an innate drive?

Now, such vaguely-defined principles aren’t usually something that we have “instinctively,” but there are many things that can be. Empathy, for one. We really do feel bad when others feel bad, right from birth, as any parent who watches crying behavior spread among infants knows. We worry about causing pain, even to animals, and try to help when others are depressed. Scriptural guidelines? Not really – they tend to be quite vague on such things, and certainly not an influence on babies, or indeed other animals which also display similar traits.

When we start thinking in terms of animal behavior, we begin using terms other than right and wrongbenefit and detriment, for example. While these largely have the same meanings, such terms dodge the implication that right and wrong have some deeper moral division – these are strictly human traits. If we look at the end results, however, we find them to be indistinguishable; something that provides a benefit to an individual or species cannot by its nature be determined to be either the result of “morality” or simply an innate drive for improvement, or even survival. To determine morality, we need to ask what the motivating factors were, something we can pretty much do only with our own species. There is an assumption that such decisions must have been reached through conscious and reasoning thought, one not supported by the decision itself.

But let’s say that we, for a moment, argue that “good” behavior is inherent, a trait evolved into us and thus subconscious rather than learned – does this make sense? Is there a way that such behavior could be rewarded by selection, that it would provide enough of a benefit to propagate through a species? Certainly, and we have no problem seeing it within species other than H. sapiens. Group behavior, cooperative efforts, packs and hives and flocks and colonies, all provide a huge benefit, that of many individuals working towards a common goal, gaining survival strength through numbers. And it’s easy to apply this to humans, from millions of years ago right up to today, with farming, cooperative hunting, protective tribes, community child care, and on and on. Any individual might develop selective skills, learned over years and even handed down through generations, and trade such skills for the fruits of another’s skills, education, or efforts. In this manner we can develop beyond the “here and now” survival and reproduction of individualistic species, and gain benefit from shared efforts. We can only accomplish this because we like socializing, and want a cooperative society. While we’d like to think that this is different from the flock behavior of sparrows or the pack behavior of hyenas, we have to ask ourselves: in what part of our education did we learn how to favor society over individuality? If this is cultural, it should be radically different among cultures, rather than exceptionally common. We don’t view anti-social tendencies as simply other personality traits, similar to music tastes, but we consider them to be almost an illness, indicating that there’s something wrong with such individuals.

So, does this translate into “good” and “evil”? We can start with trying to define those, of course, or take an alternate route and try to determine some behavior which is always “good.” But there really is no such thing; good and evil are abstracts, and virtually require one another to contrast against, rather than being defined as some particular state of being or specific actions, meanings, or attitudes. To illustrate, many people, upon seeing images of Adolf Hitler with happy children, consider them staged and propaganda, refusing to believe that such an evil person could possibly like children, and they like him in return. But evil is not absolute, and even the most reprehensible human beings can be found to possess some trait most consider “good.” We have difficulties with recognizing this because we want decisions to be easy and distinct, so we can classify someone irrevocably into a category and never have to consider them again – they must be one of two choices. It’s a shame, because our minds (that we consider so advanced) can handle much more nuanced concepts, but we often ignore this entirely in favor of black/white categorization.

Even more interesting is our overall attitude towards ourselves, in that we often feel that if some individual is truly bad, it’s a product of mental illness, an imperfection in their native instincts towards community, fairness, and cooperation. Very often, we’re right.

But if people are inherently good, why, then do we find so much evil in the world? The abrahamic religions offer the explanation of satan’s influences, and/or that such things must exist to produce a willing decision for mankind – in order for there to be free will, there must be choices. Both of these fail to explain anything, however. We do not, for instance, have the ability to choose whether or not we obey gravity, or whether thermodynamics guides our actions; these are forced upon us. But simply being “good” must be a choice? This makes no sense, and serves only to highlight how little religion can explain. Could we not simply have been made without free will? Also note that, in a system that supposedly has ultimate arbitration on mortal behavior once all is said and done, we can’t sit still and wait for that to happen; we mete out our own punishments, we have our own laws, apparently feeling that the omniscient creator needs constant help.

The other argument fares no better, but provides some clue as to what may be going on. Being influenced by satan still means that our goodness is not absolute; certainly a valid point, but satan becomes extraneous in such a case, because the key factor is the variability of “good” behavior. It is not some kind of soul-altering magic that satan wields, but merely coercion, to which we’re already susceptible (otherwise we’d be innocent of being corrupted, since it would be outside of our ability to resist.)

Ask anyone that is guilty of doing bad actions, and find out what the reasoning is. “Retaliation” leads the way by a wide margin, whether it be for Bobby stealing our favorite Hot Wheels or for society denying the privileges it bestows on others. Everything from feuds to conflicts between countries and cultures very frequently runs back to some point in time where “we were done wrong,” where the guilty person was minding their own business, being good, and got shafted for it. This can only affect us if we have a sense of fairness in the first place, if we desire that antisocial or divisive action receives consequences. This goes right back to the idea of a cooperative species, one that needs community to thrive. Let’s be real, crime is often a lot easier than following the rules, certainly better than working for some giant corporation to put money in someone else’s pocket. But it ultimately results in chaos, the breakdown of community and the severe hampering of progress, as a species and as a culture. Even criminal organizations have rules, and levels of trust.

The nature of life, however, is competition, and with competition comes conflict – that’s kind of how it’s defined. I’ll pause for a moment here to point out that if we argue for a created, purposeful universe, there is no reason for it to be this way. Any being that could create the entire world in six days, or even put the process of evolution into motion, could certainly manage a system of balance, where populations maintain zero growth and resources are always adequate to the need. But that’s not at all what we see, is it? Life is not self-limited, but expands to take advantage of the resources, halting only when opposed by competition and/or the lack of adequate environment and food, whereupon it gets reined in, not by halting its own expansion, but by malnutrition, disease, and dying off. Because of this struggle and competition, all species survive only by coping with this adversity, and this means they also must have some drive to protect themselves, gain an edge over other species, and coerce or force an advantage. Of course, the process of natural selection means that those that do this best pass along their genetic heritage. So we, as a species, can indeed have a conflict, between traits that make us favor community cooperation, and traits that make us seek an advantage just to survive.

Contrast this with the idea of a learned moral system, one that espouses good behavior and punishes bad, often perpetually – our brief existence as mortals serves only to define where and how we spend eternity. One would think that, if this was not inherent but instead drilled into us by religion, there would be few, if any, bad actions or behavior – there really is no argument in favor of eternal torment, is there? One would also expect to find that the religiously devout were noticeably more “good” than average, but this is not only anecdotally unsupported, it’s denied by countless studies and statistics the world over. Prisons are not populated solely, or largely, by atheists and agnostics – quite the opposite, in fact. Churchgoers can not be determined by any method of moral measurement, and countries with a higher percentage of devout do not have substantially lower crime rates, even taking into account that what constitutes a “crime” is determined by such cultures themselves – what another culture might determine as “immoral” has nothing to do with it. If we have learned how to be good, we suck at it.

However, consider (again) that humans might instead have conflicting desires, internal systems such as endorphins that reward behavior fitting certain criteria. Such a system would not produce overall attitude patterns, it would simply respond to immediate stimuli. This could mean that we might respond positively to social constructive stimuli that could benefit our reproduction, such as returning the smile of an attractive person, and almost immediately curse out the idiot that cuts us off on the road. Neither one really has any guidance whatsoever from scriptural moral platitudes, but fit easily within the basic drives of cooperative survival – remember, we may also have drives for “fairness.”

Fairness is a particular aspect that we have difficulties with, as well. Misfortunes that befall us, such as fires, floods, cancer, and so on, frustrate us to no end. We feel we didn’t deserve any such treatment, and in times past, we actually believed we must have – such misfortunes must have had some explanation in a universe designed by a loving god, so someone must have done something wrong and was being punished for it. As noted above, it usually wasn’t hard to find something that someone did wrong – and of course, we have parasitic religious figures today who maintain that this really is the case, in a loathsome and perverted attempt to capitalize on tragedy. Seriously, if your religion needs that much help to gain converts, it must have fuck-all going for it.

The desire for “fairness” doesn’t seem to fit very well in such cases either, because we should expect fair treatment only from other humans, right? Except that evolved traits are usually not that precise – remember that it’s not what works ideally that is selected, but what works better from the small variations at hand. So we have instincts to protect and care for infants, regardless of species. We respond competitively to countless scenarios, whether there is active competition for needed resources or not. We can be well past reproductive age or status and still play that game. And we can expect “fairness” from everything we encounter, not just other people. It’s misplaced, perhaps, but religion completely fails to explain it.

Most notably, however, is that “good” and “evil,” while relative and inadequately defined, are still functioning concepts in a world not dictated by scripture, provided we see them from the standpoint of a cooperative society. We function only through community, and to be blunt, that’s really the most functional definition of “good” in the first place. We tend to forget that Asia, Africa, and the Americas had functioning, in fact thriving, communities and cultures long before any influence from judeo-christian-muslim scriptures, and still maintained very similar concepts of moral behavior. Religious apologists might maintain that these are still vestiges of the moral code retained after the dispersal of the seven tribes or whatever, but doesn’t it seem odd that the concepts of morality remain while every last other detail, from creation to judgment day, haven’t the faintest traces to be found? Or is it easier, and far more explanatory, to see it as simply a trait developed by natural selection, one that exists in countless other species at the same time?

So should we follow our instincts, then? Well, yes and no. As pointed out above, inherited traits can be functional, but not necessarily ideal, and they can remain in constant conflict. Yet the very aspect that we feel sets us apart from other animals, the rational part of our brains, also plays an important part, and always has – accepting natural selection does not mean acting like savages. Despite such drives as reproduction, we can keep our pants zipped long enough to recognize that child-rearing requires lots of time and effort, and demands a certain amount of external support, like a job and a place to live. Most of us, anyway. And the same goes for good behavior. We can (and do, every day) recognize that we have our greatest strength in cooperative community, recognizing the rights of others and maintaining constant concepts of fairness. At the same time, we realize that not everyone holds fairness to us as high as, for instance, their own personal gain, and we maintain a certain level of distrust, as protection against manipulation and being taken advantage of. Being good only requires that we think in terms of community being more valuable than individuality, cooperation holding higher esteem than competition. For a race that can handle income taxes and Microsoft operating systems, this isn’t exactly challenging.

Moreover, this is head-and-shoulders above the religious aspects of good and evil, which spends no small amount of time defining where divisions lie, mostly between “us good” people and “those bad” people; this often (see the part about simplistic, black/white decisions) consists of “those catholics” or “those muslims” or, really, anyone not within our particular church group. Such divisions aren’t for any purpose of establishing morality, and has nothing to do with it – they serve only to elevate “us” above others, feeding our desire to be better. Hint: that’s competition, not cooperation. You do not create community by building walls.

We are, undeniably, all the same species, which means our community should be defined solely as “human.” We all have the same drives, desires, and needs – provided that we do not introduce competition where none exists, or favor it above cooperation and group advancement, we can function as a species, which is much better than functioning as tiny tribes. But it does take the realization that we’re not perfectly designed in a carefully controlled world, and our improvements rely on our conscious decisions to be better.