David SimsEssays

Nature’s Guidelines to Law and Morality

by David Sims

THERE ARE natural guidelines that make some moral codes better than others. Those guidelines don’t prevent someone from inventing and/or living by an inferior moral code, but they do impose consequences on people who do so.

Morality is survival behavior above the individual level. Robert Heinlein said that in Starship Troopers, and it sounds correct to me. Morality evolved among intelligent creatures for the same reason that sharp teeth and claws evolve among animals. Natural selection favors the survival, the persistence, of groups that follow proper moral codes. A proper moral code is one that makes the survival of the practicing, self-replacing group its highest value.

I can’t call such moral codes “good” because good is defined by the moral code itself, so when distinguishing moral codes that do what a moral code ought to do from moral codes that don’t do what a moral code ought to do (usually in order that it can do something else instead), I use the words proper and improper.

Why is survival the highest value in any proper moral code? That’s pretty simple. Nothing matters to the dead. And only to something alive may anything else be good. Such things as truth, freedom, and justice have no value at all to extinct peoples.

Why is the survival of the practitioner group primary, instead of the survival of the individual? Because what does not exist is worthless, and what can’t exist for long probably isn’t worth much. Individuals are ephemeral and can by no means live for long. It can be morally proper for a group to sacrifice individuals so that the group, itself, can continue. That’s why it is proper for countries (or other groups) to have soldiers for self-defense.

If a group were to put anything other than its collective survival in first place of value, then sooner or later it would encounter circumstances in which their survival was in conflict with whatever that other thing is.

If the sanctity of the individual’s life is made primary, then when the need to sacrifice some of those lives becomes necessary to the survival of the group as a whole, the group won’t be able to make those sacrifices. For example, if the people in an overcrowded lifeboat could not bring themselves to toss out their least valuable fellow passengers, then the boat will sink and they all will die.

No sense in that.

If justice (whether the regular kind or the social kind) is made primary, then when the pace of events during an emergency presents the group with the choice, either of disregarding “justice” so that necessary actions be taken within the window of time that their salvation can be effected, or else wasting that time while lawyers split hairs in court, then the group will perish if it adheres to its improper code. It has a chance to survive, so that it may continue to contemplate justice after the crisis is over, only if it abandons that improper code in which justice was made the primary value, and in its place sets up a proper moral code in which the group’s survival is made the primary value.

I’ll shift the premise while maintaining the argument structure, in order to evade the emotionalism that attaches to the value of people.

Suppose you had to make a choice between throwing away a perfectly edible apple, or else chopping down the tree on which the apple grew. Which choice involves the lesser loss, and which the greater? Obviously, you should throw away the apple and keep the tree, since that particular tree can make other apples, which, though they won’t be identical with the apple you got rid of, will taste about the same, and will have about the same utility for pies, applesauce, and cider. Why? Because the genes of the apples that the tree grows next year will be almost exactly the same as the genes of the apple that you threw away this year.

Anyone who decides to chop down the apple tree, while preserving in his refrigerator its very last apple because “it is so very unique and special,” is either mentally retarded or mentally ill.

So Sartre was wrong at least in part. Although you can’t be sure what specific moral code will best promote the survival of your group (the group who can generate new members that are more like you than the new members of any other group would be; in other words, your race), you can gain confidence in what the general principles and broad brushstrokes of such a moral code would be by considering history, and especially by learning how peoples of the past overcame challenges to their survival, and which fatal mistakes were made by groups that no longer exist.

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