Archives for posts with tag: Evolutionary Psychology

There is an argument that faith teaches us to be virtuous. But this presupposes that faith is the only means capable of us acquiring virtue. I don’t think that is at all true.

But does true virtue transcend motive? Can we be virtuous without some kind of motivation, or gain?

For example, without the motivation of organized religion, would those same people be able to be as virtuous without that motivation? In fact, would it be more virtuous entirely because it is divorced of the motivation of organized faith? Could we have stopped on this discourse with Socrates and his proposition that ‘the unexamined life is not worth living’?

And then, can non-sentient beings be virtuous?

Is being virtuous a unique part of the civilization of man? Perhaps the opposite is true. Perhaps wild animals know not of immoral cruelty, for example, but exist in natural virtuousness. That perhaps it is civilization, in fact, which has given some men the motive and means not to be innately virtuous: we have un-learned natural virtuosity.

Of course, nature can be naturally cruel, natural selection demonstrates this well, but it does so outside the context of virtuosity. Is being virtuous a man-made construct, then? The likelihood looks compelling.

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The Tintern Pub Philosophy Circle met the other night to discuss How We Might Get Human Rights. The discussion was lead by Tim Cross and covered the development of Human Rights as a concept from Hobbes, Locke, the US & French Revolutions and finally to the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948.

The premise for the inception of these articulations of rights was that life was for many people pretty cruel and a bit crap, but that we could make it less so.

To me, this seemed an iterative problem. If you consider recent human rights catastrophes (say Rwanda, Sudan, Chechnya or the gassing of the Kurds) then the various evolving declarations of what constitutes human rights appear like a utopian contrivance with serious failures (those catastrophes just mentioned). It is probably precisely because life is pretty cruel and a bit crap that we have failed to guarantee these rights and apply them universally.

To put it another way without a morally and actively courageous state, law and global governance this roadmap to civility will be challenged if not overrun by the weakness of those state governments, as we have seen in those very same examples.

This can be observed by the impotence of the United Nations over Iraq etc. but is probably best illustrated by Linda Polman’s seminal work on the topic ‘We Did Nothing – Why the truth doesn’t always come out when the UN goes in’.

The floor of our pub philo circle seemed to agree that such declarations were merely political posturing and generally not worth the paper they’re written on.  I was not so sure. While I raised my former observation, I qualified it with the fact that we ought not to slip into binary thinking here. That is, some expression of human rights is better than none, despite its failures. To qualify this I cited Amnesty International’s work on both individual cases of prisoners of conscience and Amnesty’s pivotal role in ending apartheid in South Africa. The UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights is a tool by which we can hold signatories to account. It’s no guarantee but, it’s better than nothing – for the reasons just cited.

A little later the debate took a very un-philosophical and strange turn where different members of the floor argued on the original of human rights, not least since Tim had started only with Hobbes. He conceded that of course, the notion of rights and welfare existed prior to this but qualified his starting point as the point of the modern rise of Human Rights as we know it today (by the UN declaration), and the fact that we only had 2 hours. Undeterred, some cited Christianity as the original while other argued Hinduism. I thought this was a flawed distraction to the point at hand but still offered – in an attempt to deaden the avenue – that IMO rights probably arose in an evolutionary sense from the first days of society – probably at group level – where co-operation met language to form a consensus to the general good of all members of the group (within a certain hierarchy). I think we can map that through to today’s articulations of Human Rights consistently from this. Certainly it appeared to kill that part of the debate off, either from ridicule or reason – you decide.

So back to the main debate. In conclusion the most perplexing thing about human rights is that, philosophically, it is a paradoxical notion. To gain rights one has to relinquish certain liberties. By policing rights we absolve ourselves of certain rights.

From a Practical Philosophy point of view Chris Gifford observed that in his teaching of Amnesty’s work with young children, they demonstrated a universal and unsolicited innate sense of fairness and justice. This runs counter to the long-running argument as to whether rights can be natural or are only conferred. Indeed, Chris’s point means that that debate takes a new direction: about who creates these rights. Again, from a pragmatic approach, consensus and co-operation take the lead here and, while people die, it is an arbitrary debate.

My personal summary was that declarations of human rights offered the wrong answer to the right question, but that this answer was better than none at all.

Perhaps human rights is an expression of civilisation which while best informed by reason is, philosophically, above logic – so far – or at least so far as its paradoxical reasoning, on the whole, eludes us. It is a mechanism which, at best, sometimes works. But its failure is deadly. Its non-existence apocalyptic.


One of the challenges to a moral existence – that is, to live ethically, truthfully and contentedly – is to civilise the natural brute that lies within us.

But does this mean quashing all original thought (the first thought, gut reaction) with reason?

If so, this suggests that early man was never capable of loving wisdom, just as animals are not.


This, then, puts philosophy as an unnatural phenomenon. Which is probably the basis for early belief systems, as a means of comprehending the world without reason.

But to be unnatural is not, in itself, inherently a negative thing. This begs the questions where did this ranking come from? Why does the natural tend to be considered better than the unnatural?

By extension if, having not adapted their nature – either for or against nature – are amoral monkeys actually more moral than man?