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the rise of ethics

The Rise of Ethics, Morality, and Integrity

Animals killing each other is nothing new. That is how most bacteria, fish, reptiles, amphibians, and most mammals manage to survive. They kill other organisms and eat them. Since we modern humans are animals and came up through the ranks of the animal kingdom from one celled amoeba to Homo sapiens, it is only natural that we inherited the instinctual need to kill other animals in order to survive.

It was a slow process that took millions of years as we evolved from our primate ancestors to hunter-gatherers to the egocentric, technologically savvy beings we are today. Our concept of time limits our ability to think in terms of our earliest ancestors living 2 or 3 million years ago, and the fact that for a long time we were part animal and part human. A million years ago in our past or a million years into the future are time spans we do not readily comprehend. If we encountered a hominin from a million years ago, we would probably put it a zoo. Encountering a human from a million years in the future, we would probably be put in a zoo ourselves.

Natural selection shows little mercy. You either learn to live with the resources provided by your environment or you go extinct. Mistakes were made, and many of our Homo kinfolks did not make it. But as our hominin brains grew, we learned to cope better. We came through the perils of natural selection as we survived through predation, disease, and environmental challenges. And we are still evolving as a species. For example, generally speaking we are bigger, brighter, and understand our origins much better than in past centuries.

And as we continue to evolve, our future looks bright if we can use our developing minds to solve our current existential challenges. Natural selection is still at work in our human evolution, but there are two major differences today than in years past. One is that with our plethora of deadly weapons we are able to kill ourselves by the millions and perhaps reach a point where all of humanity is in danger. Secondly, given our level of introspection, we are now able to take control of our destiny as a species.

How we cope with our weapons and how we prepare for a warming world are under our control. What has held us back so far is our inability to cooperate on a global level on these and other issues. Nationalities, religions, cultures, and arrogance hinder our human progress.

Here we are somewhere along the line of evolution from animals that had nothing else on their minds but eating and reproducing to human beings so optimistic that we look forward to someday establishing colonies on planets far away. We have more power over ourselves than at any time in our evolution.

However, we have a serious problem to overcome that is hindering our evolutionary progression. It could even be a fatal problem if we do not get it under control. Our minds did not come up with this problem: we inherited it from our ancestors who had to fight to survive. It is an old problem that, unfortunately, we continue to perpetuate. It has caused death, destruction, and sadness for thousands of years and still does today. It is a problem that we must evolve out of.

In short, it is the willingness to kill each other, not just other animals for food, but others of our own kind for political, social, and other reasons. Our prisons all over the world are full of men and women who killed or attempted to kill another human being. Their reasons are varied, but the results are the same, the death of someone. Our reasons for killing, and our continued dependence on wars to solve diplomatic disputes are constant blatant reminders of our failure to keep our animalistic passions and aggressions under control.

Killing each other whether in a robbery or artillery attack is behavior that we, who call ourselves ethical, moral, and intelligent humans, should have outgrown many years ago. We have evolved far beyond animals yet we keep acting like insatiable carnivores. When we kill an enemy or we are trying to rob someone, animal passion and aggression take precedence over human reason and rationality. We become reptilian. It is all in our brain. Our basal ganglia that control such things our aggression, desire for dominance, and territoriality overrides the frontal cortex that controls higher functions such as decision making, our sense of responsibility, and problem solving.

Killing one another is a severe human mental problem, or as Ralph Waldo Emerson put it, “An epidemic insanity.” When we kill, we stop being human and revert back millions of years in our evolution to a time when nearly every creature was predator and prey. For millions of years, fear and aggression ruled life on Earth. Many animals evolved claws, sharp teeth, and some even had boney armor to protect them. The law of nature was kill or be killed.

Fast forward some 100 million years. Humans have replaced claws and sharp teeth with rifles, tanks and fighter jets. Boney armor has become bullet proof vests and integrated head protection systems. The continued necessity of all this military gear proves that far too many of our fellow humans are still mentally dinosaurs. It is just the technology that has changed.

For centuries we have blithely considered war and murder as merely an inescapable part of the human experience. Since we felt powerless to change ourselves, we have successfully been able to eschew the responsibility to do something about our homicidal behavior that is worse than reptilian. With their teeth and claws animals could only kill one or two other animals at a time. With our bombs we are able to kill thousands of ourselves at a time. Is this human progress or a clear sign that we are hesitant to improve ourselves because we somehow feel the need to justify and rationalize our weaknesses? Are we really that weak?

Since killing is so common in our species, are we embarrassed to own up to the fact that it is a sign of moral turpitude and ignorance? We blithely rationalize our weaknesses with expressions of hopelessness such as when we shrug our shoulders and utter “Well, we’re only human”. That attitude is only avoiding the issue. What we don’t realize, however, is that when we set our minds to becoming more ethical and moral people, we can solve this problem of human weakness.

Hominin brains grew as they evolved beyond primates who they left behind in the trees. Since our ancestors evolved away from having claws and sharp teeth, they struggled through thousands of years of learning how to survive on brain power instead of using their bodies as weapons. We owe them a debt of gratitude for their mental growth and sacrifices. Many of them died young. But they survived as a species and left us a legacy of using our brains instead of brawn to solve problems. So why are we, whose brain power is a good deal beyond that of our hominin ancestors, having so much trouble carrying on and amplifying this legacy of intellectual conflict resolution?

Given our level of global factionalism, it is time that we took the best of the traits our forebears left us and use them to continue our move up the evolutionary ladder. As these early humans began to live cooperatively in communities, they learned, and left to us, the rudiments of morality and ethical behavior that they would not have survived without. They learned to establish symbiotic relationships where everyone had a role and a purpose from the brawny hunters to the gentle caregivers.

They also, of course, left us a legacy of fear and aggression. A million years ago they needed these traits in a hostile environment. These traits have become as much a part of our psyche as morality and ethics. So, evolution has brought to us opposing forces that at the same time make us productive and destructive.

Human history is a story of wars, conflict, and crime interspersed with periods of peace and productivity lasting from a few months to several years. But the conflicts always return. There is archaeological evidence that humans have been killing each other since we began living in hunter-gatherer communities in caves and huts. And we have not outgrown the problem yet.

The behavior pattern we live with now was set early. We apparently fought over territory and the availability to limited animal and plant resources. In this respect we had not evolved much more than prides of lions or colonies of chimpanzees. Aggression in the dominant group often engendered enough fear in the lesser group that they left the area.

Then when the killing was over, food was shared, mothers tended to their young, and the warriors returned to being hunters of animals instead of people. For a while aggression ceased. The survivors struggled to rebuild their lives while the winners took their spoils. This is our history and not much has changed. The pattern set hundreds of thousands of years ago still dominates our interactions with each other.

Which brings up the old question of what does it mean to be human. Humans show compassion and empathy to their fellow humans. We nurture our young, our old, and our disabled. Caring for one another so that we all flourish and prosper is our high calling to each other. It is the best of being human.

War, conflict, and crime on the other hand, are behaviors that we need to evolve ourselves out of. They represent setbacks in our progress toward global peace and cooperation. Animosity and antagonism are behaviors that do not represent the best of who we are nor are they behaviors that we want to carry into our future. Yet, we keep making the same mistakes over and over again.

Our current news is full of reports about autocrats blaming their failures on external influences. The pattern has been infallibly predictable since humans started keeping records of their activities. We often read about desperate rulers arousing the people to go to war against fabricated enemies to cover up the fact that they told the citizens of their nation or community that they had all the answers to their economic and social concerns when in reality they did not. All they had was ambition and a lust for power. Fooling the populus was merely a step they needed to take to achieve the power they were seeking.

Situations like this point out the absolute need for honesty and ethics. Enlightened men and women have been trying to tell us this for centuries. Today, most people agree and strive to achieve a high level of integrity. The power-hungry and politically ambitious, however, did not agree in our past and still do not today. So far, the thoughtful citizens of the world have not been able to stop the willingness to cheat or even kill as a political tool. Today, as in our past, a small number of power-hungry, ambitious, and desperate people continue to be responsible for the deaths of millions.

Who is to blame? It is each one of us regardless of our level of self-righteousness. If we did not agree to go along with the smooth rhetoric of the autocrats, they could get nowhere without us. To one degree or another, we all become sycophants and grovel at the feet of those whose assets are little more than a big mouth and a plethora of empty promises. These people inevitably prove to be harmful to the peace and well being of those who follow them like sheep. Where are our minds? Where is our ability to think?

Hard working, reasonable, rational, peace-loving people must stop obeying egotistical psychopaths who would not hesitate to put us in danger in order to further their control over their particular realm of influence. Their concern for the well being of others extends only as far as the well being of others enhances their rise to power.

But how do we stop them? These despots are going to arise in many places around the world. They always have and will continue to do so as long as we allow them to. But people are their power base. If people refuse to follow them and refuse to allow themselves to be led astray by deceptive oratory, the narcissist will fade away, perhaps kicking and screaming with useless verbiage about how they could have saved the nation, but they will in time fade away. Your freedom is your ability walk away from a person who is trying to pull you into behavior that is divisive and not conducive to human harmony and cooperation.

Consider this warning from the philosopher Voltaire: “So long as the people do not care to exercise their freedom, those who wish to tyrannize will do so; for tyrants are active and ardent, and will devote themselves in the name of any number of gods, religions or otherwise, to put shackles on sleeping men.” If we allow corrupt autocrats to convince us to give up our sense of ethics, morality, and integrity, then we have given away our minds and the best of our humanity.

Fortunately, we humans have shown a great deal of resilience in the face of adversity. The fact that autocrats eventually lose power is an indication that thoughtful humans have a strong innate sense of ethics, morality, and a desire for freedom that can tolerate abusive power for a while but eventually rise up against it.

But what we must always watch out for is that when a dictator begins to encounter signs that the populus desires more freedom, the response is often to have his or her most trusted sycophants tighten their control. Freedom seekers are harassed, put in prison, or executed. Our history relates many sad stories of this type, and it is still going on today. Freedom lovers must remain strong until the tyrant is stripped of his or her power.

Often when those who would be dictators get a foothold and acquire a few sycophant followers, they are hard to stop. Thus, it is the responsibility of the people to recognize the signs that someone is overstepping the bounds of normal civil or political competition to the point of inciting violence or destructive behavior on his or her behalf.

If you have concerns or feel as if someone seems to be too anxious to usurp as much power as possible, the first thing to do is to look inward. Seek your moral and ethical base. Is the message of someone’s rhetoric one that will foster harmony and cooperation? Or is it attempting to pit one group against another solely for the benefit of aggrandizing the bellowing autocrat?

Think carefully. Your loyalty, your talents, and your ability to think freely and to make your own decisions are too important to give to a cause or a person that promotes divisiveness and animosity.

But throughout history, there have always been people who were afraid of their own weaknesses, who felt the need to be led and who were willing to put their trust in a person or entity other than themselves. This shortcoming in our self-esteem explains the rise of religion, as well as the rise of kings, politicians, and dictators. It is easy for a person with low self-esteem to latch onto a comforting doctrine or a person with too much self-esteem.

But this old behavior is now too dangerous and life-threatening not only for the people directly involved, but beyond the national borders where the problem arises. The people of Earth are now so connected and socially intertwined that conflicts and animosities one place can easily spread to other parts of the world. Local problems can too easily become global problems.

Thus, the need for a rise in ethics and morality across the globe. Ethics and morality are two words that say a lot about how we humans treat each other. Be fair to me and I will be fair to you. Do not threaten me and I will not threaten you. This attitude of reciprocal trust came about thousands of years ago in our history. At the same time we were honing our skills in warfare and destruction, some of us also began to question why killing was the way so many people solved disputes over land, food, love triangles, or any number of conflicts that occur.

Those people who saw beyond the need for conflict were those whose brains, especially the frontal cortex, were developing neurons more rapidly than others in their group who retained a larger proportion of the kill or be killed instincts of the animals they evolved from. People with a strong sense of treating their fellow humans ethically and with a high sense of morality were simply evolving faster than others with less developed brains.

After many thousands of years of knowledge and skill acquisition, one would think that humans have evolved to the point that we would have enough neurons in our frontal cortex to override the animal impulses of fear and aggression based in our amygdala and basal ganglia. But brain evolution is obviously very slow. The high mental functions of ethics and morality in human relations are still not developed in many people. The old instincts of fear, aggression, and territoriality still dominate the thoughts of enough of us to foster conflicts of one kind or another in many people in nearly every region of the world.

We need our brains to develop at a more rapid pace. Our human minds must think beyond aggression and fear. These animal traits are relics of our past history when too many of us responded to thoughtless impulses that caused wars, that generated crime, and worst of all, condoned the practice of humans killing one another. It is sad that we still live with these outmoded mental relics.

Albert Einstein, famous for several scientific discoveries such as the theory of relativity and his equation on the equivalence of mass and energy, was also noted for his humanitarianism. In a letter to fellow physicist Max Born, he wrote “To what purpose should we help one another, make life easier for one another, make beautiful music or have inspired thoughts? If you don’t feel it, no one can explain it to you. Without this primary feeling we are nothing and had better not live at all.”

An ethical concern for others and a desire to make life better for others is a primal human trait. It is what built civilization, not wars and killing. Einstein’s words are strong: without an innate desire to be a good person who promotes human harmony and cooperation, there is no reason to live at all.

A profound question that people bat around a lot is ‘what is the meaning of life’. Many people are beginning to understand that the answer to the question is to put your time and effort into an activity or profession that benefits all people. By helping people to understand the world and themselves, they better understand that war, crime, and killing are not what being human is all about. Having high standards of ethics and morality promotes life and gives meaning to life. Wars and crime bring on death.  

But how do we change our brains? One thing that could help is for each one of us to take a more analytical approach to the information we hear, read, and see. The senses take it all in, but our minds must look closely at the information and come to rational conclusions about establishing beliefs on what the information is telling us. Is it leading us toward a humanistic or cooperative attitude in our relationships with other people? Or is it encouraging us to have blind faith in the flowery rhetoric of an ambitious political leader or to give ourselves over to some sort of imagined deity outside of humanity?

Where in all of this information processing that is going on in our minds is the sense of ethics and morality which is the cohesion that holds humanity together when conflicts tend to tear it apart? Without our sense of ethics and morality, without our concern for our fellow humans, we would have died out as a species many years ago. And if we allow selfishness, greed, and egotism to replace ethics and morality, we could easily start conflicts large enough to kill ourselves.

Raise your level of ethics, morality, and integrity, and your sense of caring for each other rather than allowing aggression, greed, and fear to have dominion over your thinking. But be mindful that holding yourself up to high standards is tough whereas giving in to the worst of our old instincts is easy and requires little thought.

Oddly enough, there is a scientific rationale that could be applied to the challenge of holding on to high standards. Like most phenomena in the universe, human behavior is subject to the second law of thermodynamics. Things in nature tend to fall apart if not held together in some way. The falling apart is called entropy, the concept of order tending toward disorder. Concerning human behavior, the concept of entropy implies that it is harder to be reasonable and rational and take the time and effort to think through a situation than it is to lazily allow your mind to be led by external influences. Being lazy and mentally disorganized is a form of entropy.

When confronted with a decision, do you have enough confidence in yourself that you can rise above questionable rhetoric that could lead you to a disorganized state of being, a state of entropy? Long term happiness requires that you work toward global cooperation to replace the disorganization and entropy we see in our global political and social turmoil today.

Citizens who use social media must be always on the alert for false information. Our sophisticated technology is allowing each of us, the honest citizen as well as the criminal, to spread vast amounts of information. Some of what we are exposed to is truthful news. Some of it is lies or conspiracy theories intended to stir up political or social animosity. A good bit of it is aimed at getting us to buy a product or give money to an organization. Too much input pulls our minds in too many different directions.

Telling a lie is bad enough. Believing a lie is even worse. Reacting to a lie can cause good people to do bad things. Lies can turn neighbor against neighbor, or even nation against nation. All of us from the average citizen to the powerful politician, must check both what we say and what we hear. Each of us must have a built-in two-way lie detector. Don’t tell lies nor believe everything you are told.

An important element in raising your level of ethics and morality is self-restraint. Don’t let passion overcome reason. Think about and analyze a situation before you make a decision you might regret.  Don’t give in to the easy way out. Keep your integrity in-tact.

Although legitimate protest concerning a particular issue can sometimes get results, study the cause and the tactics carefully. Determine how you can best promote a good cause. Don’t just stop thinking and follow the mob. Mob thinking responds to the lowest level of thought and reason in the group.

Build up your ethical and moral standards and try to set a good example for others. Let your sense of integrity guide your actions. Try to interact positively with people who seem to be obsessed with paranoia and divisiveness. As best you can counter their negativity with words that engender harmony.

Be kind.

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