Suddenly the other day, I spotted an ad along the side of a New York City bus that at once shocked me into writing this essay. “You don’t have to believe in GOD to be a moral and ethical person” it announced boldly. That such a startling statement should appear like a beer ad on a downtown express in the middle of rush hour is unique and stunning enough, sure, but that it also happens to spell out an urgent, provocative position I’ve wrestled with for years and which now is a significant part of my recent novel, Savage Days Haunted Nights, simply floored me. But I was floored even more so when I recalled having once described in detail to a founder of the very organization of nonbelievers placing that ad why having a GOD is really not necessary to make sense of our abiding moral behavior found nearly everywhere a majority of the time and without which we’d all soon perish.
Yes, it should never be forgotten that despite how scary the world gets, it’s only our moral behavior that in the end keeps us muddling through it all. Indeed, wasn’t Hitler soundly crushed and Stalin’s evil grip finally smashed too? Surely it’s to our true glory that despite all these tyrants and hustlers, criminals and butchers so sorely plaguing us down through the ages, mankind nonetheless carries on as our children are mostly fed day after day and our hospital mostly kept open and our lovers mostly walk peacefully in the park.
So is this great achievement possible only because GOD’s mighty word is creating a preponderance of peacefulness almost all the time practically everywhere? Ah, I’m afraid, though, the answer can only be a firm “No”. Remember, it was Al Qaeda’s wrathful GOD who brought down the World Trade Towers on 9/11. ALLA is what they called him on that grim morning. But let’s not blame this angry GOD thing only on the Muslims because they don’t deserve it. No, it wasn’t ALLA but a Protestant GOD, who spilled torrents and torrents of blood in Europe’s Hundred Year War in a brutal, endless fight against a Catholic GOD, who fought back with equal savagery, often lighting up the skies through the fathomless agony of Protestant heretics set ablaze at the stake. And to this very moment, somber echos of that blind carnage are still lingering ghostlike in the back alleys of Northern Ireland. And keep in mind that Hindu GODs are pretty good at slaughter too and Jewish zealots are quickly catching up as they pound their sacred bible now claiming their right also to blood and mayhem in grabbing what little is left of a holy land that , uh huh, a GOD of hard nosed real estate had “promised them”.
Tell me, please, in the name of all that’s good and great, can’t we do any better than this?
When strange, ominous global challenges like the melting of the ice caps and other looming disasters descended upon us then began growing steadily more dangerous, I felt compelled--no driven actually--to start hunting for ways to address what had become a troubling necessity for finding the moral courage and clarity that could battle such eerie, mortal threats. And after much uncertainty I began finally searching in earnest for answers that wouldn’t let us squirm away from the moral failures surely underlying this by first asking many painful questions regardless of whom they might offend exactly as the main character in my novel, Dorian, does as we catch him now poring through his journal.
Just finished rereading Dostoyevsky’s
CRIME AND PUNISHMENT. Oh Boy!
A man kills two women with an ax and
at the end finds God, realizing finally
that he did something terrible. Neither
the law, nor anything else, seems to do
the trick. Just the heavens did. Come
on, is that the only thing keeping us
from whacking each other? Considering
the millions slaughtered in the name
of faith, there’s gotta be a better way.
I wonder what it is.
Dorian’s done much more then wonder, though, for he’d started gradually over many years spending night after night in libraries, often late into the night, trying to understand why one man can cut another man’s throat while, more mysteriously, most of us can’t, though he’s realizing with growing dread that he may have to do exactly that. Years earlier, Dorian had to flee in horror from a vicious youthful life marauding through the violence ridden streets of Chicago’s old West Side often accompanied on stark, harrowing nights by some of that storied city’s most terrifying criminal. And though he’s now in his forties and has become a thoughtful, dedicated writer living in New York City, he remains haunted by the sheer savagery he’d once live through and had afflicted on others and is still driven to understand and purge himself of its lingering grip on him until ultimately he seeks some resolution of this by working obsessively on an essay called “A Natural Basis For Moral Action” -- a natural basis,yes, not a supernatural one.
Of course, he’d embraced this cutting skepticism of relying on religion for moral guidance for much the same reasons I have, which his journal already reveals. In fact he’d turned fiercely skeptical years back after dropping theology in frustration and discovering the more tangible logic of moral philosophy, then psychology, then anthropology. And then he began with true surprise seeping himself deeply in pure BIOLOGY, which he discovers to his amazement doesn’t destroy morality as religions grimly warn in their hysteria over Evolution, but rather brilliantly account for it, although a sudden, dark twist in his fortunes at this fateful juncture casts him all at once with crushing irony into an abysmal life and death struggle again with loan sharks and killers, making his quest for moral clarity only more excruciating as he’s pushed closer and closer to bloody murder, or being murdered himself. And at this dire moment, we see a desperate Dorian seeking solace from all he’s fought so long and hard to learn:
Sure, look, it’s right here, [Dorians’ thinking as he’s once more peering down intensely into his journal] Frankie D’s a fucken moral abomination, yeah, [ and an imminent deadly threat] but that’s not making it easy to kill him, uh uh, cause there’s something keeping us from doing that, something literally inherent, though it’s pissed on all the time.
And [the story’s explaining] the more passionately Dorian has delved into this, the more certain he’d become that “Thou shalt not kill”, especially one’s own kind under most circumstances in one’s own community is an urgency lodged deep in our DNA. And he’d explained [in the journal] exactly why in bold red letters:
Murder’s out for man or beast, if
we’re to exist at all in social groups.
This is a Darwinian means of survival.
a built in BIOLOGICAL NECESSITY.
Even a wolf, unless in a fatal battle for
leadership, won’t savagely kill another
wolf in his pack if the weaker animal
shows his throat in an appeasement
gesture. For how would these beasts
bring down large difficult prey in the
dead of winter if their own pack were
decimated by each other. Surely, we’d
all be dead ducks, the wolves too,
without those inherent restraints.
Ha, strange isn’t it? [Dorian’s musing now] Maybe brute strength or our celebrated intelligence or competitiveness isn’t the real secret of our survival but rather simple peacefulness. Imagine that! Of course, Dorian‘s conceding sadly, we’re always fighting and gouging and arguing, but day by day we’re mostly peaceful and so were the hunter- gatherers, our primordial, fully human forbearers wandering the world totally dependent on one another. Murders did happen then, Dorians’ discovered, but very, very rarely and usually only under special circumstances. So without the Ten Commandments leading the way, something visceral, apparently, was holding everything in check back then. Now though, the distortions of civilization itself such as alcoholism or festering, overcrowded slums or the gruesome rise of serial, child rapists are, Dorian fears, also dangerously distorting our natural abhorrence of senseless slaughter. And he can think of endless examples of this, past and present, everywhere, including these savage urges for Frankie’s blood hounding him at this very moment.
And almost in a daze, Dorian’s realizing for the first time that the urgency of this essay he’s suffered over for so long, even if his conclusions are dead wrong, wasn’t an act of pure chance only, but a misty, unperceived battle to obliterate those raging impulses still haunting him from his brutal days in Chicago... And clutching the vital pages of this essay close in hand now is somehow drawing him at last into desperate sleep
With breathless concern, we’re soon watching Dorian dodging and weaving past vivid, realistic dangers both physical and emotional and past unrelenting moral ones, many of them perilous. But not till the last pages of the story do we find out if he’ll live or die as a man of enduring character, or get trapped hopelessly in wretched disgrace. And again, though the moral discussion’s deepening throughout this tale, only in the book’s final chapter, during its most urgent scene, do we get striking revelations of where our moral bearings actually come from and just how mortally indispensable their insistent workings are.
And this dynamic finale is unfolding finally in an elegant Italian restaurant owned by a man of dark and powerful influence, who insists for portentous reason that Dorian join a tense,, highly charged dinner party being given hastily for a Yale professor, who’s also heir to a huge, influential Connecticut fortune. Yes, here and now on this night alone, a bitter dispute between these two domineering men must be settle, must, one way or another. And if somehow Dorian, being both a writer and once a criminal, can charm the professor with impressive, high brow talk and assuring diplomacy while calming down his quick-tempered host, “Big” Nickie Torracelli, who having barely finished grade school is very unsure of himself tonight, a looming disaster engulfing everyone might be averted and a blessed solution to Dorians’ harrowing situation with Frankie D and others can, perhaps follow. But only perhaps.
From the moment Dorian took his seat in the restaurant, the professor’s proving utterly imperious, rejecting every attempt Dorian’s making to engage him. And after each of these dismal efforts, Dorian’s fear is rapidly rising until in cold, piercing anger, he starts scrutinizing every word and gestures the
professor’s expressing to anyone. Then at last with gloating contempt, Dorian's sensing in the man’s very arrogance a barely discernible uncertainty over whether his trumpeted academic achievement and status at Yale could actually stand alone without the influence of his millions. And Dorian at once strikes hard and fast at this puffed up scholar’s self importance by casually informing everyone around the table of the no less than ten significant articles Dorian himself has published in “The Sunday New York Times”. And the effect is immediate:
“Well,” Professor Hartford sighs soundly embarrassed then asks slowly, a bit flustered, “Are...are you still writing?”
“Might I ask you what it is?”
“Ah, just some fiction,” Dorian tells him casually, hiding his true gratitude at getting him to at last look fully his way “I’m struggling mostly, though, with an essay, one I’ve been at for years, many years. Too many maybe.”
“Hmmm, sounds rather serious,” Hartford says with some real curiosity finally, a professional curiosity that’s possibly stronger, Dorians’ hoping, than his insufferable aloofness which might conceivably be easing a bit, momentarily at least. And Dorian’s ardently hoping that maybe, just maybe, this tireless professor here, publishing so many weighty papers might, well, actually cherish IDEAS--imagine that, even ones that could shake everything up. Oh,get this right, please!
“What I’m after, professor, is simple really, but very important, momentous maybe, yet almost impossible to nail down with unequivocal evidence until recently.” [more about this evidence later]
“Well, that has me wondering, I must admit,” Hartford’s confessing thoughtfully, looking honestly engaged at last... “So what’s this simple essay about--that’s not so simple?”
“Ah, most people are bored stiff with this stuff.”
“ No,” the professor says, firmly adjusting his no nonsense steel rimmed glasses tightly on his nose. “I’m not getting the feeling I’m going to be bored.”
“Okay, sir. This’ll probably sound grandiose, sorry, but I’m insisting that moral behavior no longer be explained through religion or simply more philosophical blather, but by something natural and to the point.”
“Morality right to the point? Oh, that’s a doozie!” the professor says instantly skeptical, yet intrigued. “Now what in the world do you mean by that?”
“Again, this is something simple, really, because I honestly believe morality arose originally through biological necessity and was programmed in like everything else by evolution. So any behavior leading to the survival of the species was moral, good. Whatever threatened the destruction of the species was immoral, bad. That’s it.”
“And it’s a mouthful,” the professor replies, his brows furrowing at once in a search for probing questions. “It’s a bit glib but, okay, it could follow. Let’s deal with something a little trickier, though, like let’s say abortion.”
“Well, many people think that overpopulation might be threatening the whole species. So allowing that would be immoral. One means of countering that is abortion. The hunter-gathers, our true ancestors, knew this well because they practiced it widely for thousands of years, knowing they couldn’t continue their wandering and survive if they had to carry too many children.”
“I never knew that.”
“Most people don’t.”
In exhausting detail, Dorian continues drawing the professor deeper and deeper into one subject after another, though diligently trying to avoid controversy. But Hartford gradually with stubborn, troubling regularity keeps coming back with renewed skepticism to questions beginning to worry Dorian more and more.
“What about rape? Why should that threaten the species?”
“Why? Because a woman has to choose, professor. That allows her to perpetuate instinctively the most beneficial traits among us for the survival of all. Rape takes that away from her. It’s immoral, instinctively reviling.”
“That’s clever. Indeed it is. Alright, so why don’t we talk about robbery now,” Hartford says firmly, a suppressed sarcasm rising in his voice again. And he’s looking at Torracelli and Sonny in a flush of indignation. And they’re instantly looking back with forbidding faces, leaving Dorian so shaken, his mouth suddenly drops at finally facing the terrible irony of ensnaring Hartford by talking of moral imperatives of all things right here in “Big” Nickie‘s place. Oh what a stupid blunder!
Sorry, just can’t let on now about what’s coming next. Uh uh, that’ll violate the suspense of the story. But I can say with certainty that many of the principles of what has become a comprehensive theory of the origins and purposes of moral behavior have just been covered, principles now being probed more and more by neuroscientists and evolutionary psychologists. And surely the vast implication their studies are unearthing about how we view the world and ourselves --and how Dorian does--should make clear why I’m sitting here intensely writing this essay after seeing that strange ad posted on a bus rushing down Seventh Avenue. Yet something still remains as promised to be spelled out in what I’m writing because theories alone, even clever ones, are a dime a dozen. But hard, scientific evidence, that’s priceless.
And we’re given exactly that in a series of remarkable psychological and brain scan experiments rigorously testing our moral responsiveness through a process called the Trolley Dilemma, which studies an astonishing two hundred thousand subjects from regions as diverse and far away as rural India, South America, urban Europe and across the whole United States.
When all this multitude of people were asked to press a lever diverting a simulated trolley from killing five endangered bystanders by sending that run away car crashing instead into just one unfortunate individual, the response was universal. All around the world, no matter how wildly different the cultures were, the one man was sacrificed to save the five. However, when the only option for saving those imperiled five was by flinging a fat man onto the trolley tracks, thus personally murdering him, this brutal choice --to the credit of the entire human race--was turned down firmly all around the world as well. So, yeah, the next time you happen to be urgently diverting a trolley turned dangerous and someone’s fatally cut down cause there’s no other choice, well it’s tragic, but so it goes. But killing an innocent by your own hand even for a greater good is murder. Nature it seems has decided that our species simply won’t survive if we allow such direct, intimate disregard of blameless life under any circumstances.
And the only explanation for such a consistency of responses in such utterly different societies and environments expressed in these experiments and many others isn’t--all the researchers agree--the result mostly of learned reflexes but from long engrained genetic ones bestowed upon us not from some heavenly place but from our earthbound bodies that’ve risen up in the murky dust of the ages. And maybe, because of that, the power of these vital moral impulses in this flesh of ours may well be enhanced one day not through endless sermons and sanctimonious lectures but through a stunning use of brilliant epigenetics and physiology that could somatically inspire our DNA into lifting us to greater peacefulness and virtue just when we’ll be needing it desperately. What a breathtaking hope! And who knows what other enlightening surprises might appear then on the side of a downtown bus.
Copyright 2009 Bennett Kremen
author of Savage Days Haunted Nights
available at Amazon.com