Sunday, February 21, 2010

Does persistence provide a basis for morality?

Before I write anything further I should clarify what I mean by persistence in this context. Survival is probably the most appropriate synonym. The question was prompted by Martin Walker’s book, ‘Life! Why we exist ... and what we must do to survive’ (2006). More information about the author can be found on his blog.

Martin Walker’s book is an extremely well-written attempt to promote a better understanding of the fundamental principles that explain why we exist and to use those principles as a basis for thinking about how we can live meaningful lives. The book begins with a story about a child watching two old men playing chess and wondering who is winning. Most of the book has been written from the standpoint of a person who is observing the game of life in order to infer the most basic rules and then to consider what implications those rules have for the way the game is played.

The main message of the first part of the book is that the evolutionary principles that explain material existence and the emergence of life are ‘the principles of coming into being and persistence’. In later parts of the book the author uses those evolutionary principles to make moral judgements.

I expect that some other readers would share my initial concern that the concept of persistence does not seem to be a particularly appealing basis for a system of ethics. The problem arises in part because persistence is associated with survival of the fittest and concepts like the selfish gene and even ‘might makes right’. However, the author manages to argue that we should have regard to the effects of our actions on the community and species, and on other living things. He suggests: ‘To answer any moral question pertaining to living organisms we must ultimately determine whether the act of choice will tend to make a positive contribution to the persistence of life as a form’ (p. 81).

How does Martin make the transition from the persistence principle, as an explanation of what ‘is’, to the persistence principle, as an ethical principle providing guidance on how we ‘ought’ to behave? It may be worth noting in passing that he rules out the idea that there is merit in acting in accordance with an ultimate purpose that lies behind persistence. He claims that material existence has no purpose (p 31-2). Martin’s transition from ‘is’ to ‘ought’ is based on parallels between moral choices made by humans and the survival instincts of non-conscious organisms that lead them to act in ways that will benefit their own persistence or the persistence of their relatives or communities. He writes: ‘As conscious organisms, we use concepts of good and bad to guide our actions, a process that simply extends the non-conscious process’ (p. 65). The final step in the transition from ‘is’ to ‘ought’ is made with an explicit value judgement:
‘That which contributes to our persistence, or the persistence of our species, or the persistence of life as a form is definitely better than that which does not. Contribution to persistence is good, detriment to persistence is bad’ (p. 65-6).

In my view it would be difficult for anyone to mount a convincing argument against such sentiments - except perhaps on the grounds that they do not go far enough. Persistence is good, but flourishing is better!

This brings me to my only critical point. While reading this book I found myself wondering at various times how the author’s views relate to those of Aristotle, Ayn Rand, Robert Nozick in ‘Invariances’ and Matt Ridley in ‘The Origins of Virtue’. The part of ‘Invariances’ dealing with ethics seems highly relevant (I have written a very brief summary here). I think many of Matt Ridley’s observations in ‘The Origins of Virtue’ are also highly relevant. I would particularly like to see further discussion of Ridley’s view that environmental ethics do not come naturally to humans: ‘Yet the conclusion that seems warranted that there is no instinctive environmental ethic in our species – no innate tendency to develop and teach restrained practice. Environmental ethics are therefore to be taught in spite of human nature, not in concert with it. They do not come naturally’ (p 226). I wonder whether that claim is supported by people who have conducted research on environmental norms, e.g. Elinor Ostrom.

If Martin Walker had spent more time in his book considering the views of other people I would have found that illuminating. It would, however, have made the book longer and more difficult to read. I think the main virtue of this book is in providing a clear and simple exposition of a point of view that deserves serious consideration.

No comments: