06 March 2019

Capital Punishment Led to Ethics?

It's always interesting to read non-theistic attempts to explain the presence of pervasive moral traits (natural law). They're always based on multiple assumptions and guesswork; after all, until we develop tardis level tech we can't personally observe any of this and the observation of higher order primates leads to different observable behavior leading to more assumptions and guesswork. The theories they develop are all over the board and can be quite interesting even when they are pretty clearly wrong. That leads us to this article in the New Yorker: Did Capital Punishment Create Morality?

Assumptions: Beta males married. Alpha males took whichever female they wanted.

Buried in an intriguing argument that despite the fact that there is no "domesticator" we humans self domesticated, is this gem:
Civilization is founded on capital punishment—or, to give it its anthropological name, “coalitionary proactive aggression.”

The executioners were adult males, usually married. (One of alpha males’ most salient offenses was commandeering other men’s wives.) Over time, as alpha individuals were regularly killed and the gene for reactive aggression became less frequent in a population, the coalition of executioners became more stable. 
Once the beta-males were triumphant the remaining humans were supposed to have started looking to them for other rules that would keep the beta-males from killing them too. Thus developed morality.

The book may tell us what the various transgressions of the alpha-males are other than the click-baity "commandeering" of wives but the article doesn't. The use of the word commandeering seems to make it a property issue rather than any assignment of damage to the female herself except as the male is damaged by the alpha-male imposing on his property rights.

There are a few flaws here. To begin with it puts the cart before the horse. Where did the concept of property rights as a good come from? For the beta-males to combine to exterminate the alpha-male there must have been some pre-existent, normative drive stating that the quiet enjoyment of property is a good. That pre-existent drive stands in direct opposition to the claim that morality developed as a reaction to the behavior of the beta-males.

I'm also not sold on the concept of marriage as a male institution. Way back in the stone age (when I was in college) I remember arguments that pair-bonding (marriage) is a female institution. The argument went as follows. In muscle driven societies without governments that provided social safety nets and police, a mate/husband provided an advantage in the provision of food and in the protection of the female and her children; rationally, a woman would seek to bond with and keep the best mate she could. To be fair, I never completely bought into the female impetus argument either. If we assume away some sort of pre-existent normative drive toward pair bonding and the protection of offspring, why do males in general do it? In a male dominated muscle driven society, why didn't humans organize as a herd with the alpha-male controlling all females, whether for personal congress or to allow favored betas congress, and the herd protecting all children? If your answer is because that's not how humans or other high level primates organize then you have a pre-existent norm. If your answer is because pair bonding gave a greater number of males access to sex then you're back at the quiet enjoyment of property argument supra. Under either theory, there's a pre-existent norm.

Finally, I think the assumption that the beta-males won fails. It's more likely that the beta-males settled into an uneasy truce with the alpha-males. At any given moment a particular alpha-male can be pulled down. However, it's a difficult prospect and therefore the alpha-male's behavior must fall below a certain threshold before a large enough group of betas reacts to bring him down. As time progressed alphas also became less easily identified because aggressive behavior might develop into becoming a politician, a senior bureaucrat, producing movies, or becoming a college professor. And, as part of the truce, their behavior became less open. Things like prima nocta may not exist anymore, but we've all seen recent evidence of aggressive, powerful men using that power against women they perceived as either vulnerable or at least willing to partake in congress to advance their careers. Mind you, I'm not stating that I think the truce exists only as to congress with a woman. In our non-muscle driven society alphas can be male or female and there are layers upon layers of behavioral norms which an alpha might transgress against leading to failure in business, politics, or their job.


While I'm not sure there is a truly workable non-theistic theory of morality, this one seems to fail on several levels. A more workable theory of this sort might better proceed from the need to survive and near equality.

By this I mean that when living organisms are of such near levels of force that even if one of the two "wins" it will be seriously harmed and less likely to survive subsequent confrontations, those organisms which engage in such conflict are steadily weeded out of the equation leaving behind those organisms which evaluate comparative force and act in a manner that shies away from overly destructive conflict. This would seem to be a basic principal applicable to all life from protozoa all the way up to advanced societies such as the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War era. This shying away from overly destructive conflict is the core of what we call morality.

Under this theory morality would be well baked in far earlier than muscle driven tribal societies of humans developed. Beta-males wouldn't often have to combine to kill an alpha that kept taking their women because the alpha already knows that taking the betas' women is immoral (a contra-indicated survival strategy). That's not to say it never happened. It's just a statement that when it did everyone would already know the alpha was using his raw power to cross a line. If the alpha went too far across that line the betas combined their lesser powers to overcome the alpha and then beta-01 becomes alpha (after all, "All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others"). Thus we have now and have always had the uneasy truce between alphas and betas that I described above.

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