Thursday, January 01, 2009


"What is a sin in your decalogue?" asks a regular reader of this blog, "Something that makes me unhappy?"

In outlining the ethics of survival I have never mentioned "sin," a religious term for deeds, words or even thoughts that violate a moral code. My purpose was to concentrate on what one ought to do, rather than on what one ought not to do, assuming in that Kantian, categorical imperative way that good is worth doing for its own self.

It is true, however, that most historical moral codes have been linked to what I'd call the Santa-Claus threat: he's checking his list to see who's been naughty or nice. Heaven, Nirvana, 70 Virgins, toys or whatever for the nice; hell, samsara, coal in stockings or whatever for the naughty.

That never did much for me.

Even when I was a believer, doing good for the reward seemed cheap. In Catholic morality there was always the distinction between imperfect contrition (being sorry you sinned because you deserved punishment) and perfect contrition (sorrow for sin out of regret for having offended one's loving and dear God). I always thought the reverse would hold as well: you could be good, literally for goodness' sake.

In the grand philosophical edifice of the ethics of survival, a distinctly godless set of propositions, there's an additional issue. The whole raison d'être of these ethics is the universal esteem in which survival is held, coupled with the logic that since ethics are about human behavior an essential requisite of any ethical system would have to be that there be humans alive to behave.

In this light, there are only wrongdoings, not "sin," and the punishment comes in the form of inexorable consequences. Violating these ethics is wrong because it imperils one's survival.

Of course, this is where the survival system diverges from religious systems of ethical compulsion: there is no no possible "pardon" nor "remission of sins." You live or you die.

You pollute, you cause conflict, you bomb, you start wars, you steal from the poor and you get the present mess humanity finds itself in. Will we survive? Individually, as John Maynard Keynes quipped, "we're all dead in the long term."

How about collectively? The jury is out on that one, but at the outset of 2009 I am not uproariously optimistic.

Reality "pardons" to the extent that we are, mercifully, quite resilient and, in cosmic terms, insignificant. Smoking cigarettes is not an automatic ticket to the oncology ward and despite our depredations the planet continues to sustain us.

The law of the jungle is never as absolute and fierce as we think. Jungle species have ample resources to survive.

Sure, these ethics assume that we are, at best, intelligent animals with material needs. Our first concern is our own survival. We are a bit wild, still.

We have the capacity to destroy ourselves and our kin. We ought to avoid that.

1 comment:

Geneviève said...

The question is yes, is humanity's survival worth? is your survival worth? (I may be sure mine is, less sure about yours)Is there a hierarchy about persons'survival? or equality ?