Friday, June 22, 2012

Am I good? Are you?

re: goodness

Most people treat the subject of good & evil individualistically. But it isn't true. Good & evil are far more a group phenomenon than we want to admit. There are saints and sociopaths, of course, but they're the exception. We evolved living in small bands of hunter/gatherers for around 95% of the time recognizably human beings have been on this Earth, and in such bands morality is mediated on an ongoing basis, with the consequences of personal lapses and misdeeds trailing you for the rest of your life. People behave because they can't escape the consequences of misbehavior. They don't behave as a cynical calculation--they just "sense" the need to behave. And the rare examples of miscreants in one's little tribe--how the shame of their misdeed sticks to them--serves as a warning to uphold the tribe's values.

Modern society puts us in a world of strangers, and even with lifelong circles of friendship and family, most of us could move to a new town and start over if we so chose. So both the ongoing sense of needing to behave and the strategic understanding of being able to avoid the long-term consequences of heinous-but-legal behavior make for a much less moral society, overall, than our ancestors experienced.

Stasi papers uncovered after the fall of the German Wall showed that a very large proportion of East Germans collaborated with the state spy apparatus. Conversely, precious few French citizens really resisted the Nazi occupation, despite postwar posturing.

Yesterday as I rode my bicycle out of our condo complex, a lady in a car turned across my path. If I hadn't braked hard I would have become her bloody hood ornament. She saw me clearly--but she figured I'd stop if I didn't want to die, and I did.

Now imagine if she and I knew each other, and that both of us knew that the consequences of that encounter would hang in the air for the rest of our lives, not just for us but for our families' relationship with each other and with the rest of the tribe for decades to come. The odds are very high that under such circumstances she wouldn't have broken the law and endangered my life (and I wouldn't have shouted what I shouted at her as she went by me).

But I'll probably never see her again, and vice versa.

The miracle is that we behave as well as we do, in general. To that extent you could say that goodness is inborn--though easy to subvert.

A few years ago an incident where a light plane crashed into the power lines leading into my college town and cut all electricity to the town for a whole day, so no stop lights worked and there were far too few cops to post at all the intersections with lights.

Yet traffic was hardly impeded. All day virtually everyone stopped at intersections and observed the rules of the road punctiliously. I've traveled in the Philippines, and I guarantee you that under similar circumstances there it would have been gridlocked chaos.

But this doesn't show that "goodness" is an individual thing--quite the opposite. It shows that a settled, orderly culture like that of my town has more of the feel of our hunting/gathering tribal situation than less orderly societies have. We don't think of our tribal ancestors as having more orderly societies than what we have on Earth today, but in fact they did.

So yes, good and evil have always existed, but it isn't just individual good and evil--the macroorganisms we call society/culture also can be good or evil.

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