Ethics in SF: A series of interviews, articles and debates on the Reality Skimming blog, hosted by Lynda Williams, author of the Okal Rel Saga.
Justine Graykin is an SF writer, librarian, philosopher, historical archivist and blogger who also loves to read. She is married with two children, too many cats, two dogs and flock of chickens on 50 acres in New Hampsire. She likes to hike, participate in community theater and is a member of Broad Universe. Read Justine's work online: "Chimera" published and anthologized by Absent Willow Review; Works by Justine, including "Archimedes Nesselrode"; and Excerpts from The Elder Light Series. About the last, Justine says, "My best work, that which I feel represents the kind of science fiction I really want to write, has yet to be published. It's a hard sell, but I keep working on it." Her short story, "The Next Con" appears in the anthology, UnCONventional, published by Spencer Hill Press, release date January 2012.
Reality-based Ethics and Morality
What it comes down to for most people is an assumption, based mostly on gut feelings and intuition: Are human beings fundamentally good or bad? Are compassion and cooperation the innate qualities, with selfishness, cruelty and competition acquired through behavioral reinforcement, or is it the opposite? Are we really just brutes at heart who have to be trained to be civilized?
Layered on this is another question: Is there even a way to objectively distinguish “good” from “bad”, or are these inescapably relative and subjective concepts?
The discussion about whether we can have a completely atheistic, science-based system of ethics and morality depends a great deal on what fundamentals we assume. A common argument for religion is that it coerces people into behaving well. This presumes that people need to be coerced, and that a mythological framework governed by an omniscient, omnipotent authority is necessary to do it. Cut God out of the equation and, it is argued, there is nothing to keep us from descending into the dog-eat-dog brutality of our underlying nature.
A great number of people have been busily at work studying whether there is any truth to these assumptions, accumulating data on the way people actually behave, and the results have been surprising, encouraging, and because this is reality we are talking about, far more complex than the simple answers we might like to our questions.
Are human beings innately good or bad? The psychological and neurological answers coming in indicate that it depends on the human being. There is evidence that some folks are just born bad. Due to some genetic or environmental influence, they don’t develop the brain structures associated with empathy. They don’t feel your pain. They are indifferent to suffering. Maybe they can be taught civilized, compassionate behavior, which they may practice if it benefits them to do so, but left to their own devices they are not someone you’d want in public office. (Seems they also can be very charming, and they enjoy having power, which explains a great deal of why politics is the way it is).
The good news is that a statistical majority of us are wired for compassion. We react to suffering with a desire to help. This is, evidently, innate and pretty much universal across cultures. Doesn’t matter if you are an atheist, Christian, Buddhist, African, Australian aboriginal, or a second generation American of Jewish Russian ancestry. If your brain is wired the way most of us are, and you have not been conditioned to suppress the reaction, when you are confronted with suffering your impulse is to help.
As for teasing apart the distinction between moral right and wrong, that is never easy, even if you have a book of religion to guide you (hence the vehement disagreements among believers who are ostensibly all following the same operating manual, be it Bible or Koran). But a great, objective way to start is by settling on “the good” being characterized as promoting human thriving. We can’t all agree on what God might want, but we can all see whether the consequences of our actions lead to greater health and happiness, or an increase in suffering. Still not easy, still complicated as hell, but it gives us a place to stand and something to build with as we study the problem.
All things considered, this gives me good reason to be optimistic. And although human beings may sometimes be as hard to figure out as quantum physics, at least we can see what we’re doing. There’s plenty of light.
Your Turn: Comment with your own reaction to the questions.