(This is the first installment of an essay that will be posted in three parts. It’s been divided for readability. Those interested in looking at the whole piece will find it as a “page” with the same title in the sidebar to the right below the books.)
Morality, like language, is a living thing. And like all living things it evolves. The changes that occur in that evolution will be deep or superficial, rapid or slow, depending on variables that influence the process. One of those variables, similar to a grammar scheme for a language, is codification and its rational justification.
In both language and morality, the influence of codification is artificial, unnatural, imposed from without on a living process by a relatively arbitrary rationalization. It is a theoretical construct designed, after the fact, to make it all “make sense;” the overall intent is to insure that things do not change.
But change breaks through those barriers as it must because morality evolves, and it results in an irreconcilable antinomy between practice and theory. New behavior no longer “makes sense” by the accepted standards and tends to be considered immoral. The following essay is an attempt to elucidate the traditional rational ground that once justified our western “Judaeo-Christian” moral inheritance and guaranteed its immutability. I want to understand why it no longer makes sense and ask how we should respond.
Hopefully, understanding the living process of moral evolution will make it possible for us to integrate with it as creative and responsible participants.
In a universe constructed by “Spirit,” reality is the product of “Mind” and rationality is the key to understanding it. What things do is determined by what they are, and what things are was conceived in advance by the “Mind” that designed and gave them their “purpose.” So by knowing what something was — how it was structured — one could discern its purpose and how it should act. The procedure for arriving at conclusions about human morality — how we should act — was, broadly speaking, deductive; it is what the philosophers call a priori: you reason from a known prior premise (human nature) to a posterior conclusion (right human behavior).
In a universe constructed by matter, on the other hand, reality is the result of the trial and error meanderings of an irrepressible energy to exist. What things are is determined by what has been able to survive by interacting successfully with its material environment. In a material universe the survival activity of entities determines their structure, not the other way around. Matter has only one goal and therefore there is only one “purpose” common to all things: to exist. Unlike a universe of spirit, what things are (their nature) is determined by what they do that works. By examining the way something survives, therefore, one is able to determine why it developed the structure that it has. And that structure has no other purpose than to serve as a platform for the continuation of the behavior that works. The method of discerning the relationship between nature and action in this case is inductive … and the procedures are called a posteriori: human behavior shaped and therefore explains the human body and mind and the communities that sustain them.
The “purpose” of existence is to exist — to survive. The natural selection that produced living things of all kinds was driven exclusively by their ability to exist. Once human beings came along, however, the game changed. The emergence of language in community required larger brain power. Humankind’s imagination, exponentially expanded over that of other animals and colletively employed, became its principal tool of survival. Humans understand the sequential nature of time; they can anticipate future events and make plans together accordingly. Hence “purpose” became the key to human behavior and explains the phenomenal success of the species which now dominates the planet. With humans purpose was introduced into the universe for the first time.
Purpose is natural to human behavior, so it is natural that humans would project purpose onto the the very process of evolutionary emergence itself. In the West we have traditionally believed a “Mind” like ours made everything, and like our minds it did what it did for a purpose.
We have learned, however, that what made everything was not “Mind” but rather an irrepressible energy to exist, esse. What evolved from esse was a function of esse; by surviving, it would slowly develop those structures that would allow it to do what was necessary to continue to be-here, to survive.
This means that it was human behavior in society that slowly sculpted the hominid body and its psychic characteristics out of the granite potential of our simian ancestors; it was not the other way around. Human social behavior is morality; hence we say that it was our moral choices beginning in the distant past that shaped what we are. Humans are moral beings because they decided long ago that for human society to survive, sustain its individual members and thrive, “moral” behavior was demanded. Our life in society made us “human.”
This was not an instantaneous process. These constructions have taken place over eons of geologic time and they are obviously still a work in progress. The first species of homo, homo erectus, a direct ancestor of homo sapiens, emerged from the australopithecines 2.4 million years ago and human behavior in society has been evolving ever since, refining itself by prioritizing the choices that work to protect and enhance human-life-in-society. Our body and mind was given its current size, shape, physical features and psychic predispositions by that process. Many of our special characteristics, like the physical forms of our genders and our sense of the sacred come from there. Everything we are is a combination of our organic inheritance and human choice in society.
The “selections” made in this regard were not exclusively empathic. The absence of any subspecies of homo other than ours suggests that our brains were originally xenophobic — programmed for the visceral rejection of others, hominid or not, that did not share our identity. It was the way we survived; it worked for us and so xenophobia was “selected.” It’s no surprise, then, that beginning in the 16th century these same brains slaughtered, brutalized, enslaved, and exploited dark-skinned “heathen”peoples all over the globe creating inequities that are with us still; it confirms the survival etiology of our organic structures. If our morality now condemns such practices, it is because they are no longer seen as conducive to collective survival; but in the 1500’s no amount of “deduction from Natural Law” or Catholic belief and practice had any deterrent effect on the baptized “conquerors” of New Spain and the colonizers that came after them. Even after the issue was publicly debated by Catholic theologians before Phillip II in the 1540’s, the practice of encomienda, “christianizing slavery,” was upheld as “moral.” So much for the rational deduction of morality from the principles of natural law.
Morality is what works for us
I am talking about the fundamental direction that development takes in a material universe; development does not come rationally reasoned from the top down, it goes non-rationally from the bottom up. What works, survives, whether it makes sense or not; that’s how things evolve. And the structural variations that work better will endure and eventually displace the others leaving a trail of what may appear to be rationally designed modifications.
I am trying to enunciate the general principles of organic construction and therefore a way of understanding the character of the entities that have evolved in our universe of matter, and that includes us. Evolution explains reality at all times and at all levels of development. It is as true for us today as it was 2.4 million years ago. Behavior that guarantees survival determines genetics; and genetics establishes the parameters of potential future behavior — in the case of humans, it determines the possible moral choices in the struggles of societal survival still to come. While there is always a mutual causality between choice and genetics, successful survival behavior remains the heuristic priority. That means that purpose and choice, albeit highly conditioned and certainly not in the short run, guide the process.
A moral code is the pragmatic result of human beings “muddling through” life-in-society and, over time, deciding together what works and what doesn’t work. The biblical code that we inherited — do not kill, do not steal, do not covet your neighbors wife or goods, do not lie, respect your parents — was the result of that same process of trial and error coming to conclusions of increasing consensus among the individuals of our social /cultural continuum. The “ten” commandments were a compendium of what was working when Exodus was redacted in the 6th century bce. “God” did not promulgate them. “God” was called on to justify and sacralize the existing social order and its self-understanding. And it is important to emphasize, “religion,” the fear and exclusive worship of the tribe’s “gods,” was an integral part of it. It should not surprise us that it still is. In the ancient past we survived by clan and tribe; we are predisposed to protect and advance them. Universalism is the growing effect of gloablization, not its cause.
Morality is not a matter of rational principles inferred by analyzing “human nature” and determining its “purpose.” There is no “natural law,” and the only purpose of human life, as for all life, is to exist. How existence can be achieved and enhanced for all in the huge complex societies that we have developed to protect ourselves from the elements and from the natural selfishness common to all organisms, is our morality. It is a human project. Morality is what we have decided is the “right” way to live, and as time goes by our organisms are shaped by our decisions. If human survival has moved from tribe to global civilization, our bodies and instincts as yet have not. In time they will.
Parenthetically: just as there is no “natural law” embedded in human nature by a rational “God” that must be obeyed, so too there is no “natural law” of the jungle implanted by evolution to which we must surrender. I am not calling for a Nietzschean return to primal forces — the substitution of one “natural law” for another. I am saying there is no natural “law” of any kind; we create the law we want to live by and, in the long run, we create ourselves.
We are organically conditioned by the past choices our species has made, but only relatively. Selected predispositions like xenophobia that served survival in the past will become meaningless in time because as our collectivities expand and overlap the “tribe” will become all-inclusive. We already see that process under way. If the growing global vision of ethnic inclusiveness survives, in time the organic substrate will catch up and xenophobia will be “de-selected.” It will take a very long time, but it will happen.
Morality is only secondarily what we should do, primarily it is who we want to be, and tribal religion has, up to now, always been the principal tool for articulating and implementing it. It seems likely that that will also change and I believe we are seeing it beginning right before our eyes: tribal religion is being replaced by a universal vision of right behavior. This evolving process holds true in all areas. We can also anticipate a change in the secondary sex characteristics of the human genders; if present trends are any indication of what the future holds, la différence will eventually disappear. As they did in the past, over time our choices will shape our bodies and our minds. That’s the way things work in a material universe.