Thursday, May 07, 2015

More on Good and Evil

Coincidentally, after writing last week's post, I came across an old issue of TIME magazine from 2007 with the cover story "What Makes Us Good / Evil." Some topics covered include: parts of the brain involved in moral decisions; apparent ethical judgments made by "lower" animals such as apes; how the group enforces standards and punishes offenders through behavior such as shunning; the differing applications of moral principles to people "inside" and "outside" what we perceive as our group. Our empathic response to "in-group" and "out-group" also varies with closeness and distance. An individual might throw himself in front of a train to save a stranger but feel only passing sympathy upon hearing of a mass disaster on another continent. C. S. Lewis speculates that our capacity for sympathy wasn't designed to deal with constant exposure to distant catastrophes we have little or no power to affect. Many psychologists believe we're born with the programming for morality, "a sense of moral grammar" similar to the linguistic framework for syntax built into the human brain. As with language, though, we can't apply the grammar of right and wrong until we learn the necessary content and application from people around us.

The first question that arises, of course, is how to define "good" and "evil." The TIME article doesn't propose a definition explicitly, only by implication. The caption on the first page seems to identify "good" with "morality and empathy" and "evil" with "savagery and bloodlust." The text of the article itself focuses mainly on empathy and the sense of fairness. (It seems some animals are amazingly good at noticing when they're treated unfairly compared to others in their group.) In the STAR TREK episode discussed in last week's post, Kirk and Spock at first didn't have any opportunity to display empathy or justice. They were simply ordered to fight their "evil" opponents to the death. Only when Kirk and Spock refused to fight, and the alien threatened the lives of the entire Enterprise crew to force them to participate in the contest, did they have a chance to display the quality of empathy. At the end, the alien even admitted an essential difference between the Enterprise officers, fighting for the lives of their people, and the "evil" characters, fighting for selfish goals or maybe just for the fun of it.

One of my favorite nonfiction authors, Steven Pinker, wrote a book called THE BETTER ANGELS OF OUR NATURE, which maintains that we live in the least violent era of human history. In other words, global society is getting more moral. He supports this counter-intuitive position with exhaustive, specific evidence. Although in regard to early history he sometimes conflates myth and literature with real life, and later occasionally slips in data on phenomena that, while deplorable, I wouldn't call "violent," the book offers a lot of solid information and provocative arguments to think about.

On a different topic: If you can get a copy of the May 2015 SMITHSONIAN magazine, check it out. This issue has the theme "The Future Is Here." Articles cover subjects such as magnetic levitation technology, the effects of plastic waste on the environment, constructing replacement human organs with 3-D printing—and "Mind Meld." The last doesn't involve true telepathic conversations, of course. It's only a rudimentary beginning, an electronic connection that allows two people to communicate simple "yes" or "no" data. Ambitious speculation envisions a future ability to download information or techniques directly from the brain of an expert. Or suppose you could upload the contents of your own brain to save and re-download in case you suffer a stroke or the like? Something I've often wondered about mind-reading: Would universal perfect telepathy or empathic perception bestow perfect harmony upon the world? Or would we find ourselves in a situation more like the plight of the lawyer in the movie LIAR, LIAR, whose son was granted the wish that his father could never tell a lie, leading to much awkwardness?

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

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