This week I’ve been thinking a lot about ethics, and where they come from.
A friend gave me the book The Moral Animal which is all about the topic, and I’ve just finished reading it.
The central argument is that human behaviour which could seem counter-intuitive to your own survival (i.e. why do people feel compelled to put themselves in danger to help out a complete stranger) can actually be explained from an evolutionary standpoint.
In this particular instance, the theory goes that those people who grew up in communities with a gene of “help thy neighbour” were more likely to flourish than those where people acted only in self-interest. As our notion of “the tribe” has expanded, we still feel an urge to help out.
The bit that makes it divisive is in putting a scientific slant on things which otherwise “just are”.
One particularly jarring example is how he notes that parents grieve more for children who die in adolescence (compared to early infancy or maturity) because “they have so much ahead of them”.
With the dispassionate scientist’s hat on, he says this comes from the fact that parents have invested so much resource in this person as a vehicle to pass on their genes, which is taken away at the critical moment. At an early age, the investment has been lower (you can always have another child) and in maturity, they have less ability to pass on their genes by having children of their own.
The key thing that came away from this is that saying something is “human nature” is by no means an excuse for acting in a way that is at odds with modern society.
From a genetic perspective, it’s “human nature” for a stepfather to kill his new stepchildren (so his new wife can focus more energy into rearing kids with him), or it’s “human nature” to inflict all sorts of atrocities in the name of continuing your genetic lineage.
The moral element comes in how society develops, and the structures that form the ethical codes which we want to live by. Having an awareness of “natural” tendencies is one thing, but (in my opinion) it shouldn’t excuse people from acting in a way that is at odds with a society that looks out for one another.
Right, that got a bit deep.
I hope that’s not too depressing for a Saturday morning. I’ll try and think of something positive for next week!
In other news…
The buzz on many Whatsapp groups in Nairobi at the moment is that well-known buildings in the city are being torn down at a moment’s notice.
The roots are unclear, but an old law was found to say that it was illegal for a structure to be built within 30 metres of a river. This largely seems to have unknown/ ignored from property developers
Anyway, a Kenyan politician has now made a stance, and so lots of establishments are overnight being demolished.
Everyone is getting a bit unnerved by it, and asking what has caused it…
Also, as if there wasn’t enough negative news in this week’s email, here’s that blog post on what to do before you get robbed.
Here’s a GIF of a puppy dressed as a teddy bear, to make you feel better
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