A secular imperative to love
This post responds to yet another interesting dialogue with Terry Sissons, the author of The Other I.
In a previous conversation, either on Terry’s blog or my own, I’d written – probably in the context of rejecting transcendent spirituality as a foundation for ethics – ‘Love is hard enough. But it is also enough.’ (For clarity, read the second sentence as ‘But love is also enough – of an imperative’.) Then later, as part of the Case for God exchange, Terry asked me why I thought that. Below is an attempt to expand on my original response.
The first step is to state my belief that humans have probably evolved to be the entities they are: sentient, social, interdependent, mortal etc. I say this not because I particularly want an evolutionary explanation to be true, but because an evolutionary explanation seems more sound, and to require less metaphysical baggage and/or wishful thinking than any other explanation currently on offer.
The next step is to say that, because humans are (have evolved to be) the sort of entities they are, they feel emotion, they can use reason, and they can make choices.
In this context I don’t think I am presupposing any specific philosophical or scientific perspective on free will, just making the observation that humans do make choices – whatever ‘making a choice’ actually boils down to. As it happens, I have no problem accepting as an assumption that humans evolved, by natural selection, to be the sort of organisms who have free will and are able to make conscious choices. The reason I am happy to assume this is that convincing and coherent evolutionary explanations are available for such a broad range of other features of living organisms, and no other (eg theistic) explanation for ‘free will’ is any more acceptable even on its own terms, let alone being able to fit into a more general explanation of human existence.
At risk of over-egging the pudding, I will try to spell out exactly what I am trying to say here. I think the combined evidence for evolution as an explanation for the diversity of life is overwhelmingly convincing. This does not mean it is unassailable truth. No science is unassailable truth – it wouldn’t be science if it was. But no other explanation comes near it in explanatory power. It therefore sets the benchmark.
‘Setting the benchmark’ means that another kind of explanation – eg for a specific feature of a specific living organism – will need to be consistent with the overall evolutionary explanation if it is to be taken seriously. Take for example the hypothesis that free will has somehow been given us by God. This hypothesis would need to include an explanation of how this gift would have been possible in the context of an overall developmental path driven by natural selection. I have not yet come across any explanation which is remotely convincing.
I have also not come across any remotely convincing argument to the effect that what we know as ‘free will’ could not have evolved.
It is for these two reasons that I feel no discomfort in accepting that ‘free will’ probably evolved without having much idea how it evolved.
We can now return to the main thread.
Some of the choices open to evolved human beings fit inside other choices. Because I have chosen x, then further choices can or need to be made, choices which only appear as choices because of x. (We do not always choose consciously – we are not purely algorithmic all the time – but most of us cannot live by unconscious choice alone.)
Some of those higher-level choices can be very difficult, both to make and to live by. I think that whether to love is one such choice, perhaps the highest-level choice there is. In this context I mean ‘love’ in an ethical sense – as an orientation of the self. Love as in ‘love thy neighbour’, as shorthand for the ethical imperative to ‘exercise practical compassion’ as in the Golden Rule.
But I do not think we have any reason for thinking that this choice (which includes the choice to see it as a choice which needs to be made) comes to us from anything outside us. We are not justified in thinking there was any teleological intent behind the fact that we evolved to have this choice and/or to be aware we have the choice.
It is possible that for some people, in order to make a choice like this, it is important to believe that the choice does come from something outside, and/or that there is or was a teleological intent behind the fact that we have this choice, and have evolved to have this choice. But my own position is that I think any belief like this is unjustified and irrelevant, and ultimately detracts from the choice itself.
Terry thought my explanation seemed like a justification after the event. I had obviously not been clear enough.
My point is not exactly that love has evolutionary value. Yes I would claim we have evolved by natural selection to be a kind of organism capable of choosing whether to love. But that does not mean ‘love is enough (of an imperative)’ is the same kind of thing as (and therefore comparable to) other potential principles which could also have an evolutionary foundation, eg ‘getting enough food is enough (of an imperative)’ or ‘procreating is enough (of an imperative)’ or even ‘enjoying life is enough (of an imperative)’.
I am also absolutely not claiming an ethical imperative (as I intended ‘love is enough’ to be) could in any way be deduced from a statement of what was evolutionarily valuable. That would not only commit the naturalistic fallacy, but it could also commit to awkward implications like Herbert Spencer’s universal natural law of progress or worse.
Alternative imperatives like feeding and procreating are not ethical imperatives in the same way. All organisms feed (in the sense of taking in material and energy from their environment). All organisms procreate. An organism which mutated such that it did not feed or procreate would go extinct in a generation. This is true both of organisms which can make choices and those which cannot.
Humans however can make conscious behavioural choices, and they are also social and socially dependent creatures. (They have evolved to be able to make conscious behavioural choices and to be social and socially dependent creatures.)
In the context of human social existence as it is (and as it has evolved and developed to be) there is a spectrum of behaviours open to an individual human. An individual can be ‘selfish’ or ‘unselfish’ – or of course something in between. There is a whole continuum between two extreme ‘poles’, which we could describe as ‘sociopathic’ (at the selfish extreme) and ‘saintly’ (at the unselfish extreme).
At the ‘sociopathic’ end, the evidence suggests that a small proportion of individuals are just ‘made that way’ – it is not that they choose to be selfish to the point of callousness and cruelty, but they just do not have the capacity for empathy. They are unable to put themselves in another’s shoes.
Now although very few people are ‘saints’, very few are extreme sociopaths either. The vast majority of people feel at least some empathy, and act on it.
It would be intriguing – in fact quite horrifying – to speculate what human life would be like if all people were sociopaths and sociopathic behaviour were the norm. Or is it even possible to speculate, without coming to the rapid conclusion that human life would not only be hellish, but it would actually be impossible? The life of Homo sociopathicus would not be just a hellish but still feasible and therefore theoretically available variant of the life of Homo sapiens. It would be the life of an entirely different organism. It would be an organism without the capacity for empathy and, as a consequence, also without the capacity for trust.
If this thought experiment is sound, it suggests that humans have evolved to have the capacity for empathy and trust, just as they have evolved linguistic ability, consciousness and opposable thumbs. Empathy and trust are just part of what it is to be human.
This is not to say that somewhere ‘deep down’ we are perfect creatures with innocent generous selfless souls. Our conflicts are glaringly obvious. Every day our empathy and trust are compromised if not defeated.
But this, for me, is where the ethical imperative to love originates – from our complex, evolved nature. We are social and socially dependent. We have a capacity for empathy and trust. But there are other key components: we have memories; we recognise and remember each other as individuals. Trust and reputation are – or at least were – important to our survival. (I am touching here on the algorithms of reciprocal altruism, explored in greater depth in works of evolutionary psychology like Marc Hauser’s Moral minds [Abacus, 2008].)
We do not need an ethical imperative to feed or procreate – we have these motivations anyway. We have to have them in order to continue to exist. We can choose this or that meal, but we cannot in general ‘choose to feed’.
Procreation is slightly different: we can choose this or that mate, but as individuals we can also choose whether or not to procreate. There are circumstances where ‘to procreate or not’ could be an individual ethical choice – for example whether or not to bring another mouth to feed into an overpopulated world. But an individual decision to feed could also be an ethical one, eg if made by an anorexic child out of empathy for a desperate parent. But neither feeding nor procreation is an ethical imperative per se. Individual decisions like these are arguably exceptions to prove the rule: examples where feeding and procreation provide the context and content of specific ethical decisions which are actually about something else – eg caring for parents or the planet.
But the imperative to love, where ‘love’ = ‘exercise practical compassion’, is ethical through and through. In theory at least we can choose not to love at all, like Alberich in Wagner’s Ring Cycle. Far more commonly, we can choose whether to love in any particular circumstance, and we can choose how much to love. We can choose where to be on the continuum.
I have tried to demonstrate elsewhere (in The ethics of belief, and particularly in the sequence from Three wise mentalities to Not I my lord) what I see as important structural similarities between Kant’s Categorical Imperative, the Golden Rule, and the evolutionary algorithms of reciprocal altruism.
What I am here calling the ‘imperative to love’ is no more nor less than the Golden Rule. I think Kant was mistaken in dismissing the Golden Rule as banal (German trivial) and elevating the more abstract Categorical Imperative. He did this because he was eager to formulate a universal principle which held for all free rational beings rather than one which specifically applied to the kind of free rational beings which humans are (see for example Categorically imperative). But once we allow ourselves to make this move the universality of the Categorical Imperative can get its heart back. Evolutionary theory then suggests reasons for thinking that although we may find the imperative to love inside ourselves, we do not have to assume it was put there by a god.
Last word on the naturalistic fallacy. To say we find the imperative to love (the Golden Rule) inside ourselves is not to commit the naturalistic fallacy. It is not to deduce an ought from an is. We give ourselves the imperative. We do this because of what we are, and if we choose to give ourselves the imperative. Kant got the first bit wrong but the second bit hugely right.
© Chris Lawrence 2009.