May nothing evil cross this door.
Too Late! – This place is full of people.
What an insult you say.
What a mundane observation I say.
Now I do not intend to bore you with a tedious lecture on the evils of humanity, but I do wish to raise a voice against our romantic tendency to saccharin sweet mutual praise. I also wish to delve into some of the lights that can guide us to virtue and realism.
Let’s start with some of the points from the readings we heard from Maggie and Ross.
We are life – we acquire and channel energy through time. We are animals – we exploit other living things to acquire the energy we need. We are desirous – we are naturally driven to sustain ourselves.
We have rationality – we imagine the future, both immediate and longer term, and make behavioral judgments. We assign value to our behaviors – we do good and we do evil.
And so, what is the point of assigning value to our behaviors? The assignment of value to a behavior helps us fit that behavior into our imagined future. If we desire (there’s that word again) what we think will occur in the future from a certain behavior, we encourage it. But how do we come to assign a certain value to a certain behavior? Ah now we are to a crux – morality.
Living things have learned – or better stated, surviving lifeforms have learned, that the future is dramatically influenced by other living things. As energy channelers, living things are also world shapers. This is true throughout the web of life. World shapers that help create a future world more helpful to their on-going existence will tend to thrive. The behavior of other world shapers – that is other living things, may be helpful or hurtful, and thus may be worthy of promotion or obstruction from the point of view of any particular living thing. The relationship of any living thing with the environment which sustains it, almost always must account for the behavior of other living things in that environment. Other living things will help shape the future world in which you will survive or perish, so you better know how they behave, and you better promote helpful behavior and obstruct harmful behavior.
So how do living things know about the behavior of other living things, and how do they promote or obstruct the behavior of other living things? Well we are all familiar with many examples – flowers attract bees, algae produce toxins when threatened by a predator, species mate with their own kind, and humans seek to eliminate disease pathogens while promoting the growth of food crops. From the perspective of the bee and flower, their relevant behaviors are as morally right as the conquest of polio. From the perspective of the polio virus, the greatest of evils has occurred.
Well, many will say, the earth is a garden given onto us, (the us herein being humans). They will say that all of nature is available to fill our needs. Aside from the theological assertion of humans being given nature by something out-side of nature, that statement holds true – if it is not limited to humans. All living things look to nature, to the world they live in, to supply their needs. For any living thing, successfully exploiting nature, including other living things, is a moral good if persistence into the future is the desire being fulfilled. And persistence into the future is the base hallmark of all living things.
The real questions relating to good and evil is in the behaviors arising in the course of exploiting nature. A basic rule for any useful behavior in a living thing is that it must be efficacious – it must produce the desired result. There is a rule in physics called the Rule of Least Action. It holds that systems, including living systems, will develop over time in a way which requires the least energy to produce the outcome. For living things channeling energy, dissipating energy unnecessarily is very unwise. We can see energy efficiency in many living things – indeed an entire scientific discipline exists which attempts to ferret out the energy efficiencies in nature.
But notice two terms in that basic rule – useful and desired. Obviously, the concept of useful is highly parochial – it is narrowly focused on that which is useful to that particular living thing – be it a polio virus or a Nobel laureate. Last week Rev. Deni admiringly told us of a greeting and response developed among the fierce Masai warriors of Africa. Greeting – “And how are the children?” Response – “All the children are well.” Of course maybe all the children, meaning all the Masai children, are well because the fierce Masai warriors had slaughtered all the people, including the children, of a competing tribe. Useful is as useful does. Context and perspective mean a great deal.
The concept of desire is just shorthand for motivated behavior. Behave a certain way and the future includes you – you persist in time. Behave another way and the future does not include you – you die. Consciousness is not needed for desire, just options – some available courses of action includes a future with you participating, and some don’t. The habit which promotes the “future includes me” course will quickly arise and persist.
Now I have used the term exploit in various forms a couple times. That term carries a connotation of unfairness in our modern parlance. I am attaching no moral judgment to the term, no sense of fairness or unfairness. Exploit here means simply to make use of. Of course, a great deal of “making use of” in nature is fair or unfair, good or evil, depending on context and perspective.
So what efficacious behaviors in living things implicate morality? How do we get from co-operating flowers and bees and wasp larvae consuming living ants’ innerds on the on hand, to Mother Theresa and Auschwitz on the other? Is it as simple as falling from an angelic nature through consuming the forbidden fruit which bestowed the knowledge of good and evil? Is it so unfathomable that Socrates was correct to boast that he knew he knew nothing? Neither – humankind has come a very long way, and may yet be a blessing for creation.
So let’s start with humans exploiting – that is making use of – the world they live in to fulfill their desires. As a general concept, there is nothing uniquely human in that – all living things do it. We start to move toward the concept of morality when living things start to contemplate the expected behavior of other living things into their planning. Planning in this sense can be as simple as instinctual night-time hunting to avoid day-time predators. The point is that behavior is motivated, in part, by the moving target of the behavior of others. The dance of predator and prey is the obvious, and ubiquitous, example.
We humans most certainly have lived and organized our lives in an intense predator/prey paradigm for most of our existence as a species. Our future may include nutrition supplied without killing animals, like the food replicator on Star Trek. It is hard to fathom the implications of this for our tendencies to ferocity and dominance. And what of other material needs being satisfied through our technologies? It has been observed that a modern middle class person lives as well as an ancient noble with 500 servants. Will we need each other as we have heretofore? In such a world, what will be noble?
But for now our struggle remains with good and evil. All living things are discoverers – they have discovered that among the elements available to them in their world are other living things whose efforts to fulfill the discoveree’s desires are helpful or hurtful to the discoverer. At a basic level, this no greater or lesser a discovery than finding a needed water molecule or avoiding radiation. But that helpful or hurtful discovered living thing, the discoveree, is a moving target. It has desires dictating its behavior in ways that may eliminate or enhance its usefulness or harmfulness to the discoverer. At some point pretty far down in life’s complexity, exploitation or obstruction of the discoveree requires adaptation by both the discoverer and the discoveree in a dance of life. It is easy to follow this all the way up to human society – which is just our adaptations to the moving targets of the living world – particularly, but not exclusively, our fellow humans. Our societies, cultures, and concepts of good and evil are adaptations in a dance of life.
So what specific human adaptations in this dance of life are relevant to good and evil?
First of all is agency – to a great degree, we can and do decide our behaviors. We do not punish a newborn for disturbing our sleep, and we do not convict the criminally insane, because they lack agency in choosing the behavior in question.
Second is discernment – we can tell what is going on most of the time, and we are embarrassed or resentful it when we are mistaken or deceived.
Third is sympathy and empathy – our predilection to include knowledge of another’s distress or joy in our view of the world.
Fourth is kinship, both biological and fictive – Jesus instructed his followers to substitute his band for their biological families to promote his teachings.
Fifth is hierarchy and authority – we seek leaders and instruction because it aids our coping with our demanding world. Very young children quickly learn social norms, and we know a psychopath by his or her indifference to social norms.
So let’s unpack these ideas a bit more. First – let’s harken again to Socrates. When his friends despaired his coming death he is said to have counseled them as follows: “You must search for him in company with one another too, for perhaps you wouldn’t find anyone more able to do this than yourselves.” You are each a philosopher – and a servant – and a warrior – and a lover – and a beast – and all else you can imagine. Glory in all you can be, and be wise enough to fear it. It can be rewarding to contemplate why intelligence arose in the universe – perhaps our intelligent descendants – likely not biological – will direct the forces of nature to preserve this universe – perhaps such has happened many times before. Someday someone will know, or not. But our agency makes such a wild speculation just a bit short of insane.
We know and measure things. We imagine structures in which all we discern is placed. We despair when something “makes no sense,” and we struggle to find a place for it, even to the point of imagining a new construct within our world. We are content when our imagined world comports with our discerned world. Those who are widely traveled and who are broadly educated find contentment more readily. Your capacities will surprise you if you give them wing.
We apprehend the existence of others, and feel the world more broadly through them. When I rub the belly of my pug dog, Bingley, I feel much more than my own self, and I’m confident the same is true for her. Communion is profound, but true communion makes us vulnerable. We strive to make the world safe for vulnerability so we can go beyond ourselves – to be less guarded and self-protective. A large part of that striving is figuring out danger and avoiding it. And if the agency of that danger – whether danger for ourselves or danger for that and those with which and with whom we seek communion – is a human capable of not imposing the danger – then we have found evil.
Some communion is readily at hand, and some requires traveling the world, in body or in spirit. We venture on familiar pathways to the love and embrace of family, friends, and compatible people. We have favorite places, phenomena, animals, stimulations, foods, music, you name it. We appreciate that the same is true to one degree or another for all sentient beings. Our cultures can be viewed as constructs making those pathways obvious and available. Of course, one of those pathways is religious communities. But you may be surprised to learn – or maybe not since we are Unitarian Universalists – that recent studies of goodness and religion have found that the greatest correlation with goodness lies not in a particular belief system, but rather in attendance to a religious community. We are better people when we address our need to be better.
But what does being better mean? Unless you are a psychopath, look to yourself. You have internalized the norms of your culture from early childhood. You knew fair from unfair starting at about 12 months old. Many of your animal cousins know right from wrong, and are perturbed by wrong. You have been guided through dilemmas and sorrows by thoughtful and loving others, and will be anew over and over. Avoiding evil and doing good really isn’t that demanding in the materially easy world we are blessed with. The question of goodness is the question of what promotes gratifying communion for you and for the rest of creation. You know a great deal about this, and you are constantly learning more. Look without, and learn good. Look within, and be good.
You must search for him in company with one another too, for perhaps you wouldn’t find anyone more able to do this than yourselves.