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An Argument In Favor Of Upgrading Our Moral Systems

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Posted by Paul R. Martin on March 24, 2002 22:14:13 UTC

Hi Mike,

I agree with the thesis of your thoughtful post that our traditional systems of morality need to be upgraded. It is my contention that our present moral systems, including the religious institutions which claim ownership of them, are the result of mankind's long struggle to avert starvation. Now that that problem has been solved, it is time to institute a replacement moral system that addresses the next most serious problem we face as a species. That problem is no longer a shortage of food, but man's inhumanity to man.

It so happens that I recently wrote my ideas on this subject as part of a response to a friend who asked me to comment on George Santayana's essay titled "Intuitive Morality". Since I have already done that work, I will include it here for those who might be confused or in doubt about my introductory paragraph:

"His essay also opens up the question of the source of morality. I think we can place the possibilities on a spectrum with the ultimate, supernatural source of God on one extreme. At the other extreme, we would have the deliberate rational conclusions worked out by humans. Somewhere in the middle, maybe a little more toward the "God" end, we would find our consciences. We might see our consciences as a communication of moral precepts coming directly from God. Or we might see our conscience as the net result of experiencing lessons and examples from our earliest childhood.

"As is my wont, I have considered this question from the biggest picture and the highest level of abstraction that I can. Of course, by generalizing to this extreme degree, I usually forfeit all my credibility, but, what the heck. As I said, this is what I am wont to do, so here goes.

"As I see it, for some 4 billion years, humans and their predecessors have all been engaged in a struggle to find food, water, and protection. By count, most organisms have probably died for lack of food.

"Some 100,000 years ago, humans made a major leap in their strategy of finding enough food to eat. In fact, they developed two different strategies: the domestication of plants and the domestication of animals. These two different strategies have always been at odds, fostering "range wars" in more recent times, and fostering the perpetual conflicts between "barbarians" and "civilization" for most of the past 5,000 years. The latter ended only after the widespread "civilized" use of firearms around AD 1500.

"This era came to a close in our time -- I peg the year at 1948 for various reasons. Since 1948, humans have consistently produced much more food than we can eat, and the demographics have changed from virtually all people being engaged in food production, to now something less than 3% of the U.S. population produces food and they have a hard time making a living at it.

"Now, against this backdrop, let me tell you how I see morality and ethics. In those 100,000 years, people were no doubt endowed with some kind of conscience, as we seem to be today, from whatever source. Starting with some vague ideas about how to behave, codes of ethics and morality were developed. Some of these worked better than others in helping societies produce food, so by a process of natural selection, those codes that were more successful became better established. And, as we have already discussed, they were probably very disparate.

"For example, the virtues that worked well in a society that depended primarily on animals for food were quite different from the virtues that worked well in a society dependent on domesticated plants. The important virtues for a herdsman would be things like strength, independence, horsemanship skills, courage, and fighting skills. Since they needed to be mobile in order to follow their herds as they ate up all the grass, there would be no virtue in building permanent dwellings, or accumulating goods that weren't easily transportable.

"By contrast, the important virtues for farmers were things like patience, humility, cooperation, honesty, industriousness, organization skills, and large families. There was also virtue in being able to make permanent dwellings, cities, mills, irrigation systems, roads, plows, harnesses, and all of the other things that make a farming community work. Bookkeeping, written language, and organized government were also necessary developments.

"And, as history has shown, the virtues developed by the farmers eventually led to the production of the means (firearms and armored cavalry) to subdue and dominate the "barbarians". During this long history of development, these agrarian virtues were codified in the ethical and moral systems of the great religions.

"But...since 1948, all of that is undergoing a great and monumental change. The way I see it is that after working on the basic problem common to all of life, we finally solved it. Not only can we produce more than enough food, we are no longer threatened to a significant degree by wild animals, weather, disease, or the other major causes of survival problems of the past. Our survival problems are now largely all caused, as Pogo observed, by us.

"At this point in the biggest picture of history, we need to turn our efforts from the gigantic problem of food production that occupied us for 100,000 years, and turn it toward the problem of "man's inhumanity to man", our current biggest problem. It seems to me that this is a much easier problem by comparison. It is simply a matter of getting each person to realize that we need no longer compete against one another to get food or to acquire assets or things that will guarantee a food supply, and instead to work together with others to see to it that people who are in need are attended to.

"I know that is easier said than done. I am just asking you to compare, at a high abstract level, the two problems: 1) of inventing all the complexities of society that were necessary to reach this level of mechanized and artificially fertilized farming, and 2) learning to cooperate with one another in order to help each other. I am sure the second problem won't take us 100,000 years to solve.

"As with all other human development, I think this changeover will happen naturally without any particular leadership or overt attempt at changing. We will have people and organizations who will seem to deserve credit for instituting or facilitating change, but I really don't think they will be instrumental. Just as in the case of abolishing slavery, I am convinced that much less credit is due to the abolitionists, the moralists, the writers, and other "do-gooders" than is due to the people who invented and developed the steam engine and the cotton gin. When slavery became uneconomical, it was abolished. It couldn't have been done earlier. When competition for food and wealth become unnecessary, we will stop competing. And we won't necessarily need to know we are stopping.

"I am optimistic that in the natural course of events, we will quit having wars, quit putting our best minds to work at building and acquiring wealth, and turn our major efforts toward alleviating human suffering. Of course we will give credit to certain leaders or thinkers when the changeover happens, but that will be incidental.

"Sorry to have run off at the mouth like this, but it gives you some idea of how thought-provoking I found Santayana's essay to be."

Warm regards,


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