How I Became Amoral
When I was 9 years old, I lived in an apartment complex at the edge of a small town. Behind the complex, there were hills covered with bunchgrass, sagebrush and a few old ponderosa pines. In those days, kids ran wild from dawn to dusk. We rode around on our bikes, played games, went exploring in the hills, etc. In the process, we learned about life.
In the summer, there were lots of grasshoppers. They would often lay their eggs in cracks in the road. I would sometimes kneel on the road and watch them pumping their eggs into those cracks, oblivious to my presence. Once a female grasshopper is committed to laying her eggs, she stays there until the job is done.
I have always been close to nature. I spent much of my time as a kid outdoors, exploring the landscape and observing plants and animals. I found those grasshoppers interesting for their own sake. But the other kids in the apartment complex enjoyed killing them. They made a game out of running over the grasshoppers with their bikes, leaving behind little squashed bodies with twitching limbs.
This really bothered me. I was raised to view killing as part of life, but not as a game. It bothered me that they were killing the grasshoppers out of sheer cruelty, just for fun. I thought it was wrong.
I asked them why they did it, and they gave me different answers. One said “Grasshoppers are bad. They are bad for the farmers”. Another said “They’re just grasshoppers, so who cares?”. Some just said “It’s fun”.
They didn’t seem to have given it much thought, but one thing was clear: they did not view grasshoppers as worthy of concern or protection. However, it was also clear that they didn’t see the grasshoppers as just objects, like pebbles. The game was fun because the grasshoppers were alive. They could be hurt. They could be killed. The fun was in the killing.
I wondered why I thought it was wrong to kill the grasshoppers, but they didn’t. I realized that I didn’t have a good justification for my belief either. I had the vague notion that killing for fun or cruelty is wrong, but I couldn’t explain why. The more I thought about it, the more I wondered what made something good or evil.
That’s how I first started thinking about the nature of good and evil. I discovered a moral conflict, and then I discovered that there was no principled way to resolve it. I went looking for the basis of moral judgments, but I couldn’t find it.
This raised two important questions:
- What are good and evil?
- How do we know if something is good or evil?
I was surprised that there weren’t clear answers to those questions. Everyone believes in the existence of good and evil. It is taken for granted. But no one can explain what good and evil are, or how we recognize them. That didn’t make sense to me.
The grasshopper-killing game also made me think about human nature. It showed that people can enjoy cruelty as much as kindness. People are not nice.
Fall came and the grasshoppers were gone. I often thought about the problem of good and evil as I was walking to school, doing my paper-route, or roaming in the hills. I didn’t obsess about it, but every now and then I mulled it over.
Winter came and went. In the spring, a baby robin fell out of a nest, and some kids brought it to me, because they knew I liked animals. I made a nest for it in a shoebox lined with an old t-shirt. I fed it sugar-water with an eyedropper and little bits of raw meat. It survived and started to grow. Soon I had to find another food source for it. So, I went out hunting worms.
This bothered me. Worms are living beings. They might not have the same kind of feelings that we do, if they have feelings at all, but they clearly want to live, in some sense. They seek out food, and they avoid predators. The bird also clearly wanted to live. Every day I had to feed it worms. I wondered whether it was good or bad to save the bird’s life. Is a worm’s life worth less than a bird’s life? What about a hundred worms? How do you compare two different kinds of life? Was saving the bird good in an absolute sense? Or was it just good for the bird, and bad for the worms?
After thinking about it some more, I realized that it is actually more complicated. I was doing good for some worms and bad for others, good for one bird and bad for others. The bird would grow up to eat other worms. That is bad for the worms it will eat. The bird will grow up to compete with other birds. That is bad for the birds it will compete with. Worms also compete with each other. By killing some worms, I was helping others.
I knew about the competitive nature of life. The more I thought about it, the more it seemed that whatever good I did for one living being would be canceled out by harm to others, and vice versa. An act that is kind from one perspective is cruel from another perspective.
That’s when I first understood the zero-sum nature of life. Ecosystems have finite resources. There is a finite amount of matter in an ecosystem, and a finite flow of energy from the sun. Life is a competition for finite resources, and it tends to use all available resources, especially energy. Killing an organism frees up the resources it was using, and this benefits its competitors. The dead organism will also be a resource to other organisms. Although it’s impossible to know all the effects of an action on other living beings, it is possible to know that the net effect on life is zero.
After dinner, I would often walk across the highway to a hill that was part of an old lava flow. I would scramble up the dusty scree full of broken beer bottles, and then climb up a small cliff to a ledge halfway up. There I would sit on the lichen covered basalt and contemplate existence. One day I was sitting on that ledge, thinking about good and evil, when the following thought experiment came to mind.
Suppose that I am standing above a cliff, and a man is hanging by his fingertips from the edge of the cliff. Should I give him a hand up? Or should I let him fall?
Of course, we all know what we’re supposed to do. We’re supposed to help the guy up. But why?
He could be a serial killer. He could be a cancer researcher. He could be lots of things. If he lives, that will have consequences that are good for some and bad for others. If he dies, that will also have consequences that are good for some and bad for others. Summed over everyone, those consequences will probably cancel out, because of the competitive nature of life. Even if they didn’t, there’s no way that I could know all the consequences of my action. So, even if good and evil were real, I could not base my decision on trying to do good in the world.
If he were my friend, then of course I would help him up, but that would be selfish. I would be helping him because I care about him and value our friendship, not because I’m trying to do good in the world. If he were a stranger, I might help him up because I want to be a hero, or because he might be grateful and reward me. Again, that would be selfish. Or I might help him because I’m afraid of being punished or hated by other people. That would also be selfish. There would always be an underlying selfish reason for my action. It would never be based on trying to do “good” in some general, universal sense.
Perhaps I should I save him because he is human, like me. If that were true, then it would still be selfish at the level of the species. I would be putting my species ahead of others. But since humans are in competition with each other in nature, it is unlikely that I would want to rescue another human just because he is human too. Humans fight wars all the time. Besides, at any given moment I could be helping other humans, but instead I am almost always pursuing my own interests. I would not help him just because he is human, like me.
If I were to help him, there would be a selfish reason for it. It might be to get praise, to make a new friend, to get a reward or to avoid a punishment. My action would be based on what I want, not on some external, objective standard of value.
I looked across the highway, past the apartment complex, past the brown hills and into the blue sky. At that moment, I understood that everything I do is selfish, regardless of whether it is considered to be good or evil. Everything I do is motivated by my desires, and so everything I do is selfish.
From that moment onward, I no longer believed in good and evil.