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On a fundamental problem in ethics and morals

1. The problem

There is a very fundamental problem in ethics and morals that is hardly ever seen, or if seen hardly ever faced. Briefly explained, it comes to this: 

For the past 2500 years, at least, all major civilizations and religions have accepted and taught - with broad variations and many differences on detail - a similar moral conception of what it is to be a human being and live in a human society.

This conception can be seen as the elaboration of the notions that all men are similar in what makes them human; that all men have similar needs in similar circumstances; that all men can understand all men as regards general ideas and common feelings; that all men share ideas about fair sharing, honesty, probity and decency, and can come to agreements about socializing and cooperating; and that a very useful rough guide to treat one another is based on empathy and the Golden Rule "Do unto others as thou woulds't be done by" - which indeed presupposes the presumptions just articulated, in that it assumes that the feelings and ideas of one human being are a fair guide to the feelings and ideas of another human being.

What was said in the previous paragraph can be found in the moral and ethical teachings of the Hindus, the Jews, the Buddhists, the Christians, the Mohammedans, even though in each of these religions there is much additional detail, and there are many differences about many dogmas and about the foundations of each and any religion or philosophy.

Now the problem is that if there is such wide human agreement on the essence and fundament of how to behave to each other in a humane way, and if these agreement have been preached and taught for 25 centuries, then what is the explanation for the fact that during all those centuries, almost everywhere, as Gibbon puts it

"History is little else but the register of the crimes, follies and misfortunes of mankind"

or also, in Chamfort's words

"Presque toute l'Histoire n'est qu'une suite d'horreurs." ?

2. Mencius on human qualities and human goodness

It is this problem I wish to consider, and it so happens that there is a fine illustration in the teachings of the Chinese philosopher Mencius. 

I quote from "The Concept of Man" - Ed. Radhakrishnan and Raju, p. 168-9, article "The Concept of Man in Chinese Thought" by Wing-tsit Chan:

"There is more oratory than logic in Mencius' utterances, but his position is perfectly clear. It is that man's nature is originally good. To support his own position, he pointed to the fact that 'When men suddenly see a child about to fall into a well, they all have the feeling of alarm and distress, not in order to gain friendship with the child's parents, nor to seek the praise of their neighbours and friends, nor because they dislike the reputation (for being unvirtuous).' From this he concluded that 'a man without the feeling of mercy is not a man; a man without the feeling of deference and complaisance is not a man, and a man without the feeling of right and wrong is not a man. The feeling of commiseration is the beginning of the feeling of love; the feeling of shame and dislike is the beginning of righteousness; the feeling of deference and complaisance is the beginning of wisdom. Men have these four beginnings just as they have four limbs.' 'These four, love, righteousness, propriety and wisdom,' he added, 'are not drilled into us from ourside. We are originally provided with them.'

This is excellent to start with, because it draws attention to some fundamental points and principles. 

Note first that Mencius in effect is arguing here against those who what to insist that man's nature is not originally good, either because it is bad or indifferent (as several of Mencius's  contemporaries had argued) or because the whole notions of "good" and "bad" are merely subjective, merely relative, and mostly useless or delusive - what is "good" for one human is "bad" for another, and there is no common agreement possible or existing between humans about "good" and "bad".

Next, Mencius argues his thesis that human beings are basically altruistic and agree widely on what they hold to be good and bad, by drawing attention to a number of admitted facts about "men" and their feelings and desires about other "men" (or women or children), that all contradict the notion that the feelings and desires of men about other men, women or children, are unpredictable or random, or can be truly explained by their egoistic interests, such as "making friends and influencing people", preserving a good reputation or getting personal praise.

And in fact, Mencius insists that all men at least share feelings and notions of commiseration, shame, deference and right and wrong, and indeed agree widely on what or whom they commiserate with (children in distress); feel ashamed for (dishonesty, egoism); have deference for (elder people, one's parents); and consider right and wrong. Indeed, the last notions can be phrased, at least for one's own group or family (!), as follows:

"Enjoy and give pleasure, without doing harm to yourself or to anyone else - that, I think, is the whole of morality."

One may draw up another - and more complete - list of human feelings, human needs, and human ways of thinking that most or all men (unless emotionally disturbed) in most human societies share, but the key notions here are (1) there is broad agreement between all human beings about many feelings and needs of humans in given circumstances, which is the same for all men and is what enables them to understand each other (2) there can be a human society and human cooperation only if there are agreements between cooperating humans, both as regards their presupposed abilities and as regards their specific ends they want to realize by cooperating.

He went even further and said that not only is goodness inherent in man's nature, but also man does not require any learning to practise it or any thought to know it, for man does so intuitively. In his own words, 'the ability possessed by man without the necessity of thought is native knowledge. Chiildren carried in the arms all know to love their parents. As they grow, they all know to respect their brothers. To have filial affection for parents is love, and to respect elders is righteousness. Their feelings are universal in the world, that is all. They are universal because innate goodness and intuitive ability to know and do good are common to the human species. 'All things of the same kind are similar to one another', he observed, 'and why should there be any doubt about men? The sage and we are the same in kind ... Men's mouths like the same relishes; their ears like the same sounds; and their eyes like the same beauty. Can it be that their minds do not like the same thing? What is this that their minds all like? I say, the principle or reason and righteousness.'

Here the common human nature of all men is insisted upon, and the point is made that human beings naturally know what it is to be altruistic as well as what it is to be egoistic. It should be noted here that what is said by Mencius about human beings also holds for other social animals: These too can cooperate only by having some sort of mutual understanding of each other and by making some sort of agreements that mediate between altruism and egoism and involve mutual understanding and the goal of cooperating for each others' benefit. Indeed, one needs only point to animals that take care of their young to notice that there too often the parents cooperate in the interest of their children and at the cost of their own egoistic needs and feelings.

This means that it is highly probable that part of the ethical and moral nature of human beings derives from the animal nature of humans - it is inherited with their zoological ancestry, which makes them social animals with whavever mutual understanding, cooperation and ability to compromise this entails.

And this means the shared animal nature of human beings cannot be the full explanation for their ethical or unethical behavior, especially since human beings can foresee and understand far more than other animals, and can speak with one another to convey their beliefs and desires.

Now we come to the problem of evil:

If man's nature is originally good, why does he practise evil? Mencius answer to this question is both simple and direct. He said, 'If we follow our essential character, we will be able to do good. This is what I mean in saying that man's nature is good. If man does evil, it is not the fault of original endowment ... Therefore it is said: Seek and you will find them (love, righteousness, propriety and wisdom), neglect and you will loose them. Men differ from one another by twice as much, or five times, or an incalculable amount, because they have not fully developed their original endowment. As to why man does not fully develop their original endowment, Mencius again turned to man himself. The failure is due to one's 'losing the originally good mind', 'self-destruction and self abandoment', 'lack of nourishment', 'failure to develop the noble and great elements in oneself', 'failure to preserve one's mind', 'lack of effort', or simply lack of thought. It is clear that man is the cause of his own downfall. Not that Mencius ignored the influence of environment. In explaining why water could be forced uphill, he said that it is not the nature of water, but the force applied from outside that made it. And to explain the inequality of products, he recognized the difference of the soil and the unequal nourishment afforded by the rains and dews. Nevertheless, his emphasis on man's own responsibility is unmistakable. This, in brief outline, is the doctrine of the original goodness of human nature that eventually came to dominate Chinese thought and became accepted in Confucian orthodoxy."

Indeed, if human beings were on average altruistic and rational, human history would be quite different from what it is:

3. The differences between men

Mencius' explanation for evil, supposing all or most humans to be altruistic, to be capable of speech and sharing ideas, and to be willing to cooperate for mutual interest and protection is cogent and interesting and deserves stressing:

The failure is due to one's 'losing the originally good mind', 'self-destruction and self abandoment', 'lack of nourishment', 'failure to develop the noble and great elements in oneself', 'failure to preserve one's mind', 'lack of effort', or simply lack of thought. It is clear that man is the cause of his own downfall

Now an important  consequence of this, much supported by human history, is the following  fundamental problem in ethics and morals:

It would seem as if the majority of human beings in history most of the time have lost their originally good mind, are indulging in self-destruction and self abandoment, didn't get sufficient physical or intellectual nourishment to cultivate their good qualities, and indeed - usually, normally and mostly - failed to develop the noble and great elements in themselves, and usually did not spend effort on becoming better or wiser, but only on becoming richer or more powerful.

So what is the explanation of the problem I noted: if there is such wide human agreement on the essence and fundament of how to behave to each other in a humane way, and if these agreement have been preached and taught for 25 centuries, then what is the explanation for the fact that during all those centuries, almost everywhere have behaved mostly according to "homo homini lupus" rather than "Do unto others as thou wouldst' be done by"?

4. Totalitarianism and individualism

It would seem as if the explanation comes to this:

The majority of human beings (as they are, and as they have been the last 25 centuries) does not really understand, appreciate or care for the moral (and intellectual) principles understood by such men as Confucius, Mencius, Buddha, Jezus or Mohammed, even if - indeed: especially if - they claim they do.

The vast majority of human beings are not rational, reasonable, righteous individuals, thinking for themselves according to their ability, and dealing honestly and fairly with most or all men, but are merely rational enough to survive in their own environments ("If in Rome, do as the Romans do"), merely reasonable enough to be tolerated by the fellows in their own groups, and willing to deal honestly and fairly only (subject to a few exceptions) with humans of their own kind.

Moral and ethical feelings and ideas such as Mencius attributed to all men and women, hold for most men and women only for humans they regard as Our Kind - and Our Kind usually is restricted to (1) oneself (2) one's family and friends and (3) part of the society one lives in, and usually does not apply to anyone that's not family or friend or does belong to another society.

In brief: Most human beings in known history have been ideological totalitarian apes, willing and capable of abusing their rationality for their delusions about their own interests; willing and capable of persecuting, murdering, enslaving or defrauding anyone not a member of one's own group; willing and capable of following leaders, of fighting their fights, of believing their lies, but not willing and not capable of standing on their own feet, while thinking for themselves.

Few human beings in known history have been humane individuals, willing and capable of rational thought and reasonable behavior; few human beings in known history had both the talent and the interest for doing great science or making great art, while the vast majority only had talent for making money or war, and have often applied those talents; and only a small minority of mankind has conceived of the ideas and values that have helped all of mankind by adopting part of these to rise above the limitations of being a mere animal.

"As humans go, one in tenthousand is honest"

Shakespeare observed, and instead of "honest" he might equally well have said "rational", "reasonable", or "righteous".

5. "Video meliora proboque; deteriora sequor"

Then what is the explanation that throughout human history millions upon millions have heard of or been educated by the words of unique individuals like Confucius, Mencius, Buddha, Jezus or Mohammed - and accordingly have knowingly done evil most of their lives willingly; have knowingly broken time and again the very moral principles they preached themselves whenever this seemed to be in their interests? Was this all hypocrisy or cowardice?

No doubt, hypocrisy or cowardice play a much greater role - for example in the making of wars and in the preaching of religion - than most men like to admit, but the principal explanation must lie elsewhere, for the good moral and factual reason that most human beings, while behaving atrociously (falsely, hypocritically, dishonestly, cruelly) to nearly all men not belonging to their own groups of family, friends and colleagues, these very same humane  creatures normally have behaved rather decently and mostly conforming moral precepts IF the beneficients of this moral behavior were their own family, friends, colleagues or leaders.

While most men have behaved immorally most of the time by their very own moral principles (whatever these may be), for a reason already clearly seen by Ovid:

"Video meliora proboque; deteriora sequor"
(= "I see the better and agree it is better; I follow the worse")

- for reasons of ease, egoism, convenience, conformism, or cowardice - most men are quite moral (according to local standards) if punished for not being moral, and their own fellows usually have sufficient self-interest to take care the others in the group are mostly fair, mostly honest, mostly reliable, and mostly rational.

The basic two reasons that most men break their own moral teachings to most men not of their kind are human stupidity and the human proclivity for being social, which ordinarily, with ordinary men, takes a totalitarian form:

Good is what serves Our Group, Our Leaders, Our Kind ;
Bad is what opposes Our Group, Our Leaders, or Our Kind.

This is indeed also how hyenas and dogs feel about their own group, and it appears that most human beings, at least when dealing with humans that do not belong to their own group, and from whom they do not need fear sanctions, are not normally capable or willing of being more humane than a hyena or a dog (whence the Latin "homo homini lupus"), and are quite often capable of being much more beastly: Only human beings torture their fellows and only human beings burn their fellows "for the Greater Glory of God"; only human beings make  concentration camps; only human beings war upon one another in the name of All-knowing, All-powerful, Benevolent deities, usually identified with (infinite) "Love".

Hence it is that the very same persons who, with tears in their eyes, recite moral lessons or swear by moral examples, in almost the following breath curse or denounce their fellows; hence it is that the greatest evil is normally done with the greatest moral justifications and fanaticism; and hence it is that the greatest projects for improving mankind - christianity, islam, socialism - have been the greatest curses upon mankind, and have normally been practised hypocritically by their leaders, and believed blindly, and in a totalitarian fashion, bt their followers, who almost invariably have been willing to murder, maim, persecute or "re-educate" anybody not quite like them, always for the verbally best reasons, verbally sanctioned by the highest ideals.

6. What can be done about this

If human beings were on average like the men and women whose ideas they claim to practise, the human world would be a very different place. Alas, it isn't - and one cannot blame the human average for not being like the intellectually or morally best, just as one  cannot blame the human average for neither being pretty nor smart: Thus they are born, and they never asked to be born, nor to be born with their limitations, appearance, needs and shortcomings.

However, if human beings on average remain as they have been these last 25 Centuries - say: per one genius a hundredthousand hooligans, cowards, hypocrites, fools, followers and supposedly decent average conformists - there soon will be no more human beings, for they will exterminate one another, very probably for the purportedly best of moral reasons. 

Fortunately (and perhaps unfortunately as well), there is now arising a possibility to do something about the curse of humanity - the average stupidity, and the resulting average conformism, totalitarianism, and hypocrisy: 

It should be possible within the next 100 years to learn the real natural foundations of true and general human intelligence, and to develop means to help every parent to have children considerably more intelligent than they are, and to provide every prospective parent with these means.

Indeed, if this is NOT done, the risk is great that if humanity survives, it will survive in the form of a small master race descending from the current social élites (who already have their nose-jobs; have their wrinkles surgically removed and their tits enlarged etc.) and a much larger group of - probably quite happy (!) - born slaves and second-raters, visibly more ugly and smaller than their masters and mistresses, and evidently much more stupid and ignorant.

And if this IS done, then still there is no assurance whatsoever that humanity will survive,  but if it does at least there is the chance it will be better in understanding logical consequences; better at understanding and inventing  all manner of things; and possibly capable of making the sort of society almost every truly intelligent man or woman these past 25 centuries has dreamt of - with honest, rational, reasonable, righteous man and women.


Colofon: First version May 26, 2002
            Updated with links and without some typos December 28 2007 

© Maartens@xs4all.nl



Welcome to the  MY philosophy pages of Maarten Maartensz. See:  Help + Map + Tour + Tips + Notes + News + Home