Sunday, 15 January 2017

There Isn't Really An Instinct To Preserve Our Species

It's a commonly held view that we humans have an instinct to preserve our species. It's common, but I think it is misjudged - we do not have an instinct to preserve our species, we have instincts that when aggregated make the perseveration of our species more probabilistic. That's a different thing.

Certainly we as a species are very mindful of ecological and environmental issues, and most of us do not look favourably on the wilful destruction of our planet. But these actions that increase the likelihood of preservation of our species are not undertaken because we have an 'instinct' to preserve our species - they are a part of our relinquishment of personal liberties for the good of society and for the time being a well established government. This is often referred to in philosophy as ‘the social contract’ – and provides justification for nations being governed by a central State. 

The social contracts of Hobbes, Rousseau and Locke have ingrained in our psyche the view that order and decency can be created and developed through systems that are legitimated by the human consensus for a collective contract. In other words, our instincts are for co-operatives - be they market exchanges, rule of law or democratic representation - and it is because of those co-operatives that we are able to behave in a way that makes preservation of our species realistic.

We can make the point clearer regarding why I don't think we have a preservation of species instinct by comparing such a thing to instincts we do have. If we take the word ‘instinct’ to mean something most natural to the emotions, such as something that elicits feelings of pleasure or fear, as in our instinct for food or sex, or an instinct for fear in a dangerous situation, then we can certainly say that no analogous instinct of preservation exists. A farmer who relies upon his crops and livestock for a living does not have the same instinct to preserve them as he does an instinct to make love to his wife. It seems very evident to me that we do not have a desire to preserve our species in that way. 

When a man desires a woman, the desire becomes a reified desire; he can see what he wants and he can see how he can get what he wants. But the desire to preserve our species doesn't occur that way - in fact, it occurs in just the opposite kinds of situation. When one thinks about posterity, one is not in a raw animalistic mood; one is usually in a reflective mood, pondering the future generations and what might become of them. And the later feeling seems to me to be quite a departure from the former instinct. The best we can say is that we are impelled to think mindfully of future generations, for their well being, and for their future. 

Although we can make rational decisions to save and plan for our futures, it seems to me that if instincts are at play it is a more reasonable argument to say that we are impelled, by temptation, to instinctively think of the here and now. One of our most natural inclinations is to live the best life we can - and apart from perhaps our own family, not care too much about future generations. Our caring about future generations is not like an itch we are desperate to scratch or a sexual desire we are desperate to have gratified, it is more akin to a socially contracted rationalisation program designed to subvert our most parochial instincts for the here and now. It is the learned behaviour that we practice because it makes us a little less like our instinctual selves.

Are you convinced yet?
And if I still haven't managed to convince you, I think I can now do so by putting forward the following question. If this generation were told that they had to go without earthly pleasure - that is, they had to make sacrifices that would render their lives deeply boring and uneventful, but in return, all future generations would prosper profusely; how many men and women of this present age would undertake such a position with unadulterated pleasure? I think the answer is very few. Some good natured and kind hearted souls might think the sacrifice worth making, but it seems clear that if this feeling was part of their natural instinct, they would meet the prospective sacrifice with a rawer sense of enthusiasm from the start. Any so-called ‘natural instinct’ towards the preservation of the species is preservation with regard to family, not the human species as a whole.  

I fully acknowledge that the preservation of posterity is, ultimately, more important than any individual’s personal desires or preferences. But strong and weak ties are chronological too - we only think about the preservation of our unborn grandchildren and great-grandchildren in an abstract way - in fact, the further into the future we go the more diluted our desire actually is.

Of course, because of how markets work for the collective as a result of individuals pursuing their own improved well-being, the mechanism is already in place to increase the likelihood that that future generations have a better life than we have - but I am certainly not talking about our deepest and rawest individual instincts here. The human desire for the preservation of the species is really the collective result of individuals instinctively caring to look after themselves and their families.

If you were asked to die in order to save the lives of future generations, you might well acquiesce and do so dutifully; your compulsion to do so would be one of moral rectitude or moral incumbency. But only a fool would say that it was part of your instinct to do this. The first emotion you feel, the very first one, would be one of doubt, reluctance and apprehension. All we are really doing is arranging certain types of compulsion and hierarchically ordering them by a system which judges them by their distance of proximity from our moral suasions. If we are sick, our natural instinct is to get better, if we are hungry, our natural instinct is to eat, if we are in danger, our natural instinct is to be safe. In hierarchical terms, any instinct to preserve the species would be rather low down, certainly below most other spontaneous impulses.

Our desire to preserve the species is really more like a desire for better coastal barriers during the aftermath of the tsunami, or the desire for better policing after a spate of street crimes, or a desire for better transparency when politicians lie and misbehave. The desire for the preservation of the species is more like those desires; it exists because the need to think of future generations is a constituent part of the wider social contract to which our conscience enjoins us.