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Having traveled from the turn of the Fourth Century B.C. to the turn of the Twenty-First Century A.D., Socrates has eagerly signed on as a Philosophy Now columnist so that he may continue to carry out his divinely-inspired dialogic mission.
In a previous dialogue (in Issue 65) you mentioned that there are no evil opossums because there are no virtuous opossums. My question is this: Assuming that good and evil are really just abstract human notions applied to the behavior of other humans, could not these notions just as arbitrarily be applied to opossums? Something is good only if a human designates it as such (and other humans typically agree), so an opossum could be good or bad just as a human can if we agreed to designate it as such, right? If you disagree, please respond and explain to me another way of looking at right and wrong.
Alto, Michigan, U.S.A.
Let me turn the tables on you and note that, if moral designations are only the result of human consensus, we could just as well dispense with labeling human beings as good or bad and doing right or wrong things. Why not all of us return to the state of nature before Adam and Eve ate of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, to cite the Biblical story? Having eaten of that tree, would it be possible now for us humans to give up this knowledge? And if so, would it be desirable for us to do so?
As it happens I have been pondering this question a great deal lately. I must admit that I sometimes tire of preaching virtue and morality, not to mention striving to exemplify them. I also notice that some of my worst traits, such as anger and egotism, appear to be caught up in that striving and that preaching. There is nothing quite so satisfying as being able to condemn somebody else with full certitude and passion, thereby also to bask in the reflected glory of one’s own superiority. What would it be like, I wonder, if nobody cared about ethics at all?
We might expect all chaos to break loose without the constraint of social standards and personal conscience. But when I consider the world of the opossums and other animal species, I do not see chaos. They clearly do not have morality as we do, but they nevertheless coordinate their affairs in effective ways. They raise families, they find food, they have social interactions and community, they are sufficiently at peace to sleep a great deal of the day, and so forth. It is not obvious to me that their lives are “nasty, brutish, and short.”
Even when I consider human beings, if I think carefully about what is motivating our actions, I do not always find morality underlying the best. Instead, there is often a spontaneous feeling of sympathy for the pain of another that prompts us to help them. We do not need a commandment to tell us to do so. In fact, it is a commonplace that a commandment will prove idle if there is no feeling to back it up.
Conversely, when I consider many of the truly heinous acts of humans, morality is often to be found at their root. The self-assured and self-righteous of all times and places have been the scourge of this world. If I am Right, and accordingly am convinced of an obligation to stamp out the Wrong: watch out! “The way I see things must be the way everybody should see things.” What an awful regimentation that forebodes. But in fact it is the more sure path to chaos and strife, since every society feels the same way about its own mores; and so all clash with all.
I am sure that what I am saying must horrify you, and surprise you. My reputation is as a seeker after virtue. Now I seem to be impugning virtue. But I think I do not contradict myself. Virtue may not be the same as morality. What I seek is the good life. But perhaps my good life would not conform with every other good life. And perhaps it would not consist of duty but rather of freedom and reason.
I know that many of my successors attempted to reconcile these various motifs. Might not morality be the result of our exercising freedom and reason? One could call it that, Josh, since, as you implied, it is up to us to call things whatever we want. But I have become wary of the word ‘morality’, and even the words ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ when used in the moral way, since they have been implicated in so much mischief through the ages.
I honestly believe that people do not even know what they are referring to most of the time when they use those words. As I said at the outset, I suspect what is mainly going on is that people are venting their emotions, and not the noblest ones at that.
Therefore I recommend that we try to live with more awareness of our true motives and, on that basis, decide how to act. Let us be like the Zen opossum who said, “When hungry I eat, when tired I sleep.”