The Beast Within

by mkriegh

The universality of reason is a momentous realization, because it defines a place for morality…mutual unselfishness is the only way we can simultaneously pursue our interests…morality, then, is not a set of arbitrary regulations dictated by a vengeful deity and written down in a book; nor is it the custom of a particular culture or tribe. It is a consequence of the interchangeability of perspectives and the opportunity the world provides of positive-sum games…this line of reasoning may be called humanism because the value that it recognizes is the flourishing of humans, the only value that cannot be denied.

Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of our Nature

As my passage through the challenges of my life continues, I am learning the power of the beast within each of us to do things that just don’t fit with any concept of ethics or morals that sits right with me. That is because we are at best barely in charge of our behavior, and at worst, not in charge at all.

In May of 2012 I gave a talk at the New York Society for Ethical Culture entitled “Fear, Desire and Free Will.” I wanted to explore the concept of free will, which I started out believing was at the center of being able to conduct oneself ethically or morally in the world. If you can’t choose good over evil, right over wrong, then how can you conduct yourself in an ethical or moral way? I discovered in writing and presenting that talk that scientists generally don’t believe there is free will. Certainly not as we like to think of it, and probably not at all. Instead, our behavior and actions are driven by instincts that are animalistic, programmed into us and eons old. That we can believe we have conscious control of our actions is the result of a conscious mind that is largely in the dark about its unconscious animal self and, therefore, what motivates it.

This should have been a reason to dispair for me, but because of a book by Steven Pinker entitled “The Better Angels of Our Nature,” I came to realize that making choices to improve upon the human condition is possible, but it operates at the social or collective level, not the individual level. The ability to imagine different, develop codes, and ultimately, to change the way we behave, is contingent on the development of a shared idea of a better way to behave. That is, we do not have the power to develop and manage codes of conduct individually for ourselves. If we attempt to do so we will find, if we really think about it, that they are justifications for what we do to obtain the objects of our desires. We are universally selfish in the process. We develop what works for ourselves, which is often at odds with what works for those around us. Only when we speak our ideas about these things to one another, receive critique, adjust accordingly and enter into compacts to behave in certain ways, can our behavior be governed and we be changed. Furthermore, it requires a recognition that we are better off in community than alone and that we can be deprived of that community if we violate those compacts. When we discuss our ideas with one another and they become the ideas of the community, the ideas begin to separate themselves from animal instincts. We can therefore enact and enforce rules that curb the beast within.

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