The Selfish Meme
June 6, 2009 16 Comments
I was feeling a bit sad this morning, so to cheer myself up I walked downtown to the post office and then sat in Heritage Square with a coffee, watching the children’s group of a local church perform a musical. It was great. Sadly God in his infinite wisdom didn’t deem it appropriate to quell the wind or ask Amtrak to shut the f**k up, but even so it was lovely. I adore watching people put their hearts and souls into things. It was like a mini episode of Fame!.
The message was very American – celebrate who you are, and help other people – which is admirable. But there was a strong underlying theme that pissed me off somewhat, which can best be illustrated by a line from the chorus of one of the songs: “We gotta work together for the Lord”.
The theme was all about how important it is to work together and help each other, for the glorification of God. What? Why? Why not just help each other for its own sake? Why does it have to be for God’s benefit?
When I’ve asked Christians about this in the past, their answer has usually been a carefully considered “Because”. “Because he’s God and that’s what ya do”. Presumably to thank him for creating such a nice world for us and filling it with so much pain. Or maybe it’s to make up for his incompetence, like needing to band together and organise a fire brigade because architects don’t know how to build fireproof houses.
But if you drill down further and listen to the messages in church it’s pretty obvious what the motivating factor is meant to be: you’d better do it because that way you’ll avoid Hell and damnation and buy yourself a ticket to the afterlife. In educational theory they call that “extrinsic motivation”.
Well that’s not very nice. I don’t think that’s a good enough reason.
Whether the Christian New Testament is really a collection of stories about a single person or not, it’s pretty clear that some time around the turn of the zeroth millennium there was a small but significant political uprising in the Middle East against the hypocrisy and cruelty of the way Judaic law was being implemented at the time – money lenders in temples, racism, an eye for an eye and that sort of thing. And the guy who is credited with a major part in that uprising is said to have spoken some very wise words, perhaps the wisest of which was “Do unto others what you would have them do unto you” (which was actually just an improved and re-emphasised Mosaic law that clearly wasn’t being adhered to at the time).
Now I think it’s an awful shame that morality ever got wrapped up with the supernatural in the first place but I have to say that was a brilliant piece of moral philosophy wherever it came from. I really don’t think anyone can better that. It stands alone as the axiomatic logical basis for morality and ethics. And it raises some important questions we haven’t yet satisfactorily answered (some of which, incidentally, motivate my work in artificial life).
You can look at Jesus’s (or Moses’) edict two ways, one selfish and one not. The selfish way, which is nevertheless vastly less selfish than the “ticket to eternity” motive, is to interpret it as saying “If you want people to be nice to you, then you have to be nice to them”. That’s great – it’s a really nice piece of self-referential reasoning and works very well as a basis for altruism. But personally I prefer a somewhat more selfless (but slightly less logically sound) interpretation, which is, “Whatever you want out of life, that tells you a good deal about what other people want, and since you have no right to think of yourself as special it is your responsibility to recognise this and act accordingly. And if that makes people be nice to you too then that’s a bonus.”
Either way it stands alone, and there is no reason whatsoever to invoke a deity to justify it (especially one who causes or permits such suffering that we need to band together and look after each other in the first place. F**k him).
I think it’s a shame that children are taught do “do right” for ulterior reasons like that. I know it was just an innocent musical, and encouraging children to think about their behaviour towards others at all is better than nothing, but I still think it’s a shame. But it also reminds me that those of us who don’t believe in the supernatural need to get our act together and make sure we can explain and justify our own moral principles (and principles, imho, are far superior to dogmatic, codified rules handed down from on high and executed blindly). I’m perfectly happy to adopt the “Do unto others” reasoning, no matter who first said it, and, apart from a few exceptions about inclusivity that my A-life work is partially meant to address, I think I have a self-consistent moral philosophy and set of ethical guidelines constructed upon it, but we atheists perhaps ought to be discussing these things openly a bit more. I think we can do better than those who incentivise people with fire and brimstone or the need to appease spirits.
The kids were great, though.