This seems to me like an uncontroversial desire to agree to (the real difficulties lie in finding the right path towards the survival of life), but sadly the history of evolutionary ethics has put these ideas in a box for some people that they refuse to examine again in an unbiased manner. In the September/October 2015 edition of Humanist, the following letter to the editor was published, which shows exactly what I mean.
And Now for Your Regularly Scheduled Philosophy Break
In his article, "Proposing an Objective, Godless Basis for Morality" (J/A 2015), Ed Gibney writes that "until now" no one has ever found an objective measuring stick for what is good. He didn't check with me. About fifteen or twenty years ago I came up with this idea: That which is good is that which has positive survival value for the human species; that which is evil is that which has negative survival value for the human species.
I always welcome any discussion that points us in the direction of an objective code of morality, but I think Gibney overshoots his mark. He thinks the measure of morality is whether something contributes to the survival of "life in general," and that's where he misses the target. First of all, for life to survive, it isn't necessary that every species survive. In fact, there's plenty of evidence to suggest that life in general would have a much better chance of surviving on this planet if human life ceased to exist. Gibney says that in order to get from what "is" to what "ought" to be, we need to decide what we "want." I don't think many people would "want" to commit their lives to a moral regime that had so little concern for the survival of our species.
Thank you for publishing Gibney's article. He shows that there are a few of us working on a moral system that finds its authority in scientific evolution instead of the Bible.
I was really disappointed to be mischaracterised as a "moral regime that had so little concern for the survival of our species," so I did a bit of hunting after reading this to try and locate my accuser and discuss this with him. I discovered that Ray Sherman is a retired jazz pianist who was born in 1923 and has had a distinguished career as a musician performing with various bands on tv shows and at live gigs around the world. His only philosophical writings that I could find, however, consisted of two self-attributed quotes on a section of his personal webpage that listed quotes he likes from other philosophers. I did also find a nice youtube playlist though that he's made of his performances that are available online, so perhaps listening to one of his jaunty little ditties in the background will make his rough replies to my attempts at dialogue go down a little smoother. To do that, click play on the video below and then read our unedited back and forth.
On Sun, 30 Aug 2015, Edward Gibney <firstname.lastname@example.org> wrote:
Hello Ray - I saw your letter to the editor in the latest edition of Humanist magazine and thought I’d try to find you to reply to your concerns about my philosophy article “Proposing an Objective, Godless Basis for Morality.” First, let me thank you for reading my article and taking the time to write your thoughts about it. I do what I do so I can engage with others about these ideas and you have helped me do that.
First, I should apologise for the inaccurate phrasing in my short magazine article. In that piece I said, "Is there an objective measuring stick for what is good? Until now, no one has ever found one.” I was discussing the history of moral philosophy when I said this, so I meant that no published philosophical account for an objective definition of “good" has been accepted by the field. I can’t possibly claim that “no one” has said what I’ve said before (or something even better)—that would be impossible to know—but I took it in good faith that my meaning was understood. Likewise, I don’t think you can reasonably claim that I should have “checked with you” before writing my articles, seeing as how you haven’t published these thoughts anywhere I can find but in a single quote on your personal website, but I see your definition of good now though, so let’s talk about it.
You say that “good is that which has positive survival for the human species” and you believe that I overshot the mark by claiming “the measure of morality is whether something contributes to the survival of ‘life in general.’” First, I should acknowledge that this is an accurate literal representation of what I am claiming. You seem to misconstrue the meaning of this though when you state that this is “a moral regime that has so little concern for the survival of our species.” On the contrary! I think the survival of our species is incredibly important (more important than religious rights or economic freedom, for example), especially since we are the only current species that would be able to save us all from something dire like an impending asteroid strike. Because of this, our survival concerns may be weighted as more important than those of, say, a tropical leech, but I think we have to be really careful about valuing our non-existential concerns (again, economic freedom as an example) over the survival concerns of other species. Because all of life is so enmeshed in an intricate web of support, and we are indeed just a subset of "life in general”, if you concern yourself with the survival of humans, you have to concern yourself with the survival of other forms of life. For that reason, there is a great deal of overlap between your definition of good and mine. When we truly do what is good for the very-long-term survival of humanity, we are obliged to take care of much of the rest of life as well. I fear that stating good and evil in purely human terms though can lead to overweighting of minor human concerns when comparing them to the concerns of other species. It doesn’t have to be that way, but it’s enough of a cause for concern for me to prefer not to use the term “humanism.” (See, for example, how you as a humanist were quick to jump on my argument and assume I had little concern for the survival of humans.)
Now, to show why the leap to my larger definition for good is necessary, I like to use a simple thought experiment. Imagine a sci-fi scenario where humans discovered a new substance that gave us feelings of tremendous happiness for 20 years, but then, unbeknownst to us, the substance degraded and began to dissolve all carbon molecule bonds in our bodies. Such a substance, if it were to be let loose in the world, would destroy all life as we know it. But because the first 15 years of the use of this substance went so well, every human on earth had consumed it. So, in this thought experiment, the survival of humanity is over. We screwed up big time. But the survival of life is still in the balance. What would be the “good” thing to do? Moral concerns wouldn’t just disappear. We would feel compelled to act for the survival of life in general (by jettisoning our contaminated bodies into space for example). The biggest possible picture is the fundamental base upon which morality is built. Any smaller concerns can always be enlarged somewhere in an imagined scenario. Do you see what I’m actually arguing for now?
PS I enjoyed listening to some of your youtube videos while I wrote this. Congratulations on having had such a long and distinguished piano playing career!
On Thu, 3 Sep 2015, email@example.com wrote:
I think that maybe the most important "good" in your article is that you maybe got through to the AHA VIPs the idea that one can't tell people "Good Without God" without telling them what "good" means.
Regarding "checking with me" about an objective measuring stick for what is good, I couldn't resist needling you a little for a statement that seemed to me a trifle arrogant. (Maybe you've taken too many of those self-promotion courses.)
"...if you concern yourself with the survival of humans, you have to concern yourself with the survival of other forms of life." Exactly right! Why did you assume that I didn't include that concern as something that has "positive survival value for the human species"?
Regarding your thought experiment, you say that if our species was deemed to be doomed, "We would feel compelled to act for the survival of life in general." How do you know that?
Yes, I do see what you're actually arguing for. You want the survival of our species to be of secondary concern (at best) to the survival of life in general. According to my definition of good and evil, that position would be considered to have negative survival value for the human species, and therefore evil.
On Thu, 3 Sep 2015, Edward Gibney <firstname.lastname@example.org> wrote:
Hello Ray. I’ll respond to your questions because if one wants to have one’s philosophical ideas taken seriously, one should seriously attempt to engage with others and their ideas...
"(Maybe you've taken too many of those self-promotion courses.)”
Definitely not. That’s a different generation.
"...if you concern yourself with the survival of humans, you have to concern yourself with the survival of other forms of life." Exactly right! Why did you assume that I didn't include that concern as something that has "positive survival value for the human species”?"
I did no such thing. I merely clarified my own point and said that "I fear that stating good and evil in purely human terms though can lead to overweighting of minor human concerns when comparing them to the concerns of other species.” I still don’t know how carefully you would decide between the competing desires of humans and other forms of life. Would you back something like the “half earth idea” that E.O. Wilson is soon to publish a book about? (See here: https://theconversation.com/setting-aside-half-the-earth-for-rewilding-the-ethical-dimension-46121)
"Regarding your thought experiment, you say that if our species was deemed to be doomed, "We would feel compelled to act for the survival of life in general." How do you know that?”
Because the evolutionary history of life on earth shows that we were all kin at some point. We care deeply about the well-being and survival of other species that we are cooperating with. Have you never loved a dog or a forest? Would you not want them to go on when you are gone? If the possibility of our own survival disappeared in a truly bleak scenario like my thought experiment, our concern for our other extended kin would still remain. In my scenario, if one were to insist upon the destruction of the rest of life for the sake of, let’s say, one more day of human existence (not survival, we know we’re a goner), that would be the very definition of selfish, destructive, and therefore immoral and evil behaviour. I believe humans would be better than that, and I surely think we *ought* to be. Do you disagree? Why?
Arguing in good faith,
On Fri, 4 Sep 2015, email@example.com wrote:
I'm not too crazy about dogs, but I do like forests—but not to the degree that I would allow my species to be destroyed to preserve them.
I don't like to argue. I'll just point out what I believe to be the basic flaw in your approach to morality—your approach is based on sentiment, not reason ("Have you never loved a dog or a forest?"). It's not objective, as is your claim. You've substituted nature worship for God worship.
I don't expect you to concede my point, and I don't expect my information to have any effect on your approach to morality.
I think we should just agree to disagree.
On Fri, 4 Sep 2015, Edward Gibney <firstname.lastname@example.org> wrote:
Sorry Ray, I don’t want to hector you so I’ll keep this short and not expect a response. You took the time to write a public rebuke of my argument though so I thought I would give you the chance to discuss this before I make my response public as well.
There are two basic strategies when faced with confrontation: compete or cooperate. I am trying to cooperate with you because I think we have very much in common and we have very many common enemies. I don’t want to “argue” in the sense you are using; I just want to discuss and discover our arguments until misunderstandings have been removed and a truth becomes evident. Unfortunately, I feel you still misunderstand me and aren’t making much effort to remove me from a preconceived notion you have.
In no way have I ever advocated for destroying my species to preserve others. I only point out we need to cooperate with others to survive ourselves. I have not substituted nature worship for God worship.
As David Hume said, reason is the slave of the passions. Without sentiment, we would be computers with no motivation for our reason. I am arguing that our sentiments *ought* to be directed toward an objective outcome—the survival of life over evolutionarily long timeframes. That is not a subjective goal like well-being, or happiness; that’s the biggest objective goal we can and must have so it must be satisfied before any other goal can be striven for. Hence my claim that my rules for morality are objective. That doesn’t mean they don’t elicit feelings. A sense of morality *is* an emotion.
I’m sorry if you still disagree with this and no longer want to discuss it. Perhaps you should stay away from philosophy and philosophers if that is the case.
How sad to be called "evil" by someone who seems so close to being on the same side. But it just goes to show that even once the supernatural explanations of gods are thrown off, it still takes quite a leap to recognise the natural connections that exist between realms of life and realms of morality, which are one and the same thing. As a quick reminder of the realms of life, here they are in ascending order of size and magnitude of time:
(1) Biochemistry → (2) molecular biology → (3) cellular biology → (4) organismic biology → (5) sociobiology → (6) ecology → (7) evolutionary biology.
At least I can give Mr. Sherman credit for not being stuck with his moral concerns in a small subsection of level 5 by chiefly caring about the needs of one society of religion vs. that of another. Because of his age, and having grown up before the modern environmental movements, I could almost forgive him for not expanding his concerns beyond those of our society of humans to the levels of ecologies changing over evolutionary timelines. But there have been others, older than him, who saw this need.
For example, I recently finished Aldo Leopold's wonderful A Sand County Almanac, which included many marvellous passages building up a description of his Land Ethic. Leopold was born in 1887, just twenty-eight years after the publication of On the Origin of Species, yet in his lifetime he wrote such things as:
The extension of ethics, so far studied only by philosophers, is actually a process in ecological evolution. Its sequences may be described in ecological as well as in philosophical terms. An ethic, ecologically, is a limitation on freedom of action in the struggle for existence. An ethic, philosophically, is a differentiation of social from anti-social conduct. These are two definitions of one thing.
[Ethics] has its origin in the tendency of interdependent individuals or groups to evolve modes of co-operation. The ecologist calls these symbioses. Politics and economics are advanced symbioses in which the original free-for-all competition has been replaced, in part, by cooperative mechanisms with an ethical content.
The first ethics dealt with the relation between individuals. ... Later accretions dealt with the relation between the individual and society. ... There is as yet no ethic dealing with man's relation to land and to the animals and plants which grow upon it. ... The extension of ethics to this third element in human environment is, if I read the evidence correctly, an evolutionary possibility and an ecological necessity.
All ethics so far evolved rest upon a single premise: that the individual is a member of a community of interdependent parts. His instincts prompt him to compete for his place in that community, but his ethics prompt him also to co-operate (perhaps in order that there may be a place to compete for). The land ethic simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively: the land.
A land ethic changes the role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it. It implies respect for his fellow-members and also respect for the community as such. In human history, we have learned (I hope) that the conqueror role is eventually self-defeating. Why? Because it is implicit in such a role that the conqueror knows, ex cathedra, just what makes the community clock tick, and just what and who is valuable, and what and who is worthless, in community life. It always turns out that he knows neither, and this is why his conquests eventually defeat themselves.
The ecological fundamentals of agriculture are just as poorly known to the public as in other fields of land-use. For example, few educated people realise that the marvellous advances in technique made during recent decades are improvements in the pump, rather than the well.
In all these cleavages, we see repeated the same basic paradoxes: man the conqueror versus man the biotic citizen; science the sharpener of his sword versus science the searchlight on his universe; land the slave and servant versus land the collective organism.
Perhaps the most serious obstacle impeding the evolution of a land ethic is the fact that our educational and economic system is headed away from, rather than toward, an intense consciousness of land. Your true modern is separated from the land by many middlemen, and by innumerable physical gadgets. He has no vital relation to it; to him it is a space between cities on which crops grow.
A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.
As the ethical frontier advances from the individual to the community, its intellectual content increases.
And with that, I'll stop this long post and wait some more for the Ray Shermans of this word to increase the intellectual content of their ethical frontiers and stop trying to conquer the world rather than live in cooperation with it. If you've read this far, you probably agree with me and Aldo Leopold and hopefully have some advice on how best to engage others and pull them along in this ethical growth process. If so, please share your tips in the comments below. I'll be glad to get them.