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Spock’s Creed: Dissecting the Vulcan Ethic

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I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t aware of Star Trek. My father is a bit of a fan and we had some of the old movies lying around as I grew up (not to mention regularly watching Voyager and Deep Space Nine on TV). Because of this I don’t know the first time I watched Wrath of Khan. However I can remember the first time I heard Spock say that famous line:

“The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. “

In many respects this is an extremely noble and admirable creed. It is noble when it reminds us that our own comforts must sometimes be sacrificed for others. It is noble when it drives a man to give to the poor, help his fellow neighbor, and build up his community. It is perhaps best of all when it inspires someone to risk their very life in order to rescue others: when it sends soldiers running back into the firefight to carry back the wounded, inspires doctors to travel to outbreaks of deadly and contagious diseases in order to help the sick, or even that iconic moment of heroism where Spock sacrifices his life in the warp core in order to save the lives of everyone aboard the Enterprise.

Yet the same idea can also be deadlier than any radiation that Spock received. It can reduce moral obligation to a calculus of needs, and with that calculus those in power can excuse a mountain of evil. The Romans may or may not have enjoyed the sack of Jerusalem in 70 AD, where legionaries put every man woman and child they could catch to the sword; but in their minds the Jews were rebels and troublemakers, and the needs of the many (the Roman Empire) outweighed the need of the few (Jerusalem). The hangman at Salem may or may not have enjoyed killing the 20 who were executed for witchcraft; but he and all the judges and magistrates involved knew that the needs of the many in Salem outweighed the needs of a few old men and women. The slave owners of the American South may or may not have enjoyed beating their slaves and denying them education, opportunity, and basic human rights; but the South ran on King Cotton and without the slaves their economy would collapse. The needs of the 10 million free Southerners outweighed the needs of the 4 million slaves. In all of these cases the oppressive, cruel, and destructive actions of those in power are justified by Spock’s creed.

So how can we rescue what is good in Spock’s creed without also accepting its capacity to rationalize great evil? Notice what sets apart the good from the bad in the examples above: when we use Spock’s creed for good we consider ourselves as part of the few, while those who use it to justify evil consider themselves as part of the many. We can see this distinction clearly with another example: let’s say that four men are trapped in a cave in, and they have deduced that there is only enough oxygen for three men to survive until the rescuers can save them. If one of the men chose to kill himself so that the others would live then he would be a hero: but if no man were so willing and three of them ganged up on another and killed him then they would be committing an act of evil. Spock’s creed justifies both scenarios, but one is an act of heroism and the other an act of murder.

So perhaps the creed should be modified to say that the needs of the many outweigh my own needs. But this is also lacking. This is the kind of philosophy that totalitarian states try to indoctrinate their citizens in. I am nothing; the State (or the organization, or the empire, or the family, or any other form of “the many”) is everything. Our modified creed could still be used to justify atrocities on a mass scale. Most of the Nazis directly involved in the holocaust did not enjoy exterminating fellow humans, but they were willing to put any personal objections aside: the needs of the many outweighed their own needs, and they were told that the many would be better off if the Jews did not exist.

The problem appears to be in the phrase “the many.” Let’s make the creed more specific then: the needs of other humans outweigh my own needs. This is better, but still isn’t quite right. Such a creed would have me be a complete slave to the needs of others. It puts a heavy burden of obligation on a man. Everywhere there are people with needs, and it would be impossible to ever fulfill them all. Worse it diminishes the person who follows it. Can it really be true that my own needs are less important than the needs of any other human being?

So let’s modify it again: the needs of others should be treated the same as my own needs.

With this I find something surprising: I started with Spock, but I have ended with Jesus. For he said it better and more concisely: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

The Moral Argument: Evolution is an Answer to the Wrong Question

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In my last post I touched briefly on the moral argument, and it’s been stewing in my mind ever since. What has  been particularly bothering me is one common response to the moral argument. In fact it’s the only response I’ve reliably seen atheists provide for why the moral argument doesn’t work, other than nihilism. A nihilist, as I mentioned before, has nothing to fear from the moral argument. After all the moral argument essentially states that either moral truth exists, or nihilism is true. It then follows that with an argument that the best explanation for moral truth is God, or minimally that the “cause” of moral truth is supernatural in nature. If you’re a nihilist you might completely agree with the reasoning of the moral argument and still reject the supernatural since you don’t believe that moral truth exists.

I’ve known and accepted this long before I ever made much of a serious attempt to discuss the moral argument with atheists. I knew that there was little I could say to a nihilist on the subject other than to try and convince them that moral truth does exist. However what I’ve found is that there are not nearly as many nihilists as I would have imagined. Most of the atheists I have had discussions with do live their lives, and make statements that line up with, the idea that moral truth exists. They write blog posts about the evils of religion, point out abuses of power within the church, and rail against executions, persecution, and mental or physical abuse. Some even say that religion is entirely pointless because you can be a good person without it. I found this all very curious. These atheists behaved and spoke as if there was an objective standard of good and evil. They judged individuals and religions by this objective scale. I’ve certainly heard Christianity be referred to as an “evil” religion many times. These judgments were not couched by phrases such as “I believe that,” “In my opinion,” “I personally believe,” or any other relativistic phrase that would imply that these were simply personal perspectives. No, these people spoke and wrote as if the evil of, say, an apostate from Islam being stoned to death was objectively bad and that every right minded individual should agree with them on that point.

Naturally my next step was to ask them why they believed that some things were right and some things for wrong and that we should all agree on those points.  Not to say I didn’t agree with them; I applaud their desire to destroy evil and advance good. But I believe that goodness can be defined in relation to the character of God; what did these atheists, most of them materialists who rejected anything supernatural, base their idea moral truth on? In other words, why did they believe that we should do some things and should refrain from doing others? Their response was almost universal in content: evolution. Having empathy towards others and punishing those who do wrong is good for the survival of the species. Your “conscience” is the finely tuned result of millions of years of evolution selecting for behaviors that would maximize the humanity’s survival. Though our morals often urge us to do things that are personally destructive (such as leap into a burning building to rescue people, or even merely give up money to feed the poor) the actions we are driven to do are, on the balance, helpful to the overall survival of the human race. In their view evolution has explained why morality exists, and there is no need of a “god” to throw his seal of approval on it.

Now I don’t necessarily disagree with any of this. I certainly believe that doing the right thing is beneficial for humanity as a whole. I also believe that a virtuous society will be more prosperous than a morally decrepit society.  And I agree that because of this natural selection may have weeded out those who reject such morality. It certainly is possible, and is far from unreasonable. However the problem is that this response is answering the wrong question. Evolution may be an fine explanation for why we feel like there is an objective right or wrong. However it doesn’t explain why we should follow those feelings.

By way of example, imagine that an accomplished mad scientist created a pill that, when consumed, would manipulate the architecture of our brains to such an extent that we felt we should follow his every order. This pill made the inner compulsion to obey the mad scientist just as strong as our inner compulsion to help those in need, or to refrain from hurting others. Now let’s say that a woman named Jill has consumed such a pill at a young age, and has served the mad scientist all her life. Now another scientist arrives, examines Jill, and explains to her that the reason she feels it is right to obey the mad scientist is because of the pill she took as a child and the effect it has had on her brain. In other words, there is a completely natural explanation for some of the moral impulses (the ones that drive her to obey) she experiences. With this knowledge in hand we would likely encourage Jill to no longer obey the mad scientist’s orders. Now certainly she still feels that it right to obey the mad scientist, but she now understands that those feelings are purely the result of the architecture of her brain. She can now resist such impulses, and safely ignore any guilt she may feel for disobeying the mad scientist’s commands. Or she can continue to follow them, but with the knowledge that there is no reason she should,  and that she only obeys because she finds happiness by following those impulses. What wouldn’t make much sense at all is if she went around trying to explain to everyone else that the only reason they obey the mad scientist is because their brains have been modified by a pill, and at the same time told them that they should keep obeying the mad scientist and that anyone who doesn’t is evil. Yet this is essentially what I have seen many atheists attempt to do. They proudly inform us that our moral impulses are the result of the architecture of our brains, honed by millions of years of evolution, and then they tell us that we have a responsibility to follow those impulses and condemn anyone who does differently. Evolution may explain why our moral impulses exist, but if morality is solely the result of our brain architecture then there is no good reason why we should follow them.

One response to this is that following our moral impulses we will ensure the continued survival of the species, and the survival of the species is good. But by what standard do we say that it is good for the human species to survive? Surely this impulse, more than any other, is the result of natural selection. We believe that it is good for humanity to survive because evolution has crafted our brain architecture to produce this result, and culled those whose brain architecture produces anything different. We are very much like Jill in this case, only the mad scientist has been replaced by our own DNA. From birth we have swallowed the “pill” that forces us to value human survival. Now that we’ve seen through the illusion we can either follow that impulse out of convenience or rebel against it. And many people have rebelled against it. There are environmental groups that believe the human race must be diminished in size, to become less successful as a species in order that other creatures may survive. Some very radical environmentalists believe it would be better if every human was wiped from the face of the Earth. There some who consider life itself to be a kind of joke, and consider death and nonexistence as superior to life. Nihilists believe that the survival of the human race is just as meaningless as everything else. The point I’m trying to make is that evolution does not give us a reason to value the continued survival of the human species: it merely explains why we might feel that it’s good for our species to survive.

Once this is understood the choice becomes clearer. Either there is more to morality than merely impulses that are the result of purely natural evolutionary processes or we must abandon the idea of good and evil existing as anything more than personal opinion. Either some things are good and bad apart from humanity, and apart from any individual brain architecture, or else morality simply exists on the level of your skin color, or whether your hair is curly or straight. And just as you can’t say someone is “evil” for having curly hair or fair skin, you can’t say that they are evil for preferring rape or murder: both are simply physical aspects based on their genetics. This is the choice we have: either we admit that there is an extra-natural dimension to morality, or we become nihilists. But let’s not have any more nonsense about evolution “disproving” the moral argument. The moral argument is about why we should be moral; evolution can only explain why we might want to.

As for why the existence of moral truths may point to God, I may talk about that on Friday.