Story of Evolution, Evolution of StoriesBryn Mawr College, Spring 2004Second Web PaperOn Serendip

The Ideal Moral Code

Simran Kaur

"Good, Better, Best, Never let it rest, Until the Good is Better And the Better is Best." My class was taught this rhyme by my English teacher in school to ensure that we would not forget this exception to the rule of superlatives. However, other teachers also quoted this rhyme when they wanted to motivate my class to reach the zenith of their ability; that is, improve until we were "the best". My previous paper showed how a deeper understanding of natural selection made me cease to think of human beings at the top of the evolutionary Tree of Life, making me remove words like "superior" and "best" from my evolutionary vocabulary. Now I find myself questioning the premises upon which this rhyme rests: What makes something better than something else? What is best? Who sets these standards? Using the Darwinian concept of equality through natural selection, I want to discuss the concept of an equal morality in order to show that such a theory can successfully exist. Through an understanding of natural selection, I have come to accept that all creatures currently in existence are equal. However, for the purposes of this paper, I am limiting my question to the relevance of equality for human beings. I am narrowing my categories because morality is a human created concept couched in language, the use of which differentiates humans from other organisms. Dennett claims: "Whereas animals are rigidly controlled by their biology, human behavior is largely determined by culture, a largely autonomous system of symbols and values, growing from a biological base, but growing indefinitely away from it. Able to overpower or escape biological constraints in most regards, cultures can vary from one another enough so that important portions of the variance are thereby explained...Learning is not a general-purpose process, but human beings have so many special-purpose gadgets, and learn to harness them with such versatility, that learning often can be treated as if it were an entirely medium-neutral and content-neutral gift on non-stupidity." (Dennett 491) While all animals are designed to follow biological patterning, human biological patterning designs them to be design makers. Thus, the difference between humans and other animals rests in our ability to make choices to "overpower or escape biological constraints." Since morality is a concept designed by humans, I will limit my questions of morality to the discussion of human beings. A removal of the use of superlatives when thinking of morality is frightening to me since it claims that there is no blanket right or wrong. In order to understand morality, I will first analyze the way in which human beings make decisions. Philosophers have been trying to find a "feasible algorithm for the sort of cost-benefit analysis" (Dennett 498) that goes into decision making. A close look at the factors that go into human decision making, reveal that it is not possible to have this kind of formula. The primary reason for this is the presence of endless considerable possibilities that would need to be taken into consideration. Dennett explains: This is a matter of delicate balance, with pitfalls on both sides. On one side, we must avoid the error of thinking that the solution is more rationality, more rules, more justifications, for there is no end to that demand. Any policy may be questioned, so, unless we provide for some brute and a-rational termination of the issue, we will design a decision process that spirals into infinity. (Dennett 506). This process may theoretically be a way to make decisions; however, practically it contains too made variables and alternatives for it to be a feasible method of decision making. In order for human beings to find answers, decision making needs to be time bound. Thus, in order to make a decision within a certain time period, humans engage in "rule-making" which allows them to narrow down the scope of all the possible options. (Dennett 507) Dennett provides some examples of such rules: "But that would do more harm than good" "But that would be murder." "But that would be to break a promise." (Dennett 507) These rules are moral decisions that people make in order to narrow down the endless possible answers available in the world. Thus, the human attempt to make decisions from the vast quantity of options available, results in the creation of what Dennett calls "conversation stoppers" but what I will call, moral rules since they are "habits [or modes] of conduct."1 Each human being creates a system of morality that allows them to not only make decisions, but also protect what they value. Thus, the process of decision making is a personal assessment of value that allows humans to narrow down the range and effect of the possible options available to them. The use of superlatives when discussing morality implies that a comparison is being made to an ideal set of standards. This is a fallacy since such a blanket set of standards cannot exist due to the infinite possible solutions to every problem. Dennett quotes Wertheimer to explain how humans come to make such claims of moral superiority: "What and how we do think is evidence for the principles of rationality, what and how we ought to think. This itself is a methodological principle of rationality; call it the Facturnorm Principle." (Wertheimer qtd. Dennett 504). The word "ought" is used to indicate and "obligation or duty"2 thus it assumes the existence of an ideal or best standard of morality. However, Wertheimer's Facturnorm Principle is simply an explanation of how humans come to perceive their rules as ideal. The fallacy in this kind of thinking is comparable to the fallacy of human beings as the most superior creatures on earth. These two ways of thinking are comparable is because they use the same method or rationale. As discussed in my previous paper, my belief of humans at the top of the Tree of Life was eroded once I studied the way in which human beings came into existence. The process of natural selection is a random selection of the survival of certain organisms given a certain set of circumstances. This process does not take place because an organism is more "fit to survive" than another; instead, it is the biological-decision making agent that "Mother Nature settled for when designing us and other organisms." (Dennett 503). The same rule can be applied when studying the human decision making process because it too is a random selection of certain frameworks, given a set of circumstances in order to arrive at a solution in a timely manner. Furthermore, if this process, like that of evolution, were to be replicated, we would not get the exact same result or solution to the problem. Dennett points out that Darwinian thinking does not provide answers to problems but "it helps us see why the traditional hope of solving these problems (finding a moral algorithm) is forlorn." (Dennett 514). Thus, Darwin's theory natural selection helps to explain how it is impossible to quantify rules or morality into categories such as "good, better, best." With the removal of superlative from our vocabulary, how is society to function as an orderly unit? There do, as Dennett says, need to be some rules (Dennett 507). Humans are social beings who use language to communicate what they perceive to be the ideal solutions to problems. Those human beings, who agree with a certain set of solutions, institutionalize them, creating a value system that protects its members. It is using this rationale that humans create institutions of religion, government etc. Since different human beings consider a different set of priorities when making decisions, there exist many forms of government and religion. Since this decision making process is a method by which human beings re-design the choices available to them, no one decision or institution can be said to be better than another. However, wouldn't clashes between different institutions result in a chaotic, maybe violent, society? Dennett provides another rule through which this problem can be solved. He states: "You are free to preserve or create any religious [political, social etc.] creed you wish, so long as it does not become a public menace. We're all on the earth together, and we have to learn some accommodation." (Dennett 516). Thus, each individual or social/religious/political group is free to practice the tenets it believes in, however, if their "visions dictate that they cannot peacefully coexist with the rest of us we will have to quarantine as best we can, minimizing the pain and damage, trying always to leave open a path or two that may come to seem acceptable." (Dennett 519). Therefore, the removal of superlatives from our vocabulary does not necessarily result in utter chaos, since human beings create structures such as law making bodies, which perform the function of protecting individual rights while preventing public hazard. As a closing observation, I would like to point out that Dennett himself uses plentiful superlatives in his text, even though he declares the equality of different moralities. Thus I find his denial of other accounts, such as creationism, to be in conflict with his conclusion. My paper discusses the effect on society of the snatching away of a comfortable blanket moral code. However, I too base my arguments on the "truth" of premises such as Darwin's theory of natural selection. I would like to protect myself from the above contradiction within Dennett's text by saying that this account is simply my story and my perception of morality. I am open to the telling of different stories; however, I ask that the story teller respect my story in the same way that I do theirs. 1 "Moral, n 1" Lexico Publishing Group, LLC, 2003 2 "Ought 2" Lexico Publishing Group, LLC, 2003 Bibliography 1. Dennett, Daniel. Darwin's Dangerous Idea. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995. 2. Lexico Publishing Group, LLC, 2003

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