Three Sources of Destructiveness

In “Under the Banner of ‘Life’s Flourishing’,” I argued that the Good is completely tied into the values that were instilled into our world through Life’s development on Earth:

  • Values grounded in creatures’ experience of fulfillment—creatures who experience things as mattering in ways corresponding to what has been life-serving in their ancestral past; And
  • Values protected by the synergy and viability of the whole system, qualities built into the system of Life because they are what enable Life to flourish into the future.

But then the question arises: If Life develops so well to foster the Good, how are we to understand all the ways that destruction and suffering enter into Life’s domain?

Here are three major avenues through which destructiveness enters our world:

1) Disorder—or brokenness—can impact the system of life from outside of Life’s realm, i.e. from those dynamics within the cosmos that preceded life and remain beyond life’s control.

Although Life has brought much on this planet under its control, much that’s not alive operates independently, and retains the power to unleash life-destroying disorder into the living world.

For example, a massive object streaming earthward from the cold, lifeless realms of outer space slammed into our planet 66 million years ago, killing off not only the dinosaurs but also countless other components of the order of Life-on-Earth at that time.

(And then there are the earthquakes and tsunamis – over which Life has no say — that can destroy cities.)

2) The Good – the well-being of all creatures to whom things matter – is also inevitably under assault from properties of the System of Life itself.

Life develops in a completely opportunistic a way. Any route through which it is possible for Life to spread is likely to be taken: thus, the niches available for predators and parasites do not go empty.

The old image of “Nature, red in tooth and claw” therefore has validity.

Life’s system affords every form of life the same right to survive that we have. And creatures’ interests compete. Hence the well-being of creatures like us will be injured by such things as malaria, Bubonic plague, and Covid-19.

(This is true even though — more fundamentally — the system develops so that the  many conflicts of interest are subsumed in a more general wholeness. Only what works for the long haul endures. Ultimately, that’s what “selection” favors.)

So, while Life is tied to the Good, and although it naturally works to develop an overarching wholeness, it fosters an opportunistic — not a morality-driven — world. The consequence is that one’s creature’s meat is another creature.

3) And then there is the third source of destruction — one that is unique in that it does have a moral dimension.

Morals pertain to creatures who make choices, and what has brought about the third major source of brokenness in our world is the emergence of a creature making a “choice” unprecedented in the history of life: namely, the choice about how to live. Humankind took the step, roughly 10,000 ago, of extricating itself from the niche in which it evolved biologically, by inventing its own way of life.

That development – the likes of which had never happened in the three and a half billion years of Life-on-Earth — proved to have dangerous (and unintended) implications.

In nature, the interactions of the actors have been shaped to work for the whole system. Selection for life has regulated the interactions.

But between civilized societies, which everywhere arose in clusters where interaction was unavoidable, those interactions were inevitably unregulated. Inevitably: because

  • there was no naturally evolved order to make sure that the paths that got rewarded served the whole system; and
  • there could be no human-made order to make sure that the needs of the whole could be protected.

Instead, inevitably there is anarchy, and precisely the kind that Hobbes described as “the war of all against all.”

That inevitable “war of all against all” takes place among societies representing diverse cultural possibilities — after all, each society gets to invent it’s way of life. And that combination – again, inevitably – results in a process of selection that compels “civilized society” to develop toward whatever cultural forms best enable societies to prevail in that struggle for power.

What had appeared to be the freedom for humans to invent their own way of life was turned into a new kind of bondage: because of the disorder that people unwittingly unleashed, only the ways of power could survive and spread. 

Civilization thus generated a second evolutionary process. The nature of that process leads to two important conclusions:

  • Any creature, on any other planet, that extricates itself from the niche it evolved in biologically would be condemned to trace a tormented path like that which history shows. And therefore…
  • The ugliness we see in the pages of human history is not human nature writ large.

Because the direction of civilization’s development has been – in some fundamental sense – beyond our control, it behooves us to reconsider how much better a world we might create, if we gained better control and healed the wounds that history has inflicted on us.

“Better” — both in allowing greater human fulfillment and to making our systems more viable for the long haul.

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