Skepticism

Afternoon Inquisition 1.10

The other night, while waiting for the internet service to be activated at my weekday crash pad, I decided to pick up the copy of Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road” that a.real.girl sent home with me from our December visit. If you haven’t read it, you should. It was so enthralling that I nearly finished it in one sitting, begrudgingly putting it down about 50 pages short of the end on account of the time approaching midnight on a work night. (I finished it the next day.) It’s a simple story of survival in a post nuclear holocaust world, and it made me think about some things in a new way. Most prominently the following question:

In times when the survival of the human race is at stake, do you think people should try to maintain the same ethics as we do when we are thriving? Put another way, would it be better for humans to die off entirely rather than resorting to practices normally considered barbaric, such as raiding and cannibalism?

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50 Comments

  1. “…normally considered…” by whose standards? These and other behaviors that are considered taboo by one or another culture, are accepted practices in others, even in this “modern” world. Does this not suggest that many of these practices and behaviors are situational, depending upon a particular society’s perceived needs?

    For “…humans to die off entirely…” would mean that I would have to die off. Why would I find that to be “better?”

  2. Ethics are a luxury of civilization. When we’re down to competition among small groups for scarce resources, they’ll go right out the window.

    I’d like to think that I’d cling to my moral codes in that kind of dire situation, but if I had to kill someone else in order to keep my family fed/clothed/sheltered, I’d probably only hesitate long enough that he’d get the drop on me, and then I’d be dead, and so it would all be a gigantic waste of time.

    I suppose I’d be better off dying in the initial disaster, and save everybody the trouble.

    I’m also not sure that pre-apocalyptic humans deserve to exist, but that’s probably another topic.

  3. raiding?
    Of course, hell I’ve got a friend who missed my last birthday party because he was on a raid.

    cannibalism?
    Sure, my girlfriend has already told my which body-parts of mine she’d like to eat first. My thighs and backside apparently look “lecker” (German for yummy).

  4. Actually, if you look at Jared Diamond’s Collapse, there’s evidence that climate change in the Southwestern U.S. was rapid following a century or so of over-farming, and that this lead to rampant cannibalism and starvation. Now, one of the most sustainable, peaceful cultures on the planet is the resulting Pueblo culture. Long story short? Maybe a good Mad Max-style period rife with cannibalism will finally result in a more decent sort of human culture.

    Besides, with all the fat and sugar we eat these days, human probably tastes great!

  5. That has to be one of my favorite books. I picked it up in an airport in Greece on my way back home, and finished the entire thing before my first lay-over.

    I was hesitant at first, but I’m actually looking forward to the movie that should be coming out in a few months.

    As to survival… I have spent many a year preparing for the coming zombie hoards, i believe i stand an equally well chance of surviving any other sort of apocalypse.

    To the question of ethics, I believe it would be engage in such activity as the characters in that book… however, the will to survive is strong, and I’m pretty sure i would be doing what ever i had to to make it.

    While that may make me a hipocrite, it would make a live one.

  6. In principal, it’s much better to just die off.

    One of the things I think defines us as humans is our ability to empathize–to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes. We have the capacity to realize that raiding someone’s meager supplies and/or cannibalizing them will probably ruin their day, and we know this because we certainly wouldn’t want it to happen to us.

    I say the moment we compromise this empathy, we cease being human. While morality and ethics may vary widely between cultures, I’m willing to bet that there’s a near universally agreed upon subset of behaviors that we would rather not be on the receiving end of, and I’m sure being cannibalized for food is one of them.

  7. We live in a natural system and Nature plays no favorites – thus the survival of the human species is always at stake just as it is for every other species. We just do not feel the urgency, today…

    The image evoked by the question and some of the dialog is precious: In the comfort of our non-urgent world we have the leisure time to sit and opine about how we think we might act, or should act, when under more extemis. In times of the type of dire circumstances I believe the question asks, there will be no time for reflection or thought experiments.

    Each social group has its standard code of conduct, and as pressures mount, each group will be tested. As conditions decline, I believe a tipping point will be reached and all bets are off, so to speak, as each group will do absolutely whatever it believes it needs to do in order to survive.

    At tipping time, I just hope my social circle tips before it is too late, and that they do not leave me behind.

    I suspect near the dawn of (wo)man, we were exactly in such a precarious situation and our hunter/gatherer ancestors hunted and gathered without a moment’s thought of toasting the bright Hominidae-less future with the StoneAge equivalent of Grape Kool-Aid.

    Y_S_G:

  8. I have friends who very seriously discuss and plan for the coming apocalypse. I think that, personally, I would rather cease to exist than have to live the existence they foresee. I think I would have a hard time letting go of “do to others as you would like to be did to.” I have a hard time picturing myself digesting the neighbors’ dog. I’d rather eat Soylent Green.

    I think that initially people would try to go on as they always have but necessity and desperation would turn to lawlessness and brutality. A lot of people are just not very nice and I can’t imagine niceness being a byproduct of crisis.

    Though… I’ve always thought more things should be settled in an octagon. Or Thunderdome. As long as there’s a theme song.

    ::dutifully adds “The Road” to her Good Reads list…::

  9. The planet could definitely do with a lot fewer humans. This would be good for both the environment and humanity itself. Not so great for those who aren’t among the “fewer”, though. And that’s the problem. If things got to the point where a “cull” was needed, there is no group or individual who I would trust with the task of deciding who stays and who goes.

  10. @Steve:
    steve, you probably don’t need me to tell you this but you’re on a dangerous path. When you start talking about the morality of purging the population on a grand scale it’s only a matter of time before you start advocating some dubious course of action.

    Sometimes on these boards I detect a sentiment that our rationality and skepticism will protect us from fantacism. A comforting thought but I doubt that’s its true.

  11. At least half of your question is a false choice — if cannabalism is a required food source for anything but small-scale emergencies (e.g., the Donner Party), then your group is going to die out anyway. Funerary cannabalism looks more sustainable at first, but Kuru and BSE show the fatal flaw

    Likewise, “raiding” is out of fashion in civilized areas basically because (1) nobody likes being raided, and we have governments powerful enough to stop it. and (2) there’s enough food etc to go around. If raiding your neighbors is necessary for survival, that means your area doesn’t have the resources to support the current population. That’s not (in itself) a threat of extinction, it’s competition for available resources — In general, some of the people in the area will survive, the only question is which ones. (On the other hand, if the raiders destroy the resources (say, farmland) instead of capturing them, that’s another story. )

  12. You survive, you can’t do anything if you don’t survive. My priorities are always the same

    1. Ensure my children’s survival and well being.

    2. Ensure my wife’s survival and well being.

    3. Ensure my survival and well being.

    4. My personal ethics.

    I would kill and cook you if it was what I had to do feed my family.

  13. “In times when the survival of the human race is at stake, do you think people should try to maintain the same ethics as we do when we are thriving? Put another way, would it be better for humans to die off entirely rather than resorting to practices normally considered barbaric, such as raiding and cannibalism?”

    No. These are not the options we must face. The survival of the human race is not dependent on the behaviour of assholes who misuse the bad times to their own benefit. Assholes will thrive of course, because it’s easy, but without them the human race would survive anyway. I believe we can be ethical without damaging human race too much :-)

    Some hope:
    http://www.transcend.org/
    http://www.cmi.fi/

  14. a few of you seem to have hit on what i’m really getting at here (and maybe didn’t articulate quite as clearly as i could have)…as old geezer pointed out, the word “normal” is very relative. what i was trying to get across was the idea that we “civilized” westerners seem to have this culturally ingrained idea that there is a component to humanness beyond our genetic heritage; likely stemming from the christian idea of the divine breath of life and belief in the soul, and that people who behave in certain unacceptable ways, they cease to be considered human in the eyes of society, and are looked at more as animals.

    which brings us to the false dichotomy of humanity vs nature. and the question of ethics as somehow transcendent.

    i thought it would be interesting to see what a bunch of rationalists had to say about it, and i have to say i’m not disappointed in the ensuing conversation.

  15. “what i was trying to get across was the idea that we “civilized” westerners seem to have this culturally ingrained idea that there is a component to humanness beyond our genetic heritage; likely stemming from the christian idea of the divine breath of life and belief in the soul, and that people who behave in certain unacceptable ways, they cease to be considered human in the eyes of society, and are looked at more as animals.”

    I don’t really see that the ethics are defined by us “civilized” westerners. The belief system or cultural background is not relevant in here, that’s just how we people have defined ourselves. I think the ethical thinking is quite the same around the globe basically. Religions might just be a way to speak about a very natural thing about how us humanimals behave.

    This is too interesting a conversation, I should go sleeping (it’s 4 am in Finland now), but I just need to far cry out some more thoughts:

    Is ethics really human based? How we behave might not be based on rules made by ethical thinking but on what works best. Could it be possible that good ethical behaviour is very natural, forced on to us by our enviroment? It feels ok to do no harm, there might be some natural reason to why it is so.

    There’s of course something very tempting about going raiding too, going to the opposite direction to “do no harm”. It would make easy wealth and it would give the feel of an enormous power over people, especially poorer people who are the ones that always will suffer the true consequences of a raid. It is simple but short-sighted, once you start raiding you will be the enemy of everyone who would not do that. That might be the reason why raiding is not a thriving force but a more of a perversion in human behaviour. To not to be ethical is short-sighted, not useful enough for the long run.

    The truth is that a nuclear holocaust would tell us westerners how it really goes, so let’s not find out about it.

  16. Please oh please let me be at ground zero! While I haven’t read “The Road” I have had the bejesus scared out of me by a book first published in 1977. If you haven’t read Lucifer’s Hammer by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle I strongly recommend it. It doesn’t matter whether its “better” for us to behave ethically or not. Humans will do whatever it takes to survive. If, in a particular situation, current ethical standards failt to contribute to survival then they will go the way of the dinosaur.

  17. I think we’ve already sacrificed our ethics. We just haven’t noticed because we hide behind surrogates. We don’t personally knock the guy next door in the head and take his food. We’re much more civilized than that, we send lawyers to do it or, on a larger scale, armies. When civilization breaks down it just means you have to make the decision on a more personal level. Personally I have always been ready to protect me and mine with whatever it takes, be that a lawyer or a gun. That’s not to say it wouldn’t make me very sad to be reduced to that point but I’d do it. The sad truth is when things get bad the people with the lowest aversion to hurting others are the ones to survive.
    And Gabrielbrawley remember, as the song says: “everybody goes down well with beer.”

  18. I can’t even look at the cover of “The Road”, much less read it. Lucifer’s Hammer was, by all accounts, a happy and uplifting tale by comparison.

    But there is nothing that I would not do for my son. I’d kill and eat every one of you if it kept him alive.

    The real question is: would it? Would it help? In the end, we need other people. We need our tribes, or we all die.

  19. Lethal male raiding would flourish. As it would ensure that the raiders’ genes would be passed on. As a woman (and some men who do not have this genetic push), I (they) would make sure that I (they) would commit suicide. It is bad enough living in a male dominated world despite our ‘civilization.’ Can’t imagine one without a civilized veneer.

    http://dissertations.ub.rug.nl/faculties/jur/1995/j.m.g.van.der.dennen/?FullItemRecord=ON

  20. I’m with David Harmon on the raiding and cannibalism issue. They’re not really long term solutions. On the other hand, if there’s a short term extreme crisis, followed by long term scarcity of resources, the groups with the biggest guns might survive. Even better would be to have the biggest guns and kill, eat and enslave anyone attacking you. That leaves you with the moral upper hand.

  21. Yes, Lucifer’s Hammer is a good read and wakeup call. I will take a look at “The Road.” (So many books, so little time…I’m glad that I think that the time spent reading and learning is not “deducted” from our life span). That being said, other books on this subject are Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” and William Golding’s “Lord of the Flies.”

    Our ethical and moral structure is a thin veneer over the “caveman/cavewoman,” and I think ultimately humans will do whatever it takes to survive. It’s built into us by evolution. But we could fall a long way before we stop.

    (@Bjornar: “Kill, eat or enslave” and “upper moral hand” don’t seem to go together here unless you think that survival is inherently moral. Not sure I can buy that. Besides, superior firepower willonly last as long as you can get ammunition and maintain your weapons. No high-tech, no high-tech weapons, including most modern guns. Can’t turn a Glock or a 30.06 into a muzzle loader, folks! )

    Remember, our “Western” ethics are just that…other cultures have far different ethics that seem to work for them. IMHO, if an asteroid took out the First World countries/technology, some of those best placed to survive the destruction would be the subsistance cultures (Africa, Near-East, China, remote islands) in various parts of the world.

    How many of us are knowledgable enough and physically able to go back to manual planting and tilling, for example? I personally wouldn’t last long, as my back is shot. How many of us could survive if we had to use a bow/arrow or a spear to hunt for every meal?

    Thoughts?

  22. I think an interesting observation is that based on the responses, there don’t seem to be many challenged ethics in the responses. Pretty much everyone with kids, whose current ethics dictate that they sacrifice everything to protect their kids will continue to do so. To them, this is still ethical. They could therefore, in the absence of alternatives, eat their neighbor and sleep easy within the boundaries of their ethical cocoon.

    What are the ethics of the single childless person in this scenario?

  23. @QuestionAuthority: Our ethical and moral structure is a thin veneer over the “caveman/cavewoman,” and I think ultimately humans will do whatever it takes to survive.

    ————-

    There’s an unsupported assumption there: that cavemen/cavewomen don’t have ethics and morals. I suspect that since chimpanzee’s have ethics and morals (except for that bastard Frodo), and since every stone-age civilization ever encountered have ethics and morals, that this assumption is wrong.

    What makes our civilization different from a stone-age civilization (or from non-western ones) is that we have a vastly expanded definition of “us”. Other than that, our ethics are very much like those of other cultures.

    As for survival… yes, I think that obviously, a place that already has an economy that survives without much modern convenience is the best place to be if all modern conveniences go away. On the other hand, we’d be in a better position to start over. So in a couple of three decades, who knows?

  24. Hi fellows,

    I feel one dimension of the discussion has been neglected. I think we would keep our humanity, the same way as ancient Athenians kept it (and were the most civilized people of their time) despite making war when necessary, no matter how much more civilized they were in comparison with their historical neighbors (barbarian tribes, Persian civilization, etc.). In order to struggle for survival in this new context, a single individual would be far too weak, and unethical behavior stems from and leads to individualism. If we were to survive, we would have to enter packs with other human beings, which would lead to maybe smaller but inevitably social groups whose survival would depend so strongly on each individual’s ethics (not to betray the group, not to behave improperly, not to cause trouble inside the pack) that ethics may be even higher than it is now (for the same reason that people are more ethically aware of war if they’ve lived one than if they’ve just heard of it), though with a huge divide: ethics would be extremely rewarding within your group, and extremely aggressive outside. That was precisely the Roman Empire way (to success) and has often been one of the main criticisms against USA’s political philosophy as a country.

    So I think that we would keep our ethics, but it would adapt: it would become stricter as regards ourselves, and more aggressive (or “less ethically strict” -i.e. we would allow for a wider range of misconducts-) as regards our neighbors.

  25. @sethmanapio: Not exactly what I was trying to get at. My thought is that primitive people’s ethics/morals will be much different and much harsher than ours due to the circumstances they live with in a non-technical world.

    I guess what I’m trying to say is that what we moderns might consider unethical, immoral or brutal would be all in a day’s work for a Cro-Magnon tribe trying to survive in a hostile world. Many of our more “refined” moral/ethical stances might have to be jettisoned for survival’s sake (i.e. Much like what Skepthink says in his post).

  26. @Skepthink:

    Is it ethical not to betray the pack if one’s sole motivation is knowing that to do so risks being turned on, murdered and possibly eaten?

    Would it really look like the band of noble warriors you suggest, or more like the mafia?

  27. I know I always say this on these sort of issues but I’m going to say it again (albeit in somewhat more condensed form):

    Morality is Relative.
    Without God ANYTHING is permissable.
    Do not sh*t where you eat.

    If I’d done Philosophy at Uni, I’d know how to spin that out to 300 pages, but I didn’t, so I can’t, so it’s only three lines.

  28. @carr2d2:

    “i was trying to get across was the idea that we “civilized” westerners seem to have this culturally ingrained idea that there is a component to humanness beyond our genetic heritage”

    I could not disagree more. If anything the opposite is true. The Eugenics Movement was HUGE in the 19th and early to mid 20th centuries. Every Racist, White Supremenacist, Nation of Islam nutter, and quite a few mainstream people too are all firmly convinced that everything is genetic. You’d be amazed at how many people think “Nurture” is irrelavent and that character traits, even tastes, are inherited.

    Last week I had a conversation with someone in a coffee shop who claimed “The South” fought more valiantly than “The Union” in the American Civil War because “Their Anglo-Saxon blood hadn’t been diluted as much, they’d inherited our fighting abilities”, and this person has a graduate degree!

    If anything the role of Nurture has been unplayed.

  29. @russellsugden: Morality is Relative.
    Without God ANYTHING is permissable.
    Do not sh*t where you eat.

    ————-

    I don’t agree. First of all, with gods everything is permissable, depending on the god and the interpretation of their will. So that’s a scratch. You can eat in your bathroom. It’s cleaner than your desk, and you eat there. Finally, morality is not relative. Proscriptive morality, that is, the imposition of rules on human behavior is relative. However, the phenomena of justice, mercy, altruism, brutality, and other moral concepts is not relative. These are observed traits of complex adaptive systems, with definite effects within those systems. Descriptive morality is anything but relative.

  30. @QuestionAuthority: I guess what I’m trying to say is that what we moderns might consider unethical, immoral or brutal would be all in a day’s work for a Cro-Magnon tribe trying to survive in a hostile world.

    ————

    I agree and disagree. What I think would actually happen is that exactly the same moral system would exist, but the definition of “in-group” would shrink dramatically. The whole world would become high school.

  31. Loved “The Road” and thought about that same question. I am a bit of a cynic when it comes to the ethics of man. We break away from acting civilized so quickly and for so many reasons I find it hard to believe we could hold it together in a post nuclear fallout.
    Rwanda ethnic and political barbarism, Darfur government sponsored barbarism, the list can go on and on. What claim can humans make about civility of this race? I suppose as individuals we could make decisions to be ethical in extreme times but even in good(relative for sure) times we have a scary capacity for violence and inhumanity.

  32. Why wait for a disaster? What’s wrong with eating inferior people RIGHT NOW!

    Sorry,

    I was simultaneously channeled by Ann Coulter (or Matt Drudge, same diff. except Matt would make the prettier woman, wouldn’t he “Andy”?) AND the late Ayn Rand.

    Almost too much for me but I’ve fought them off, for now…

    rod

  33. @Soresport: Rwanda ethnic and political barbarism, Darfur government sponsored barbarism, the list can go on and on.

    ————–

    The thing is, the ethics that drive those things is exactly the same as the ethics that drive us. It isn’t that we have a “civilized veneer” it is that civilization provides us with a different landscape in which to make our moral decisions.

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