Wrapping up a review of a Dutch book which, on the one hand, is likeable (albeit pretentious) yet on the other hand deeply flawed. The fact that the book is both makes it, for lack of a better word, deceptive, but perhaps not in an intentional way. It is intentional in its attempt to change our worldview on human nature that is acquiescent to the cheery utopian project Bregman envisions. It’s a lot better than seeing human nature as wretched, sinful (why not!), and fallen with all that that entails. Right?
Well, by repudiating the nocebo -pessimistic expectations resulting in negative effects- of gloomy human self perception we are so steeped in, Bregman believes he found a clue to improvement of self and our culture. That improvement needs to be understood in the context of the proposed evolutionary sequence and the positive shift we can make if we fully understand that sequence and the science behind it.
This “thoughtless”, “designless”, “blind” evolutionary sequence is (very) roughly summarised as follows:’‘survival of the friendliest’ - empathy - xenophobia - power - ‘repackaged-evil is good’ - rediscovering our internal goodness - opposing power - a better world’.
And how does Bregman think he has shown that by improving our self-perception, or accept that deep down we really are good people, we can improve ourselves and the world? More empirical research results of course! How terrifically boring and irrelevant.
Michael Ruse minces no words on the consequences of the Darwinian perspective and the ontology (the realness) of morality in an eliminative world such as Bregman embraces (italics added):
“My claim is that the recognition of morality as merely a biological adaptation shows that there can be no foundation of the kind traditionally sought, whether by evolutionists, Christians, or others! I do not mean that ethics is a total chimera, for it obviously exists in some sense. But I do claim that, considered as a rationally justifiable set of claims about an objective something, it is illusory. I appreciate that when somebody says “Love thy neighbor as thyself,” they think they are referring above and beyond themselves. It is a binding commandment, unlike a mere subjective claim (like “I like spinach and I hope you do too”). Nevertheless, to a Darwinian evolutionist it can be seen that such reference is truly without foundation. Morality is just an aid to survival and reproduction and has no being beyond or without this.”
Paul Kurtz points at the heart of the matter (italics added):
“The central question about moral and ethical principles concerns their ontological foundation. If they are neither derived from God nor anchored in some transcendent ground, are they purely ephemeral?”
So empirical science is of little help, despite Bregman’s best efforts. If we are just reasonably advanced primates that can have no more than the illusion of moral duty, in the most friendliest of ways of course, then morality, science, love, goodness, and so on are only means to further reproductive ends and maximise our individual fitness. Nothing else. And if Bregman is right, then Utopia should be a guaranteed outcome of our evolutionary process, if we only get it!! That of course never happened.
But it could, right? Well … no! The irony is that Bregman leaves no real depth to the world, to human beings, to the good and the evil we are confronted with and we carry within us. We are just empty shells of the friendliest of kind. Read Ruse’s words again: “Morality is just an aid to survival and reproduction and has no being beyond or without this.”
The supposedly necessary evolutionary removal of God as External Authority (see Boger further on this) in Whom objective morality originates, introduces the sheer illusory character of morality that Bregman nevertheless and incoherently describes in ‘real’ terms. And he knows this and he needs to, otherwise Utopia will be a permanent and terrible delusion.
That is the sleight of hand that rarely is acknowledged or even criticised. So, whether we survive as the ‘friendliest’ or the ‘fittest’, there is precisely nothing in both that delivers the goods Bregman is hoping for. The evil of the 20th century is as real as it gets and can only be understood as such. The ‘repacked-evil-as-good’ is an affront to those who suffered and died as a result of people doing evil of the most horrific kind.
The Old Testament dialogue between Abraham and God concerning the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah exactly shows that morality requires transcendency (Genesis 18: 16-33). Abraham’s concern for the innocents of Sodom is not concern for his relatives or friends. It’s concern for innocents everywhere. As Susan Neiman makes clear in referring to this story as one on universal moral law:
“In his concern for innocent life he endangers his own. Abraham dares to remind the King of Kings that He’s about to trespass on moral law. The text makes plain that Abraham is scared. His words are neither proud nor wheedling, but the plea of a servant to a master who could extinguish him with a glance.”
What Neiman misses is the fact that God’s justice goes beyond what Abraham offers. He was willing to give up on less than ten righteous people whereas God, who purportedly has to be bargained into protecting ten people, spares all the righteous present in Sodom. Thus, none of the righteous suffers with the wicked.
Finally and most importantly, the story contains a witz: Abraham seemingly refers to moral law to which God needs to adhere. But in fact, he is speaking to the Lawgiver Himself. And therein lies the basis for understanding and discerning good and evil. Our emergent understanding of good and evil only can come to fruition if it is embedded in its transcendency. And that makes a utopian society built only by us unattainable and perilous. As history shows: survival of the friendliest can easily morph into survival of the fittest.