April 3, 2012 Leave a comment
My mother is an amazing woman. While I was a youth, she imbued in me certain paradigms of her morality; everyone should be treated with respect and kindness and all suffering is bad and should be abolished. I emerged from childhood with a very acute sense of empathy, which to this day prevents me from knowingly doing any lasting harm to anybody. I would like nothing more than for everyone to be safe and happy. Yes, I do hate killing insects – not because they scare me (which they may or may not) – but because I feel bad for them. Obviously I’ve been taking this thought process to the extreme. Living my life like this has been draining mentally, but rewarding; it has allowed me to be thoroughly at peace with myself. The ethical pillar of my existence. Solid, immovable. Sounds comforting, doesn’t it? And yet it is the perilous nature of life that our perspective is ever-expanding. The pillar that once could easily support my moral ceiling has seen load after load added to it. Usually, whenever a crack appears, it’s easy enough to patch up. Just add some mortar and pretend that it never happened. However recently my patchwork masonry stopped being effective; another load was added, and the pillar finally began to crumble.
This “tipping point” load came from a recent biology class. We were exploring natural selection, more specifically how all living things evolve to take advantage of their environment. How does this work? The creatures with weaker attributes die, and those which are best suited to their environment survive. While the mantra “survival of the fittest” is a common one, it’s not one that I often abide by. Instead of taking full advantage of a particular situation, I routinely allow others to “win” at things, since I enjoy other people’s happiness. For example I won’t try my hardest when playing sports, or I’ll let other people decide which activity we’re going to participate in. This is already a basic example of how my mentality is removed from natural selection’s aims. Yet the point of the biology lecture that stuck with me was called “trophic cascade”: “an ecological phenomenon triggered by the addition or removal of top predators and involving reciprocal changes in the relative populations of predator and prey through a food chain, which often results in dramatic changes in ecosystem structure and nutrient cycling (Encyclopædia Britannica)”. For example, humans would never have been able to thrive if dinosaurs hadn’t been wiped out. *Crack* If the death of one species means that another can flourish, then why should I care if the blue whale becomes extinct? That would allow another species to fill in the blue whale’s spot in the food chain. *Snap* Why do I waste my brainpower by feeling sorry for killing a spider if by killing it I’ll save a bunch of insects? *Crumble* Why do I feel bad for taking advantage of people when my species came into dominance by being the best at taking advantage of any given situation? *Shatter* Why should I care about faceless people dying, when their death gives opportunity to other humans? To answer these questions, it’s due to the way my mother raised me.
Clearly my thinking is far from efficient, and no where near optimized for survival as seen in nature. Indeed, there’s always been a negative connotation with being a so-called “good” or “nice” person. Nice people are soft. Nice guys don’t get girls. Nice people can’t get anything done. So was I screwed over? Despite her best intentions, did my mother raise me to be weak? Maybe. But she also raised me to be enlightened. Try as I might, I cannot completely abandon myself to a more “primal” way of thinking. It’s our capacity for moral action, amongst other things, which separates us from animals. And it’s my high ethical standards which distinguishes me from my peers. I’ve definitely been considered “soft” when I was younger. But this is no longer the case. I’ve learned to balance my empathy with more “aggressive” thinking. Doesn’t this make me less “enlightened”? I don’t believe so, for my thinking is thus. The only two objectives of life which I can discern is the primal goal to advance humanity, and the enlightened goal of enjoying oneself. Being completely nice and empathetic, while evoking enlightenment and Jesus, does nothing to advance humanity, and can greatly lessen one’s enjoyment of life. Therefore I embrace my mother’s gift to me, without abandoning myself to it. I try and force myself to become more calloused when my enjoyment of life is hampered.
My answers to the previous situations become thus: I should care about species which are endangered because of humans, since we’re creating environmental pressures too rapidly for evolution to properly restore balance, and we’ll regret it if we ever find a way to live in harmony with nature. I should care about all life, simply because life is awesome. Worrying about killing insects is a waste of time, since they have a very low brain capacity. I’m glad that I don’t automatically take advantage of people. It places me higher on the evolutionary scale. However I do want to make more efforts to “go for mine”, since most people seem to think that way, and I can’t wholly base my happiness on the enjoyment of others. Feeling sorry for those faceless people who have passed on is useless, but it’s also a reminder that I’m a human and that I can empathize.
I’ve spent my life convincing myself that I’m a perfect altruistic being who wants nothing but the best for everybody. Yet this is just a sham – an ideal I created which I simply cannot live up to. However every pillar needs a solid foundation, and I couldn’t be happier with mine. For while morals might be technically useless on the individual level, writing this has helped me realize that they’re necessary on the societal scale. Our morality is the keystone piece of our evolution – a tool designed not to take advantage of isolated situations, but to help us reap the benefits of society. The pillar still holds.