Ethical Evolution: Rulers, Religions, and Reason
The moral rules that define ethics today did not emerge at any one moment in history; they are the result of the natural selection of behaviors created by societies which continued to adapt in such a way as to control selfishness within the population. These societies were selected over other, less altruistic societies, which could not move past the Cycle of Strife and therefore never developed the complex societal and ethical structures needed for technological and cultural development. For example, the leisure time needed to innovate technologically and culturally could not have been achieved if everyone was forced to grow and obtain their own food, and a class of farmers could not have formed or been sustained if not for the ethical principles which guide fair and equal trade (there would be no incentive to being a farmer if the farmer led a far worse existence than all other members of the society). The control of selfishness and the promotion of altruistic values is key to maintaining the stable growth of technologies, cultures, and populations.
There is an extremely basic altruistic and ethical principle that was meant to control selfishness: fairness. Men exchange goods and services with one another, provided that the other holds up his end of the bargain. Societies that could maintain this fairness grew because it allowed for specialization, innovation, and increased efficiency. Societies that could not keep selfishness in check remained within the Cycle of Strife, hurting and killing each other to obtain what they want. Many primitive societies were caught in the Cycle of Strife until they could organize themselves under a ruler, someone who would ensure that all men received their just reward and who would punish those who selfishly disobeyed the rules decided upon by the leader and the society.
This is a primal way of establishing order within a society; this sort of behavior can be observed in societies of organisms less complex than humans. The rule of the leader is primarily enforced by physical force; people obeyed and respected the leader due to some physical sway he held over the people; he was either himself physically powerful, or had a contingent of men ready to enforce his rule. This sort of society was subject to the Cycle of Strife so long as it had leaders that were either themselves too selfish or too weak to control the selfishness of others, eventually dying or being overthrown to start the cycle anew. If the society managed to progress and expand past this point, presumably the population would grow quite a bit, and the spread of selfishness would be more difficult to control.
While the threat of punishment is certainly quite the deterrent, selfish behavior cannot always be so easily monitored or controlled, and the task only gets more difficult as the population grows. Altruism and selfishness are innate personal traits and can only truly be controlled by the individual; punishment from other members – including the leader – is something that can be avoided. The regulation of selfishness needs to begin inside the individual; the individual must have some reason to want to be altruistic and not to be selfish beyond physical force. The easiest and most efficient way to do this with many people is through belief.
Nothing is more personal or powerful than belief. By making members of a society believe in some higher power, embodied either by the leader or by some unseen force, the members come to fear and revere this power as something unknown and unpredictable, something that can reward or punish their actions even when those actions go unobserved and unnoticed by other members of the society. The notion of judgement in the afterlife, of punishment or reward for one’s actions in life, is certainly a powerful force because it causes people to regulate their own actions of their own volition. In truth there isn’t much difference between the ruler stage and the religion stage; the religion stage merely promotes the concept of “ruler” and the ruler’s punishment and reward to a level more universal and powerful than any man can occupy. This is where the first standardized notions of good and evil come from: religion is a standardized belief system meant to promote better cooperation and less selfishness among a large group of people.
This stage of a society remains within the Cycle of Strife so long as people continue to argue about this unseen, Godly force; disagreement about the specifics of what constitutes “good” and what constitutes “evil” go on and on until some agreed upon notion of good and evil is arrived at. The reason that disagreement about this concept can hold up the progress of a society is because behind the notions of “good and evil” are the notions of how men should treat other men: essentially there is a masked debate about the ethical principles which should guide society forward. When such a concept is agreed upon, the society enjoys a period of increased cooperation and decreased strife, and therefore the society enjoys a state of increased fitness and growth. (see my series of posts on Standardization for more details as to why I believe this)
The next stage of ethical evolution is the formation of a higher or enlightened way of looking at the world: reason. With the overall increase of fitness (an increased standard of living) afforded by technological innovation and cultural progress (i.e. ethical evolution), there emerges a class of people who can devote their lives to the pursuit of academic enlightenment. These academics look at the world objectively and empirically, dissecting both the physical world (science) and the world of men (philosophy) so that it can be better understood. What emerges from the latter is an understanding of the principles of justice, fairness, and equality quite apart from religion. It is an image of altruism and selfishness that can be arrived at without having to believe in anything beyond the physical world, through the work and toil of reason alone, a concrete notion of ethics is born.
Reason is the next stage of ethical evolution that must supplant religion as the core of the understanding behind good and evil (altruism and selfishness). Society at the religious stage will always be caught up in the Cycle of Strife if it cannot come to agree upon a standardized notion of good and evil. And because the beliefs of men can vary so deeply and profoundly, it doesn’t seem the case that humans will ever move past it. For society to have increased fitness, it must have better cooperation and less selfishness among its people – this is what I have been arguing all along. The only way to do that is to find some way to agree.
The world is now occupied by many people of many different religions, all fighting to decide whose beliefs are the right ones. Just as religion became a standardized belief system to unite people under one flag of good and evil, thereby increasing altruism and decreasing selfishness, reason is a banner that all men can be united under because it is in the power of all men, regardless of personal belief, to reason. What reason offers is a understanding of good and evil, of altruism and selfishness, that all men can arrive at independently of their personal beliefs: they must simply see that there is a more universal perspective that supersedes the perspective of any one man.