“9 That which has been is that which shall be, and that which has been done is that which shall be done; and there is no new thing under the sun. 10 Is there a thing of which it may be said, “Behold,* this is new?” It has been long ago, in the ages which were before us. 11 There is no memory of the former; neither shall there be any memory of the latter that are to come, among those that shall come after.” Ecclesiastes 1:9-11
The accumulation of empirical knowledge, growth in numbers, exploring our world to its farthest reaches, and our viable plans to soon walk on other worlds are all considered by many to be objective proof of human progress. Although these metrics showcase our ability to build upon previous knowledge, it is only a reflection of one aspect of the human condition: What we can do.
This capacity for accumulation of knowledge and diversified application measurably differentiates us from the rest of the creatures on earth. But just as distant as these academic and technical capacities are beyond the cerebral abilities of Earth’s next most capable animals, there is an equally advanced capacity for thought that is truly unique to humans: What we should do.
When discussing the evolution of humanity in recent millennia, the great technological and knowledge advances we enjoy today and foresee in our future are what one might first consider. However, if one were to bring a human through time from maybe 10,000 years ago or more and supply them with access to a comparable volume of knowledge, what would preclude them from being equally “advanced” in that respect? It is this capacity to create systems for storing or passing along information that has been a common trait going back tens or possibly hundreds of thousands of years.
That our knowledge systems have become more enduring or comprehensive is not evidence of continued human evolution, but is the result of a persistent and unchanging trait.
The less easily quantified metric of human progress is social evolution. The various golden and dark ages referenced in history are regarded as such largely due to the social structures and living standards of those eras being considered more or less progressive than others. Or, when certain practices common in one time or place are deemed unacceptable in another, there is often the claim progress has been made. But in reality, all social systems have those who thrive and those who do not. The opinion of an era’s progress is made in hindsight and under the assumption that the present is always more evolved than the past. Ultimately this is an objective metric which is not directly measurable, much like happiness itself is not a prescribable condition.
Those familiar with history see that all conceivable social structures, even the models used by nations today, have been promoted, practiced, and failed at some point. Studying ancient philosophers and modern psychology confirms that every theory on human thought and behavior has already been explored. And the courage to look plainly at the world reveals that every derided human practice that has ever existed still persists today and even at absolute magnitudes that dwarf those known in history.
Since there is no true evidence of human evolution in all of recorded history, this brings up many questions regarding the state of humanity, including:
For answers, we must deconstruct several misconceptions regarding human reality.
The two inherited traits unique to humans that no other animal possesses is the ability to store and reference accumulated knowledge, and the capacity to subjectively judge and characterize our behaviors. By referencing this accumulated knowledge as evidence, we can judge any claim that there is natural morality in humans is not objectively true. The belief that the natural world can provide us with conclusive guiding examples of morality is illogical, defying history and science.
Of all the animals on earth, humans may in fact have the least amount of inherited behavioral instinct (at least in relation to our potential capabilities). Nearly all of our behaviors, including ordinary tasks like masticating and walking, must be explicitly learned and practiced. This lack of pre-installed instructions at birth already ostracizes us from the order of the natural world.
Those who have raised children from birth might recall specifically introducing these basic life skills, yet we all eventually take for granted the several years we spent mastering them. This need for significant nurturing to raise a human child is evidenced by those inadequately cared for or even intentionally neglected in their formative years. Deficiencies in simple skills may result in lifelong impediment or even permanent limits to one’s mental capacity.
Without adequate nurturing, a human cannot thrive. Nature has little to do with that. Yet a bird a few months after hatching, even if hand raised apart from other birds, will begin to fly without instruction. A snake born in solitary captivity will stalk a mouse when hungry. An elk only minutes old walks on its own keeping pace with his herd. A premature marsupial without the ability to see will climb unassisted into his mother’s pouch to complete development in this biological annex. An octopus may never meet another of its kind but will exhibit complex skills and problem solving capacity during their short lifetime that few animals on earth can match. The list is endless of the advanced animal behaviors that are passed to future generations exclusively through instinct without requiring nurturing for expression.
But those same animals are strongly bound to their nature by those instincts which serve their specific biology. A cat who ceases to live, eat, and behave like a cat will likely become a dead cat in short order. Completely reliant on a carnivorous diet and without the stomach for carrion, the only viable option is a diet rich in unspoiled animal protein. In fact, the dietary regimen of many animals is not as flexible as the varied eating preferences enjoyed by humans. Therefore they can have little say over their preferred diet or the terms under which they acquire their food. There is little a cat can learn from most other animals that will be of benefit to him.
Despite our significantly disabled origins when it comes to minimal instinct and slow rate of physical development, our capacity to learn a range of unique behaviors and adapt to varied environments is unparalleled on Earth. This results in humans unquestionably having the widest range of successful behaviors. We can even derive knowledge from other animals and apply it to our own behavior with success.
But when attempting to emulate the morality of the animal kingdom, what examples do we follow? Lions who fight for dominance over a harem of submissive lionesses who, being cats, are incapable of survival without killing for fresh meat? Or what of bears and other animals who will resort to eating their own young in lean times? I was at the Los Angeles Zoo the day an adult chimpanzee brutally killed a newborn in his own group because it was demanding more attention from the females. Yet not one of those animals would question the appropriateness of their behavior. It is not even in their capacity to subjectively judge their actions at all.
The capacity to rationalize or judge different thoughts or behaviors as right or wrong, valid or invalid, that is the one behavior entirely unique to humanity. This ability allows us to deride or justify almost any standard of behavior: Pacifist or aggressive, vegan or cannibal, hunter or farmer. Without limit, all behaviors are possible in the human mind and have or will be tried.
Since this unique ability allows us to adopt behaviors outside of a biological directive, as a society we aspire to even further distance ourselves from what few instincts we may have. An individual who lacks mastery over their own behaviors when judged against a popular (even if temporary) moral standard is ironically labeled by society as an “animal”. One who does not adequately control the compulsions of their purported human instincts is considered unworthy of being considered human at all. Therefore, the standard of human morality is intentional control of our behavior in denial of the few instincts we have.
The truth is that most animals are driven largely by instinct despite the logic of their exact situation. So if nature is inherently moral in any way, to vilify an animal’s behavior is to vilify their species’ collective instinct and disregard their value to the ecosystem. Therefore, logic dictates that, if nature is a source of morality, then to denounce a serial rapist, a bully, or a thief then we must also denounce the dog in heat, a territorial turkey, or a greedy squirrel.
The animal kingdom, including theories regarding our primitive ancestors, do not provide any applicable examples of morality. These creatures simply have different methods of survival that are, again, largely prescribed by instinct. This is not to say that study and admiration of animals has no intellectual value, but it is a false belief that they can provide an applicable moral framework.
“The only certainty is uncertainty.” - Pliny the Elder (Gaius Plinius Secundus)
A squirrel in any situation only wants to gather nuts, store them, and is incapable of comprehending the quantity they have stored. Outside of the seasonal compulsion to fornicate ensuring the continuation of their species, their collective OCD rarely allows for other thoughts to enter their consciousness. Most animals are instinctively self-governing in this way, with a specific order resulting from the survival of those with the most beneficial behaviors. However, this also limits the animals to environments and situations in which this behavior is sustainable.
Humans without any guiding authority will not instinctively follow an identical behavior pattern like foraging rodents will. Even in our own families with a relatively comparable genetic makeup and style of nurturing, if human children have an instinct, one would think it is to be as different from their siblings as possible! Left to make judgments on our own, we will make unique choices based on our own highly variable motivations and circumstances and may approach identical scenarios in dramatically different ways.
This capacity for complex inference and imagination allows us to adapt to nearly any situation or environment, often with diverse and unpredictable results. But when individuals or groups meet, this unpredictability can result in cooperation or competition, harmony or discourse, or any number of possibilities. The only certainty is that we cannot be certain what that result will be.
Although some level of civility is commonplace, to this day there are regions of the world with resource scarcity and fragmented communities where the depravity of behavior between individuals and threats to one’s safety are constant. The romanticized kidnappings and gunfights portrayed in stories of the untamed American Old West are quaint children’s stories compared to the present day reality of many people.
Governments in a nutshell are simply a subset of humans consolidating the authority to manage the actions of that group. In all cases, the potential benefit of this arrangement is to buffer the effect of unhinged individualism and provide a system for conflict resolution.
But this does not mean that the government will automatically reflect a consistent or sustainable behavior, even if it operates by the consensus of the people. Also, what if the persons in whom power has been consolidated are themselves not interested in acting in the best interest of their constituents or subjects? Whether a government is led by an individual or a plurality, we know that humans are inherently devoid of a natural morality upon which to make those judgments. This is why a government itself cannot be moral, although we aspire to have executors who are.
So if there is no innate human morality, and no consistent standard upon which to judge the behavior of individuals or government, how can anyone even be considered capable of governing themselves or others?
This seems to beg the question…
In a word: Faith.
The first thoughts that word induces are likely those of religion, and to some degree that is intended. Many cultures from the beginning of recorded history have relied on religion to provide a shard moral framework. This continues to be a stabilizing feature in many societies. Even if interpretations of holy writings vary, or in communities where there is a diversity of religions, there is typically sufficient agreement among them on moral considerations.
“God has, in fact, written two books, not just one. Of course, we are all familiar with the first book he wrote, namely Scripture. But he has written a second book called creation.” -Francis Bacon
The term ‘faith’ can also apply to the empirical world as well. The belief that science, history, and reason can provide relevant direction and act as a stabilizing feature in society is also possible. But, unlike scripture which the faithful believe contains sufficient relevant detail within a finite quantity of words, it is impossible to have complete and infallible knowledge of the empirical world at any scale. And where the major premise of most religions will be apparent, there is surprisingly a much more diverse result in interpretation of the implications of empirical information.
In fact, good science is only possible through persistent doubt and skepticism of what has already been thought to be true. Therefore, one must leverage faith that what knowledge is available to them is sufficient to choose the most “moral” course of action. And being that no one person is capable of directly sampling all relevant information, we rely on those supplying the data being sincere in their representation.
With this persistent lack of complete knowledge and reliance on human sources and interpretation, empirical knowledge can only provide sociological stability by wide and dynamic adoption of sincerely scrutinized principles which is uncommon. A similar failure occurs with a lack of interest in the volumes of a society’s core religious scripture. An insufficient independent working knowledge of any topic enables those who would intentionally misinterpret information to either manipulate others or discredit its followers.
Examples of this manipulation of incomplete knowledge can be found in history, ancient legends, and throughout even the most ancient of scriptures. In the book of Genesis, the first woman was encouraged by the serpent to apply individual revision to her community's established guidelines. She made her own moral judgment (or at least the one suggested by the false informant) in contrast to clearly defined consequences. Adam is a willing accomplice, but then is quick to turn on the woman when questioned about it, making his own moral judgment to avoid personal responsibility. The two of them provide examples of the inadequacy of human-centric morality, risking the long-term stability assured by their current situation based on the divergent interpretation of an interloper.
In all cases of faith, whether it be in science or scripture, it is necessary to be functionally informed. Just as knowledge and application of scriptures is necessary to earnestly observe a religion, a working understanding of data and observations are necessary if one is to confirm their belief in science. Again, there is a contrast in the two approaches where religion is the interpretation of a prescribed cannon, where empirical knowledge requires perpetual skepticism and a vigilance of doubt in perpetual confirmation or revision of what is most true. Although a religion should be applicable to daily life, it serves no purpose to society unless its stories have a reasonably consistent range of functional interpretation. But one should never accept an interpretation of science on faith without scrutiny. In either case they cease to be of any benefit.
Although complete knowledge and consensus in any case is not possible, the more working knowledge a population has in both cases, a functionally compatible interpretation will become apparent. But faith in all cases requires the belief that the teaching and understanding therein is ultimately more important than one’s individual aspirations. If we are not willing to actively observe or even risk our lives on the premise of whatever this religion or knowledge proposes, it can provide no lasting stability.
Yet even if we have faith, if we allow other humans to be the exclusive source of knowledge or interpretation, then we in fact are putting our faith in those persons. And when others impress their interpretations onto others while discouraging or restricting access to the source information, then the faith cannot be earnest and informed. Stability will fluctuate with the stability of the individuals in those positions of authority.
A person ignorant of the working details on which their faith is based has ultimately placed their faith in humans, not in reason or religion. And humans are not instinctively nor consistently moral beings.
Socrates was famous for pointing out the limitations to human empirical knowledge. Although posing no direct threat to the society, he challenged peoples’ belief in their own intellectual superiority which embarrassed his contemporaries. But instead of recognizing the wisdom that could be gleaned from these debates which are still a subject of philosophical study today, there were those who mischaracterized his reasoning as an attack on religion. This allowed them to coerce the ruling political body to have him executed. He challenged their faith in interpretation of reason, but they leveraged the government’s irrational adherence to religious observation to have him silenced.
Four hundred years later, ”one man had been nailed to a tree for saying how great it would be to be nice to people for a change” [Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy]. Jesus was a revivalist [Matthew 5:17] who had no interest in politics or challenging the rule of law [Mark 12:17]. His only interest was in encouraging the moral principles found in the scriptures already familiar to his people. But instead of recognizing the wisdom that could be gleaned from his ministry, there were those who mischaracterized his reasoning as an attack on the government and coerced the ruling political body to have him executed. He challenged his peoples’ faith in interpreting their religion but they leveraged the disinterested occupation government to have him silenced.
In both of these cases and countless other examples, there has been intentional conflating of morality and government to motivate people to act in a way that is contrary to their own purported beliefs.
Equating moral and intellectual debate with a challenge to government and rule of law is a disingenuous relationship established in bad faith. And governance by laws attempting to codify morality or limit intellectual debate simply legitimizes the systemic oppression of all who are perceived to be challenging that system. This practice of creating laws to be moral imperatives has resulted in justification for some of the greatest crimes against various individuals and groups throughout history.
But if under constant threat of amoral behavior or otherwise deprived of a moral standard, one is more likely to react without regard to others. And with humans being the most behaviorally unpredictable and diverse animal on Earth, the likelihood of that reaction being destabilizing to society increases proportionally with the decline of faith in a moral standard.
Where government best functions is by establishing guidelines that are inspired by faith in a shared moral standard. As discussed in my observations on happiness, a government must only regulate behavior to a sufficient degree that social success is a possibility. Governments have and will always fail in attempts to mandate progress by making laws to directly impose a moral code since it is ultimately dependent on enforcing a specific human interpretation of faith (religious or empirical).
A society should use moral standards to inspire equitable laws and balanced judgements. But morals cannot themselves be codified into laws. In all cases, inherently “moral” laws are unbalanced, and pre-empt the ability for humans to apply morality to their own judgements and behaviors.
In other words, it is good for executors to be moral and seeking to find the best path, and the law is the vessel that they are using to move their society forward. And by limiting the size and weight of the “cart” with limited and impartial regulations in good faith enables laws be agile and for the society to thrive. This “horse and cart” scenario will always have challenges since executors may not always want to drive in the same direction. However, nothing operates at all if the carts and horses swap positions.
It is only through carefully discerning the difference between rule inspired by interpretation of faith and rule by those seeking to mandate their interpretation into others that we can avoid this trap. This may appear to be a subtle difference, but one that trends true throughout history: If citizenry and lawmakers believe in the existence of a moral standard beyond human reproach, it is ultimately progressive. But to believe morality is variably determined by humans or can be codified is ultimately regressive.
Technological developments, overall improvements in living standards, and the metric of population growth are all considered objective indicators of human progress. In this way we might largely consider the human condition to be a success story. But these are simply an accumulation and application of extant knowledge which is one of mankind’s unique talents. As long as that knowledge or technical capacity isn’t lost entirely, there is no reason we should expect living standards to markedly degrade.
But none of that has resulted in the permanence of any given society. There is a repeated rise and fall of civilizations throughout recorded history indicating a systemic cause of failure. Despite our ability to accumulate objective knowledge and reference thousands of years of history, we ultimately repeat the same patterns that destabilize society.
Although we can plainly recognize these patterns in our past, there is a hubristic belief in every society that they are unique or more evolved than their predecessors.
I theorize that our capacity for morality has a spectrum of manifestations. We all have these diverse moral capacities as individuals, and cumulatively. Two of those expressions in particular, although intuitively opposites of one another, are co-accomplices in subverting and ultimately destabilizing every successful society.
The Bleeding Heart manifestation, the term for which I do not use as a parody or attack but to authentically describe irrational compassion, seems most prevalent when one has earned some level of personal success or otherwise enjoys a life above subsistence living. With the hierarchy of needs being met, one is free to concern themselves with perceived moral issues beyond those impacting their individual daily tasks. But out of an honest desire to improve the station of others, the bleeding heart will encourage the creation of rules to directly codify what they feel is a moral mandate to correct the perceived issue.
Unfortunately, codification of morality is impossible and self defeating.
It is considered by many a moral imperative to aid others in overcoming hardships in life. However, it is not possible to mandate success in this or any way. Any crusade using legislation meant to abolish risk or minimize required effort does not earnestly apply wisdom from scriptural or data driven faith. Therefore, seeing that the results of this moral law are unsatisfactory, continued attempts to guarantee results escalate to the point of unsustainability. Beneficial assistance and stagnating entitlement become conflated, and the result of this excessive assistance denies those individuals the personal growth that would have led to success and self-reliance.
History proves time and again that the risk of failure and challenge of an aspiration will drive one’s decision making towards minimizing losses and ultimately ensure long term success. But if those risks are suppressed, this does not result in an enhanced motivation for individuals to excel. In fact, the result is a weakened and demotivated state where the individual is less likely to apply any more than the minimum required effort. Instead of assuring progress, these codified moral mandates create a codependency.
In other words, mandated moral measures do not create a positive feedback loop that gains energy. Instead, the energy potential of the circuit is attenuated through artificial normalization. Excessive protections results in additional impedance which results in negative gain.
Or we can look at this as a function of basic biology. The less challenge there is to a biological system, the more narrow the range of stressors it can survive. Only through repeated stress does a biological system compensate with expanded capacity, and effort avoidance results in diminished capacity. This is easily demonstrated at all levels of biology from the smallest microbes to the largest organisms.
Even most mammals seem to recognize instinctively that it is only through the adoption of their parents’ skill set through equivalent levels of effort and practice that they will continue to thrive. Perhaps that is one moral lesson I suppose humans can learn from nature!
The goal of any progressive society is to strike a balance to provide the genuinely incapable or unfortunate an opportunity to receive adequate aid, but not to such a degree as to supplant the desire to excel. And these opportunities need to be modest and limited in issue or duration to avoid extended codependency or animosity between citizens. The further any society moves from encouraging self-reliance and blind equality, the less capable that population becomes. In this way, the hyper-moral Bleeding Heart approach to society ultimately defeats what it is trying to achieve [Leviticus 19:15].
The Egoist manifestation does not have a particular outward appearance. In contrast to the bleeding heart which seeks a moral cure for others, the egoist is seeking the best perceived result for himself. This is an innocuous part of every human’s desire to succeed. Egoism might even be the nature that compels us to follow a moral code and have faith that it will ultimately lead us to be the greatest versions of ourselves. But the Egoist nature is a chameleon that will follow whatever moral trend it sees as most personally beneficial.
One such rationalization will take on the same appearance as the bleeding heart. But even when promoting what outwardly appears to be a moral position, the primary motivation to do so is to improve one’s own state. This can be through codification that supports their personal moral position (not one based on earnest interpretation of religion or empirical data), or believing that adoption of this directly moral legislation will gain them some personal advantage. This gain can be in an acquisition of more perceived influence, or as the beneficiary of such a codification. In both cases, the goal is individual benefit as opposed to that of society.
The political result of the Egoist nature is the same societal de-evolution risked by the Bleeding Heart. The difference is that the Egoist seeks a position of authority with greater perceived influence without regard of the impact on the population as a whole. Many political revolutions throughout history were promoted by way of egoists convincing the bleeding hearts of a populace to adopt idealized policies codifying moral rules. This required faith in the new government and its leaders replacing the established cultural morality with a human-defined version. These morally codified governments are ultimately unsustainable as advertised, but the oligarchs who rise to wealth and power in those societies often keep their spoils.
Egoism is always present within all of us, and looking to take advantage of any opportunity to gain an unfair advantage, whether through utilization of an unbalanced mandate or being the administrator of it. The Egoist nature is content with its personal success regardless of collateral fallout.
Nearly 400 years ago, Thomas Hobbes argued that egoism is the only human nature and must always be accounted for when considering the motivations of all people. Although his take seems pessimistic, it is naïve to presume a person has noble intentions unless they can in some way objectively support their claims.
Progressive societies all fall into the trap of either abandoning their founding morality or attempting to mandate a specific interpretation of a moral standard. In both cases, that is at odds with what made them thrive to begin with. As we become comfortable with our successes, we begin to think it is ourselves, not the original moral standard, that got us where we are. This flawed reasoning inevitably leads to the rise of a "Bleeding Heart" society easily manipulated by opportunistic egoists, resulting in a conflation between morally guided policy and mandated "moral" policy.
The cart is placed before the horses. The impedance is added to the circuit. The biology atrophies.
Great societies have been established by those who earnestly applied the wisdom of their faith (religious or empirical) when making laws and judgements. But in societies in which that faith itself becomes codified into the law, whether religion or a specific model of reasoning, the population is then subject to the narrow perception and likely temporary authority of the specific human interpretation of that faith.
Although there are some monarchies and ancient dynasties that history looks favorably upon, they were entirely dependent on the well-being of individual executors, thriving under one and failing under another. Also, many of these highly regarded societies had a complete disregard for the individual human condition and gained their success at the cost of neighboring nations or their own citizens. All political models in which moral behavioral requirements themselves are codified, the promotion or practice of these inherently moral systems of government have led directly to the largest causes of untimely death in the 20th century.
Perhaps this is the Yin and Yang of human nature: Diversity of behaviors in a community with faith in compatible moral values empowers the individual while also strengthening the society. But a lack of common faith or applying a mandated morality ironically limits the acceptable diversity of behavior which regresses and destabilizes society.
This means that it is only through earnest consideration (not codification) of an extra-human moral standard that regulations, judgements, and compatible human behaviors allow a society to thrive.
Revisiting the questions I proposed earlier:
This theory is not simply a warning against the extremes of being too helpful or too greedy. In fact, it is the most extreme manifestations of ourselves which leads us towards our greatest successes! Desire, tolerance, apathy, determination, aggression, or any other human nature one can conceive of can align with a guiding morality. And it is the most passionate among us who will achieve the most by any standard.
But it is specifically the Bleeding Heart that leads ultimately to the most socially destabilizing policies and behaviors, tempting the opportunistic egoist nature to take advantage of it. Whether a conscious action or unintentional, the result is a pincer assault on society. Those seeking to codify ideologies that care too much are mimicked by those who couldn't care less simply looking for something to leverage as a personal advantage.
These are not traits of specific humans, but facets of human nature within all of us. At all scales of society, from global to the individual, we need to be aware of these subversive natures and equip ourselves with earnest understanding of the extra-human guiding morality that has brought us progress thus far.
"The condition upon which God hath given liberty to man is eternal vigilance." - John Philpot Curran
I hope you have found this study of human nature interesting. If this has inspired you in any way, we look forward to your comments. questions@WhetScience.com
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