When one hears the term “Ethics”, one rarely thinks about such concepts as atomism, materialism or the way that our genes use the human genus as a method of survival, like our bodies being some kind of carrier machine. My intention is to discuss these concepts and how they affect the way we live ethically.
Atomism knows it start back in Ancient Greece, around 460BC and was founded by Democritus, who’s most notable concept is that of the atomic theory of the universe. He argued, that if we take any existing object and continuously divide it, at one point we have to come to a halt at a part that is undividable. These undividable parts are what he called, “atoms”. The word “atom” comes from the Greek word atomos with “a” meaning “not” and “tomos” meaning “cut”, so-called because atoms are indivisible.
He argued that there should come a point where things can no longer be divided as it cannot be that things are made up of something that has no magnitude as otherwise they may not have amounted to any quantity in the first place, therefore making it impossible for things to actually exist.
He believed, that atoms are infinite in number and come in many shapes and that the reality that we see is made up of atoms which bumped into each other accidentally and which took a particular form. These forms ranged from animals, objects and indeed, humans. The rest, is void.
Epicurus who lived during 341BC in Greece, followed in the steps of Democritus. He was a hedonist – a person who pursues pleasure and things which are intrinsically good in order to maximize pleasure as a whole. True to his beliefs, he aimed at disposing of man’s fear of death through the use of pleasure and atomism.
He argued, that instead of following Religion, which makes us fear death, we should follow a scientific account of reality, that of Democritus’ atomism. He says that we are free to do whatever gives us pleasure as the only reason that we are alive is because of the way the atoms collided and because of this, we are free. Therefore, we should not have any fear as once we die, the atoms disperse and our soul ceases to perceive, and therefore, there cannot be any suffering after death – unlike what religion tells us. Therefore, he argues, in order to live a happy life, we should avoid things that cause us pain & look for things that cause us pleasure. We should also refrain from fearing death as this is the bane of man’s life.
In Ethical studies, Bradley argued that in this way, life may never reach a sense as when the last pleasure is reached we automatically crave for another pleasure and we stand with heart unsatisfied and hands empty (1952, 98). In his words, hedonism is either an assertion that happiness is achieved in one intense moment or else that happiness is impossible, as each time we believe that we have found happiness, it results as being only a thing of the moment, because we will crave another kind of happiness next, as when we eat we satisfy a craving temporarily but that craving and the pain that accompanies hunger will still return once we are hungry again. He asks whether we should follow the “Nullo vivere consilio” (Bradley 1952, 99), which is the giving up of any goal or any rule of life.
I argue, that by living just by pleasure, one cannot always do what is right especially what is right towards fellow human beings. By living ethically, we sometimes have to sacrifice our own pleasures to do what is actually right and to benefit the rest of society – if my friend and I are both intensely hungry, I can either choose to eat the bread provided to me on my own and satiate my hunger fully (with it returning again in a few hours’ time), or else I may choose to share my bread with my friend and not be as satiated as if I had eaten the full portion, but having chosen the option that is morally good.
Lucretius, a Roman poet as well as philosopher who is most known for his poem “De Rerum Natura” (On the nature of things), also follows on atomism and Epicureanism. Like Epicurus, he claims that bodies are made of atoms which live in a void. In his De rerum natura he writes:
For I now begin to make, …
and shall reveal the building blocks all things are fashioned of,
nature’s prime particles from which she nourishes and grows
all things, and into which once more she makes them decompose.
We term them in philosophy according to our needs,
Matter, atoms, generative bodies, elements and seeds,
And first-beginnings since it is from these that all proceeds. (Lucretius 2007, 4)
In this part of De rerum natura he claims that we are made of atoms and once we die, through decomposition, we shall return to being atoms. This is the same way that Epicurus said that we shouldn’t fear death as we will cease to perceive and therefore cease to suffer once we are dead.
Lucretius also makes the comparison of atoms to the creation of society. He believed, that societies come together just like atoms bumping into each other and accidentally forming things. In the same way humans accidentally bump into each other and form societies.
Later on, Aristotle, another Greek Philosopher & Scientist who lived around 384BC, argued that everything that exists has to go through the four changes: the material cause, the efficient cause, the formal cause and the final cause. The material cause is what the object is primarily made of, or it’s physical property – a slab of clay is the main material of an object. The efficient cause is what causes it to become the new object, therefore the efficient cause of a slab of clay is the potter who will work on the clay to make it into a vase. The formal cause is the new form that the object takes, therefore the vase, and the final cause is the purpose of the object in question – for the vase to hold a bouquet of flowers in it. According to Aristotle, however the causal properties of living beings are not … determined by the features of their material constituents. (Cresswell 2000, 101)
Aristotle believed that philosophers who came before him (with the exception of Plato), placed too much importance on the material cause and not much importance on anything else. He compared the material cause which the previous philosophers placed so much importance on, to a house which was made of wood and stone. Does the wood create the wall of the house as wood happens to be lighter and therefore floats to the top whereas stone creates the foundations because it happens to be heavier and so sinks to the bottom? He replies that it is important to look at the innate function of an object in order to know why it is made that way and not just at the fact that it happens to be that way, as for Aristotle, the final cause is very important.
In this way, atomists believe that humans are created the way they are, not because of their final cause but because the atoms just happened to join together in a particular way to form a human body, without taking into consideration the final cause of the human body. Aristotle disagreed with them as he believed that the final cause of a human being was far more important than the material or efficient cause.
Charles Darwin, who’s best known for his theory of evolution, argues that in the same way that that different species evolved in different ways in order to adapt to changes in the world and to be able to successfully survive, society developed through the strength of morality; the stronger a species’ moral sense is, the more likely it is that the species would survive. He argued that due to this moral sense, the species would collaborate together for survival and refrain from killing one another, and therefore the species survives and moves further down the line, continuing the evolution both physically and morally.
In this sense, Darwin says that morality was also a part of the “survival of the fittest” as morality would survive and grow as a survival method of the species. To Darwin, this also showed why different cultures have different ethical norms, as different cultures developed through different moralities in order to survive. (Pennock 1995) This is where moral relativism comes in and we can see a possible way in which it developed and why different cultures have different moral norms which work for their own society.
Later on, in his The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins argued that:
We are survival machines, robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes (Dawkins 1979, Preface)
Therefore, the question surfaces – if we really are Robot veichles as Dawkins claims, do we really need ethical values? Doesn’t that make our ethical & moral actions senseless as our experiences are simply a way for the genes to survive?
In Darwin’s dangerous Idea, Daniel Dennet argues that:
One never hears tales … of an eagle's wings going on strike, refusing to work unless some concession can be wrung from the beak or … the gonads. (1996, 457)
Even though each molecule in the human body has its very own DNA, each molecule still chooses to co-operate with the rest of the molecules in the human body, because this is what is needed for the body’s survival. In the same way, even though we are made of genes, our bodies are necessarily needed for the genes to survive as they cannot survive on their own and similarly they cannot take decisions on their own as they are part of the constitution of a whole body.
In view of all these arguments, I believe that morals do matter as if every human being chooses to ignore their ethical responsibilities on the basis that we are merely hosts to genes, then our species would never survive. I believe that it is of utmost importance that as a society we should have moral norms because as in Dennet’s comparison, if the molecules in a body started rebelling against each other the body could never work. And so, our bodies as well as society could never work if we followed no rules and adopted no morals.