The Key to Survival and Happiness


By John "Birdman" Bryant


In an earlier essay we argued that the belief in "absolute" morality is a prescription for disaster because -- among other reasons -- by allowing no exceptions to generally-agreed-upon moral laws such as "Thou shalt not kill" it sets the stage for all sorts of pernicious behavior, such as taxpayer support for human detritus. But if we reject absolute morality, it is then necessary to replace it with something better, and in particular it is necessary to identify what it is that is constant -- or, if you will, absolute -- for all moral codes. The answer to this question is not difficult, and yet it will probably surprise most: The constant of all moral codes is the attempt to maximize social happiness. The reason this may be surprising is the customary association of morality with stodgy, unbending and ever-scowling schoolmarms and other pleasure-negative types; and yet even these supposed paragons of morality are actually pleasure-oriented in the sense that they believe that their puritanism will be rewarded in the afterlife with a bonanza of drugs, sex and rock'n'roll, or whatever forms of pleasure they expect in Heaven.

But how do we know that moral codes attempt to maximize social happiness, particularly in view of the fact that they seem to be such failures in many cases? The general answer to this is that social codes evolve, and the direction of this evolution is -- roughly -- from codes which produce less social happiness to codes which produce more, a process which occurs for much the same reason that each individual's behavior tends to move from those states producing less happiness to those producing more. In fact, we may posit that moral codes are but codes of individual behavior writ large: Individuals discover on their own that certain behaviors -- lying, cheating, etc -- tend to produce unhappiness, while the opposite behaviors tend to produce the opposite effect; and it is from these individual observations that agreement on moral codes develop and evolve.

Now it may be objected to the above argument that it seems to depend on a belief in the "theory of evolution", but this is not quite true. Darwin's theory of evolution is clearly wrong or questionable in numerous respects, as has been demonstrated in numerous books, an excellent example of which is Darwin's Creation Myth by my friend and very learned colleague Alexander Mebane. But evolution in the cybernetic or systems theoretic sense -- namely, the movement of a "system" from states of less stability to states of greater stability -- is not merely true, but is what philosophers would call "necessarily" or "analytically" true. Here is how I described the matter in a recent monograph (Evolution: The Essential Criticisms Answered, Socratic Press, 1997) in which I discuss in detail the entire evolution question:

"Some people, including most scientists, believe that evolution is a biological theory which describes factual truths about our world. Others - - mostly religious fundamentalists -- believe that evolution is a false theory, usually because they believe that life forms were created by a Deity and are immutable. And yet others -- mostly philosophers -- believe that evolution is a tautology which maintains the truth of the doctrine of "survival of the fittest" only because, in the final analysis, the term fit is defined as that which survives. In reality, however, all three of these positions are wrong: The fact is that evolution is an organizing principle which cannot be dispensed with because events cannot be sensibly interpreted without it. To explain, it is first useful to note that evolution is much like the Continuity Principle, ie, the belief that the future will be like the past: While all natural law is justified on the basis of the Continuity Principle, it is obvious that the Continuity Principle itself cannot be justified on the basis of the Continuity Principle. Furthermore, if we were to cease to assume the truth of the Continuity Principle, then we would immediately lose the basis of our belief in natural law, and thus the basis of our belief in the regularities of everyday life. In fact, one could say that the belief in the Continuity Principle has been determined by evolution: Those who did not believe in it were eliminated in the struggle for survival, even if there is no "justification" for believing in it.

"Now in light of the above discussion, it is not difficult to show that evolution constitutes a principle similar to that of the Continuity Principle. To explain, let us conceptualize evolution in terms of systems theory as follows: Consider an object x which has some finite number of states n which it has a non-zero probability of entering for any time t (Note: This is a general description of every object of the world). If there is some state or set of states S (a subset of n) which is such that, if x enters S, then x will remain in S, then S constitutes an equilibrium (or, more properly, a partial equilibrium) for the "system" of x's behavior, since x may now move among the states in S, but not to states outside S. We then say that the movement of x to S represents the process of evolution, and that the states of S "survive" and hence are "fit" while the states of the set n-S do not survive and are thus not "fit". "When evolution is understood in the above manner, we immediately see that it is not a dispensable concept, but rather is imbedded in our thought processes in such a way that thinking would be impossible without it, and thus that denial of evolution would be not merely futile, but absurd."

But besides the argument given earlier in favor of the proposition that moral codes are attempts to maximize human happiness, there is another powerful argument which deserves to be given. The argument may be stated as follows: As man has evolved, he has necessarily tended to develop behaviors which have helped him survive, and has tended to abandon behaviors which are not helpful for survival. Or to put it another way, man has tended to develop a desire to do the things which would promote his survival, ie, he has tended to find pleasure in doing what aids survival. What this then means is that the things that promote men's survival have tended to become the activities which men find pleasurable. Sex, of course, is the most outstanding example, and eating is another; tho this is not to say that all pleasurable activities are survival-promoting, but only that, in a general way, they tend to be.

But even if one has trouble with the notion that morality is a way of promoting happiness, it should be obvious that morality promotes survival. That is, as man and his society have evolved, the behaviors and moral codes which promoted survival of their followers tended themselves to survive, while those that did not promote survival tended to die out, along with the people who adhered to them. In this sense, then, we can appreciate Christianity as something of a moral marvel, since -- whatever one may think of its various theologies or such nightmarish episodes as the Inquisition which it inspired -- its survival for 2000 years and its spread into every corner of the globe shows its incredible fitness in comparison with "other brands".

But if considering morality in terms of evolution tells us something about Christianity, it also tells us something about race. In particular, there is no reason to assume that the morality fit for one race is necessarily fit for another; and indeed the fact that the crime rate for American blacks is nine times that of whites suggests that this is the case. More to the point, I have argued in a recent article ("Blacks' Time Preference, Immorality and Failure" Instauration, Oct. 1992: 11) that the problem with what whites regard as blacks' misbehavior is the fact that blacks have a different "time preference", ie, they value immediate pleasure more than whites, and are therefore much less willing than whites to postpone present enjoyment for greater future benefits. Needless to say, most whites recognize that the need for immediate satisfaction is characteristic of children and the immature, and in any event is counterproductive in a complex and highly-developed society such as white men have produced; and yet in Africa, where food and shelter are almost instantly obtainable from the rich forests and teeming rivers, the demand for immediate satisfaction may be evolutionarily desirable, and the thus the moral code ingrained in the impulsive African's genes may simply be a reflection of adaptation and not of immorality in some etherial or "absolute" sense.

In conclusion, we may recall that famous line from Alexander Pope which reads "Whatever is, is right", and realize that, altho "whatever is" may not be right, there is nonetheless an excellent chance that, with a little help from moral evolution, it will eventually become right.

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