Monday, June 6, 2011

More on murder, etc.

A commenter named Garak raised an interesting objection to our recent post on the issue of murder. In sum, he argued that societies need laws because without them, "'negative' behavior would become more common and extreme." Well, this may very well be so - after all, we must assume that at least part of people's reluctance to commit crimes is their desire not to go to jail. Indeed, our entire justice system is based on this principle (well, that and the also-human nature urge to punish people for bad behavior, which explains why so many are eager to send the current version of Roman Polanski to prison for actions of the 1977 version).

But back to Garak's point--this is certainly a consensus view, but does it hold water? In fact, we are not so sure... Indeed, one of the oft-discussed areas of philosophy over the years has been the issue of altruism - why does it exist, and does it confer any evolutionary benefits? There are several views and we will not get into them here, but we can surely say that not only do humans have a capacity for empathy, but they also seem to genuinely care about the well being of other people. So we do not view it as a fait accompli that fewer (or no) laws would lead to an outbreak of "bad behavior"; indeed, one could argue just the opposite - that without specific laws to guide them, people might think more carefully about their actions. (This is very similar to the unfounded arguments many make against libertarianism - that without laws society would devolve into some twisted version of Mad Max. It is based on the same flawed premise - that people are inherently evil, and only restrained by threat of punishment. In our opinion this is a sad and pathetic view of humanity.) Said a different way--one who worries purely about getting caught is surely more likely to commit a crime than one who views it as "wrong."

Further, consider other animals, which do not have "laws" as such, and yet somehow manage not to kill themselves off in a frenzy of orgiastic murder. How can this be? Think about it...

Finally, getting back to the original point of the matter how "wrong" certain behavior seems to us, the absurd view (that all is physical, and thus nothing "matters") is simply not consistent with the concept of morality. Consider an individual who captured other people and animals, bound them thoroughly, and spent days or weeks feasting on their still-alive remains. Horrible, no? And yet, our children have been watching a spider do this outside one of our windows for the last few weeks. Is the spider evil? Mentally unbalanced? Should we incarcerate it and try to "re-educate" it? If it escapes, should we pursue it and seek to jail it whenever we happen to catch it?

We are no different from spiders (or eels, or cow dung, or even a slab of granite), despite the fact that our self-reflective brains make us view such a statement as beyond ridiculous. We may, as humans, seek to live in ways that make us feel better, and more comfortable, and that (crucially!) maximize our chance for genetic reproduction. But we should not fall into the all-too-easy trap of believing our actions, emotions, and "beliefs" are in any way different from other physical processes--one might as well ascribe meaning to sea tides or cloud formations.

But while the absurd man recognizes this fact, it is inaccurate (and misguided) to assume he will simply act with impunity. In fact, the opposite is far more likely. As the philosopher Derek Parfit once said about his recognition of the absurd:

"My life seemed like a glass tunnel, through which I was moving faster every year, and at the end of which there was darkness...When I changed my view, the walls of my glass tunnel disappeared. I now live in the open air. There is still a difference between my life and the lives of other people. But the difference is less. Other people are closer. I am less concerned about the rest of my own life, and more concerned about the lives of others."

For those interested, Parfit's new book On What Matters publishes tomorrow - we are eagerly awaiting our copy...


  1. Am I right is summing up your message as "the only thing natural about our aversion to violence is altruism has proven to be a good adaptation?"

    Or perhaps, "there is nothing unnatural about enjoying the maiming, torturing, and killing of others; it just hasn't proven very useful?"

    Great post by the way!

  2. Your arguments are well reasoned... when applied to an absurdist.

    I too, do not believe that man is inherently evil. But I am quick to remind myself that he is not a fountain of altruism either.

    Society is not a collective of thinkers who believe in the absurd; such a group of people would not need laws, would not assign 'Right' and 'Wrong', and does not exist.

    Unfortunately, society is a jumbled collection of dissenting opinions and hands grasping at scarce resources. I believe that until we realize our larger self -- that moment when society learns how to break that glass tunnel in each individual -- we will desperately need laws to help guide our larger body.

    I'm putting my money on education to get us a little closer to that absurd vision.

  3. //Further, consider other animals, which do not have "laws" as such, and yet somehow manage not to kill themselves off in a frenzy of orgiastic murder. How can this be?//

    That is because animals don't have the reasons for killing each other, which the humans have in plenty. Humans have the greed, for e.g.. If all the laws are removed then humans will fight for getting more and more (scarce) resources. Since there are no laws, no one will be reluctant to thrash the other and get his property, and it will become a chaos very soon, with everyone fighting everybody. Then think about all the weapons humans have in their arsenals, waiting to be used.

    Don't you think so? Animals don't do it because animals are totally guided by they natural instincts, and are only (well, mostly) concerned with their food and survival; they don't have unnatural elements (like wealth) to fight for.

    You seem to take it to the extreme.

  4. David - Yes.

    Luke - You are more optimistic that we are...;-)

    Darshan - What is wealth but the means to acquire scarce resources? You are drawing a distinction that does not exist - that there is some "humanness" that makes us different from all other animals. In fact, this is exactly our point - what we see as "emotion" and "caring," etc etc, are simply instincts driven by natural selection, despite the fact that they seem like something "different" to us.

    To your point - we disagree - monkeys, lions, spiders...all "fight for getting scarce resources"! Nature is indeed red in tooth and claw, and humans are no different. That is the point - to say humans are "wrong" to commit certain acts but other animals are not suggests there is something different about humans (ie, something beyond the physical).

    If you have not read Dawkins' "The Selfish Gene" or Becker's "The Denial of Death" we cannot recommend them highly enough - we had no idea of the incredible power of natural selection prior to reading them.

  5. Rick,

    I do get your point. I am also - FYI - a believer of absurd. But you are suggesting a life which we used to live when we were not evolved as this intelligent human beings.

    As we evolved from there, we added complexity in our world, through our complex behavior. And to manage through that complexity we invented law and order. It's all given by Nature. And I am not suggesting "right" and "wrong" here. Now, if the whole evolution reverses then that's fine - which will kinda bring the world you are suggesting. But the thing is: The whole process doesn't reverse by removing the law and order. Say, we removed the laws, then the ills of complexity (in the form of utter chaos) will surface up. And since we will still remain in the evolved state with this much intelligence - a state which had necessitated law and order on the first place - the world will not be a better place, but rather a hell. Hope you get me.

    Your point only makes sense on two assumptions:

    1) Either everyone has the absurd awareness and is perfectly sane. Or -

    2) The whole evolution reverses taking us to our primeval state, akin to how the animals are living now.

  6. So two things jump out at us:

    1) You are assuming one state of affairs is preferable to another (eg, peace is better than war), which certainly seems true, but is simply due to our non-objective preferences for certain states of being. (To illustrate this, consider that women rarely speak of childbirth as torture, but it would certainly be viewed as such if something similar were done against their consent. So what is the objective "goodness" of childbirth?)

    2) You speak of intelligence as something divorced from other animals as if it somehow elevates humans out of this morass. But again - what you call "intelligence" we simply see as rational evolution to fulfill our sole purpose as gene replication machines.


  7. Rick,

    //You are assuming one state of affairs is preferable to another (eg, peace is better than war), which certainly seems true, but is simply due to our non-objective preferences for certain states of being.//

    You are dwelling on a "flatland". In absolute sense, peace and war are no better or worse than the other. Okay. But that's not a healthy way to think.

    You seem to be taking an absolutely reductionist view, totally ignoring human "mind". You see only the physical aspect of human brain and would say that human brain is essentially the same as a dog's brain (or even a stone). But what goes on inside the "mind", is utterly complex flux which can never be understood putting the brain under the microscope. You can never tell what a person "feels" or "thinks" by putting him inside the machine, observing his brain's minutest details. The reductionism fails there.

    What's very important to be understood is that we do have a complex mind, and what goes on inside mind, doubtless, makes us distinct as creatures, from other animals.

    Love, hate, empathy, jealousy, anger, happiness, boredom... There are myriad of things which humans experience in their mind - which essentially comprise human life as it is - and which can never be seen in a physical form. That doesn't mean they don't exist, or are not real.

    Absurd, as you are propagating it, will take humanity to a dead-end. Haha. It's good that everyone is not intellectually developed enough to understand the absurd.

    No offense meant. :)

  8. I have written somewhat related articles on my blog. If interested, you may read them. I am just giving a couple of links, so if the readers want to, they can go through them.

    1. Game world dilemma – How to get over absurdity in relationships

    2. Heart or head – Who should we listen to?


  9. No offense taken - after all, we don't even exist!

    These intrinsic traits that separate humans from other animals...when in our history did we acquire them? And what caused this radical transformation that forever separated us from all other animals?

    Do chimpanzees, which share upwards of 95% of our DNA, also have them? How about someone in a vegetative state? Do newborns possess them? If not, when do they acquire them (and what causes it)?

    And how do they differ from, for example, our dog's ability to be happy, sad, playful, scared, etc? Or from dolphins, which have their own language?

    This is a separate discussion, BTW, from your posts on emotion vs intellect - while we agree that this is the fundamental issue, we are surprised to see your conclusion - we much prefer the video game analogy. After all, once you truly open your eyes it is very difficult to close them...

  10. //No offense taken - after all, we don't even exist!//

    Hahaha! I know, right? :P

    I forgot to tell you that I have read The Selfish Gene, and will get the other book ASAP. And here's a very important recommendation for you, too: A Brief History of Everything, Ken Wilber. This goes for all absurdists and/or nihilists.

    Thanks for the discussion!

  11. I've just discovered your blog and I'm delighted to find writings that so mirror my own philosophical bent. I think my start on the path to absurdity was discovering the Tao Te Ching in my college bookstore at age 18. At age 60 now, the end is much closer in view and the sense of the absurd only more acute.
    Please consider adding John Gray's STRAW DOGS to your reading list!