Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Civilization and Morality

Cambridge Dictionary defines the meaning of a civilized society as, "describes a society or country that has a highly developed system of government, culture and way of life and that treats the people who live there fairly:"

To me, the definition is still unsatisfactory. What does it mean to have a highly developed system of government, culture and way of life? What does it mean to be civilized? What is it's ultimate purpose? A Utopian land of peace and communion, or merely a sustainable practical solution to coexist and survive in a community? As human beings, does it at all signify any growth to us, asides being an inevitable social "evolution"?

The marked attributes of a civilized world are increase in rational thought, empathy, and compassion to fellow living beings -- can this be extrapolated as increase in morality, moral consciousness? With such a continual increase in moral consciousness, does the future then hold a vision of pre-Pandorian era of happiness and peace, devoid of anything "evil"? If the hypothesis is extended, does it mean we can indeed reach a state of harmonious coexistence without any laws or explicit moral rules, for we would have graduated to a state of social evolution that no more requires rules. Rules in kindergarten are not extended till high school, are they? Aren't tens of thousands of years of evolution enough for us human beings to graduate?

But the reality is that rules and laws have been continually increasing, and even today there is hardly any civilized society, no matter how highly developed, that can afford to suspend all rules and laws for even a single day with the confidence of it's inhabitants cohabiting in peace. In what way have we then civilized? With a zillion rules on decorum and decency, we may know how to eat right, dress right, talk right, walk right, buy the right things... but living right? What does it mean? Am I being skeptical about the above social experiment? Can implicit faith in human goodness, and reliance on the "humaneness" in us hold strong enough in such a scenario? Will the vast majority survive in harmony with merely spurious outbursts?

Another hypothetical experiment - if a baby were to be abandoned in a jungle (cruel, but imagine Mowgli and Tarzan), devoid of human civilization, would the baby also grow up with the acquired humane feelings? Will discerning right and wrong, and judging fairness of situations be part of who he grows up to be? Hard to imagine so. Can we hope to appeal to the "humaneness" of such a jungle man? Will he be capable of experiencing any empathy? Nature, nurture, environment and circumstances play a huge role. If the above two social experiments fail, seems to me that rules and laws are indispensable no matter how much we evolve. It seems to reiterate the Veneer Theory. Are all of us struggling with an internal conflict of animalistic primordial instincts that know not the necessity for morality but only knows the laws of survival? Morality is then a convenience, a practical acceptance, submission for ensuring coexistence. This line of thought explicates that there are perhaps no universal truths/tenets of Good. Religion breaks downs which is obviously why the Church doesn't like to think or even associate human beings as having evolved from animals.

A further line of thought - in terms of current societies, our definitions of civility and morality seem to be more enhanced and prevalent in developed societies - societies that have the means to provide enough resources and quality of life to most, without the inhabitants scrambling for them. Surplus resources makes sharing and waiting for turns much easier. The game of survival of the fittest is reduced significantly in a pampered society. When the need for the game reduces, when one has his needs fulfilled, he can afford to think about others. In a developing society with meager resources and tough competition, civility and morality are secondary concerns. Primary concern is survival. Doesn't matter if it's not your turn in the queue, doesn't matter if you push a couple of people down in the process of getting into the bus (literally and figuratively speaking of course)...if you want to be morally conscious and civil, you will be waiting at the bus stop forever.

As we continue to deplete resources from our planet, isn't every developed and civilized society facing this risk of pandemonium and breakdown in morality/civility as the pampering cushion is removed and people are faced with Nature's wild game of survival? Or is it just my pessimistic streak? Maybe we humans will figure out a "civil" solution without pandering to the pressing crisis.

The tug of war between good and "evil" will continue to exist in each of us. The development of sufficient rational thought, empathy and compassion are alone not enough to surface the "good" and quell the brutish instincts. Circumstances are often the turning point to unleash those attributes that we want to believe are long buried and dead. With more civilization, individual freedom of spirit often gets compromised... the eyes of society become our conscience. Revolutions keep coming and going with every other generation to express that freedom, to release that energy boiling on the surface and yet being pushed down with rules we continue to create. Maybe the increasing trend of rules will plateau at some point in the future, meaning it will be a harbinger for more harmonious Utopian type of society, or perhaps the rules will all breakdown and the boiling "Veneer" within will lash out. I want to believe in the former and look forward to an optimistic future, where our evolved rationality can guide us. But we still have a long way to go, maybe another thousand years of civilization and more revisions to the concept of morality and ethics. Despite perceptions on morality changing, with the lines of black and white getting smudged with every generation, the fundamental core beneath the concept of ethics and morality continue to hold strong - harmonious coexistence.


SecondSight said...

Nice one.. I've been wanting to lend you a book for a while now, one of the best I've read in terms of explaining the evolution of society from a biological perspective.. :)
This weekend maybe!

Neeraja said...

Yes, I must definitely read it soon! :)