Evil Animals?
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Human Ideals

Does human nature display the influence of the same instinctive forces affecting other social animals? It is clear that it does. We desire space of our own, and get angry and defensive when it is intruded. We want (according to our preference) sexual adventures or a lifelong partner. We contribute to society in order to earn money to exchange for food and goods. Our motives draw in part from these instinctive pressures, but they are far from being the only influence upon us.

Over the millennia, humanity has expanded and supplanted the basic set of moral capabilities found in our animal relatives. Justice expands the notion of fairness, honesty extends trust into the realm of language and generosity builds upon reciprocity. Moderation and prudence use imagined ideals to hold instincts in check. We have been able to do so because unlike other animals (as far as we know) humans can form ideals concerning how activities ought to take place. These ideal notions also significantly affect our motivations. It is because we can imagine different ways of doing things that we are capable of forming moral judgements at all: imagining ideal cases allows us to form a concept of what is good.

Imagination also allows us to form negative ideals concerning the wrong way to behave, and in the most extreme cases we judge certain actions evil. To kill someone for any reason but self-defence is usually considered murder, which is deemed evil. It is because we hold common ideals in respect of how we could or should behave that we have ethics, and this in part rests on abstract language skills that utilise imagination. Other animals use language, but they only name immediate things – prairie dogs have a word for hawk, dog, deer and antelope, and even adjectives for colour, size and speed; they do not have words for 'right' or for 'good'.

Part 9 of 23 in the Pentenary series.


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I like this topic. The Dawkinsian spiel will be spared here.

I was lately reading about the moral philosophy of John Dewey, one of his contributions to ethics reflected the era of his life. At the start of his life, he lived in the post-Civil war and by the time of his death began the Cold War.

One notion that I learned from him (that I found personally challenging) is that the old Enlightenment ways of thinking of morality (not that I accuse you of this) are no longer relevant. Ethical deliberation is no longer a matter of finding the sole principle and then making morality a logic box or sausage machine where decisions are made.

To live in the social world is to deal with change. Not just the changes that happen that are part of all animal life, such as death, sudden tragedy, population change, the introduction of predators, and resource management (of course these are pertinent); but the influence of Technology into our lives.

Where do ideals come when we talk about disability, for instance? In a previous age, great athletes would not have been forged out of training and sheer determination, simply because they had a disability. Paralympians challenge the notion of the physical in refreshing and interesting ways. There is an ethical thesis known as 'perfectionism' which denotes that the greatest wellbeing comes from an inner notion of perfection or eminence (how that is explained or realised is a topic of a further critical enquiry).

Human ideals change. Technologies allow serious game changing moves where the former 'predators' or the top lion can become the lackey. To paraphrase Eddie Murphy in Coming to America: it is cultural tradition that things must change.

Fond Regards,

P.S. I really want to have an RSS feed for your comments, but I cant work out how to do it on this blog..

Michael: I read some Dewey a few years back and seemed to get nothing from it. I was disappointed as he was hugely influential, so I was left feeling as if I'd missed something. That said, I got 5 pages of quotes from it, so perhaps I've merely forgotten what I got from it.

One quote that struck me was: "A culture which permits science to destroy traditional values but which distrusts its power to create new ones is a culture which is destroying itself..."

Actually, looking through the quotes I did get, it's packed full of dynamite stuff - and very relevant to some of the themes in the Pentenary. Hmmm... I guess it pays to revisit one's notes. :)

"Ethical deliberation is no longer a matter of finding the sole principle and then making morality a logic box or sausage machine where decisions are made."

Yes, when I read Kant's Groundwork on the Metaphysic of Morals, I was fortunate to have an edition with some excellent supplementary essays, and I was very much taken with Allen Wood's suggestion that Kant had been misunderstood when the categorical imperative was used as a "sausage machine" (his term) to crank out ethical rules. I believe it's clear that this isn't what Kant meant, even if Kant may also have believed to some extent this might have been possible. But nowadays we are a long way from believing in a "one size fits all" morality, I think. It is this area of 'relative ethics' that I try to explore with my own ethical philosophy.

"To live in the social world is to deal with change."

Certainly, although the extent of this has certainly accelerated over the millennia! :)

"P.S. I really want to have an RSS feed for your comments, but I cant work out how to do it on this blog.."

Well it turns out that I didn't have the option turned on. :) I have enabled it, but I think it only works on a per-post basis, there doesn't seem to be an option for a unified comment feed. I've asked TypePad though, so we'll see what happens.

All the best!

It looks like Opera gives me the option to suscribe to the Pentenary series as a whole or to replies to individual Pentenary posts.

Jon: Not had much experience of Opera outside of my iphone... I guess the option to subscribe to the Pentenary series as a whole emerges from the category tag "Pentenary", though.

Michael: I asked about better comment feed options and got the stock "we like to hear what our users want" reply, which means very little, I'm afraid.

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