The law of the jungle.
This topic takes us into one of the most disputed topics in philosophy. This idiom is usually used to mean such things as physical power dictates morality; or survival of the fittest although usually the expression is used as survival of the strongest. The law of the jungle is basically might is right.
Morality based on the law of the jungle does not respect other people and imposes no duty on us to consider others, even though in the jungle adult creatures do protect their young and in some cases their pack. Historically philosophers and moralists, such as religious groups, have always searched for reasons for people to consider others when acting. We are supposed to do what is good or right and avoid bad or evil behaviour.
Some have sought the rules of morality by imposing an ethical system based on a single source of authority. Many have advocated, in the form of religions, and still do, the authority of god as the single source of ethical rules. Others (eg Hobbes), identified the Sovereign as the single source of ethics, even through the sovereign was supposed to be a unique person though the doctrine of the divine right of kings (eg Henry VIII of England). To cut a long story short today we are in the doctrine of power through public representation. In other words, morality is based on the will of the people through the principles of democracy.
Of course, philosophers being philosophers have tried to justify ethical systems by appealing to either rational principles, such as Kant, or empirical principles such as Locke. In both cases legitimacy has moved away from pointing at a master or lord of human beings and started looking at the reasoning of human beings. Sure some like Descartes would say that a benevolent god would never give us malevolent ideas as a priori knowledge. All of a sudden the legitimacy of any moral or ethical system is derived from our own intellect as rational beings. And, of course, if someone is incapable of thinking like us then surely they are not human beings.
In effect, the devine rule of kings has been replaced by the rational rule of the categorical imperative, although the actual term differs from time to time for example: Act only on that maxim whereby thou canst at the same time will that it should become a universal law. Fundamental Principles of The Metaphysic Of Morals, By Immanuel Kant https://www.gutenberg.org/files/5682/5682-h/5682-h.htm. Today this would be called something like win-win strategy and justified by a mathematical model of game theory or simply cooperation.
But with the categorical imperative relying on an empirical (the You and others) source of moral law is hardly a reliable sample population for a system that is suppose to bind everyone present and future. At best, the Good Samaritan story as an instance of the categorical imperative is a convincing case study. And if that was not enough where do we get the control group to test our one person experiment hypothesis?
So, have we managed to overcome the law of the jungle and what is the state of affairs with the law of the jungle today? One thing all these rationalist advocates and even empiricists who seek to reform the law of the jungle, is that they have not shown or argued why those who have might or strength on their side should give up their loot and share it with the rest of us? Their arguments have always been why we ordinary people should wish that others be like us, but never why those who are winning the jungle game should all of a sudden give up their position. Since hell has not worked, maybe in the modern world we should advocate such things as diabetes, strokes and heart attacks, cancer and fluctuating stock markets and currency meltdowns, but I doubt this will work. Those who are on top of the game already own the hospitals and pharma companies.
Up until now we can safely say that we, as humans, have not managed to tame or stop the law of the jungle. The fear of god or the threat of eternal punishment in a fire did not balance the law of the jungle with some supposed rational ethical system. Democracy has done very little to establish an imperative based ethical system. Only yesterday a supposedly democratic legislature enacted a law to take away the established rights of women to determine their physical well being but for good measure incest and rape are now afforded more social status than the dignity of an innocent human being. Imagine if a democratic legislature enacted a law that made it illegal to take pain killers for men with blond hair and are 5ft 7and ¾ inches tall.
Democracy might be a gigantic improvement over a bonfire, but it also has its weaknesses. Today people think that democracy is just putting pieces of paper in a box, count them and the winner is the one with the most papers. Of course, political parties still issue manifestos, leaflets outlining policies and other feel good promises, but injustices and inequities still happen. Democracy can take us away from some aspects of the doctrine of might is right. For example, women can vote today, but many still don’t have political control over their bodies, and men can go to the office without a tie but many are considered unreliable if they are not married.
Maybe democracy has changed the mould a bit by giving us more opportunities to share knowledge and travel more. This has driven a large part of society to economic prosperity based on merit and skill, although “inherited” wealth (I use inherited very loosely here to include well off) is still the best way to advance in society or the jungle.
If the law of the jungle hasn’t been tamed then surely the size of the jungle has grown even bigger in the 21st century. The jungle in the 21st century includes multinationals, black and corrupt money, social media, emails and web pages, politicians who are in the pocket of powerful groups and organisations and traditional foreign states.
Cooperation is still the best strategy to follow as an ethical system but cooperation is the consequence of a process and not the process. What we do must itself have a degree of outcome predictability. If what we do works for us and the other person or persons then we have achieved a degree moral behaviour. Our methodology to discover our ethical principles plays a crucial role in morality. The question is what do we do when we apply bona fide principles but the outcome is not reciprocal cooperation?
16th May 2019