It’s the principle of the thing…or is it?

"There is grandeur in this view of life"

As a biological determinist, I don’t believe in free will. As a Darwinist, I don’t believe in ‘principles’ or any absolute standards of behaviour. However, as a man, I behave as if biological determinism and Darwinism don’t exist, and that paradox makes me uncomfortable…

My tutor at Oxford once said that academics should be concerned with ‘the true, the good and the beautiful’. I asked him why on earth we should be studying anything that wasn’t true. Moral and aesthetic principles stem from feelings, but where does the universality or ‘goodness’ of those principles come from? If principles come from our ‘conscience’, then we can’t rely on them, because everyone’s standards of right and wrong are different. If they come from religion, then we still can’t rely on them, because all religions differ. If they simply come from feelings, then what makes selflessness ‘better’ than selfishness? What it seems to come down to these days is timing and numbers.

The timing of an action has always been important in allocating ‘blame’. Wars of ‘aggression’ are frowned upon because the ‘aggressor’ throws the first punch. Self-defence is permissible because it is simply a response to an unwarranted attack. However, technology and Realpolitik seem to be changing all that. Under the old rules, Khruschev might have been right to bang his shoe on the table over being asked to give up his ‘defensive’ missile shield, but the doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction relied on the development of a ‘first strike’ capability and the corresponding absence of a plausible defence. Cold War leaders had persuaded themselves that the practical outcome of an uneasy peace was worth throwing away thousands of years of moral philosophy. The second Gulf War raised similar issues. Were the allies justified in being the ‘aggressors’ even with the dubious backing of UN resolutions and the promise of freeing millions of Iraqis from the rule of Saddam Hussein? And should the Americans or the Israelis make a pre-emptive strike on Iran now that the country appears to be dangerously close to developing a nuclear bomb?

The slipperiness and mutability of moral judgments makes arguments about property rights and territorial disputes difficult to adjudicate. Looking at the historical patchwork quilt of ‘discoveries’ and settlements in the Falkland Islands (as they are still called), it is hard to argue who ‘should’ own them from first principles. It is more like a boxer’s championship belt. The UK is simply ‘the man who beat the man who beat the Englishman or Frenchman or Spaniard who first discovered and laid claim to the islands’. The democracy card is an easy one for the Government to play, but what if the original occupation was somehow ‘illegal’ and the current inhabitants are merely there as a result of squatters’ rights or even ‘ethnic cleansing’? Why should they have the right to decide their national flag? How far back do you go to judge ownership, particularly since the ‘rules’ of conquest and discovery only applied to western explorers and not indigenous peoples? I guess timing isn’t everything, after all…

Numbers are often more important than political and ethical principles, and immigration is the classic example. Racial discrimination is now illegal, but it was once essential for survival when strangers who often looked and sounded different brought the threat of rape and pillage. We have a set of genes that was honed to perfection in the competitive world of the African savannah thousands of years ago but is hopelessly outdated in modern society. How can ‘principles’ ever solve that fundamental mismatch? It’s just a matter of numbers. One stranger in the neighbourhood running a curry house is no threat, so there is no reason for racism, but what happens when the majority is no longer a majority? When it drops to a plurality or even a minority, that’s when the trouble starts, and you only have to take a look at all the Spanish billboards springing up in New York over the last ten years to see how quickly that can happen.

Principles are always changing, and they simply reflect the will of the majority. ‘Tit for tat’ is just a good strategy, and it happens to lead to a proliferation of collaborators over thieves. The collaborators form the majority and are numerous and therefore powerful enough to invent and uphold a value system that lays claim to words such as ‘good’, ‘thoughtful’ and ‘honest’. The paradox is that we may not like it, but we have to live with it…


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