Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Did Love Have to do with It? How We Left the State of Nature.

The contemporary American philosopher, John Searle likes to say that what differentiates humans from animals is that humans act on “desire-independent reasons”  This is basically a reframing of the eighteenth century German philosopher Immanual Kant’s idea of the categorical imperative.  Which is to say that we each follow moral rules because we believe that everyone, including ourselves, ought to follow them, even if these rules constrain the pursuit of our own interests.  And, in fact, we judge excuses for immoral behaviour based on self-interest as egregious and self-evidently invalid.

In this sense, no wild animal has a moral system, because no wild animal knowingly acts against its own interests, nor would most of us judge any animal in the same way we judge humans.

 That we expect everyone else to follow the same moral rules shows that this is actually a form of agreement.  I agree to act morally, because everyone else agrees as well.  If one, or a few people break moral rules, we punish them, but, if enough people break a moral rule enough times, we may come to assume that this agreement no longer exists.

A big  part of what it is to be human is to grow up and be socialized into human society where we commit ourselves to following moral rules.  We can choose not to follow these rules, but to do so invites conflict, incarceration, or worse.  The whole system works well, as long as the vast majority follow the rules and rule-breakers are caught and punished.  

We can call it an agreement because we have a choice, but it is a choice of whether or not each one of us wants to remain in human society.   The ultimate reason why the overwhelming majority of us respect and follow the reigning moral rules is because we do not want to be excluded.  

Everywhere we look there are rules of conduct.  Some are not considered moral rules, but are considered conventions, like driving on one side of the road only, or keeping your dog on a leash. Compared to moral rules, It is much more likely that we will violate these conventional rules if it is in our interest to do so.

Moral rules are different because they carry weight.  We cannot help being emotionally involved in them if someone has broken them.  When people try to justify why moral rules are there, they usually bring in the big guns like “God” or some version of “objective knowledge” because of this weight.  The stronger the suspense, the more we search for explanatory bedrock.  

The weight of morality comes from the strength of  our desire to be part of the group and our fear of being excluded by the group, as well as our rejection of those who undermine or threaten the group.    Our strongest feelings center on our powerful attachments to others. Anything that threatens these attachments threatens our identity. Human existence is a constant tension between being alone and separate from others and being  a part of something larger.  Love, death, and boundaries -  these issues are involved in everything we do.

   I’m interested in how these rules reflect human nature.   Why did we agree to abide by moral rules when no other group of animals have?    No doubt there is a legend or myth about this and it might go something like this:     

In the state of nature, long before we domesticated plants and animals,  the biggest, strongest, toughest, and meanest guy around ruled the roost.  As long as everyone else submitted, he kept the peace.  But one day someone invented the stone knife and he shared his knowledge with others.  Soon everyone had to have one.  They worked great for cutting up meat, but soon people found out that they were also great weapons, and they let people who were not so big and strong kill the stronger in his sleep.  Since females were monopolized by the most dominant male, this meant that killing the alpha male led to better access to females, and so many were tempted, and many succeeded.  

This degenerated into a war of all against all, as the alpha could no longer stand his ground, nor keep the peace.  It was no longer possible to keep a harem of females, if one was besieged by knife wielding men with elevated testosterone levels.

People tried different solutions, but in the end only one solution worked.  Luckily it was a simple solution, which involved every adult male pairing up with an adult female.  No more monopolizing females, no more harems.  This got rid of a major source of conflict.  But,  it could only work if the entire group committed to preventing another alpha male from emerging from within the group and taking over, and this required constant vigilance and the obligation to punish and exclude rule-breakers.  Groups that failed to do this ended up going back to the war of all against all.
Thus, the collective enforcement of monogamy had the revolutionary effect of levelling  the social hierarchy  in stone age society.  Once monogamy was established the group was more likely to grow bigger and survive, where, groups with an alpha male would be smaller and have less resilience.

There is no doubt that the situation became much less egalitarian once humans had learned how to domesticate plants and animals, and could thereby gain a surplus.  But, to this day, small nomadic hunter-gatherer groups, the kind of people who most resemble our stone age ancestors, will not tolerate public aggression or bullying in their societies and rule breakers can be dealt with severely, sometimes by execution.

So, what about the state of nature?  Monogamy is actually rare in apes.  Gibbons are monogamous, but they do not live in larger groups than a nuclear family.  It is hard to see how apes who live in groups could ever be monogamous, because they are far too promiscuous.  Bonobos, another type of ape, which are very closely related to Chimpanzees, are female dominant, and they have  managed to get rid of the alpha male entirely, but they are probably the most promiscuous animal in the world. Humans, on the other hand, have rules about sexual behaviour, lots and lots of rules.

But why should we have moral rules about sexual behaviour?  Why can’t moral rules just be about avoiding harming others?  No matter how liberated we are, it always seems as if some party-pooper comes along and condemns certain kinds of sexual behaviour.   They will often resist changes in skirt length, insist on prohibiting women wearing pants,  or worse, insist that women wear clothing that covers everything including their face.   To them, it is not at all a matter of convention, it is a moral issue.  But to most of us in modern democratic society, what a women wants to wear should be up to her.  

This illustrates, for some,  the uncomfortable fact that moral standards differ from one society to another.  Some believe that one moral system, presumably revealed by God to a certain special person, is the only legitimate moral system, and all the rest are imposters.  This kind of belief usually does not end well.

All the rest of us have to put up with the fact that there is not one objective set of moral rules, but many competing sets, with competing theories to justify them. This has given a lot of philosophers sleepless nights, worrying about “moral relativism”.   

But why is sexual behaviour so central to morality in the first place?  For instance,  I think that most of us would agree that sex with minors is wrong, that rape is wrong,  that incest is wrong, that uncovering our genitals in public is wrong,  that adultery is wrong, and that the sex act in public is wrong.   Although groups, such as nudists, and Fundamentalist Mormons might  dispute this, the existence of these minorities does not  undermine  morality in general.

The question is, why do these prohibitions around sex garner nearly universal agreement? My answer is not going to satisfy everyone, especially not moral philosophers, but I think if we stop to consider it, it will make sense of a lot of disparate information.  Limits on sexual behaviour are universal in all moral systems, because the kinds of behaviours that are prohibited tend to severely undermine social stability, putting the group at greater risk.

We can safely assume that no human society can exist for long without a moral system in place because we can find no counter-examples.  If limits on sexual behaviour exist in all societies, you can bet that any particular society that got rid of too many of these limits would find itself in deep trouble, and would eventually fail.  Why is this so?  

Let’s go back to the state of nature for a moment.  Do apes who live in groups have any of these limits?   For bonobos, chimps, and gorillas, sex is fine out in the open, but for chimps and gorillas it’s not OK for subdominant males to openly mate with fertile females.  Bonobos get away with sexual freedom because they’ve gotten rid of male dominance altogether, but they actually use sex to reduce conflict, pretty much all the time.  This is a unique solution that would not work for humans because we still have male dominance.  The fact is, for humans, disputes about sex are often disputes about dominance, and this kind of dispute has a tendency to be very disruptive and can easily get out of hand.   

Our solution, is not to get rid of dominance, but to put collective controls on it, to make it rule-governed.  That is, we imposed a set of rules that override the pre-existing dominance hierarchy system.  That is why we differ from animals.

By agreeing to put social controls on male dominance, our stone-age ancestors created the first moral system.  Unlike animals that live in groups that are self-organized according to a dominance hierarchy system, humans purposefully overrode this system by agreeing to prohibit certain kinds of behaviour.  

Rules apply to everyone included in a group or to everyone that fits a specific category. The “rule” in animal societies is: bigger and stronger dominates the weaker.  This “rule” affords social stability, it is nature’s “moral system”.  And I put this in scare quotes, because it isn’t a real moral system, but more like a condition that every animal accepts, and that can only change when one individual challenges and defeats a higher ranking individual. Whereas with humans the rules apply to everyone, even the most dominant.  

As Primatologist, Frans de Waal puts it,  humans were able to divorce sexual competition from all other forms of competition through the introduction of a monogamous system.   This is the origin of “desire-independent reasons”.  It is my thesis that monogamy was the first and simplest rule-governed system;  and,  it forms the template for all subsequent systems of rules, including language.  

So, what is this template?  It is essentially a recurring agreement about the  rules that cover everyone in a group.

In it’s simplest form it is a dichotomy.  The dichotomy between good and bad, right and wrong, black and white.  A dichotomy is a way of separating or excluding one thing from another.  In morality, rules are set out to define the group and exclude moral outsiders.  We each agree to this dichotomy because we want to be part of the group and we want to exclude those who don’t play by the rules.

The amazing thing about human society is that there are so many different overlapping kinds of rules.  Hence the need, nowadays, to go beyond black and white to all kinds of greys and colours.  

Rules are so omnipresent in human society that we simply take them for granted.  They form the tacit, unfocused background to our activities until we inadvertently violate one, or come against some legal or social barrier.

I maintain that all rules are derived from the first moral rules.  Rules that divided outsiders from insiders, rules meant to protect the group. All moral force, all normativity derives from the inherent social and psychological tension between being included or being excluded.

 No wonder our adolescence can be so fraught with anxiety.  Adolescence is when we learn whether to go or to stay, and what it feels like to be part of the group versus what it feels like to be excluded.  
A wonderful illustration of this dichotomy is the myth of the Garden of Eden.   The forbidden fruit is from the tree of knowledge of good and evil.   Once Adam and Eve eat of this forbidden fruit they both feel ashamed, because they realize that it is wrong to be naked in public.  So, they cover themselves and hide. But then, God recognizes the significance of their decision and expels them from the garden.

Humans left the state of nature  when they chose to follow moral rules and exclude those who didn’t. This is why we are more than just animals.  And God’s forcing Adam and Eve to leave the garden reflects our own moral exclusion of rule-breakers.   This is not original sin, this is what makes us human.   

It seems to me that the author of the book of genesis got right to the essence of human nature in this masterful myth of origin.  Just as the evidence of evolution is all around us if we would only see, the evidence of our moral origins in the social contract, exists in the infinite number and variety of rules in human society.  

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