To Err is Humane

I have written before about my struggles with portions of the American secular culture and especially my many problems with the naturalistic worldview.  This, to the delight of many I am sure, is another one of those posts.

I was thinking about a couple concepts that we find in our culture.  These concepts I have trouble reconciling with each other.  I especially struggle with reconciling them when trying to understand them from a naturalistic perspective.

A Tale of Two Concepts

The first concept is found in the word, “humane”.  Of course humane means, “marked by compassion, sympathy, or consideration for humans or animals.”  Humane comes from the word, “human” as opposed to “animal” or “animalistic”.  This word makes humans to look quite good.  We are compassionate, sympathetic, and considerate of others.

The second concept is found in the phrase, “To err is human”, or “I am only human.”  This concept admits the weaknesses of humans.  It diminishes the greatness of humans and makes them look rather ordinary, and even in some ways, worse than ordinary.

My struggle with these concepts is that I want to know which one is an accurate representation of humans.  If I were not human but were told that the concept of humane was inspired by humans, then I would have quite the amount of respect for humans.  If, however, the second concept was explained to me, then I would come to question humans and their value.

Overrated

I find many people in America (and quite possibly any Western culture) today have a very overrated view of humanity.  I find that many like to talk about our many great characteristics all the while ignoring the many flaws of humanity.

Take for instance the concept of humane.  There is a whole lot more to humans than just compassion, sympathy, and consideration.  Humans also naturally express greed, envy, lust, vengeance, impatience, unforgiveness, untruthfulness, bias, arrogance, bitterness, selfishness, self-righteousness, and denial, just to name a few.

Why Not?

Now, I know a lot of you are reading this and saying something along the lines of, “Sure humans express negative aspects to go along with the positive aspects.  But humans can choose to not act out the negative expressions.”

Well, I would agree with that.  However, my question is, “Why not act out the so-called negative aspects?”  If you were to teach me to not act out the so-called negative aspects of my character, you would have to explain to me why I should not.

Recently I gave a lecture about why Christians perform the acts that they do, or at least why Christians should perform the acts that are commanded of them.  The reason behind any command is the most important aspect of any command.  If a command does not have a justifiable reason, then it should be tabled or completely eliminated.

In Christianity, the primary reason behind almost every command is: because God/Christ did this for you, or because the command reveals something about the nature of God.  In other words, the primary reason is external to you or your feelings.  The primary reason is also external to the individual towards whom your acts are directed.  So it does not matter how you feel about someone else, if the command is to love and forgive your enemy, then you do so.

It’s (Almost) All About Me

Now, in the naturalistic perspective, what is the primary reason behind our actions?  It is primarily this: survival, or self-preservation.  In other words, the primary reason is internal to you or your feelings.  So whether you choose to or not to act sympathetic to someone is completely dependent upon whether you judge the act to be best for you.  If it works out that it is also best for the other person, then double bonus, you got lucky.

I will go a step further and tell you what many naturalistic philosophers will not tell you about what the naturalistic perspective actually concludes: your so-called negative expressions are not negative at all; in fact, those “negative” expressions can be very positive for you.  The whole reason we evolved things like greed, lust, and vengeance is because they help you with your survival.  So when being greedy, or lustful, or vengeful will help you to survive, then by all means, act out.

Do you see that from a naturalistic perspective there is no way to deem something as wrong unless it diminishes survival (and even then it is not inherently wrong)?  The only reason we have our traits today is because of natural evolutionary developments.  Natural evolution cannot provide any framework for morality, that is, it cannot explain what actions are inherently right or wrong.  Actions can only be deemed as right or wrong completely dependent upon the situation (and even then it is not actually morally wrong, just not preferred).  Lying may be wrong in one instance, but in another instance it may be perfectly acceptable, even encouraged.

Natural evolution cannot absolutely resolve that members of our own race should be preserved over the self.  That means that if you deem another member of the human race to be impeding your survival, then there is very little reason to allow the impediment to continue its impedance.  Do what you have to stop the impedance.

From the naturalistic perspective, the primary reason to consider the well-being of another is for the sake of your own well-being.  If that is the primary reason, then how one responds to another can radically change from situation to situation.

I know how many naturalists would reply to this.  They would say something along the lines of, “In our evolution we have learned that self-sacrifice is beneficial to the self because it adds other powerful aspects to the self, such as unity and empathy.”  But do you see what is still the driving force behind even altruistic actions: the self.  So altruistic actions are not actually altruistic.

Do not believe me that evolution cannot explain true self-sacrifice?  Then I want you to explain to me how you would convince a very selfish person to not be selfish.  Pretend that I am selfish.  Pretend that I keep all my income for me, I do not donate a penny of it.  I go on vacations, I buy the cars I want, I enjoy life; I will buy things for my friends because they do stuff for me, but I would never give to a stranger.  Now, convince me to give to charity.  I dare you to do this without appealing to my ego.  My stance is that it is impossible to bring a convincing argument for self-sacrifice from a naturalistic perspective without appealing to the ego for the ultimate reason.

Many humans do not feel a need to help the society unless it helps them.  Are we to tell them that they are wrong?  Are we to tell them to go against millions of years of evolution?  On what basis can we convince someone that they should seek for the benefit of the society over the self?  There is absolutely no answer that can be given to the latter question without appealing to the ultimate benefit of the self.  So once again the self is center stage.

One may try to say, “Be good for goodness’s sake.”  Well, that is circular reasoning at best.  At worst it is a pathetically flawed argument because one assumes that there is an agreed definition among different humans as to what it means to be good.  Good is defined millions of different ways because “goodness” is subjectively defined in a naturalistic worldview.  My idea of what goodness is would completely change if my worldview were to change.

The Christian perspective brings many reasons why we should be self-sacrificial.  Indeed, even some of these reasons appeal to the ego.  However, the primary reason has nothing to do with the ego.  Since it has nothing to do with the ego, true self-sacrifice is possible.

Conclusion

Naturalism cannot offer a strong defense of self-sacrifice, empathy, compassion, and the like without appealing to the ego and denying its own logical conclusions about why humans act a certain way.  According to the naturalistic perspective, we are built to be greedy, lustful, vengeful, selfish, and a host of other so-called “negative” traits.  The truth is that in a naturalistic perspective, they are not necessarily negative, they can be very positive.

Humanity has overrated itself.  We really are not good.  We are a mixed bag.  We are a mixed bag in need of a Savior; a Savior who can forgive us of all those truly negative acts.  A Savior who loves us despite our negative acts.  A Savior who self-sacrificed so humans could be clothed in his forgiveness and righteousness.  This Savior is Jesus Christ.

I know I am a mixed bag of evil and good.  I thank God that he does not leave me that way; that he recognizes my flaws and seeks to improve me.  I thank God that he does not allow me to try to justify my sins and label them as survival tactics.  I seek to be holy as God is holy.  I do not seek to settle for “goodness” that can be so weakly defined and changed.

Postscript

Do you know the end of the “To err is human” quote?  Well, it is beautiful.  “To err is human; to forgive is divine.”  It was uttered by Alexander Pope.  God forgives us every time we ask for it.  That is why God commands us to forgive others every time they ask for it.  From a naturalistic perspective, forgiveness is not necessary; it is only sometimes preferred.

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4 comments

  1. I don’t think acts need to be unselfish to be good, or that the goodness of acts necessarily comes from how selflessly they are done. I’m not sure that’s necessarily what you are saying, but some of what you say reminds me of Kantian ethics, and these are certainly things Kant says. According to Kant, only acts which are done out of duty are morally good. So, a person begrudgingly helping someone they don’t care about in a way that requires sacrifice from them is a morally good act, while someone happily helping another in a way that also helps themself is morally neutral.

    I don’t know about you, but I would rather be helped by someone who is happy to help and also benefits in some way by helping (e.g. a friend who helps when you need it and expects that you will do the same for them–that is, a mutually beneficial friendship–or someone who helps others because it makes them feel good about themself) than by someone who is helping purely out of a sense of duty and not only is likely to resent it at some point (they’re not getting anything out of it, after all) but is likely to burn themself out because they are putting others’ needs before their own. I’ve known people who always put other people’s needs before their own. It’s not healthy, they often don’t get their own needs met (and thus are likely to burn out), and it makes it easy for others to take advantage of them.

    On. the other hand, I think selfishness can be a very good thing when combined with feelings of sympathy and compassion for others. These are absolutely motivators to do mutually beneficial things. Like bringing a friend lunch just to see them smile (because seeing them happy makes you happy, and helping makes you feel like a good person), or giving to the poor because that’s what you would want people to do for you in their situation (and you want to be the change you want to see in the world, and because you’ll feel bad about yourself if you don’t help and good about yourself if you do).

    Also, it’s not like ethics are totally arbitrary without religion. There have been a lot of philosophers through the ages thinking and writing about ethics, trying to tease out what makes an act good or bad, and even when they reach different conclusions from each other, they still aren’t arbitrary conclusions, and I think there is a lot to be learned from different ways of looking at ethics. And religious ethics aren’t necessarily absolute and black and white–a lot of different people have a lot of different interpretations of what is and isn’t right according to the Bible. There might be some black and white, absolute standard out there of what is right and what is wrong, but I don’t see much evidence of it in the way religious people act.

    Anyway. I really enjoyed reading your article. It certainly made me think.

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    • Alex,

      Thank you for your thoughtful comment.

      To your first point, I was not trying to say that in order for an act to be good, it must be done selflessly. I was trying to say that in natural evolution, survival is the primary reason for any act. This leads to putting one’s self first. However, in the Judeo-Christian belief, others are put first. That is not to say that one should not be wise and realize one cannot stretch one’s self too thin, but my post was not addressing that. You are correct that one needs to also provide for one’s self.

      Ethics are definitely totally arbitrary in a naturalistic framework. There is absolutely no guideline to what is morally right or wrong in a naturalistic framework. Sure some people can come to an agreement on what is PREFERRED, but that does not mean they have discovered a guideline for morality. While there have been a number of philosophers who have agreed on certain aspects of ethics, there is no reason why anybody should agree with their preferred conclusions. Anybody is free to conclude their own preferences.

      Scripture is black and white on a number of topics. However, it also allows for individual expression in many areas. Unfortunately many people in Christianity have decided to make their desired individual expression doctrine instead of keeping it as a personal choice.

      But for the most part, anybody who makes a legitimate claim to Christianity agrees with other Christians on the vast majority of issues.

      Paul, a writer who knew Christ, said that God has placed the idea of morality in our hearts. Because of that we see most people who think about what is right and wrong come to agreements in many areas. Of course we still need some direction, and that is one reason why Christ came: to offer us direction. The other reason was to grant us forgiveness for our moral failures. A forgiveness for which most people feel a need.

      Thank you again for your comment and for taking the time to read my blog.

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      • I believe that err is human and the traits that scientists have said that we are Greedy and will be willing to do anything to survive is true but if you know God and take his advice and follow the teaches of the bible we are retraining our selves to better control our survival traits but we can not just banished them from existence since God gave us those traits so we can survive under extreme circumstances but we must also remember that we must follow the 10 commands that God laid out for us to abide by so we must do everything in moderation so it also depends on how the person was raised and if they were taught or observed bad behavior it can be undone by God as long you willing to put in the effort to better yourself and always keep improving as we learn to get closer to God

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