Why getting rid of “bad” is bad

September 25, 2012 § 2 Comments

B4: Ironically, altruism can be a pretty contentious term.  In fields ranging from philosophy to biology to economics, people have very different perceptions regarding the origins and motivations of selfless behavior.  Regardless, altruism is almost universally esteemed in our society; actions exhibiting an “unselfish regard for or devotion to the welfare of others,” as Merriam-Webster puts it, are seen as making the world a better place.

However, if afforded the option to give my child an “altruistic gene,” my answer would absolutely be “No.”  All practical consequences aside, my opposition to this notion is based first and foremost on moral grounds.  I realize this represents something of a paradox since morality is concerned with the principles of right and wrong, or good and bad, where altruism represents the desired right or good.  But let me explain:

Take a child endowed with the hypothetical altruistic gene.  As this child grows up, he performs only good actions.  He shares his toys, looks out for bullied peers, gives his birthday money to charity.  Yet, this whole time, he does not realize he is doing good.  In fact, he has not even the slightest concept of good (or, for that matter, bad).  He is a slave to his altruistic instincts.  He simply does.  While the selfish actions of others strike him as utterly perplexing and irrational, he likewise cannot conceive of them as bad.  The very purpose of his exceptional gene is lost upon him, because by taking away the choice between good and bad, one takes away the crux of morality, destroying it entirely.

And this is no small thing.  As it is, humans are constantly presented with choices that, whether on a large or small scale, pertain to morality, and over time, these decisions fuel personal growth and shape our outlooks on life.  Maybe we don’t share toys sometimes, or we don’t always stand up to bullies, or we prefer to treat ourselves when we receive some extra cash.  In any case, we learn.  By observation and reflection, we develop and continually refine our sense of good and bad.  Rather than simply constituting a result of our interactions, this moral code comes to shape how we interact with the world around us, allowing us to at least partially escape the biological drive to survive.

In my opinion, one aspect that defines the human experience and sets it apart from that of all other living organisms is precisely this extraordinary capacity to operate outside the jurisdiction of instinct and evolution.  To be certain, this power can be used for good or bad.  But the duality of good and bad, too, is essentially human.



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§ 2 Responses to Why getting rid of “bad” is bad

  • keithnoback says:

    Great post. This is the best personal argument for moral fictionalism that I’ve come across. I’m not sure the benefit you outline outweighs the personal and interpersonal Balkanization that ensues, but it is something to think about.


  • lzarecky says:

    This is really interesting – however, do you think that someone with the altruistic gene wouldn’t have a concept of good and bad? It seems that he just would be instinctively always responding in a ‘good’ way, but I feel that he would recognize the concepts of good vs bad.


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