Evolutionary Pragmatist Ethics

Philosophy - 1 a. Love and pursuit of wisdom by intellectual means and moral self-discipline. b. The investigation of causes and laws underlying reality. c. A system of philosophical inquiry or demonstration. 2. Inquiry into the nature of things based on logical reasoning rather than empirical methods. 3. The critique and analysis of fundamental beliefs as they come to be conceptualized and formulated. 7. The science comprising logic, ethics, aesthetics, metaphysics, and epistemology. 10. The system of values by which one lives: a philosophy of life."(1)

Ethic - 1. the discipline of dealing with what is good and bad, and with moral duty and obligation. 2. a set of moral principles or values; the principles of conduct governing an individual or group."

Principle - 1. a comprehensive and fundamental law, doctrine or assumption; fundamental truth as a basis for reasoning. 2. a primary source. 3. general law as a guide to action; personal code of right conduct."

Moral - concerned with the goodness or badness of character or disposition, or with the distinction between right and wrong; dealing with regulation of conduct; concerned with the rules of morality; founded on moral law; capable of moral action.

Remember that series of moral sentiments that I introduced in the Introduction to Ethics?  Here they are again -

"Thou shalt not kill!  (Or cheat, or lie, or steal, or commit adultery, etc.)"
"Abortion is wrong!"  or  "Women should have the right to choose!"
"Racial (or sexual, or political, or religious) discrimination is unacceptable!"
"Women need to be protected and sheltered!"
"Equal pay for equal work!"
"Free Speech!"  or  "Don't Insult the Prophet Mohammed!"
"Control the Guns!"  or  "The Second Amendment (The Right to Bear Arms)!"
"Obamacare is Great!"  or  "Obamacare should be repealed!"
"The Government should do something!" or "The Government should get out of the way!"
"Gay marriage should (not) be legalized!"
"Marijuana should (not) be legalized!"
"Raise the Minimum Wage!"
"Bullying is deplorable!"
"Who are you going to vote for?  And why?"

It is not germaine at this moment just what your moral judgements are on each of these statememnts.  It is more interesting to inquire into why you have formed the moral judgements you have.  Why did you agree that "bullying is deplorable" (or not, as the case may be)?  Despite the fact that in the series of essays on Different Kinds of Ethics, I have outlined several different systems of ethics talked about in the philosophical literature, the explanation of why you form the moral judgements you do can be summarized into three possible answers:-

1)  You have adopted a particular religion whose various Shamans have taught you that certain moral judgements are preferred to others.

2)  You believe that moral judgemetns are a matter of subjective taste - either individually or collectively.

3)  You believe that there is something outside of yourself, and independent of how you think of things, that render moral judgements either objectively correct or objectively incorrect.

Religion

"Above all, we ought to submit to the Divine authority rather than to our own judgment even though the light of reason may seem to us to suggest, with the utmost clearness and evidence, something opposite."      Rene Descartes(1.1)

I do not intend to bore you here with a polemic against a Religious basis of morals.  Better men than I have made their careers doing that sort of thing.  So I simply recommend for your perusal:

Richard Dawkins
    The Selfish Gene. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 1976. ISBN 0-19-286092-5. 
    The Extended Phenotype. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 1982. ISBN 0-19-288051-9. 
    The Blind Watchmaker. New York: W. W. Norton & Company. 1986. ISBN 0-393-31570-3.
    River Out of Eden. New York: Basic Books. 1995. ISBN 0-465-06990-8.
    Climbing Mount Improbable. New York: W. W. Norton & Company. 1996. ISBN 0-393-31682-3.
    Unweaving the Rainbow. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. 1998. ISBN 0-618-05673-4.
    A Devil's Chaplain. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. 2003. ISBN 0-618-33540-4.
    The Ancestor's Tale. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. 2004. ISBN 0-618-00583-8.
    The God Delusion. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. 2006. ISBN 0-618-68000-4.
    The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution. Free Press (United States), Transworld (United Kingdom and Commonwealth). 2009. ISBN 0-593-06173-X.
    The Magic of Reality: How We Know What's Really True. Free Press (United States), Bantam Press (United Kingdom). 2011. ISBN 978-1-4391-9281-8.

Sam Harris -
    The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason (2004). New York: W. W. Norton & Company. ISBN 0-393-03515-8
    Letter to a Christian Nation (2006). London: Vintage / Random House. ISBN 0-307-26577-3
    The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values (2010). New York: Simon & Schuster Inc. ISBN 978-1-4391-7121-9
    Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion (2014) New York: Simon & Schuster Inc. ISBN 978-1451636017
    Islam and the Future of Tolerance (2015) Harvard: Harvard University Press. ISBN 978-0674088702    

Christopher Hitchens -
    The Portable Atheist: Essential Readings for the Non-Believer, [Editor] Perseus Publishing. (2007) Da Capo Press, Perseus Publishing. ISBN 978-0-306-81608-6
    God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, (2007) Twelve/Hachette Book Group USA/Warner Books, ISBN 0-446-57980-7
    Is Christianity Good for the World?  -- A Debate (co-author, with Douglas Wilson), (2008) New York: Canon Press, ISBN 1-59128-053-2
    Mortality, (2012) New York: Twelve / Hatchett Book Group.  ISBN 1-4555-0275-8

If you still choose to believe that morality is based on Divine Command, then realize that you are accepting a concept of "good" that has nothing to do with your own personal best interests in this life here and now.  You cannot even justify the acceptance of Divine Command morality by appealing to the "good of the Society".  The religious concept of "good" is based on "Good as God sees it" and "Good in the next life:"  And the record of history clearly shows that despite the claims of the devout that "God is Omnibenevolent", the "Good as God sees it" is certainly not even close to the best interests in this life for the people and the societies involved.  Religious morality demands that believers sacrifice their own personal intersts, projects, and well being in this life for the sake of the demands of God, for which they will be rewarded in the next life.  The net result is that in following any religious based morality, you are committed to suicide and possibly genocide - and sometimes not slowly. 

"We have seen, a thousand times, in all parts of our globe, infuriated fanatics slaughtering each other, lighting the funeral piles, committing without scruple, as a matter of duty, the greatest crimes. Why? To maintain or to propagate the impertinent conjectures of enthusiasts, or to sanction the knaveries of imposters on account of a being who exists only in their imagination."  Jean Meslier (1664-1729), a French Catholic priest(1.2)

"Once your faith, sir, persuades you to believe what your intelligence declares to be absurd, beware lest you likewise sacrifice your reason in the conduct of your life. In days gone by, there were people who said to us: 'You believe in incomprehensible, contradictory and impossible things because we have commanded you to; now then, commit unjust acts because we likewise order you to do so.' Nothing could be more convincing. Certainly any one who has the power to make you believe absurdities has the power to make you commit injustices. If you do not use the intelligence with which God endowed your mind to resist believing impossibilities, you will not be able to use the sense of injustice which God planted in your heart to resist a command to do evil. Once a single faculty of your soul has been tyrannized, all the other faculties will submit to the same fate. This has been the cause of all the religious crimes that have flooded the earth."   François-Marie Arouet (1694-1778) aka Volataire(1.3) 

Personal Subjectivism

I have dealt with Subjectivist Ethics more completely in the Introduction to Ethics.

"When we assert that this or that has 'value,' we are giving expression to our own emotions, not to a fact which would still be true if our personal feelings were different." Bertrand Russell(1.4)

"My belief is that if I say something, it goes. I am the law, and if you don't like it, you die. If I don't like you or I don't like what you want me to do, you die."  Eric David Harris (1981–1999), teen gunman in the Columbine High School massacre.(1.5)

The only thing I will add here is that if you believe that morality is simply a matter of personal tastes, then my tastes differ from yours.  Whatever you have in your life that provides you with any guidance in seaking the best life for you and yours in the here and now, you cannot call it "morality" or "ethics".  Because the best life for you and yours in the here and now will not be achieved by following your tastes.  The best life for you and yours in the here and now will be approached only by understanding the Reality within which you operate, and tailoring your actions to achieve the best results possible under the present circumstances.  Wishful thinking and hoping for the best will not suffice for long.

Collective Subjectivism

That morality is a matter of the collective tastes of a society is the possible central ideas of the Social Convention and Social Contract theories of Ethics.  I have discussed the internal flaws of those Ethical theories in the two essays of those names, under the Different Kinds of Ethics.  I should point out that Collective Subjectivism is not the only possible central idea of these theories of ethics.  For each of these theories, the "Deep Genesis" challenge asks where the conventions and contracted agreements come from.  Why these conventions or agreements rather than those?  One possible answer to this Deep Genesis challenge is the idea that the relevant conventions or agreements stem from the collective tastes of the members of the applicable societies.  We'll talk about other possible answers below.

“There’s no court of appeal higher than a democratic consensus.”  Richard Rorty(1.6)

So accepting collective subjectivism is believing that these conventions or agreements are the reflections of the subjective tastes and opinions of the other members of the society.  And the most important consequence of that belief is that your own tastes and opinions are an insignificant contributor to the collective.  Which means that you are adopting a basis for your beliefs about morality that depend upon the tastes and opinions of others, and not yourself.  So you would hold as "good" that which other people believe is "good".  If other people believe that you should sacrifice your own interests, projects and welfare in order to further their interests, projects, and welfare - then you are accepting that this sacrifice is "good".  In other words, you are accepting the morality of Altruism - self-sacrifice and self-denial for the interests of others.  The net result is that in following an Altruistic morality, you are committed to suicide and possibly genocide - and sometimes not slowly.

"Every young American should be taught the joy and the duty of serving, and should learn it at the moment when it will have the most enduring impact on the rest of their lives."   President Bill Clinton(1.7)

"This state of mind, which subordinates the interests of the ego to the conservation of the community, is really the first premise for every truly human culture. . . . The basic attitude from which such activity arises, we call -- to distinguish it from egoism and selfishness --idealism. By this we understand only the individual's capacity to make sacrifices for the community, for his fellow men."  Adolf Hitler(1.8)

The Naturalistic Falacy and the Is-Ought Gap

the term "naturalistic fallacy" was introduced by British philosopher G. E. Moore in his 1903 book Principia Ethica.[1]

Objective Moral Standards

 

 

 

The Highest "Good"

Taking as a starting assumption that Reality is Real, and we can learn about it (The First Axiom), we now have to deal with the information provided by that learning. The information of importance at the moment, is our knowledge of the behaviour of Genes, and the consequences that behaviour has on the processes of Evolution. When it comes to the behaviour of Evolution, and the chemistry of the Genes, there can be no conception of what "Should Be". There is no Ought in the realms of chemical reactions and molecular physics. There is only what IS. We can, therefore, accept what IS for what it is, and use that information to guide the development of a Philosophy. And that is what the third axiom of Evolutionary Pragmatism is all about.

It is The Third Axiom of Evolutionary Pragmatism that the continued survival, and proliferation of our Genes is "A Good Thing".

A lot of people will have strong disagreements with, and take exception to this axiom. But, given the first axiom about Reality, we have to accept as fact that Life on this planet has existed for at least a Billion Years. (Actually the evidence is strong that life has existed for at least 3 billion years and possibly as much as 4 billion or more. But I will be conservative for this argument, since a single billion is quite enough to make my point.) And if the theories of the biologists are correct, and the evidence is overwhelming that they are, Life has been so prolific, persistent and pervasive just because Evolution proceeds at the genetic level, not at the individual level. Genes have had over a billion generations of practice at the process of influencing and reacting to their environment - self-generated acting through the directed application of internally supplied energy - in such a way as to ensure their continued existence.

Overview

  1. Life is Action. "Life" is characterized by the unique fact that living things change and move - "act" - through the directed application of internally collected, stored, converted, and channelled energy.
  2. Life's Actions are Teleological (Goal Oriented). At a very fundamental level, the goal of all living behaviour is the maintenance of the life that is behaving.
  3. The Gene is the Unit of Life. It is that stretch of the DNA molecule that can be labelled as a Gene that is what must be recognized as the entity that survives and proliferates -- continuation of which is the goal of Life's Actions.
  4. The Reproductive Imperative. The actually observed behaviour of Mankind, both in general and individually, is highly flexible and variable but within the broad genetically defined limits of continued genetic survival.
  5. Our Purpose. As an example of life, as an example of the species Homo sapiens, and as an individual consciousness, our purpose is to ensure the continued survival and proliferation of our genes.
  6. The Definition of Good. To be "Good" at anything is to do a quality job at fulfilling the purpose of that thing. A good Human Being is efficient and effective, and fulfils with quality, the purpose for which the Human Being was built -- to ensure the continued survival and proliferation of our genes.

 

Step 1 -- Life is Action

Life - (biology) a. The property or quality that distinguishes living organisms from dead organisms and inanimate matter, manifested in functions such as metabolism, growth, reproduction, and response to stimuli or adaptation to the environment originating from within the organism. Living - (adjective) 1. Possessing life; (noun) 1. The condition or action of maintaining life. Inanimate - 1. Not having the qualities associated with active, living organisms; not animate. See synonyms at dead. 2. Not animated or energetic. Biology - 1. The science of life and of living organisms, including their structure, function, growth, origin, evolution, and distribution. 2. The life processes or characteristic phenomena of a group or category of living organisms.

What is Life?

When we look around us, at the diverse universe of things that that fall within our view, we easily, readily, and almost automatically divide the universe into two categories - those things that are alive, and those things that are not. Those things about which we are not immediately sure is normally such a small set that we ordinarily ignore its existence.

What is it that distinguishes "animate" from "inanimate", "life" from "non-life"? Life is notoriously difficult to define. It is easier to simply list and describe its characteristics. The definitions from the dictionary provide an obvious first approximation. Living things have functions, are active and energetic. More particularly, living things metabolize, grow, reproduce, respond to stimuli, and adapt to the environment. Here are a few additional characteristics:-

A moments contemplation will convince you that no single element on this list will suffice. Iron metabolizes into rust. Crystals grow. Computer viruses reproduce. A photocell responds to environmental stimuli. And a flowing stream adapts to its environment. None of these things are usually considered "alive". It will take a combination of characteristics off that list, at least. And some further research into the oddities at the fringe of what is normally considered as "living" will convince you that perhaps this list is not complete. Consider the status of that computer virus, for example. Most people would say it is not alive. But what criteria would you use to say so? Approaching the problem at this level might result in a never ending search for the answer.

Entropy

Entropy - (noun) 1. For a closed thermodynamic system, a quantitative measure of the amount of thermal energy not available to do work. 2. A measure of the disorder or randomness in a closed system. 3. A measure of the number of bits necessary to transmit a message as a function of the probability that the message will consist of a specific set of symbols. 4. A hypothetical tendency for all matter and energy in the universe to evolve toward a state of inert uniformity.

But there is another way to approach the problem. There is one thing that all living things do that no non-living thing does. Over any time scale relevant to human observation, all non-living things change so as to in crease their local entropy (the energy level local to the thing involved). Over any time scale relevant to human observation, all living things change so as to decrease their local entropy.

"What is the characteristic feature of life? When is a piece of matter said to be alive? When it goes on "doing something," moving, exchanging material with its environment, and so forth, and that for a much longer period than we would expect an inanimate piece of matter to "keep going" under similar circumstances. When a system that is not alive is isolated or placed in a uniform environment, all motion usually comes to a standstill very soon as a result of various kinds of friction; differences of electric or chemical potential are equalized, substances which tend to form a chemical compound do so, temperature becomes uniform by heat conduction. After that the whole system fades away into a dead, inert lump of matter. A permanent state is reached, in which no observable events occur. The physicist calls this the state of thermo-dynamical equilibrium, or of "maximum entropy."  
                                 Erwin Schrodinger, What is Life?(2)

The second law of thermodynamics states: "All physical or chemical changes tend to proceed in such a direction that useful energy undergoes irreversible degradation into a randomized form called entropy". They stop at an equilibrium point, at which the entropy formed is the maximum possible under the existing conditions. Paraphrased - systems tend to become more random or disorganized as time goes on.

Any chemical reaction that releases energy so that the products have less energy than the reactant is called an Exergonic reaction. Exergonic reactions occur when "fuels" are burned. When a chemical reaction creates products with more energy that the reactants it is called an endergonic reaction.

Iron metabolizes into rust, but rust is a lower-energy combination of iron and oxygen. Crystals grow, but a crystal is a lower energy form of the material than is the non-crystal form. A photocell responds to environmental stimuli, but by doing do converts a high-energy photon to a low energy electron that ultimately ends up at the end of the electrical circuit in an even lower energy atomic bound state. And a flowing stream adapts to its environment by seeking and following the lowest energy profile to the lowest energy state (the ocean). Non-living things change by way of exergonic reactions.

By contrast, anything that is living changes by way of endergonic reactions. "Life" gathers energy from the environment with which it organizes low-energy materials into higher energy living stuff. Plants carry on endergonic reactions when they capture sunlight and create sugars, carbohydrates and lipids from CO2 and H2O and thus "Store" the energy from the sun as the chemical bonds in these molecules. That energy (in the chemical bonds) is chemically transferred to adenosine triphosphate [ATP] before it is used. Photosynthesis is, ultimately, the capture of a high energy photon of light to convert a low-energy molecule of adenosine diphosphate [ADP] into a high-energy molecule of adenosine triphosphate [ATP].

ATP is used in all life (we know of) as an "energy currency". The more work that needs to be done the more ATP that must be spent. It is a "universal molecule of energy transfer" in living things. ATP loses its terminal phosphate and in the process releases the energy stored in it. This produces ADP and the phosphate (which itself may become part of the chemical reaction). To generate ATP again from ADP and free phosphate, photosynthesis adds energy back in order to create the energy rich phosphate bond. The new energy rich ATP can then be reused again.

This energy (the energy difference between ATP and ADP) is then the motive force directed by "life" to metabolize, grow, reproduce, respond to stimuli, and adapt to the environment..

When non-living things can be said to respond to stimuli or adapt to the environment, the result is always an increase in the entropy of the thing involved. By contrast, living things respond to stimuli, and adapt to the environment through the employment of stored energy (ATP) and in such a way as to maintain their local decrease in entropy (homeostasis). Only by a carefully artificial extension of what is usually meant by a "Thing" or a "concrete entity" can you identify some non-living thing about which this critical difference is not obvious. For all generally identifiable entities in the environment, whether it changes over time to increase or decrease its own local entropy will be obvious. Thus, as is consistent with "common sense", whether some unfamiliar entity is or is not alive will be obvious once it can be observed to change. If some entity does not change over some convenient time period, then it is questionable whether it is alive. You can't tell for sure, since it merely may not have changed yet. But the longer the time period involved, the less likely that the entity is alive. And this too is consistent with the usual evaluation of real "border-line" examples. Viruses, for example, are not generally considered to be "alive".

Do not fall into the trap of taking too narrow a focus. Obviously, the chemical reactions that produce ADP from ATP are exergonic, and are therefore local increases in entropy. But if you broaden your scope to consider the chemical system of which those reactions are an integral part, then it is clear that the larger integrated chemcial system is endergonic, and a local decrease in entropy. The endergonic nature of the total system is an emergent property of the complexity of the system.

Directed Energy

There is an inescapable consequence to this entropy view of the difference between the "animate" and the "inanimate". The nature of the changes involved are quite distinct between living and non-living things. With some very limited exceptions, when something non-living changes, the change is exergonic - from some higher energy more organized state of matter to a lower energy less organized state of matter. When something living changes, the change is endergonic - from some lower energy less organized state of matter to a higher energy more organized state of matter (powered by sunlight).

But there are vastly more exergonic chemical reactions than there are endergonic ones. And there are vastly more disorganized states of matter than there are organized states of matter. So a random change is far more likely to be exergonic than endergonic - from high energy to low, from organization to disorganization. The physics of thermodynamics says that, in the absence of life, systems tend to become more random or disorganised as time goes on. In the absence of life, everything tends to evolve to "a state of inert uniformity". However, the way living things change (while living) is always from less energy and organization to more energy and organization. Such changes cannot reasonably be considered random.

When something changes in a way that is not random, we say that the change is "directed" because some process of regulation or control of the change is required in order to avoid the more likely random change. Crystals, for example, grow in a manner "directed" by the energy levels of the crystal lattice.

Direct - (directed - verb, transitive) 1. To manage or conduct the affairs of; regulate. 2. To have or take charge of; control. 3. To give authoritative instructions to.

React - (verb) 1. To act in response to or under the influence of a stimulus or prompting.

Perform - (verb) 1. To begin and carry through to completion; do. 2. To take action in accordance with the requirements of; fulfill.

Behave - (verb) 1. To conduct oneself in a specified way. 2. To act, react, function, or perform in a particular way.

Action - (noun) 1. The state or process of acting or doing. 2. A deed. 3. A movement or a series of movements.

We can therefore characterize "living" things as those things which react or behave under the influence of a stimulus or prompting from the environment in a manner directed to maintain or increase their local, internal energy level. And this employ of the words is consistent with their common usage. We commonly say that living things act, react, and behave. We do not usually say that of non-living things, and when we do it is in a clearly metaphorical sense.

Life as Action

Which leads us to another way of considering this critical difference in the way that living things change over time as compared to the way that non-living things change over time. When non-living things change or move, it is always because of the application of some externally applied energy - it is exergonic and an increase in entropy. But living things act, react, or behave because of the directed application of internally applied energy. The applied energy always comes from within (the ATP cycle) - it is endergonic and a decrease in entropy.

A granite rock crumbles because of the applied forces of weathering, and slides downhill because of the applied force of gravity. Of course living things also respond to the application of externally applied force or energy. Everything, living and nonliving, falls to Earth under the influence of gravity. But we can and do make the distinction between change and movement that is internally generated, and thus "animate", and change and movement that is externally caused, and thus "inanimate".

A lifeform employs its internally collected and stored energy to metabolize, grow, reproduce, respond to stimuli, and adapt to the environment.

Review

1) "Life" is characterized by the unique fact that living things change and move - "act" - through the directed application of internally collected, stored, converted, and channelled energy.

 

Step 2 -- Life's Actions are Teleological

Consider now the consequences of Life as Action. What prevents "Life" from changing in a way that increases its local entropy and disrupting its unique organization? What is to prevent "life" from ceasing to be "life"? As a matter of factual observation, we see that "life" often ceases to be "life". What causes that transition? What prevents that transition for "life" that does not cease to be "life"? The laws of thermodynamics would suggest that all life should cease to be life. A local decrease in entropy runs counter to the general observation that everything in the universe tends over time to increase its entropy. The universe tends to evolve toward a state of inert uniformity - and life is not a state of inert uniformity.

The answer is - the action of life. When life transitions to non-life, what ceases is the actions of life. What prevents the transition of life to non-life is the actions of life. The actions that constitute life are non-random. They are directed. And they are directed specifically towards the continued maintenance of life. When and if the actions of life are not specifically directed towards the maintenance of life, life ceases.

Living things are systems that tend to respond to changes in their environment, and inside themselves, in such a way as to promote their own continuation.
                        -- Joseph Morales, The Self-Creating Universe(3).

The self-generating nature of all living processes . . . is one of the most obvious characteristics of life. Reference to this characteristic can be found at least as early as Plato in the Laws: "when the thing moves itself, we speak of it as alive." In De Anima, Aristotle gives a clearer statement of the same idea, holding that for an entity to have life (psyche) it must be one "having in itself the poser of setting itself in action (kinesis) and arresting itself". . . . In the Physics, he says of non-living objects: "It is impossible to say that their action (kinesis) is derived from themselves: this is a characteristic of life and peculiar to living things".
                        -- Harry Binswanger, The Biological Basis of Teleological Concepts(4)

The main point is this: in self-generated actions the energy for the action is supplied by the organism itself from a source within and integral to its own body. In a non-self-generated action the energy for the action is supplied by some external force.
                       -- Harry Binswanger, The Biological Basis of Teleological Concepts(5)

Because "Life" is an organization of matter that is a local decrease of entropy, in the absence of some directed expenditure of energy to maintain that local decrease of entropy, life will cease. Energy must be obtained, converted and channelled so as to maintain the unique organization of living matter in the face of the consequences of thermodynamic laws that would disorganize it.

So at a very fundamental level, the goal of living behaviour is the maintenance of the life that is behaving.

Goal - 1. The purpose toward which an endeavour is directed; an objective. Purpose - 1. The object toward which one strives or for which something exists; an aim or a goal. 2. A result or an effect that is intended or desired; an intention. Teleology - 1. (Philosophy) The study of design or purpose in natural phenomena. 2. The use of ultimate purpose or design as a means of explaining natural phenomena. 3. Purposeful development, as in nature or history, toward a final end.

Living things have to act in the pursuit of the continuation of life. Random action - random response to the environment - will not do. Living action has to be such as to continue life. The laws of thermodynamics, the Universal tendency towards increasing entropy, will cause to become non-life any life that does not direct its actions towards the goal of continued life.

" 'The dumbest smart thing you can do is to stay alive.' Animals do it. We do it, too. Intelligence is not a question of either/or, but rather of different ways of staying alive. Organisms' apparently highly evolved, coherent behavior can often be explained as simple reciprocal interactions with a rich and varied environment. Much of the complexity seems to lie in the milieu. Think of an ant: it crawls around on the forest floor, carefully avoiding large barriers, but it must take minor detours in order to create space for dragging home a pine needle to its nest. The ant pauses from his work and exchanges information with a fellow ant. It usually has an especially complex route, but the ant as a behavioral system is quite simple-the complexity is to a great degree a reflection of the environment in which it finds itself. The point here is that if we have visions of constructing serviceable sociable robots or such things, we must first discover the minimal procedures that enable an animal to cope minimally with its nearest surroundings. This does not sound like much, but it is. An ant can never imagine what it might meet on its path. Openness, adaptability and flexibility become more important than having a ready response to every conceivable situation, regardless of whether the response can be coded as a frame, a scheme, a script, or as one of the other AI techniques of representing knowledge 'Go to the ant, thou sluggard' (but remain ignorant)."
                             -- Claus Emeche, The Garden in the Machine.(6)

Review

1) "Life" is characterized by the unique fact that living things change and move - "act" - through the directed application of internally collected, stored, converted, and channelled energy.

2) At a very fundamental level, the goal of living behaviour is the maintenance of the life that is behaving.

 

Step 3 -- The Gene is the Unit of Life

Fact - "an occurrence, quality, or relation the reality of which is manifest in experience or may be inferred with certainty; a verified statement or proposition (also) something that makes a statement or proposition true or false."

Theory - "a judgment, conception, proposition, or formula formed by speculation or deduction, or by abstraction and generalization from facts; a working hypothesis given probability by experimental evidence or by factual or conceptual analysis, but not conclusively established or accepted as a Law."

True - "conformable to fact; in accordance with the actual state of affairs; conformable to nature, reality, or an original; accurate in delineating or expressing the essential elements."

Consider the accumulated knowledge that man has acquired about the nature and behaviour of Reality. An examination of the accumulated knowledge from the fields of Biology, Psychology, Economics, the various Paleo-Sciences, and the more recent results from the fields of Genetics and Socio-Biology, yields an interesting conclusion with wide ramifications for the study of Philosophy. Even if you cannot do the examination yourself, as most of us cannot, you can rely on the preponderance of the opinions of learned experts in these fields. Regardless of how you accumulate the knowledge, an inescapable conclusion is reached. The basic, elementary component of "life" is not the much reified Individual, but rather that lowly entity, the Gene. It is an indisputable biological Fact (by the strict definition quoted above) that the continued existence, and proliferation of any species of life on this planet is tied directly to the proliferation of the Gene, not to the survival of any individual representative of the species. To anyone who cares to explore the evidence, the accumulation of it is overwhelming. There is just no other theory known that adequately explains all of the accumulated evidence. Despite the protestations of the Humanists and Humanitarians, the processes of evolution and the evidence of day-to-day behaviour of life cannot be consistently explained or better predicted with any other known theory.

It has therefore become a well recognized Theory (also by the strict definition of that term, quoted above), that biological Life as a whole continues to exist and proliferate on the basis of the individual Gene, and not the individual representatives that we perceive. The current understandings of Psychology, Sociology, Economics, Biology, Genetics, Evolution and Socio-Biology is that the stretch of DNA molecule (or RNA molecule in those species that lack DNA) that can be functionally labelled as a Gene, is what must be recognised as the entity that survives and proliferates. The individual is but an intermediate step that genes pass through in order to promote the proliferation of more genes.

In order to make this Theory a little more understandable, you might find it valuable to digress a little, and explore some of the concepts involved in the Theory of Genetic Evolution as they apply to the development of Philosophy and Ethics. A reasonably good understanding of the basic concepts involved is crucial to a successful understanding of the Philosophical arguments that are built upon this foundation. A Digression into Genetics Theory will provide that digression for those who are interested.

Review

1) "Life" is characterized by the unique fact that living things change and move - "act" - through the directed application of internally collected, stored, converted, and channelled energy.

2) At a very fundamental level, the goal of living behaviour is the maintenance of the life that is behaving.

3) It is that stretch of the DNA molecule that can be labelled as a Gene that is what must be recognized as the entity that survives and proliferates - survives and continues.

 

Step 4 -- The Reproductive Imperative

Virtually all authors who have considered life from the point of view of molecular biology have regarded the property of self-reproduction as the most fundamental aspect of a living organism. --John D. Barrow and Frank J. Tipler, The Anthropic Cosmological Principle(7)

It is clear from observing other species, that Man is the only species that appears to exercise much of a choice of whether or not to behave according to these "genetic survival" principles. All other species are not as free to choose, and do not choose (often or much, if at all). Every individual organism of every other species of life behaves more or less automatically in a manner consistent with the theory that their goal is the continued survival of their genes. The various disciplines of evolutionary genetics are singularly successful in explaining complex behaviours in terms of this "genetic survival". They are also singularly successful in predicting the more simple forms of behaviour, and in extrapolating the more complex forms.

Man is the only species where we observe behaviours that appear to be inconsistent with this theory. But not totally so. Observation of human behaviour clearly shows that a large part of our behaviour is explainable, and often predictable, from these same theories of "gene-survival". In fact, it is sometimes surprising just how extensive our "genetic programming" is. The closer we look at the genesis of human behaviour, the less "free will" we seem to have. The successful application of the various disciplines of socio-biology to human behaviour derives from just this fact.

For further information on just how genetically influenced our supposedly "free will" human behaviour really is, I would suggest exploring the reading list provided at the end of A Digression into Genetics Theory.

Review

1) "Life" is characterized by the unique fact that living things change and move - "act" - through the directed application of internally collected, stored, converted, and channelled energy.

2) At a very fundamental level, the goal of living behaviour is the maintenance of the life that is behaving.

3) It is that stretch of the DNA molecule that can be labelled as a Gene that is what must be recognized as the entity that survives and proliferates - survives and continues.

4) The actually observed behaviour of Mankind, both in general and individually, is highly flexible and variable but within the broad genetically defined limits of continued genetic survival.

 

Step 5 -- Our Purpose

Since I am free to choose (it seems that way anyway) - given a choice of two alternative behaviours to exhibit, which alternative ought I choose? Examining the various ethical systems, and the various "ethical problems" discussed by people in general and philosophers in particular, every "ethical" choice seems to break down into:

  1. I can choose the alternative that will aid and abet my own "genetic survival"; or
  2. I can choose the alternative that will aid and abet the "genetic survival" of someone else.

Regardless of whatever purpose(s) may be involved or whatever goal(s) I may have in mind, and regardless of whatever actions I actually do perform, I observe that the consequences of any action I perform (or choose not to perform - that too is a directed employ of energy) is either to aid and abet my own genetic survival, or to aid and abet someone else's genetic survival. No matter what the choice, no matter what the consequences, no matter how else you evaluate the consequences of your choices, one dimension of evaluation will always be whether the greatest aid is to your own genetic survival, or to someone else's genetic survival.

Now ask - "Why?" Why should I choose the alternative that will aid and abet my own genetic survival. Why should I choose the alternative that will aid and abet the genetic survival of someone else. Also, of course, is the closely related question - Should I choose on the basis of anyone's genetic survival?

There is a lot of moral advice available from many (some might say most) philosophies to the effect that I should not choose on the basis of anyone's genetic survival. These philosophies can be grouped into two broad categories. The "rule-based" philosophies propose that "moral behaviour" consists in adhering to some predefined set of behavioural injunctions. The Ten Commandments of the Old Testament (and Torah) are a typical example of this sort of moral prescription. The "altruistic" philosophies propose that "moral behaviour" consists in specifically choosing to aid others (although not particularly with their genetic survival in mind). In their popular interpretations, the Utilitarian Principle ("greatest good for the greatest number") and the Socialist Principle ("from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs") are typical examples of this sort of moral prescription. (Note that the "natural law" interpretation of these two Principles - that claims that the principle is a consequence of the natural nature of Man - has been thoroughly proved by the evidence of both history and biology to be wrong.)

However, every single one of these philosophies (without exception) bases their ethical prescription on the incontestable opinion of some "authority". The authority involved is always one of -

On the other hand, there is a lot of moral advice available from some philosophies to the effect that I should choose on the basis of aiding myself. All of the various "happiness" philosophies, from the ancient Greek Hedonists and Epicureans through to the modern Economists and Socio-Biologists argue that the basis of "moral behaviour" is individual self interest. And choosing to aid myself, and more particularly my own genetic survival, would at least be consistent with the theory that "our genes have 'constructed' us as complex survival machinery for the purpose of ensuring their continuing survival".

The competitive pressures of evolutionary survival have resulted in my construction as a highly flexible learning machine. I am endowed with the intellectual and reasoning capacities to extend my analysis of what is in my 'best interests' into time-frames and environmental scopes not possible to hard-coded genetic programming. So I ought to take advantage of these capabilities and consciously and carefully choose the alternative of aiding my own "genetic survival".

Cross-Check

What is the purpose of life, in general? What is the purpose of my life, in particular?

It is conceivable that -

[Closed loops of purpose can be broken quite simply. Select one point on the chain - at random or arbitrarily. The other links on the loop can now be logically viewed as sub-goals - means to an end. Infinite ladders of purpose can also be "renormalized" by re-phrasing the infinite chain to eliminate the infinities.]

Alternatives (b) and (c) can in one sense be eliminated, because I have discovered one clear purpose - that of genetic survival. But I can also admit that it is possible that I am mistaken in my identification of genetic survival as my purpose. So lets consider, for a moment, how to respond to these alternatives on the assumption that I am indeed wrong. So that (b) becomes "I have no purpose (my alleged identification of a purpose is incorrect)." And (c) becomes "I have one or more purposes that I cannot not discover, and genetic survival is not one of these."

The reformatted version of (b) is simple enough to dismiss. If my behaviour and choices serve no purpose, then there is no reason at all to make one choice over another. No reason at all to exert any energy to pursue any other option than the "do nothing" alternative. If I have no purpose in living, then I should let myself die. Eating and drinking take a focused expenditure of energy to complete. Yet if I do not exert that energy, I get hungry and thirsty. And it takes a considerable exertion of self-control - an active expenditure of very focused energy - to refrain from eating or drinking when I get hungry or thirsty. My every instinctive and biological reaction protests against the alternative of letting myself die. I want to live. Most people want to live. Therefore, at the very least, I can identify at least one purpose of my actions -- to keep on living.

Nor do I make the choices I make on the basis of pure whimsy. In every choice I make, I am convinced that the choice I pick is somehow better than the alternatives. Regardless of the nature of the choice, it is always based on the notion of making things better on some scale of measure. To that extent at least, then, I am pursuing the purpose of making things "better" whenever I choose to act one way versus another. Therefore it is not possible that I have no purpose at all.

The reformatted (c) requires a different approach. Is there any evidence available that might suggest that I have other purposes besides "genetic survival"? Assume for a moment that Mankind (either as a species or me individually) does have other goals or purposes than that of genetic survival. These additional or alternate purposes might be acquired either through genetic mutation or through specification by some external agency. Is there any evidence that there might be such additional purposes?

If I don't know about the existence of these purposes, then regardless of what they are, they can have no impact on my consciously chosen behaviours, and no impact on my Ethical choices. If I have no evidence for the existence of such purposes, then I have no way of knowing whether they exist or not. The simple suggestion that I might have additional or other purposes - either specifically or in general - is not sufficient evidence to suggest that I should pursue them. For there would be no basis upon which to distinguish between any suggested purpose that I might have. And I cannot possibly pursue all possible purposes that I might have. Most would be mutually contradictory.

As a matter of actual fact, I have no evidence that would suggest that I have any additional or alternative purpose than the continued survival and replication of my genes. If you do not agree with this assessment of the evidence from Reality, then I am quite prepared to listen / read any suggestions you may wish to offer that will expand my knowledge in this area.

But lets assume for a moment that I do have some alternative purpose that (because of ignorance) I am not aware of. Again, since I don't know about the existence of these purposes, then regardless of what they are, they can have no impact on my consciously chosen behaviours, and no impact on my Ethical choices.

Lets assume for a moment that I accept as true a suggestion that I have some alternative purpose. Then any investment of time or energy I might make in pursuit of this additional or alternate purpose will interfere with my pursuit of genetic survival. Over the long term, this is sufficient to discount the possibility that we (either as a species or individually) have multiple or alternative purposes. Since any such purposes would interfere with the pursuit of genetic survival, not only would they have been bred out of existence if they were of genetic origin, but they would contribute to the "decline and fall" of Homo sapiens if they somehow currently existed. So, in order to achieve any other possible goal or purpose for any length of time, Homo sapiens, as a collection of individuals, must also successfully pursue the goal of genetic survival. In other words, even if you do not regard "genetic survival" as our "One True Purpose", you must consider it an enabling goal for any other proposed purpose or goal - as long as the continued existence of Homo sapiens is required.

Which brings us to the realization that (c) " I have one or more purposes that I cannot not discover, and genetic survival is not one of these" can be re-phrased as (c) "I have a purpose for which I have no evidence, and that purpose is my death."

Which leaves as the only alternative, the possibility that I accept that I have a purpose that is sufficiently important to demand the sacrifice of my genetic welfare - the welfare of "me and mine". This additional purpose would have to be provided from "without" - it would have to be something not inherent in my natural evolution as a member of Homo sapiens.

Again, as a matter of actual fact, I have no evidence that would suggest that I have any additional or alternative purpose than the continued survival and replication of my genes. And I have encountered no reasonable argument to suggest that I ought to sacrifice the welfare of me and mine for any such hypothetical purpose.

In other words, that list of alternatives comes down to -

Review

1) "Life" is characterized by the unique fact that living things change and move - "act" - through the directed application of internally collected, stored, converted, and channeled energy.

2) At a very fundamental level, the goal of living behaviour is the maintenance of the life that is behaving.

3) It is that stretch of the DNA molecule that can be labeled as a Gene that is what must be recognized as the entity that survives and proliferates - survives and continues.

4) The actually observed behavior of Mankind, both in general and individually, is highly flexible and variable but within the broad genetically defined limits of continued genetic survival.

5) Our purpose as an individual is to ensure the continued survival and proliferation of our genes.

 

Step 6 - The Definition of Good

Apply the identification of our purpose, with the functional meanings of "Good", and you get the result -

"A Human individual is a good Human Being, if s/he does a [positive, desirable, distinguished, suitable, excellent, sound, superior, quality, beneficial, competent, skilled, complete, thorough, reliable, valid, true, genuine, operative, pleasant, enjoyable, favourable, benevolent, kind, loyal, correct, proper, valuable, useful, fitting, appropriate, genuine] job of doing what a Human Being is built to do - ensure the continued survival of his/her genes."

Understanding the evolutionary context within which this concept of "Good" is derived, neatly explains the success of all of the various Consequentialist systems of Ethics. "Happiness", regardless of how defined, can now be understood as the genetically programmed propensity to react with emotional "happiness" to those circumstances that usually contribute to ensuring the continuation of the genes. The "Utility" of Bentham and Mill can now be understood as the contribution to the individual's effort to ensure the continuation of his/her genes. And economic "value" can be understood in the same way.

Starting with Axiom One about the nature of Reality, and adding to this with Axiom Three about the nature of "A Good Thing", we can extend the argument and develop two tightly coupled principles.

If genetic long term survival and proliferation is held as "A Good Thing" when examined on the unconscious and physical-chemical level, then it must also be held as "A Good Thing" when approached on the conscious and intellectual level. How then does one apply conscious and intellectual efforts in that direction? The first degree answer, of course, is by pursuing behaviour that promotes the long term survival and proliferation of our genes. But we can formulate a more useful answer than that. We individuals of the species Homo Sapiens possess a uniquely powerful capability to learn and remember, and to communicate this learning and memory to our brethren. If we use this capability to examine the problem of genetic survival and proliferation, we can determine that, at the intellectual level, the degree to which we can achieve this goal depends on our understanding of Reality. The better able we are to accurately predict the consequences of our actions, the better able we will be to select behaviours that promote genetic survival and proliferation. And our intellectual capacities are ideally suited to an examination of the longer term impacts of our behaviours. So this, then is the answer to how one applies conscious intellectual effort in the pursuit of "A Good Thing". We must apply all our intellectual capacities towards examining the probable consequences of proposed behaviours, and to consciously choosing behaviours that will maximise the probability of our genetic survival and proliferation over the longer term.

In actual fact, the natural process of evolution has already pre-disposed us in this direction. Consider the behaviour patterns called "Curiosity". Curiosity is a behaviour that is exhibited by a number of the more intellectual species. Curiosity, especially in Man, is characterised as an interest in Reality and how it works. And even many critics of the theories of genetic inheritance, have labelled it as an Instinct. Learning more about Reality is clearly an aid to the longer term considerations of genetic survival and proliferation. We are thus already pre-programmed to some extent, for behaviour that will help us learn more about Reality. So extending this behaviour into the Conscious and Intellectual levels, is merely reinforcing a behaviour already established by the processes of evolution as "A Good Thing".

 

Summary

  1. Life is Action. "Life" is characterized by the unique fact that living things change and move - "act" - through the directed application of internally collected, stored, converted, and channelled energy.
  2. Life's Actions are Teleological (Goal Oriented). At a very fundamental level, the goal of all living behaviour is the maintenance of the life that is behaving.
  3. The Gene is the Unit of Life. It is that stretch of the DNA molecule that can be labelled as a Gene that is what must be recognized as the entity that survives and proliferates -- continuation of which is the goal of Life's Actions.
  4. The Reproductive Imperative. The actually observed behaviour of Mankind, both in general and individually, is highly flexible and variable but within the broad genetically defined limits of continued genetic survival.
  5. Our Purpose. As an example of life, as an example of the species Homo sapiens, and as an individual consciousness, our purpose is to ensure the continued survival and proliferation of our genes.
  6. The Definition of Good. To be "Good" at anything is to do a quality job at fulfilling the purpose of that thing. A good Human is efficient and effective, and fulfils with quality, the purpose for which the Human was built -- ensuring the continued survival and proliferation of our genes.

The Third Axiom:- The continued survival, and proliferation of our Gene-Pool over the long-term, is "A Good Thing". In the defining statement of Ethics -- "P is Good", "P" is the statement "The continued survival and proliferation of our gene-pool over the long term".

Corollary 1:- The more accurately you are able to predict the consequences of your actions, the more likely you are to be able to choose behaviour that will maximize the long-term survival and proliferation of your Gene-pool.

Corollary 2:- Knowing more is "A Good Thing", because it maximizes the probability of being able to accurately predict the future behaviour of Reality, and the consequences of your actions.

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Footnotes

(1)   Unless otherwise specified, all dictionary definitions are quoted from The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Third Edition copyright © 1992 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Electronic version licensed from INSO Corporation; further reproduction and distribution restricted in accordance with the Copyright Law of the United States. All rights reserved.

(1.1)  Rene Descartes; The Philosophical Works of Descartes, trans. Elizabeth S. Haldane and G.R.T. Ross (London: Cambridge University Press, 1973), Vol. I, p. 253.

(1.2)  Jean Meslier; Superstition in All Ages, trans. Anna Knoop, New York: Peter Eckler, 1889.  pp. 37–38. 

(1.3)  Voltaire; Les Philosophes. The Philosophers of the Enlightenment and Modern Democracy. Translation by Norman Lewis Torrey. Capricorn Books, 1961, pp. 277-8.

(1.4)  Bertrand Russell; "Science and Ethics," in Religion and Science, New York: Oxford University Press, 1997, pp. 230–31.

(1.5)  Eric Harris; from his website, quoted in The Washington Post, April 29, 1999.

(1.6)  Richard Rorty; "The Next Left" in Atlantic Unbound, April 23, 1998. interview by Scott Stossel.

(1.7)  President Bill Clinton, radio addresses to the nation, April 5 and July 26, 1997.

(1.8)  Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf, trans. Ralph Manheim. Houghton Mifflin: New York, 1971, pp. 297–98. 

(2) What is Life?;   Erwin Schrodinger; 1944

(3) The Self-Creating Universe; Joseph Morales.

(4) The Biological Basis of Teleological Concepts; Harry Binswanger; The Ayn Rand Press, 1990; ISBN 0-9625336-0-2; Pg 46.

(5) The Biological Basis of Teleological Concepts; Harry Binswanger; The Ayn Rand Press, 1990; ISBN 0-9625336-0-2; Pg 48.

(6) The Garden in the Machine, The Emerging Science of Artificial Life; Emeche, Claus - translated by Steven Sampson; Princeton University Press, 1994; Princeton New Jersey. ISBN 0-691-03330-7

(7) The Anthropic Cosmological Principle;   John D. Barrow & Frank J. Tipler Oxford University Press. 1986

Additional References

Action and Purpose; Richard Taylor; Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1966; New Jersey.

Consciousness Explained; Daniel C. Dennett; Little, Brown and Company, Boston, 1991. ISBN 0-316-18065-3

Darwin's Dangerous Idea; Daniel C. Dennett; Touchstone Books, New York, 1995; ISBN 0-684-82471-x.

Consilience, The Unity of Knowledge; Edward O. Wilson; First Vintage Books, 1999; ISBN 0-679-76867-x.

The Extended Phenotype; Richard Dawkins; Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1982; ISBN 0-19-286088-7.

Manwatching; Desmond Morris; Harry N. Abrams, Inc., New York, 1977; ISBN 0-8109-2184-7.