Monday, 4 November 2013

The Golden Rule

Because I am, on occasion, a rather sad individual, I’ve spent a bit of time recently reading books about God. Ok, two books. For about 30 seconds each. And one was just parroting the other. But still, the point stands. 

The first point both books raised was centred on what Kant calls the Golden Rule (note to philosophers – I know nothing of Kant. Please don’t talk to me about Kant, unless we are in a pub. Although, thinking about it, I’m not sure philosophers exist outside pubs. If a philosopher leaves a pub, do they make a sound?) Namely, 

“Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.” 

Although apparently that is Kant’s Categorical Imperative, and not the Golden Rule. I am now confused. Whatever. Basically, to go all Judeo-Christian on your ass:

"Do to no one what you yourself dislike." —Tobit 4:15

Ah, bollocks, that’s apparently the Silver Rule, on account of being phrased negatively. Matthew 22:39 (see also Antonio, Merchant of Venice, Act I:III), that’s the ticket:

“And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.”

Both C.S. Lewis and Francis Collins (the first a reformed atheist and charming orator, the second an amazing geneticist) contend that the universality of the Golden Rule (seriously, Wikipedia it, it’s bloody everywhere) argues for a unifying morality of humankind that crosses all boundaries of separation, and as such a heavenly Father passing commandment from on high. Furthermore, both assert that an instinct to obey such a rule cannot evolve from the selfish ways of evolution (which, as we all know, drives us all to eat babies on spits).

I don’t agree (that may have been obvious). There is no reason an instinct of cooperation cannot evolve – evolution requires only that a trait is advantageous to its bearer in a given environment (and that is not disadvantageous in any environment to which the bearer is exposed). Let us hypothesise that humans evolved in small groups. That seems reasonable, given that most evidence points to such being the case. In this environment, any individual is liable to encounter any other individual again, probably next Wednesday. If I trod on Bert’s hairy foot last week and then waggled my penis at him when he got angry, it’s quite probable he won’t share his squirrel-on-a-spit with me next week when my mammoth trap (involving a matchstick, a piece of chocolate and REALLY BIG colander) goes tits-up. Therefore, a basic rule of “don’t be a dick” is probably suited to living in a small group, and breaking the rule will lead to punishment and ejection. The concern of why there is a feeling of guilt attached to breaking the rule is similar to why sexual release is nice – disgust is a powerful dissuader, just as pleasure is strongly encouraging. If we make the rule a little more complex, say, “if Bob is mean three times, no-one give him any food for a month”, then there is a strong social selective pressure against Bob being repeatedly mean, and feeling like dirt is an effective way to enforce that.

A final word, and a little bit of heresy (my feet are cold and being burned at the stake sounds kinda warming right now). I don’t think the Golden Rule need be evolutionarily beneficial to have arisen and become characteristic in humans. Even worse, I’m going to say two words, for the use of which my old lecturers would have me taken outside and shot; group selection (*dramatic chord*). I think it works in humans; unlike (as far as we know) every other animal on this planet, communication and memory allow us transgenerational transmission of cultural pressures and rules, and highly effective within-group behaviours. If the head of the group establishes a rule, “don’t be a dick”, and can effectively enforce that rule to the good of the group (no hissing at the back), I see no reason why that rule cannot maintain and become fixed within the group, even if it is to the detriment of most of the individuals therein.

There I’ve said it. Grab the faggots (behave), pour the petrol – I wanna BURN.

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