Could nature really have got it so wrong?

Part 1.

Andre Comte-Sponville is professor of philosophy at the Sorbonne and the author of 5 scholarly works on classical philosophy — we cannot surely doubt that this man knows his stuff, then! So when one reads his Little Book of Philosophy one can feel assured that one is getting the real story from one of the best minds in the business, if not the world as a whole, for surely the business of philosophy is thinking and so if there are any people in the world who KNOW about thinking and are expert at it, it has to be philosophers.

He starts the book in the usual way by asking, and answering the question: what is philosophy? — and in the process, again as usual, finds it is the highest achievement of humanity — I won’t deal with the introduction, though there is much to deal with, but will go straight to the first chapter: Ethics.

Ethics is defined as rules derived from reason that a person imposes upon himself for the good of humanity. These rules are nothing to do with the law, or with the fear of censure but are purely the product of reason.

For example, one might reason that if everyone in the world allowed themselves to tell lies all the time, then society would collapse and any sort of decent life would be impossible. Thus one might conclude that it is immoral to tell lies. A similar process might be applied to acts such as stealing and murder etc so that these, too, might be classed as immoral.

The rule of reason is, of course, fundamental to all of philosophy. But in the case of ethics, reason must over-ride instinct, intuition, personal desire etc. This supposes that people are basically evil, or at least, have a natural desire to do wrong: if we did not have desires and instincts that would have us doing wrong, then there would be no need of ethics at all.

It also supposes that if there is a conflict between what a person feels instinctively compelled to do and what reason tells him is ‘morally’ correct, then it is what reason tells him to do that is right. That is to say that reason can deduce what is good for humanity better than instinct, intuition etc.

The natural world uses instinct and desire and intuition and operates so successfully that it has turned a barren rock, the early Earth, into a place that teems with life in ever richer variety and abundance. The success of nature in creating all the wealth of living things that covers the Earth is spectacular and incontestable — or so you would think, yet philosophers disagree. They are saying that THEY know better than nature and that without the rules worked out by reason, humanity could not survive???

Consider a practical example: where nature has produced a bird, reason (natural philosophy = physics) has come up with an aeroplane. As far as the art of flying goes, nature’s flying machines are incomparably better than man’s.

OK, so man has produced some juggernauts of the air, but nature has seen flying as a personal matter and has not seen fit to produce creatures whose sole purpose is to transport other creatures around the world — in other words, if man has produced a few things that nature has not, then it is not because nature CANNOT, but because it just HAS not, and if it did ‘chose’ to evolve massive flyers, or space faring creatures, then all the evidence says that it would make an incomparably better job of it than humanity.

But there are other ways in which the natural creature is way better than the human imitation: birds look after themselves and they reproduce themselves and they will change and adapt and evolve without any effort on anybody’s part. Planes are VERY HIGH MAINTENANCE, and they require huge amounts of time, effort, and fuel and they have short lives and when they have to go onto the rubbish heap a replacement has to be built, and if any improvements or changes are to be made then huge numbers of people have to spend huge amounts of time and effort in ‘thinking’ up the ideas etc.

To return to ethics: if we behave naturally, ie if we allow ourselves to be ruled by instinct, intuition and desire, then decisions are effortless and we do not have to be thinking and questioning ourselves and our behaviour all the time. On the other hand, if we decide that our ‘nature’ should be over-ruled by our reason, then we must put a great deal of effort and time into thinking, and into remembering what we have decided, and into updating those decisions in the light of new ideas; in other words, we are replacing an effortless, maintenance free system which constantly updates and renews itself with a very effortful, high maintenance one that resides in books which become precious because they do not renew themselves but just decay and can be lost with the loss of all the huge construct that is humanity’s ethical systems……………………

……………nature’s way is OBVIOUSLY by far and away the more practical one, and it may be that the very impracticability of human ethics makes the system unfeasible right from the start.

(Could nature really have got it so wrong?)

Part 2.

Then there is the idea that our natural instincts must be wrong; if they were not, then there would be no need of ethics, no need to over-ride them with rules that are derived from reason. I have already dealt with the practicalities: that like them or not, the rules of nature are far more practical than ethical systems and, in addition, have been proven successful. What then can ‘wrong’ mean?

Let us consider a man-made ethic that does not APPEAR to appear in nature: compassion. Is it good to show compassion for and to succour the weak, the poor, the sick? I think the first problem is that one cannot make a blanket rule — one cannot know how to treat a weak person if one does not know WHY they are weak.

If a person is weak because they have some psychological malfunction, then to ‘show compassion’ for their weakness may just be to sustain and even encourage the illness. Can it really be called ‘compassion’ when one sustains and worsens another person’s condition of illness?

Some people simulate weakness in order to get other people to do things for them. Surely it cannot be good to encourage and support that sort of behaviour?

I could go on and on, but the point I am making is that an outward manifestation of weakness may hide a multitude of inner ‘sins’ or causes, and how can one know how to respond to weakness if one does not know what has caused it? Without knowing the cause one may make things worse rather than better.

So philosophers are making rules to govern behaviour when they do not actually know what causes behaviour and why specific behaviours happen. Under those conditions, their rules are quite likely to do more harm than good. They have ‘discovered’ this complex and exotic creature, the human mind, which they know next to nothing about, so that they do not know what nurtures and nourishes it, nor what makes it sick, do not know what conditions it needs in order to thrive and grow, do not know what it can do nor what it is unfit to do, and yet they are using pure reason to come up with a set of rules that they would impose upon it’s behaviour!!!

Do they even know the consequences of over-riding natural impulses, instincts, desires etc? It is written into their prognostications that in fact, you can tamper with the human mind, can play around with it to your hearts content without damaging it at all.

I ask you: does this fall short of lunacy?

It seems to me that if philosophers must do something, they would do better to start from the basis that nature has got it right and then try to understand why people behave the way they do, rather than working from the basis that nature has got it wrong and that we should over-ride nature with our own rules.

So: do you think that people are violent and destructive because they are having unnatural rules imposed upon their behaviour, or are they naturally violent and destructive and in need of rules to curb their behaviour?

I generally agree, but as far as compassion goes, I disagree. Compassion towards the weak as a general principle is a societal, progression, arising out of an apparent self concern individuals tend to extend as social policy. Early religious dogma the likes of which- treat your neighbor as you would like to be treated, seems like a natural inherent capacity for projected self care. So if we were to argue generalizations, the airplane/bird analogy may work, however ethics is not such an easy mark, simply because ethical considerations and social contracts are an anomalie.

We cannot justify the weaknesses of ethical considerations, merely there are ways to wrongly utilize ethical systems, or by the argument that ethicists may not truly understand the motives behind the singular interpretations of them.

Ethics is more than old forgotten books going to dust, they are tools for survival, and if policy won’t have it, individuals will singularly band together to invent their own.

Well, so far ethics are proving so far to be singularly ineffective, one might even say counterproductive, as tools for survival — this world is in apocalypse, after all. You’ll never reason your way out of apocalypse. Ethics may allow you to go down with a good cosncience, but deal with the problem, abandon ethics and reason and you may actually rise again, untroubled by any conscience, unangered by feeling you are having to do things you don’t really want to, unangered by rules and regulations that you are expected to impose upon yourself in addition to all the other rules and regulation imposed on you by society, all carefully thought out by the best philosophers, but all just generating anger, depression, conflict and all sorts of other evils which comprise the wasting disease that is taking humanity to its Doom. I have no intention of joining the apocalypse — I rather enjoy sitting here on the sidelines watching you dig and dig and dig your own graves, admiring all the while the wonderful conceit and sefl-righteousness you display while you weild the shovel and which stops you from letting go of the shovel.

You seem to be assuming that all desires are unethical ones; this is not necessarily the case. However, it doesn’t seem controversial to claims that ethics is about overriding selfish desires.

Given that the world is a very complicated place, doesn’t it require some sort of supernatural action in order to have instincts or irrational desires always suggest to people to do what is best?

As far as biological success goes, bacteria beat everything. Few, if any, humans want to live like bacteria. So perhaps looking to the biological world for a guide to life is foolish.

How is this practical in any way? Humans can fly in airplanes, they cannot fly in birds.

Despite your claims of “nature”, you really seem to be talking about the supernatural.

You seem to be ignoring the way that birds evolve: through selective dying. Evolution proceeds because a lot of things die and those that do not die earlier than others tend to pass along certain characteristics related to not dying. This is a very, very inefficient means of maintaining any particular being.

Sure, if one ignores the evidence, then one can come to grossly incorrect conclusions.

Selective dying? Any more of this drivel and I might select dying myself!!! Is that what you mean by selective dying: a process used by idiots to force those of normal ability and intelligence to do away with themselves so that the idiots may inherit the earth? My. It IS working. Idiots ARE inheriting the earth. That’s whay we are in apocalypse.

The apocalypso:

A beautiful bunch, a ripe banana
(Daylight come and me wan’ go home)
Highly the deadly, black tarantula
(Daylight come and me wan’ go home)

Lift six foot, seven foot, eight foot bunch
Daylight come and me wan’ go home
Six foot, seven foot, eight foot bunch
Daylight come and me wan’ go home

Day, me say day-o
Daylight come and me wan’ go home

Day, me say day, me say day, me say day, me say day, me say day
(Daylight come and me wan’ go home)

Come, Mister tally man, tally me banana
Daylight come and me wan’ go home
Come, Mister tally man, tally me banana
Daylight come and me wan’ go home

Day-o, day-o,
Daylight come and me wan’ go home,

Day, me say day, me say day, me say day, me say day, me say day-o

Daylight come and me wan’ go home

Keep it civil, please. If you have a different understanding of natural selection, please share it.

Your assumption also seems to be that ethics is unnatural behaviour.

Apocalypse? Did nature got it wrong when it failed to selectively breed transporting flying apparatus? The question is, how can we presume that actual airplanes are not the outgrowth and extension of birds of flight?

The idea of flight is implicit in both, and whether a bird flies on it’s own, or a plane carry others, makes not enough difference as far as the principles involved. Man himself is natural, a creation of selective evolution, man’s products simulate natures on principle. So I do not get the neatly divided natural versus man made production.

Arguably, the cataclysm may be implied by the fact, that some of man made products, by their intrinsic design, are increasingly lethal, and may bring on the biblically predicted end stage scenarios of human extinction.

But even with this view in mind, haven’t technology reached such applications, that the very possession of those ascertain their future non use, hence enabling at last, the end to ultimate aggression? The weapons of mass destruction have a built in caveat like function of deterrence.

The aggressive nature of man, ultimately, instead of sinking man into an unquenchable thirst of evil and selfishness, may in fact be eliminated, by the dawn of a realization of the uselessness and counter productiveness of aggressive behavior.

So maybe nature got it right, after all, however admittedly, the long winding road of such painfully begotten realization arising out of the ashes of the Phoenix like novelty of a new world.

I’m sorry that you are completely ignorant of evolution. That’s OK, you can read about it in many, many textbooks on the subject.

People have been making that claim for over 2500 years. Given that you don’t seem very educated on the topics you speak on, I see no reason to believe your claim now.

Emm… No.

What hurts you is what you didn’t see coming.
The eternal arrogance of Man is that he blindly convinces himself that he can now see it all.
…until it’s too late to stop what he wasn’t seeing.

Homosapian has, in a sense, already annihilated himself.
He just hasn’t seen it coming yet. And won’t until he is no longer in charge of anything to prevent what he has done.

Well, as you can see below this is clearly not the case…

This seems like a bit of a strawman. Her point seems more like it can work well without ethics, and she points to nature to show this is the case for other species.

This is also a strawman. Our instincts and desires are not the same as bacteria, so if we followed our desires and instincts were would not live like bacteria.

I don’t think it seems this way.

I think the basic argument that most species do fine without ethics is not a kooky one,nor does it require supernatural entities or phenomena. In fact it is likely a naturalist position. It is certainly not the position of most religions, for example. It seems to me she is saying that desires have evolved and distrusting them/going against them bears the burden of proof at the very least.

Further ethics and moral have led to incredible atrocities, where acts that would go against instincts, are justified, always in ethical terms (at least also). The treatment of religious others or racial others or cultural others, for example. Or the arguments for war or ‘rights’ to the property of others. IOW in any situation where a social mammal’s instinctive empathy might be critical of systematic mistreatment of other humans, ethical thinking has been brought in to overcome this - by saying it is OK because those other humans are notreally human, or we are an advanced nation so we have the right to control and kill those of lesser civilizations and so on.

Ethical reasoning has also affected the way children and member’s of one’s own society are treated and controlled, often in unnecessary or even really quite horrible ways.

I am not arguing that ethics always does this, but I wonder if it 1) ends up doing as much harm as good and 2) if the very desires and instincts it is trying to control and distrusts, express themselves anyway via the ethics- often with the added disadvantage of allowing for mass killing, single abstract rules can be made to justify this in ways that simply relying on desires may not be as effective - since this also allows social primate empathy to be ‘heard’ also, and also the disadvantage of making everything an issue, rather than letter the individual organism(human in this case) simply follow those desires. Thellatter seems more her focus.

It seems like you came at her post in a rather uncharitable manner with some assumptions about what she is really on about - something supernatural.

It seems likey your objection to her position on evolution accepts that ethics is outside of evolution. It seems to me a better response would be considering them natural - and research into primates and other social mammals would support that. And that raises interesting issues.

Two things about Dragon’s OP: No human can ever achieve pure reason. It’s impossible because of the way the human mind works. The mind is influenced by too many things, from genetics to the past that occurred to the individual; i.e., memory.

The second is that humans are more naturally empathic and compassionately kind than they are violent. This is apparent in small children. Unfortunately, once past the age of 2-3, society in the form of their parents and family starts to instill society’s mores and ethic. How this plays out in the individual depends on the culture in which the child is raised.

There have been too many studies published to name them. Try researching them on your own. I’ve done so and I believe most wild animals, other than some primates, kill to eat. If not hungry, the lion will share a water hole with the antelope.

Does that mean all rules and ethical guidelines should be thrown away? Of course not. No two people are alike. Don’t treat people as you want them to treat you–you’re two different people. You might not like the way you’re treated.

But what she wrote was that instinct and irrational desires work better to navigate the world than reason. Instinct and irrational desire drives dogs to drink antifreeze. They love antifreeze and it poisons them.

Evolution works to shape the behaviors of animals by killing those that don’t perform well in their environment sooner than those that do. This is not a good model for self-improvement.

She wished to use nature as a judge of success. If she now wishes to use some other standard that relates to human happiness or well-being, then she is not using nature.

Perhpas you have a supernatural view of nature?

The argument is not that there exist populations of organisms that thrive without ethics, the argument is that humans should exist without ethics.

One cannot have atrocities without ethics. Are you suggesting that we simply give up and get rid of ethics in order to avoid failing to meet ethical standards?

So speaks a philosopher! Anyone with even half their mind intact would be doing what I am doing as I read this: laughing at the absurdity, at the amazing fankles philosophers create, at their self-induced inability to actually ever come to a conclusion about anything.

This from the same person who declares than no one can be certain of anything??? :confused:

  Yes, but with absolute certainty!

Sure, their systems were not prepared for people leaving anti-freeze around where they could drink it. So we have a domesticated animal failing to deal with a radically different thing then their genetics has prepared them for. But if we are looking at canines, in general they are doing fine based on instinct, emotion and very limted cognition. If I take the OP as polemic, the actual position may not be the complete eradication of intellect, but that intellect has moved into all sorts of areas where it second guesses instincts and emotions and desires and that this is problematic.

You’re not a libertarian I imagine. Anyway, I agree. I mean, my position is not the absolute one presented in the OP. But I Think the absolute one raises interesting issues. I do Think that we often rationalize our way to killing or letting die the weak, so it is not necessarily any protection. Just to add, animals do learn, even as individuals. I am assuming you are right about anti-freeze and it sounds like there is no Learning curve for the individual on that one. But other things animals can learn. For me the issue is how much have we been trained to question our own desires, urges, emotions, in ways that are destructive to Life and its quality. Distrust levels vary - but interestingly religions and extremely rational professions like science and engineering actually tend to agree on the levels of distrusting emotions and desires, though for different reasons and with different cultural manifestations.

This is also a strawman. Our instincts and desires are not the same as bacteria, so if we followed our desires and instincts were would not live like bacteria.
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Again, what is natural to us, our desires and emotions, is not natural to the bacteria. So it doesn’t make sense. She is not saying we should look at the most successful species - which is a floppy concept anyway - and then do what that one does. But rather notice that following their natures is working for other species just fine, even though this manifests itself differently for differenet species. Rats are doing much better than many songbirds, but songbirds cannot live in the walls of houses. It does not work with ‘their’ nature.

Perhpas you have a supernatural view of nature?

Right I got that. And most naturalists would say we are animals. So raising the issue of why only we need ethics is not silly.
Part of the way I reacted to your posts in this thread was because you dismissed out of hand, I thought, used arguments that did not fit her position, accused her of having ‘really’ a supernatural belief behind this, when in fact she is making a kindof naturalist argument and one much, much more often used by people who are atheists and rather skeptical about supernatural entities.

Nope, I am saying that if the issue is preventing what those who Believe there should be ethics this should be prevented, then it needs to be demonstrated: that ethics has improved things like the way humans relate to other humans. Which is why I raised the issue of how much damage is done in the name of good actions, and then further raise the issue of 'does the urge to steal, take, kill, etc., simply manifest anyway but with ethical justification?

We can look as say, see those people did not kill because of their ethics, but then, would they have killed? Was it only their ethics that prevented this? Might not empathy have stopped them? Fear? To commit atrocities you generally need to convince people that ‘really’ it is for the good, so they can ignore some of their natural reactions to violence.

I suppose I Think these are important issues to raise beause in my lifetime I have seen a tremendous shift towards treating our natures and something to be fixed so that society runs the way it ‘should’. Rather than the other way around. Thinking of such things as the ever increasing psychotropic medication of more and more of the population, coupled with plans genetically manipulate humans. And yes, I Think eliminating certain diseases with gene therapy can be fine. I am thinking about all the plans to modify humans with the ever increasing set of mental illnesses that are, as the name implies, considered to be individual pathologies, more and more, rather than potentially arising due to non-individual factors.

When I was kid the USSR was contrasted with the US by saying that the Citizens there had to live for the society. They had to adjust to the good of the society and their individual desires were not really important. That contrast has faded radically. Our natures are more and more being seen as the problem.

Right. So let’s abandon this inane idea that human instincts should be used to navigate the world around us. Dogs are a newer species than we are.

I think we agree then, that if we are picking and choosing our standards of success, then perhaps we should but some thought into it rather than merely shouting “HUMAN NATURE!”

I can see why you might think that, but you are mis-interpreting. Again, I can hear the philosopher getting into a fankle. It really is much easier if you abandon…I was going to say “your reason”, but that would not do it. It goes deeper. Your focus is all wrong. You need to focus on truth. This is profoundly true, and if you were to desire truth above evrything, strange to say, all the muddle and confusion would drop away and the simple truth would emerge clear and unambiguous and bright. But as I say, you have to be pure in intention. There is no other way but to want to know the truth above everything.

This is a philosophy forum, not a mysticism forum. You are welcome to criticise philosophy and philosophers as much as you like, but if you can’t defend and argue your positions but just proclaim your correctness or proselytise, you’ll be accorded the same treatment as a troll.