On the human capacity for love and brutality
I am 26 years and 2.5 months old. As of today.
I have been thinking about morality and the essence of goodness long before that — a bit misguided perhaps.
Why misguided, you ask? I had this idea that there was an objective sense of goodness outside of human experience. Each choice we are presented with, culminates with us making a decision based on how well we understand this objective notion of goodness.
I have navigated through a not inconsiderable amount of time and space and experience — by human standards.
This reflection began with religion. I was born a Hindu in Eastern India. Hinduism is surprisingly detailed with respect to symbolic rituals and allegory and mythology — and not so much with respect to moral principles that define moral goodness. There is an excerpt out of the Indian epic “Mahabharat” called “Bhagvad Gita” that is pointed out as the cornerstone of indian moral philosophy. To summarize my interpretation of it — every entity, living or non-living, has its own “Dharma”. Dharma means religion, duty, righteousness and intrinsic property, all rolled into one in sanskrit/hindi/bengali/most indian languages. The human journey is the process of escaping one form dharma and attaining a higher form of dharma.
Was this a piece of linguistic trickery that resulted in modern Hinduism? Or was it the other way round?
If you succeed in being good in one lifetime, you get to be a higher form of being in the next life. This process of snakes and ladders continues till you escape the birth-death cycle altogether — “Mokshya” — which is presumably what Neo from the Matrix Trilogy attains once he sacrifices himself for peace between the machines and the last human settlement in Zion.
This is a surprisingly flexible moral philosophy — because this leaves open to one the interpretation of what constitutes a higher form of dharma. But there ARE consequences in the next life. So be sure to bribe the gods with a good act or a ritual if you do end up doing something reprehensible. So even if there are no specific instructions on what to do — you end up with a lifetime product of net good deeds performed — that end you up at a higher birth next.
This was my simplified interpretation of course. There IS nuance in Hinduism. There are different, obscure versions and branches that do not even subscribe to say the birth-and-death cycle. There are schools of Hindu philosophy that are realists, naturalists or logicists.
But this wasn’t the version of morality that I wanted. I wanted a rulebook, an encyclopaedia of good actions, where I could look up a template of how to react in all possible situations. Hinduism leaves you to interpret what a higher form of dharma is — and you get punished if you get it wrong!
I have changed a lot since the first day I can consciously remember. I will change a lot more over the next 50 years that I am probably going to live — modulo accidents and disease.
I first got introduced to the idea of evolution and natural selection when I was 13. I mean I knew about Darwin earlier than that — as this great man who had been ridiculed and misunderstood in his time because he rightfully pointed out monkeys to be our predecessors.
Monkeys are our predecessors? I got to age 13 without really knowing what that meant. I didn’t even question it. I just accepted it without logicking about it.
Our biology textbook lent a primitive understanding of evolution through natural selection. Agreed — that a full understanding of the complexity that can manifest via natural selection requires one to understand the processes of replication, transcription and translation — which I didn’t attain till college. Even then, this understanding is not complete. There are gainfully employed biologists all over the world who still wrestle with understanding the full complexity that natural selection can result in.
Agreed — that genetics is not the only component of animal behaviour. Social training matters heavily. Our learning is both conscious and genetic in that way. And armed with, that we began to navigate the enormous landscape of strategies that resulted in eventual survival.
But even with this primitive understanding of evolution, it is possible to effect a rudimentary analysis of how notions of morality evolved.
Which was what I did. And that led me to the epiphany that morality probably did not stem from some objective, logical rulebook of semi-divine origin.
I think that was when I finally stopped believing in the supernatural. In magic.
An imaginary chronology of mammalian societies
Some generation of proto-mammal predecessors somewhere in our evolutionary history decided to try collaborating in our collective search for a strategy of survival by finding food, security, sex and child-rearing.
They could only trust their peers in their own tribe. The act of trusting makes one vulnerable. So trusting members of the family made more sense.
They still had to mistrust other tribes who were competing for food and mates.
The beings that came out of this situation, I think, would have in them a paradoxical duality.
They would have an enormous capacity for compassion and empathy. A social notion of love that might at times trump reproductive goals.
But to members of a competing tribe, they would have the capacity to harm, wound and maim. Kill.
Duality in human beings
What is fascinating is that this notion of a “tribe” is psychological. There is no intrinsic genetic threshold that identifies an individual to be part of the same tribe or not. We rely on external appearance, social perceptions and symbols to identify them.
This gives me a handle on how human beings have managed to perform atrocities again and again over recorded history. By using their innate power of dehumanization to convince that the opposing tribe were animals, or sub-human, in some way.
What would Jesus do?
That is also how I arrive at the conclusion that humanism is the only way we can hack through this innate duality in ourselves. In forming the belief that every human on the planet is in our tribe — we also make sure that we are never capable of that level of dehumanization of any group ever.
The power of symbols
I am in love with the idea that symbols were essential in building human networks that were widely spread geographically and still retained the emotive resonance of localized tribes. Imagine a small object, a terrocotta idol of a mother goddess of fertility perhaps — that gave a sense of identity to a huge tribe who were spread over an entire continent.
This justifies, to me, what we hold dear today! Flowers, flags, anthems, retelling of stories and myths, tshirts, celebrities and cupcakes.
Yes, cupcakes. Why cupcakes?