Last night, my mother, who is a devout Christian, asked me what I believed.
This is my response:
In recent years, I have come to some beliefs based on general observations of human nature.
Some of my conclusions are as follows:
• Every human being shares an identical goal (although, it may be realised in many, many different ways): personal ‘happiness’.
• Everything we do is motivated by nothing more than self-interest. Therefore, it is impossible for a human being to perform an altruistic act.
• As this is the case, we cannot speak of ‘good’ or ‘evil’ people. Furthermore, we have no control over the kind of person we are, as every aspect of our personalities, and therefore everything we do or think, is a result of elements outside of our control.
• Taking it further, even actions and thoughts cannot be said to be ‘good’ or ‘evil’, as they are simply part of a world of cause and effect.
• This, however, has no relevance to the realm of crime and punishment, as laws must exist in a functioning society. Simply, each member of society must still be protected, and therefore, laws must exist to punish offences against the individual. What isn’t covered by the law is usually enforced on a societal level: kindness to others, for example, will assist you in many facets of life; a tendency to commit violent acts will lead others to shun your company, and so forth.
Some might find this view of humanity challenging, or even disturbing. I believe it clashes heavily with the concept of religion, for example, in which those who perform ‘good’ acts are rewarded by ‘karma’, or in the afterlife. Christianity, especially, teaches the doctrine of innate sinfulness — the idea that the human being is automatically evil, and must repent for all his sins (in other words, negative thoughts and actions). This is one of the reasons why I cannot accept religious faith1.
But I digress:
I came to something of a conclusion recently while thinking about an incident from my childhood.
A neighbour’s dog had made its way into our backyard and brutally killed our guinea pigs. My reaction, only being a young child at the time, was that the dog must have been somehow ‘evil’ to commit such an act. My mother disagreed, stating that the dog was only acting out of instinct and, therefore, could not be held morally accountable for its actions.
What makes a human serial killer any different from this dog? Thinking about this, I came to a conclusion that should have been obvious from the beginning: we, too, are animals. Some dogs are bred to kill other animals, some are bred to be very obedient, some are bred to protect. Are we any different?
I’d contend that we aren’t. Biologically, we are part of the animal kingdom, so why should we be anything but animals? Some might argue, pointing out our superiority to the animal world, our ability to communicate, reason, etc. I disagree — however more superior or advanced we are compared to other animals, we cannot place ourselves on a different plane to them.
So, what are the implications of this? I do not hope for a reversal of scientific progress, or a breakdown of societal laws or expectations. I want to be happy, and I realise that the best way of achieving this is within a utilitarian society2. My goal in questioning all this is to understand, to the best of my abilities, the nature of the human being, and in doing so, understand myself. I also hope that these conclusions might help others as well.
So, all these considerations on what, exactly, human beings are, have led me to these conclusions:
There is no God, or afterlife, or at least no reason for them to exist. The purpose of life is simple: being happy. We’re all trying to achieve that, and contempt, hatred and judging others only makes it more difficult for them, and perhaps us as well. We all have things that divide us, but there is so much more that we have in common. None of us is better than the next person – just a bit more, or less, fortunate. And, last but not least: We do ourselves, and everyone else, no harm by loving freely and showing empathy for other people — who, in the end, are really essentially the same as us.
1Ironically, I have considered in the past that organised religion might be necessary for society to function properly — hence its presence in human society throughout the history of mankind. Or have we evolved beyond a need for it? That is a discussion for another time, I suppose.
2A society that encouraged blatantly selfish behaviour (actions that had blatant disregard for the welfare of all but oneself) would be doomed to fail. I think one of the main reasons society actually works is because, generally, we want to be loved, accepted and respected by other people. In a funny way then, one of the best ways to realise our self-interested goals is to not be completely selfish.