Good and Evil: Reshaping our Moral Universe

Good and Evil: Reshaping our Moral Universe

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General Augusto Pinochet is now back in his native Chile amid a welter of recriminations. He stands accused of the kidnap, torture and murder of thousands of his fellow citizens. On the grisly Richter scale of genocidal horror, the world has seen far worse than Pinochet – Hitler, Stalin and Pol Pot killed millions. The recent slaughter in Rwanda and ethnic cleansing in the Balkans are timely reminders that deliberate, systematic human savagery is never far beneath the surface veneer of civilization.

The conduct of the men involved in brutal campaigns of terror and extermination is so extreme it can only be described as evil. Which raises the question of how these predilections became part of human nature. Why do people have a capacity to inflict such misery on others?

The problem of evil has baffled theologians and philosophers for centuries. If there is an omnipotent God who is supremely good, why does he not intervene to prevent gross wrongdoing? One traditional answer was to portray the universe as a battleground between opposing forces of good and evil, with humans caught in the crossfire. Another was to argue that evil is the price paid for human free will, which is on balance a greater good. Today, however, more scientific explanations are demanded.

 From the scientific viewpoint, human wrongdoing isn’t hard to understand, at least at first sight. We are, after all, the products of Darwinian evolution, with its central mechanism of natural selection. Each of us carries the winning genes that have got what it takes to survive. Because genes help build our minds as well as our bodies, the way we behave is influenced in large part by the DNA we have inherited from our successful ancestors. Oxford zoologist Richard Dawkins coined the term “the selfish gene” to make the point that we dance to the tune of the genes that are good survivors, even if that means we may sometimes act ruthlessly to ensure they reach the next generation. If rape, murder and theft prove good reproductive strategies (which they often do), it is no surprise to a Darwinist that people resort to these acts given an opportunity. Of course, Dawkins is quick to point out that he is using a metaphor: genes themselves aren’t selfish or evil entities. Nature is merely indifferent to our plight. “Genes don’t care about suffering, because they don’t care about anything,” is how he eloquently puts it.

But doing bad is only half of the story. What about good? For every Hitler, there is a Mother Teresa, for every Stalin an Albert Schweitzer. Countless people around the world devote their lives to helping their fellow human beings. How do we explain the many individual acts of selfless generosity, the sacrifices people make for others, the pervasive influence of brotherly love in shaping our social conventions and institutions? How do decency, democracy and the rule of law triumph in the face of innate selfishness?

The easiest examples of altruism to explain are those involving kinship. In crude statistical terms it makes sense for a mother to sacrifice herself for her children, since each carries half her genes. So from the genetic point of view, the intense love bond between mother and child is wholly expected. Siblings likewise share genes, so it also pays for them to “look after their own.” And humans are by no means alone in displaying kinship altruism. Many birds and mammals are prepared to endure sacrifices or incur risks to protect close relatives, while some insects are far more altruistic than us.

More puzzling are cases of altruism directed at unrelated individuals and even total strangers. Jesus’ powerful parable of the Good Samaritan is effective only because some people are prepared to engage in acts of humanitarian charity, even to rivals and enemies. Why? In the 1970’s the biologist John Maynard Smith pioneered the application of a branch of mathematics called game theory to animal behaviour, and proved that cooperation between competing individuals can sometimes be mutually advantageous. Extensive computer studies have since confirmed his ideas. The simple message is: it often pays to be nice.

One example that is easy to understand involves tit-for-tat scenarios, or reciprocal altruism. I do you a favour today in the expectation that you will do me a favour tomorrow. In the right circumstances this can produce a win-win situation. A great deal of familiar social order, such as trade and commerce, military alliances and social welfare, falls into this category. Since cooperative strategies can work well and aid survival, we might expect the genes that prompt us to adopt altruistic behaviour to be selected in the great Darwinian lottery.

Although genetics and game theory can explain the broad features of good and bad in animal species, some scientists are still baffled by the enormous propensity for evil that human beings possess, which seems out of all proportion to Darwinian imperatives. To be sure, chimpanzees are observed to murder and rape when the opportunity arises, male lions regularly kill the young of females newly recruited into their harems, and many birds are highly accomplished at sexual cheating – hence the word cuckolding. But only humans deliberately torture their fellows or carry out the wholesale and systematic slaughter of unthreatening and helpless individuals. Significantly, homo sapiens belong to the only family of mammals with just one representative. All other species of homo, such as Neanderthal Man, were annihilated by our ancestors. So did something go terribly wrong along the evolutionary way, leaving homo sapiens uniquely prone to extreme transgression?

Whatever the explanation for the dark side of human nature, not many people use the terms good and evil these days. The very concepts seem somewhat anachronistic when one is appealing to psychology, neurology and genetics to explain human behaviour. This abandonment of the old categories of judgement has been accompanied by a radical reappraisal of traditional moral values. Right and wrong have now been replaced by socio-political categories like rights, responsibilities, entitlements, freedoms and equity.

In the past it was simple. Religious leaders claimed a direct line to God. There was a clear-cut set of moral absolutes, enunciated by priests and enumerated, for example, in the Ten Commandments. Now that such a world view is no longer credible to many, we have been cast loose from our ethical moorings. Morality is being sought not in ancient scriptures, but within us, in our genetic and psychological make-up. Moral absolutism has been replaced by moral relativism – a world in which alternative value systems are deemed worthy of equal consideration.

Even during my lifetime, I have witnessed moral reversals from entirely within Western society. Homosexuality was once regarded by many as unnatural, even wicked. Today we celebrate the right of people to express their sexuality as they wish, and regard attempts to suppress that freedom as morally offensive. Thrift used to be a virtue, until inflation arrived and banks started to encourage borrowing and debt. Now we think that anybody who doesn’t provide for themselves and their family with a massive house mortgage is shirking their responsibilities.

Not only are advances in science and technology re-shaping our moral universe, they are presenting us with ethical choices that never existed before. Is it right or wrong to clone a human being? Should genes for certain diseases or psychological defects be removed from the human genome? Should frozen sperm be used without the donor’s permission? Divine guidance is of little help; the answers won’t be found in the scriptures. Instead, humanity faces a huge new responsibility. Since nobody will tell us for sure what is right and wrong in these circumstances, we will have to work it out for ourselves. “The roots of social order are in our heads,” concludes biologist and writer Matt Ridley in his best-selling book The Origins of Virtue.

To appreciate the magnitude of the task ahead, consider the vexed issue of genetic engineering applied to humans. At the moment, tinkering with the human genome is widely regarded as both dangerous and morally repugnant, and is unlawful in many countries. Mostly the objections are a reaction to scare stories about designer babies, or creating races of super-athletes, mad scientific geniuses or Hitler clones. But what if gene manipulation could be used to turn humans into a species of Good Samaritans? Wouldn’t the world be a much better place?

The project to map the human genome is forging ahead, and soon a complete recipe for a human being, written in genetic code, should be available on the Internet. Although it is probably na�¯ve to assume that genes for different aspects of human behaviour are neatly packaged, just suppose it were possible to identify a set of “evil genes.” This raises a profound ethical conundrum. Would it be right or wrong to eliminate these genes permanently from the human genome? To solve it, we must confront a stark and awkward question: Is homo sapiens’ grotesque capacity for evil part of what makes us human, and therefore to be regarded as sacrosanct and preserved?

A more immediate dilemma concerns the role of individual choice in determining the make-up of future generations. Do parents have the right to decide the qualities of their offspring? Most people would sanction the abortion of foetuses on the grounds that the future adult was at high risk from disease. But what if the parents wanted an abortion because genetic screening showed the foetus failed to measure up to their required standards of sporting or musical potential?

This situation is not at all hypothetical. Parental selection on grounds of sex preference has long been practiced in many societies in which male children are prized. This takes place either by aborting female foetuses where the sex has been determined or, more brutally, by infanticide. For example, it is common knowledge that in China men outnumber women by some millions. The systematic elimination of females provides a salutary lesson that if fashion and prejudice are allowed to dictate the genetic mix of the next generation, gross distortions in the make-up of society may result.

Clearly there is an urgent need to reappraise our concepts of right and wrong, and develop an ethical framework appropriate to the scientific opportunities and challenges of the near future. A hundred years ago the philosopher Friederich Nietzsche proclaimed that God is dead and painted a bleak future for mankind in the twenty-first century, predicting that moral values would disintegrate. But need this be so? Science may never replace the secure ethical certainties of traditional religion, but it does offer a rational basis for moral choice and a framework for understanding human frailty and selfishness. The father of sociobiology, Edward O. Wilson, has a vision in which ethics are brought within the scope of systematic scientific inquiry, forming a grand synthesis of science and the humanities for which he has appropriated the term “consilience”. He leads a new breed of social commentators who maintain that the inner core of human goodness – which we might call our spirituality – should not be ignored, but nurtured by informed contemporary analysis. To meet the awesome ethical challenges of the future, a form of spiritual progress is needed that embraces the findings of science, rather than shies away from them.