Let me get straight to the point: there is little point in being good. It can be observed that the person who spends their life working for various forms of social justice, helping others or being a generally all round good egg lives the same life (and receives the same death) as the habitual criminal, the parasite and the fool. It may be that the second type of person actually lives a better life than the first. Indeed, this has been observed many times before. I, personally, as one example, am aware of this very thought in the biblical book of Ecclesiastes. It’s just one reason given there for why life is “futile” or absurd. The book makes no attempt to say that this idea isn’t true. It even ends by saying, in so many words, “but obey god and keep his commandments anyway”. I wonder, then, if you accept the premise and the conclusion that I take from it? There is little point in being good.
Examine yourself honestly and you will see that each one of us, every day, commits some act, positive or of omission, that is in some sense immoral, self-serving or unprincipled. We rationalize it and explain it away as small or inconsequential but each one acts as a chip in a pane of glass. That pane of glass is us, our character. It matters not how small the chips are. If left for long enough such chips will shatter and destroy the whole pane of glass much as they do in a car’s windscreen. Who of us can stand up and say we are flawless panes of glass? Surely, we all know that we are at least many times chipped?
And so such thoughts lead me to think about morality as a whole. Such a problem was morality for some (I mean here Nietzsche) that for them nothing less than a complete “revaluation of all values” was required. This is far-reaching stuff. Our societies are meant to operate on moral lines but does anyone actually believe this ludicrous notion? We could all, I am sure, roll off lists of immoralities committed daily from the trivial to the criminal to the horrific. There seems a somewhat disingenuous relationship with morality on offer within human societies and cultures. It’s never pure and thus always (often considerably) flawed. Humanity as the flawed species could very much be our defining characteristic.
But what is morality anyway and why, so we are told, is it so good to be good? Morality is more than the behaviour patterns or social codes we witness in animals. Morality is not an autonomic response like breathing or having a heart that beats without thinking about it. We, although we are definitely still animal, are the only animal that gives, and can give, reasons for things. Morality is making choices for principled reasons and acting upon those reasons. We do this because we can do this, because we developed in ways that made this possible. And, thus, I can’t help thinking that there is something about morality and a moral way of thinking that is intended, somehow, to grease our evolutionary wheels. But is an evolutionary impetus itself moral? I would say not.
What is clear to me is that morality can only ever be a social thing. Just as there can be no private language so can there also never be a private morality. Morality is, as Nietzsche called it, a thing of the herd, a matter of nodes in the context of a network. It is not a matter negotiated individually - even though individuals can make choices to ignore, change or influence it. Morality applies to everyone or it applies to no one and begins to break down. A morality is stronger the more people accept it and increasingly useless the less people do. If it is true that this moral impulse is an evolutionary one, and that that impulse is thus itself contingent upon our evolution which is not itself at all moral, then where does this lead us?
For some it leads us into human exceptionalism, the idea that we are, somehow, in ways not always well explained, over and above the rest of the life that has come to be on our planet. But it is not clear to me why an increasing brain function and the ability to instrumentalize and put to use the things around us, that which Stanley Kubrick in his seminal film 2001: A Space Odyssey indicated by the apes learning to use bones as weapons, means that we are now, somehow, set in some kind of (usually benevolent) opposition to the rest of our environment. This is the mentality which claims that we are now (presumably self-appointed) guardians of our planet as opposed to merely contingent forms of life gaining our perilous and almost certainly temporary existence from it.
I wonder, though, what grounds human exceptionalists really have for claiming their exceptionalism for our species? I wonder too, if the animals could talk, if they would want a species around that pollutes, rapes, pillages and generally devours the rest of this world’s resources as we do. Rather than the guardians are we not actually the destroyers? Rather than the saviours are we not merely, at the very best, those seeking to try and save ourselves from the immorality of our past and present? Humans seem very exceptional in every bad way you can think of. Do other species murder, rape, kill and make war? Do other species do down their own for merely financial gain? It may be that analogues can be found for these in more animalistic terms but surely ours are the most “exceptional”? It seems to me that we are just like animals but ones with more brain power and so with more capacity to actualise and instantiate our animalistic urges in cleverer ways. And this is, in fact, exactly what we are.
So whilst it may be said that human beings have developed an evolutionary taste for the moral it cannot be said that they are themselves the best example of morality. All those chipped panes of glass can be seen as a large glass tower, the edifice of a shattered humanity’s morality. But, as yet, neither have we answered the question “Why is it good to be good?” In specifics, of course, there is the kick that one gets from a good deed done and seeing the gratefulness of the recipient of the deed. But, if we are being honest, we can also say we have got a kick from doing bad too. Does anyone not know what it feels like to “get one over” on someone or to profit at another’s expense? We may have a need to be moral but we have an inability to follow through on it consistently and, as I began by showing, the actual pay off for us in terms of our own lives is dubious at best anyway.
So what do we have left? A world of actions and consequences, the world our mothers forced us into with their painful contractions. We should have taken a warning from such an entry that the world was going to be a messy, painful place. A place of actions and consequences. In the end, that’s all there is, and that’s what you have to negotiate on your way to the death we all alike face. Actions and consequences. You may want to try and codify how to do that and respond overtly to your evolutionary moral impulse but it won’t really matter for you will be very humanistically flawed in your consistency regarding it anyway. You will, just like the rest of us, take ad-hoc decisions with little discernible consistency at all. You may call yourself moral but, in the end, is morality anymore than rhetoric anyway, just one more tale about how to be a good human?
Actions and consequences.
This is another article from my recent project "Mind Games". You can download the music and articles I wrote for this HERE!