Savannah Ethics in the Urban Jungle


When ethics become outdated

Like all our other senses, our sense of justice, too, has ancient evolutionary roots. Human morality was shaped in the course of millions of years of evolution, adapted to dealing with the social and ethical dilemmas that cropped up in the lives of small hunter-gatherer bands.

Is the hunter who brought down the mammoth with his own hands entitled to a larger portion of its meat? Does the fact that I am stronger than you allow me to take all the mushrooms you gathered so laboriously? If I know that one of the women in the group is plotting to kill me, is it ok to act preemptively and cut her throat in the dark of night?

On the face of things, not much has changed since we left the savanna for the urban jungle. One might think that the questions we face today—the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, social discrimination, the destruction of the Forests—are fundamentally the same. But that is an illusion. The truth is that from the standpoint of morality, like many other standpoints, we are hardly adapted to the world in which we live.

It's the numbers that are to blame. The foragers' sense of justice was structured to cope with dilemmas of small numbers. Dilemmas relating to the lives of a few dozen people in an area of a few dozen square kilometers across a few decades. When we try to comprehend relations between millions of people in entire continents across whole generations, our morality is overwhelmed.

Justice is usually connected with a thorough understanding of cause-and-effect relations. If you collected mushrooms to feed your children and I now take that basket of mushrooms forcefully, meaning that all your work has been for naught and your children will go to sleep hungry, that is not just. It's easy to grasp this, because it's easy to see the cause-and-effect relations.

An inherent feature of the modern global world is that its causal relations are highly ramified and complex. I try to be a moral person, to be attentive to the needs of others, to avoid causing unnecessary suffering to others as well as to myself. At the same time, if I am to believe left-wing activists, I am a full partner to the wrongs inflicted by the Israeli army and settlers in the occupied territories. According to the socialists, my comfortable life is based on child labor in dismal Third World factories. Animal welfare advocates remind me that my life is interwoven with one of the most appalling crimes in history—the subjugation of billions of farm animals to a brutal regime of exploitation.

Am I really to blame for all that? It's not easy to say. Since I depend for my existence on a mind-boggling network of economic and political ties, and since global causal connections are so tangled, I find it difficult to answer even the simplest questions , such as where my lunch comes from, who made the shoes I’m wearing, and what my pension fund is doing with my money.

Morality of intentions 

A primeval hunter-gatherer knew very well where her lunch came from (she gathered it herself), who made her moccasins (he slept 20 meters from her) and what her pension fund was doing (back then, people had only one pension fund, called "children").

Years of research might expose me to the fact that my pension fund is financing a bloody civil war in an African banana republic. But during the time it takes me to find that out, I might be missing far more important discoveries, such as the fate of chickens in battery cages.

The system is structured in such a way that those who make no effort to know can remain in blissful ignorance, and those who do make an effort will find it very difficult to discover the truth. How is it possible to uphold the precept "thou shall not steal” in a world in which the system is ceaselessly stealing for me and without my knowledge?

One can try to evade the problem by adopting a "morality of intentions." What's important is what I intend, not the outcome of what I do. However, in a world in which everything is interconnected, the supreme moral imperative becomes the imperative to know. The greatest crimes in modern history were caused not by hatred and malice, but by ignorance and inattention. There is something amiss with the intentions of those who do not make a sincere effort to know.

But what counts as "a sincere effort to know"? The bitter truth is that the world has simply become too complicated for our hunter-gatherer brains. Even if we truly want to, most of us are no longer capable of understanding the major moral problems of the world. People are capable of comprehending relations between two gatherers, or between 20 gatherers, but not between several million Israelis and several million Palestinians, or between hundreds of millions of Europeans and hundreds of millions of Africans.

Downsize the issue

In trying to comprehend and judge moral dilemmas of this scale, almost everybody resorts to one of three methods. The first is to downsize the issue: to understand the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as though it were occurring between two gatherers; to imagine the Palestinians as a lone person and Israel as a lone person, one good and one bad. The historical complexity of the conflict is replaced by a simple, clear plot.

The second is to focus on a touching human story, which ostensibly stands for the whole conflict. When you try to explain to people the true complexity of the conflict by means of statistics and precise data, you lose them; but a personal story about the fate of one child activates the tear ducts, makes the blood boil and generates false moral certainty.

The third method is by means of conspiracy theories. How does the global economy function, and is it good or bad? That is too complicated to grasp. It is far easier to imagine that 20 multibillionaires are pulling the strings behind the scenes, controlling the media and fomenting wars in order to enrich themselves. This is almost always a baseless fantasy. The contemporary world is too complicated, not only for our sense of justice but also for our managerial abilities. No one—including the multibillionaires, the CIA, the Catholic Church and the Freemasons—really understands what is going on in the world. So no one is capable of pulling the strings effectively.

What then should we do? I don't know.