Good, evil and natural selection

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Lion in Namibia (Kevin Pluck)

(Read it here in Spanish)

Charles K. Fink discusses in his interesting article The predation argument the controversial thesis of philosopher Steve Sapontzis that a lion does wrong when killing its prey for food. Although, according to Sapontzis (whom Fink agrees with), not being a moral agent would exempt the fearsome felid and any other non-human predator from blame: it would be a case comparable to that of a 2-year-old child, who can do bad things – for example, torturing a kitten to death- but that doesn’t mean he is bad; instead, he is unconscious of the malignity of his acts.

Evil seems to be something relative and impossible to define without the blinders of human subjectivity, but a utilitarian approach can shed light because it is based on an irrefutable truth: that every living creature struggles to continue living, seek pleasure and avoid pain (although it sometimes sacrifices itself for the common good, coincident with its own in superorganisms such as a hive). Killing or causing suffer to a living being, either out of perversion or to survive, would then be a bad thing. Torturing a cat is not less atrocious for the animal if made by a small unconscious child instead of a sadistic adult. The death of a gazelle is not less atrocious for her whether she dies from the bite of a lion – who will feed its pups with her flesh- or from the bullet of a sport hunter. An act is wrong regardless of one’s moral responsibility. Of course, sometimes it is necessary for a moral agent as a human to damage or cause death, in the same way as a lion trying to survive, in pursuit of a moral good: the best example is self-defense, either in front of a harmful bacteria, a mosquito, a lion – which, of course, we cannot blame for trying to hunt us- or a toxic congener.

By definition, natural selection is never wrong when erasing what is not functional for survival. It does not deal with anything else, neither makes any moral judgment (it couldn’t, because it lacks any will or intelligence): it simply removes the traits that do not favour survival, which disappear along with their carriers. And the truth is that both kind and evil behaviors have been selected for providing benefits to those who carry them: groups whose individuals help each other are more solid and thus better equipped to promote the survival of its members than those in which everybody goes only on his own hurting and damaging their fellows; on the other hand, we also know that predation is functional, as well as deception, shirking and other bad arts when they go unnoticed (see the cuckoo, that tricks other birds to take forward their offspring, or Donald Trump).

Is human path (better to say, the most intelligent mammals’ way) to compassion and moral sentiment exclusive of life on Earth? Without leaving our planet, could there be in 300,000 years time superracoons or superlions which wonder themselves about wickedness of predation? Leaving our planetary home, will have compassion been selected in other worlds with different circumstances -geological, climatic, biological or of any other sort? Could it be that both compassion and cruelty are spread throughout any scenario in the universe where intelligence had caught on? If so, will there be worlds where compassion defeats cruelty (that is, the former is naturally selected for an alleged evolutionary advantage over the latter)? Will there always be an evolutionary balance between both, as observed on Earth? Will evil win in some places?…

Kent Baldner criticizes Sapontzis’s stance that predation is unacceptable, as this would entail that there is something morally repugnant in nature and that we must correct her (which, in his view, would be tremendously arrogant). But we humans (or the hypothetical moral intelligent beings from other worlds), are not nature?… We have been correcting nature since long with grafting of plants, domestication of animals, clothes, vaccines, antihistamines, epidural anesthesia, heating, contraceptives, genetic engineering…

I don’t want to finish without anticipating the possible facetious comment that eating vegetables would do evil (some enemies of ethical vegetarianism seem very concerned about vegetal welfare). Being consistent with Sapontzis reasoning, of course it would be evil: every living thing, plant or animal, struggle to continue living. It would also be bad to take a walk through the countryside without looking at the ground to avoid crushing ants and even herbaceous plants. It’s now when we need to bring up Fernando Pessoa: “An excess of consciousness disables for life”. We are not responsible for the initial state and the laws of this universe that led to predation (what is more, we have been the result of this evolution!). We wouldn’t have come to exist had it not been for all the plagues and scourges of the past, from a meteorite impact 65 million years ago to Second World War through the extermination of Neanderthals or Black Death. We are children of predation on a path of moral perfection in which we can only aspire to reduce reasonably, in a manner consistent with our survival, the inevitable mark of suffering that we will leave behind our steps. That very same moral condition could end up being disfunctional and leading to degeneration and extinction, but natural selection has the say: as always, it will pass an unappealable sentence.

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