The Law of the Jungle The Law of the Jungle Dave Matson Once upon a time, in the bad old d
The Law of the Jungle
The Law of the Jungle
Once upon a time, in the bad old days, ancestor Mitchell became
annoyed with ancestor Till. Since there were no moral laws then,
ancestor Mitchell decided to act on his anger. Thus, one fine
morning, he gathered together his hunting buddies and savaged
ancestor Till's household. Many of ancestor Till's relatives were
killed and ancestor Till was staked out for the vultures. Since
there were no laws then, life went on as before. Then, one fine
morning, when many of ancestor Mitchell's friends were out hunting
mammoths, ancestor Mitchell's household was ravaged. Many of his
family were killed and ancestor Mitchell was staked out for the
In the months that followed, there were raids and counterraids
and the violence spread throughout the campsites and caves. Every
man kept one eye on his neighbors and one hand on his war club,
which made it hard to sleep or have any fun. Worse, a neighboring
tribe, sensing their internal disorder, moved in on their favorite
mammoth hunting grounds! There were no happy campers in that neck
of the woods. Nobody was benefiting from this arrangement except
One hot day the grumbling got so bad that some surviving sons
of ancestor Till and ancestor Mitchell got together and declared
a truce. The importance of upholding the truce was so great that
each side threatened to exile any of its own members who broke
it. It was better to lose one man than to endanger everyone. Thus,
the first moral law was made: Thou shall not kill a fellow tribesman.
Soon, another law was made to prevent theft, a situation that
often led to killing. Still other laws were made to allow for
cooperation on the hunt and for mutual defense. Thus, there was
less fighting over mammoths and other goods. Soon the old hunting
grounds had been won back, and everyone in that group had the
same sense of right and wrong in large and small matters. Without
having to watch their backs constantly, and with laws and conventions
to minimize friction and handle incidents, the Till people and
the Mitchell people worked together efficiently on complex projects
and prospered. Their moral laws were not perfect, but they were
good enough to get the job done.
The point of our little story, which is not intended as a scientific
reconstruction, is that morality is the grease that allows a group
to function. People simply cannot live together and do as they
please any more than city drivers can ignore all the traffic rules.
Chaos would set in, and the tribe would soon fall apart or be
conquered by its neighbors.
Morality was born in efficient communal living, and that is where
we must initially seek its meaning. It's no accident that the
very qualities of moral behavior relate to life within a group.
Kindness, sympathy, honesty, generosity, mercy, loyalty, justice,
and courage are qualities that strengthen the group. Even courage,
which may apply to a hermit, takes its highest moral form in a
group. Morality is, therefore, concerned with minimizing disruption
within the group and, equally important, promoting cooperation.
Efficient cooperation, in turn, requires justice. Nobody's going
to cooperate on the next mammoth hunt if he is constantly cheated
of his fair share! Thus, we see the origins of morality and justice.
Animal communities, each according to their particular needs,
must also obey moral "laws" and conventions in order
to function efficiently. Therefore, it should not surprise you
to learn that many animals exhibit some fine moral traits that
would put many humans to shame. It is beyond the scope of this
article to go into the fascinating world of animal morality, but
its mere existence is another proof that morality originates in
the needs of a group.
Whether we're dealing with animal or human societies, keep in
mind that not every society has found ideal moral solutions. Some
societies grind along less smoothly than others. Some limp along,
their demise likely. The insights into morality are not in the
particulars but rather in the general landscape. Having briefly
traced some of the major threads defining morality, we see that
morality is neither entirely relative nor completely fixed. No
doubt there are many different rules that would work beautifully
for any given society. Furthermore, the needs of a jungle or tropical
island society are not the same as those of a European society,
and even in cases where similar rules might apply there is no
guarantee that similar conventions would be adopted if several
good solutions exist. Thus, an island society might go about in
the buff whereas a Victorian society would be shocked by such
behavior. One society might allow premartial sex while another
condemns it. To that extent morality is relative to specific societies.
Yet, there is a core of common bedrock to morality. The basic
needs of all societies are quite similar inasmuch as the basic
human needs are similar. Murder and theft, with possible ritual
exceptions, have no place in any well ordered society. Harmfulness
in any form, within the group, is invariably frowned upon. Good
behavior towards others in the group is an asset. How you rate
with your hunting buddies could be really important the next time
you're cornered by that tiger! Thus, in a healthy society, morality
is never a case of "anything goes." To that extent,
even though the boundaries are a bit fuzzy, we may say that morality
Thus, having explored the rudiments of morality, we must extend
it to all of mankind. The great moralists have seen that the tribal
boundaries are, in the final analysis, an artificial division
between human beings. Why should morality be limited to one's
tribe? If there is a great truth here it must be a universal one.
We must not do to others what is hurtful to ourselves unless it
is to prevent a greater physical harm. Tribal good manners must
now apply to everyone if humanity is to be one, happy family.
Let those who would allot happiness to a select portion of humanity
live among the deprived!
On a deeper level, it is ignorance that separates human from human,
and humans from animals. If we could but perfectly understand
the feelings and thoughts and dreams of our fellow man, even as
we learn that absolute truth is not our personal property, we
would see that the boundary between him and us is very faint,
that to harm him is very much like harming ourselves, that to
help him is very much like helping ourselves. This natural sympathy,
this empathy for our fellow man, is the keystone in the arch of
morality whose foundations are anchored in the needs of the group.
It allows us to see morality as a universal principle that, in
its ultimate form, takes in all thinking creatures according to
This great arch of morality is built out of stones we can see.
There are no supernatural elements in it. "A man who says,
`If God is dead, nothing matters,' is a spoilt child who has never
looked at his fellowman with compassion" (Kai Nielsen). To
look at our fellowman with compassion is to understand his feelings,
needs, and dreams, to walk a mile in his shoes, to become as one
Being rooted in the human tribal condition, morality can never
be simply what God commands. That is, something is not moral because
God commands it, but rather because it successfully fits the needs
of a human society. Thus, once man becomes God's chief concern,
moral law is largely fixed and independent of God himself. God,
knowing the human condition, is free to choose among those moral
rules that will work, but he can never be the standard.
Christianity has, itself, split into two traditions on this point.
St. Anslem, Ockham, and Calvin, for example, asserted that God
does not discover morality--He creates it. St. Aquinas, Albert
Schweitzer, and others believe that God knows what is good for
mankind, even as a father knows what is good for his children,
and acts accordingly.
The idea that God's will sets the standard for morality runs into
theological problems in addition to the secular problems already
For one thing, it reduces the Bible to banality. The Bible reminds
us constantly that God is good. But what does this tell us if
"good," by definition, means whatever God is? Simply
that X = X (Kenneth Nahigian, personal letter, Jan. 28, 1994).
Is X = X a profound message? Is this the fruit that divine wisdom
offers in the Book of Books, or have we erred in making God the
source of morality? As if that were not enough, Nahigian points
out another problem:
[The] Old Testament patriarchs often compared Jehovah to various
heathen gods such as Chemosh and Ba'al, portraying Jehovah in
a more positive light, as if Jehovah is better than these rivals.
But this only makes sense if "better" refers to a common
standard, a background of values independent of the contestants.
(What if a heathen had reacted by defining "good" as
the will of Chemosh? Would Moses have found this convincing?)
We have yet another theological problem in assuming that God is
the standard of morality. Who are you, dear mortal, to say that
God can't change his mind? Good and evil would become entirely
blurred, and there would be no point in calling God "good"
anymore. Even if God didn't change his mind, the fact that he
could have chosen any set of rules makes the whole matter of good
and evil entirely arbitrary. With the concepts of "good"
and "evil" blasted from their logical moorings, we might
just as well call God "evil" as "good," sincethe
words would have no meaning for us. The consequence is a theological
Can Mitchell see that this view undermines every Biblical guarantee,
every promise, every covenant? Think about it. No moral guidelines
for God. So, if God decides to lie or cheat on his promises, then
for God, lying becomes good, welshing becomes an act of righteousness.
... No longer can the Christian reason, "God wouldn't lie
to me; it'd be wrong." Lying would be right, if God had a
whim to do it. Morally, all bets are off. Anything goes. Would
this please Mitchell? It is the ultimate in moral relativism (Kenneth
What if God decided to send all good Christians to hell and all
atheists to heaven? As the Bible-believer awakes to find himself
boiling in the flames of hell, even as the first scream of surprise
and horror explodes from his throat, he knows he can't complain.
God was morally right in breaking his promise of a heavenly reward.
Why? Because God did it, that's why. Case closed (adapted from
Yes, even God must be bound by certain standards if the concept
of morality is to make sense. Such was the conclusion the great
Christian writer C. S. Lewis reached after a lifetime of wresting
with the problem. In a letter to the American writer John Beversluis
(July 3, 1963) Lewis had this to say:
... The ultimate question is whether the doctrine of the goodness
of God or that of the inerrancy of Scripture is to prevail when
they conflict. I think the doctrine of the goodness of God is
the more certain of the two. Indeed, only that doctrine renders
this worship of Him obligatory or even permissible.
To this some will reply, "Ah, but we are fallen and don't
recognize good when we see it." But God Himself does not
say that we are as fallen as all that. He constantly, in Scripture,
appeals to our conscience: "Why do ye not of yourselves judge
what is right?" -- "What fault hath my people found
in Me?" And so on. Socrates' answer to Euthyphro is used
in Christian form by Hooker. Things are not good because God commands
them; God commands certain things because He sees them to be good.
(In other words, the Divine will is the obedient servant of the
Divine Reason.) The opposite view (Ockham's, Paley's) leads to
an absurdity. If "good" means "what God wills"
then to say "God is good" can mean only "God wills
what He wills." Which is equally true of you or me or Judas
or Satan (C. S. Lewis; quoted from Nahigian).
Therefore, we arrive at an important conclusion. The same standards
of morality apply whether God exists or not! That, in turn, leads
to several interesting conclusions.
We may consign to oblivion the claim, so often heard, that atheists
have no standard of morality. Indeed, as you can now see, they
draw from the same standard as the most devoted Bible-believer!
The chief difference is that the Bible-believer is confused as
to morality's true origin and, as a result, may commit atrocities
in "the name of God." Again, morality originates in
the human condition and not in divine edicts, and the man or woman
who realizes that has the clearest compass to travel life's moral
We may _consign_ _to_oblivion__the claim, so
often heard, that the Bible sets the standard for morality. No
book can set the standard for morality. At best, a book might
illuminate workable principles that can be discovered by other
means. Many cultural roads lead to morality. The Japanese, for
example, are a highly moral people despite being unfamiliar with
We may _consign to oblivion _the claim, so often heard,
that "anything goes" without God. Since moral rules
are rooted in the smooth functioning of a society, they will be
enforced even if there were no God. Do as you please, and you
go directly to jail! (Do not collect $200.) Rulers, even bad ones,
would no more dispense with morality in general (inside their
own societies) than they would dispense with traffic rules. Societies,
of course, can become perverted to various degrees. Indeed, past
Christian societies have some of the blackest records of all.
A belief in Jesus offers no magical cure here as any good historian
of Christianity can tell you.
We may consign to oblivion the claim, so often heard, that God
cannot be judged on moral matters by mere humans. We might imagine
that God is very wise, that he knows far more than we ever could
hope to know, but that doesn't mean we know nothing. We do know
something about our world!
Consider a chess game in progress. On one side of the board sits
God, a Grandmaster whose skill we wood pushers could never hope
to equal. You (a mere human) are his opponent. Although your knowledge
is nowhere near that of the Grandmaster, it does not follow that
you know nothing about chess. Indeed, there are many positions
you could win even against the Grandmaster. Should this Grandmaster
allow such a position, you would rightly judge his game to be
lost. In charges of gross immorality, it is no defense to claim
that God is so much higher than we are that we cannot hope to
know what he's up to. We do have a pretty good idea of what morality
is all about! Human morality deals with conditions down here on
Earth--not those of inscrutable heaven. Thus, if an action appears
grossly immoral with no obvious, compensating circumstances, then
there _is_ no adequate defense.
The idea that God might have to do a great harm in order to insure
a greater good is no defense. It makes God out to be a weakling!
Mitchell, for example, suggests the possibility that God might
have looked down the long corridor of time and seen "that
the babes of Amalek were destined to become vicious beasts like
their ancestors." God winds up with great eyesight but no
brains! Whatever happened to retraining? If God is all-wise and
all-good and all-powerful, then retraining the Amalekites could
not have posed a problem to him. Indeed, we might expect God to
do even better than that! There must be dozens of solutions that
are infinitely better than butchering all the women and children.
One might urge that God, being no part of any human society, is
free to do as he pleases. However, an all-powerful being with
perfect empathy towards creatures he needlessly torments can have
no claim to morality. Such is the description of a fiend. We don't
need a second opinion about torturing children for fun. If it's
evil for us to do it, then it's no less evil if a king--or a god--does
it. The evil of an act lies in its consequences, its hurt, not
in who does it. One's only hope would be that a sufficiently powerful
being did it to bring about a greater good that was hidden from
the rest of us. Unfortunately, the greater the agent's power,
the less need there is for a hurt-now-enjoy-later solution. Thus,
the theist, whose God is absolutely powerful, is deprived of his
only escape hatch.
If the slaughter of the Amalekites were done without God's orders,
then we would immediately judge it to be a gross act of immorality.
That would be a clear violation of a universal morality whose
basic nature we worked out earlier. Indeed, the particular crime
suggests that the participants have not evolved beyond the primitive,
tribal concept of morality.
To make God the author of this act does nothing to lessen its
immorality. Since God is all-powerful, he is deprived of his only
possible defense, i.e., needing to commit a harm to reach a greater
good. Therefore, since we have an adequate understanding of morality,
to whose standards even God is not exempt, we may say that if
God directed the massacre of Amalekite men, women, children, and
babies--and even the animals--then he stands convicted of gross
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