Saturday, January 2, 2016

Biology and Ethics

NOTE: I am reproducing a number of essays from my defunct blog because either (1) they are cited in the essay "Reconsidering My Earlier Justifications of the Death Penalty" which I decided to reproduce first, or (2) they are cited in one of the other essays cited in that essay. Though I am only fixing the links in "Reconsidering My Earlier Justifications of the Death Penalty" and not the additional essays, at least not at this time, I think it best to try to ensure as many essays as possible are reproduced so, when I do decide to fix all those links, the essays are available.

The longer I write my blog, and the more time I spend thinking about the issues people discuss, the more I am struck by the amount of time people waste on arguments which are inherently pointless. And I do not mean arguments which I think are fruitless because they are based upon faulty premises, but arguments which are entirely pointless, which, regardless of the outcome, will make no difference. Not only am I struck by how common such arguments are, but how many such arguments were at one time topics I would debate as well, and which I thought were significant.

For instance, I recall many times hearing the debate whether man is "innately monogamous". It is a strange debate on the face of it, as I have never heard a definition of what "innately" means in this context. I understand the premise to be whether man's less developed ancestors were monogamous or not, but I am unable to figure out precisely where the line is drawn. if man has been monogamous for 10,000 years, is he innately monogamous? What about if he has been monogamous since Australopithecus existed? Or do we have to have an unbroken chain on monogamy back to the single celled ancestors? What if man was monogamous since Cro Magnon appeared in Europe, but somewhat earlier was not. Does that make him innately monogamous or not?

But even ignoring that definitional issue, there is another, even more serious problem. And that is what the argument is meant to prove. Because, taken at face value, I can't see the reason this argument would be assumed to prove anything other that provide a bit of trivia about man's distant ancestors.

As the argument almost always arises when someone is arguing that marriage and monogamy are artificial, or perhaps even damaging, to mankind, I assume the point is that, if monogamy is not a "natural" attribute of man, then it proves that it is not something we should practice. However, the logic of that assumption escapes me, as many behaviors in which we currently engage, and which no one is arguing to be dangerous, go against the behavior we would exhibit were we in a state of nature.

For example, in a state of nature, man has no inherent ethical prohibitions against forcing himself upon women he finds appealing, however I have never heard anyone argue that legal and ethical prohibitions against rape, as well as the self-control which allows us to avoid committing such acts, is a bad thing as it "goes against nature." Similarly, I have heard no complaints against modern sanitary practices, such as isolating human waste from food and living areas, even though we might not have been so scrupulous about such things in nature. And the list goes on and on. From reading to clothing to self-control to peaceful interactions to the end of infanticide to avoidance of genocidal violence against strangers, many modern practices with which we are quite happy are "against nature", and yet no one complains.

Actually, this argument is not all that hard to explain, as it is simply an attempt to find a rationale to justify one's position. Many arguments from biology fall in this category. Someone has a position he feels is right (monogamy is wrong, homosexuality is value neutral), and so he finds something that convinces him "in nature" such behaviors follow the pattern he desires. However, what he fails to recognize is that simply being "natural" behavior is not proof of desirability. Man has improved immeasurably since his primitive origins. That being the case, obvious primitive behavior is not optimal. So, the argument is faulty.

But the arguments continue. Almost always based on one of two arguments. First, some base their argument on a silly, romantic argument in favor of primitive behaviors ("The Dishonesty of Avatar", "Rousseau's Foolish Legacy", "Happiness", "Opinion Masquerading as Fact", "A Western Evil?", "A Great Quote"). Now, this is absurd for all the reasons I mentioned before, but also for one other. Were the proponents serious that any advancement is bad, they would not be on line, or in college, or even walking the streets, as they would be naked, squatting in mud, not using language. That they speak, wear clothes, and use other modern amenities proves they are not serious about their beliefs.

The other argument, which I discussed before in terms of homosexuality ("Biology as Justification", "Cultural Rules", "Don't Liberals Notice the Contradictions?", "Myths of Homosexuality", "Follow Up", "Correlation and Causation Revisited", "A Question About Biological Theories of Sexual Identity", "Passing Thought on PET Scans") implies that because something has a biological origin it is wrong to ask others to control it. For example, the argument is made, if someone is "born gay" then asking them to refrain from acting on that preference is immoral. However, that is foolish for two reasons. First, heterosexuals act all the time to restrain their inclinations, they do not copulate with everyone they find attractive. But for some reason to ask the same of homosexuals is wrong? In fact, there are heterosexuals who refrain from sex entirely, either until marriage, or for life, so why is asking the same of gays an imposition? And, even more importantly, the ease or difficulty of an act has nothing to do with the morality. Just because it may be hard to be celibate, or at least chaste, does not mean it is not moral.

Or, to make this much more brief, morality and biology or independent of one another.

And yet, I still hear these debates, and other similar ones, read them on line, hear them in public, even see supposedly clever men and women basing arguments upon them. However, they are utterly futile. Whether man is inherently monogamous, whether people are born gay, learn to be gay, or a combination of the two, none of those change the moral component one iota. The origins of one's inclinations are meaningless, at least as far as morality, and even utilitarian considerations go. If X is dangerous, then it is dangerous whatever its origins. If Y causes the consequences A, B and C, it does so regardless of the cause.

Yet, sadly, many fail to understand this. as I described in "Taser Hysteria", people seem to think police should handle violent criminals differently if they are intentionally violent or violent due to mental or physical disorders, as if the police could tell, or the harm they do would somehow differ. Likewise, people seem to think biological origins change the consequences of behaviors. But that is not the case. If you do X, it results in Y, regardless of you intentions, motives, anything. Wishing does not make it different. And so, if you want to avoid Y, prevent X, whether X is biological or not.


The left has a strange fixation on motives, almost ascribing mystical powers to them ("Utopianism and Disaster"). Not just in debates such as these, but also in their fixation on "hate crimes" and other criminalization of thoughts. Likewise, they are obsessed with stopping not the expression of racism, but all possible racist thoughts. ("Private Versus Public Racism","Economic Versus Social", "A Question for Artists of the Left", "Utopianism and Disaster", "In Defense of Discrimination", "A Statute of Limitations for Race", "How to Handle Idiots", "Back Again", "Best of the Web gets It Very, Very Wrong") 


It is too late to do it now, but I want to revisit a topic raised here. That is the idea that motives and causes are irrelevant when trying to prevent actions with undesirable consequences. I discussed this in terms of criminal justice before ("Symmetry and Asymmetry in Government", "Compassionate Execution", "The Death Penalty", "A Rational Approach to Punishment", "The Ends Justify the Means?", "Fair or Functional?", "Not Completely One Sided", "Motives Unimportant" [referring to "Mental Illness"], "Sunday Morning Talking Heads"), but I want to look at it in more detail, as it applies to so many areas of politics and culture. Ignoring it also leads to many unpleasant consequences. And so we will be looking at this topic again soon.

Originally posted in Random Notes on 2010/06/07.

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