Preservation of the unfit, survivalism, and conforming to nonconformity

It’s been a while since Philosophy Club convened, and even longer since I’ve kept track of the minutes.

We began throwing out some different topics: Aristotle’s idea of the highest good (is it called eudaimonia?) was the first, by way of moral relativism and my devastating critique of it. (There is still some discontent regarding that post, but the relativists are in retreat for now.)

Serious discussion began around this hypothetical question: If human beings were created/grown for the purpose of transplanting the consciousness of the elderly (in order to allow people to live longer), would that be ethical? The human beings grown would be fully-formed human beings, with consciousnesses of their own.

It seemed to us at first that it would be unethical, since the transplantation of consciousness would erase the “original” consciousness of the body. Even if the bodies are grown for this purpose, they are still human beings. We noted that a human being is more than the sum of his parts–growing an ear on a lab rat and then removing it is of little consequence, but growing an entire human being and then erasing his consciousness (in effect, killing him, although not bodily) is a different matter.

Then we discussed the euthanasia and assisted suicide question. At what point is someone’s suffering “enough” to merit his decision to kill himself, or the doctors’ decision to kill him if he is not conscious? Is it subjective? Some people find reason to complain even though they live in luxury. “My internet connection is slow!” Suffering? Whereas, some people whose situations and circumstances would seem to indicate great suffering can find contentment even so. A person can feel suicidal, like life is not worth living, at the breakup of a relationship–but someone who has lost loved ones, or worse, can still think that life is a blessing.

In the case of euthanasia, we observed that the predictive powers of doctors is limited. No matter how low the chances of recovery, there is always the chance. Does this chance for recovery not justify keeping the person alive? Euthanasia is, paradoxically, an act of both arrogance and hopelessness.

The next question was asked in the context of Darwinism and survival of the fittest. In providing cesarean sections for pregnant women who are having difficulty in labor, and providing life support to infants who need it, are we preserving people unfit for survival? The answer seems to be yes. If “nature” were left to its own course, many people now living would have died during childbirth (mothers and babies), and others would not have been born (the mothers having died previously in childbirth). What are the potential consequences of this? Are we breeding a race of people radically unfit for survival in this universe? Will we eventually turn into a race of weaklings who will need more and more forms of life support as we preserve those who are unable to survive on their own, and always have been since birth?

Someone postulated that ethics comes from man’s instinct to survive. Survival is the ultimate goal of all ethics–right and wrong is decided by what will preserve the species best. I objected to this with a few different ethical scenarios.

The first is, of course, eugenics and genocide. If we want the race to survive, shouldn’t we exterminate people who are less fit, who would weaken the human race and make it less likely or able to survive–or at least work to breed people who are stronger and more fit? Many people would say that both of these projects are ethically wrong. That it is even a question seems to indicate that ethics is not merely about survival.

Second, I posed the example of a woman who is infertile. Somehow, we know that she is infertile (perhaps she has had her ovaries removed). At this point, she is simply consuming resources. Should she not be exterminated, to preserve the resources for people who are actually aiding the survival of the race (by reproduction)? There were a couple of objections to this. First of all, people who are infertile can still make contributions to society. But then we run into the problem of deciding what constitutes a contribution. What, beyond existence, constitutes a contribution?

Third, I asked, what about acts of sacrifice? A man standing by a river, and seeing a drowning child, should not jump in to save the child if survival is the ultimate priority. It would not even be a question. Refraining from attempting to save the child would guarantee his own survival of the situation 100%, whereas jumping in would significantly lower his chance of survival, even if it might raise the child’s chance of survival a little bit. Further, a child stupid enough to fall in the river should be allowed to perish and not reproduce, since clearly this child is less fit than children who do not fall in rivers. This clearly runs against the vast majority of morality throughout human history, which values acts of sacrifice and courage. Survivalism values cowardice.

None of this says that survivalism isn’t correct as an ethical system, but it seems to dismantle the idea that as human beings we got ethics from our instinct to survive.

We discussed conformity and nonconformity. What exactly is non-conformity; is it even possible? If you are a nonconformist, aren’t you really conforming to a certain idea about what nonconformity is? At the very least, nonconformity indicates that there is, at the outset, something to conform to, and there may be a wide range of possibilities, but there is still a limit to them. There is a framework to conform to: at the very least it excludes whatever falls under “conformity.” I mentioned Thoreau’s apparent difficulty with holding nonconformity as an ultimate ideal–after two years at Walden pond, he felt frustrated at having conformed to the path he had laid out for himself. But what did he think was going to happen?! With every choice we make, we only choose what it is that we are going to conform to, or how. There is really no such thing as pure nonconformity. This might also be why Nietzsche had a hard time developing a “new ethics”–he was vehemently anti-Christian, and wrote that the Ubermensch would be the man free from all morality. But at the very least, wouldn’t this mean acting contrary to Christian values, and wouldn’t this be limiting?

I posited that all “nonconformity” is actually to conformity to something outside of what’s been called “conformity” in the situation. For example, an activist might refuse to conform to an unjust law–but only because he is conforming to a higher ethical framework, one that declares that the law is unjust.

Lastly, we discussed argument itself, and how too often people engage in argument to win, not to learn (ourselves included). I mentioned Rogerian argument as an ideal alternative, in which one argues by convincing the opponent that it is in her benefit to adopt his position, necessitating that he begins by finding common ground, a place of solidarity.


2 thoughts on “Preservation of the unfit, survivalism, and conforming to nonconformity”

  1. Many of the arguments here are coming from an extremely utilitarian standpoint – is that the general view of your members? Personally, I don’t believe there is any particular sanctity in human life (why should there be, we’re just animals) – but I think I can make a pretty good argument that morality (or ethics) don’t arise from direct survivalist instincts. For instance, it might lower a man’s chance of survival to rescue a kid from a river – but it raises his chance of survival if he has empathetic and cooperative feelings, which help him to fit in with his family and group. These feelings are what incline a person (and many other animals) to act in a way that, on the surface, seems unduly altruistic.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yeah, I think a lot of our members are utilitarians, perhaps unconsciously. Most people come in with a vaguely scientistic humanist utilitarianism, with a soft relativistic component. It seems to be sort of what’s “in the air” when it comes to culture at large, a common background assumption.

      I’m not sure if you intended to start a debate with your comment, but I’m going to indulge your argument for fun. If you don’t want to respond or didn’t intend to generate a debate, feel free to ignore.

      Your stance raises some questions. First, it seems that you are actually arguing in favor of ethics from survivalist instinct, if the altruistic impulse is based on group survival, as you imply. Either way, it appears problematic if it boils ethics down to “feelings” or impulses. We often have more than one impulse at a time, and usually we have to appeal to something outside of ourselves to figure out what to do. I may have the impulse to kill my toddler when he cries incessantly; but I also have a different impulse to refrain from acting on the other. But furthermore, if morality comes down to instinct or impulse, it means that morality is essentially irrational (I believe this was Hume’s stance). If morality is really only expression of irrational will, this negates any argument to be had about morality. It negates all of our moral language, which is issued in absolute terms (i.e., “this is wrong” or “this is good” independent of my personal preference or will) and couched in arguments. It means that all moral talk is essentially manipulative in nature; we lie to each other, pretending that morality is real, in order to get other people to bend to our particular irrational will. Many philosophers are critical of this position, primarily Kant of course, but in modern times Alasdair MacIntyre.

      Also, “altruism” paints with a pretty broad brush. There are many debates to be had (and are being had) over what actually constitutes altruism. It does not seem to boil down to mere impulse.

      Finally, there is the assumption that humans are animals–lots of people from Plato and Aristotle to Kant and beyond, including anyone religious, which is the vast majority of the world, would disagree with you. And if we are modeling our ethics after our animal nature, that opens up lots of other questions, like: what exactly is our animal nature? and, how do we know? Some animals eat their own feces, or their young. Should we?


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