The Basic Law of Civilization

The Basic Law of Civilization

Most major religions of the world contain a system of morals and ethics, and many of them will claim that these rules were handed down from on high by their deity. The deity’s authority is therefore behind the rules and the deity or deities will mete out punishment or reward depending on the degree of adherence to the rules by the individual, group, or society. The deities, for the most part, are metaphysical syntheses beyond the reach of the five senses. They have no direct base of evidence in the physical world so they tend to be quite different from one religion to the next. However, if you toss all these religions in the air and let all their differences winnow away in the wind, are there any basic similarities that drop out, any kernels of truth? It seems to me there are.

When all the chaff is blown away, their systems of morals and ethics, at least on the very basic level, seem to be remarkably similar. Why is that? Could it be that all the various societies governed by all these various religions have some common problems dealing with life in the real world? And could it be that this set of common problems has generated a set of practical remedies which is necessarily very similar from society to society (”like conditions produce like results”)? 

Well, if that is the case, then the systems of morals and ethics did not really come from a supernatural source. They were generated here on earth! It would appear, therefore, that civilization has been pretty much a bootstraps effort and its rules were not gifted upon us. We got them the old fashioned way. We learned them. 

The Sun, beneficial as it is shining down upon us, did not provide for civilization. It provided the setting and climate in which life could begin and it sustains life, but what we do with life is up to us. We have to figure out how to get along, and all the other life forms must do the same. Civilization is an attempt to assure survival through cooperation.

The next question appears to be, what are the rules that comprise the code for living in a civilized society? The enabling legislation for civilization if you will. Can they be distilled to some essential expression which is succinct and easily recognizable as true? A number of philosophers have had a go at this, and I paraphrase three who are often cited below:

Immanuel Kant came up with what he called the Categorical Imperative:

You should always act in accordance with the principles which you desire to be universal.

John Stuart Mill blessed us with the Doctrine of Utilitarianism:

That course of action is most just that does the most good for the greatest number of people.

But, the one I like best, the one that says it the clearest for me is often attributed to Jesus Christ but may predate him. It’s the good old-fashioned Golden Rule:

Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

I have also heard this referred to as Reciprocal Altruism which sounds a little less folksy. Reciprocal Altruism, however, implies that your actions toward others should always be positive, and yes, that would be included under the Golden Rule. But simply refraining from negative actions towards others would also be included under the Golden Rule and yet would seem to be excluded from Reciprocal Altruism. Those who expound on Reciprocal Altruism suggest a evolutionary or genetic basis. I would argue, however, that the Golden Rule is derived from experience. It’s memes not genes.

I note that all of these are based entirely on practical considerations and have nothing whatsoever to do with any deity. It would appear, therefore, it is possible to be a good and moral person in the eyes of civilized society without subscribing to any of the orthodox religions. Bigots may deny you, but society in general will not be able to fault your actions if they are always in accordance with, for instance, the Golden Rule.

I would like to raise this Rule to the position of eminence which I think it deserves, free it from the doldrums of Sunday School dogma. I would do this by renaming it. I propose that it should be known as the Basic Law of Civilization. However, I will  refer to it from here forward as the Rule.  

You cannot have a civilized society unless the members of that society, individually and collectively are, for the most part, guided in their thoughts and actions by the Rule.  If it is not expressed explicitly by a society then it is at least observed implicitly and when observance of the Rule is neglected to some extent, then civilization will break down to the same extent. In fact, there is a relationship between the Rule and civilization which is “hand in glove.” One almost defines the shape of the other. If a civilization springs into existence from the whole cloth of some previous jungle state then the Rule is bound to be operating to some degree, and the greater the adherence, the higher the civilization. That’s my personal view at any rate.

Is civilization worthwhile?

Professing adherence to the Rule assumes that the result, namely civilization, is worthwhile. Is it? In some ways this is a more difficult question to answer than how to bring it about and maintain it. In 1986 as I traveled through Alaska, I read John McPhee’s book, Coming Into the Country, in which he describes the lives of the “river people” living along the Yukon River between Eagle and Circle. Many of these people were trying to get away from it all, to get back to nature, to basics. However, none of them are able to go completely native. Even the natives were no longer capable of that, because to do without civilization entirely is an extremely difficult way of life. You must become almost an animal. I met some of these river people and they had managed at least for a period of time to distance themselves from civilized society, but they still enjoyed the products of civilization. They had their rifles, outboard motors, chain saws, and they bought bulk foods processed in some distant factory to supplement their hunting.

Humans are not well equipped to lead an animal existence. We do not have sharp teeth and claws like a cat, and we cannot run as fast. Humans must rely on their intellect and the tools we develop are reflections of that intellect. We are tool using animals.

If you are attempting to live off the land, then a large portion of your mental and physical effort must be directed to simply surviving. Just obtaining your subsistence occupies the majority of your time. This can be very rewarding, but you don’t have time to stop and build a rifle even if you were capable. A rifle is a complex product of other tools that must be built first.

The products of civilization make life a lot easier. Hence, civilization makes life a lot easier. When you are part of the warp and woof of civilization you can afford the time to think about things other than surviving. You can take a trip, write a book, create a work of art, or anything else that gives you pleasure or satisfies your curiosity.

I have read that during the siege of Moscow by Napoleon, and later during the siege of Leningrad by Nazi Germany, men of great learning, philosophers, musicians, and scientists, were reduced entirely to thoughts of survival. Civilization was breaking down and every waking moment was spent trying to figure out how to provide subsistence for themselves and their families.

I think it is fair to conclude, therefore, that civilization is worthwhile, and even though distortions will always exist to some degree, the very mechanism that permits these distortions, namely freedom from the drudgery of survival, also provides for the best that the human race has to offer. Culture and the advancement of knowledge are enabled allowing us to better understand our place in the Universe. In short, since civilization makes life easier, it is in the best interest of each individual to insure that it continues, and that is the real reason for being a person of good moral character, someone who adheres to the Rule. It is simply intelligent, long-range self-interest.

Isn’t it strange that this reason for being a person of good moral character is so seldom taught? You always get those other reasons, the threat of punishment, or the promise of reward, either here on earth or in some life hereafter. As if we were all small children. It seems to me that even a child could understand the practical reason, if we just took the trouble to explain it.

Civilization, to the extent that it exists today, has been hard won over a long period of time, but is probably more fragile than most people realize. We are still “proving up” here on the home star homestead. One way of looking at the history of the human race is as a progression of learning to live together in successively larger and larger organizations. First there were families. Then there were tribes and clans, followed by feudal states. Nations arose and eventually gathered together into alliances or blocks of nations, but attempts at gathering us all together, such as the League of Nations and the United Nations, may have been premature for our current state. I hope not.

If the Rule is the Basic Law of Civilization, then it applies to intelligent entities of any kind, and the degree of their adherence could be considered an indicator of their wisdom. For instance, it should apply to legal entities such as nations in their dealings with each other. Unfortunately, one does not have to look long or hard in this sphere to find violations of the Rule. Some of the most influential nations, the ones that should be pointing the way, keep slipping back to jungle mores such as “might makes right.” I’m afraid the world will not become a civilized society of nations until we choose as our leaders human beings who understand the Rule is The Basic Law of Civilization.

R.L. Mason

Mendocino, California

circa 2004

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