skip to Main Content

Instinct and Ethics

By Edmund Opitz, author of The Libertarian Theology of Freedom and Religion and Capitalism: Allies, Not Enemies. This essay was originally published in the December 1969 issue of The Freeman, and is part of a chapter in Religion and Capitalism.

Nearly everyone is a moralist these days, and a moralist in pop­ular caricature is one who always views with alarm. Even the self-proclaimed immoralists of our time fall into this category, for they denounce as "intolerant" any and all who look askance at their weird "beat" deviations. Dis­agreements are sharp at all levels, among the viewers with alarm, but the primary breach is between those who hold that the ultimate sanction for ethical standards must be sought in a supernatural order, and—on the other hand —those who assert that within the social and natural orders we may find the ingredients for a viable ethic. The first position is theistic; the latter humanistic.

The humanists, if we may be permitted this term for the sec­ond group, admit that the moral code which prevailed in the West until two or three generations ago was widely believed to have had its origin and sanction in religion. But, as they view the matter, the transcendent dimension has such a weak hold upon modern man that to insist on a metaphysical source of moral values in these times is to weaken ethics by tying it to a dead horse. Moral values, they assert, are autonomous if they are anything; let them there­fore stand on their own feet. De­tach ethics from religion, they urge, in order that men may be virtuous for the sake of happi­ness! Men should not do right in a vain effort to please some deity, or because they believe that God has arbitrarily commanded cer­tain actions and forbidden others.

These nontraditionalists tout a "scientific" or "rational" ethic. The opposite of "rational" in this context is not "irrational"; it is "theistic," "customary," or "re­ceived." No one would admit that his own ethical system or moral code is irrational, and it is obvi­ous to everyone who has checked into the matter that there have been and are ethicists of several schools who are powerful reason­ers. Every philosopher relies on reason, and not only rationalists; however, reason does tell some men that reason is not the exclusive route to knowledge of the complex reality that environs us.

A distinction which arises at this point seems to elude many. It is a distinction between reason as a means for achieving a norm, and reason itself as the norm. Perhaps the point may be clarified by anal­ogy. "How do you propose to go to Boston?" is a question which demands answers in two distinct categories. "By car" is one an­swer, which informs us that the means of transportation is not train, plane, foot, or horse. Hav­ing settled this point, we still need further information before the question can be regarded as an­swered. "By way of the Taconic, north, to the western end of the Massachusetts Turnpike, then east." This gives us the route, so that we know that the car will not proceed up the Merritt or over the New England Thruway.

Now take the serious question, "How shall we validate ethical norms?" Those who answer, "By reason," are really uttering a mere truism. "We’re going to think about it," they are saying. And everyone who thinks about these or any other matters is using his reason. This is our only means for figuring things out, and it is not a means belonging exclusively to rationalists; it is the common means employed by everyone who philosophizes. Using this means, we seek for answers to the ques­tion of how to validate ethical norms. This has to do with the realm where the sanctions may find anchorage, whether within nature and society, or in a realm beyond the natural and social or­ders. Reason is our tool for operat­ing on the problem posed; it is not itself the answer.

Experts at Debate

There are dogmatists on both sides of this controversy, and the skilled among them can and do ex­pose weaknesses in their oppo­nent’s position. The humanist might charge his opposition as follows: The moral code is an ac­quired characteristic; it has to be learned anew by each generation. It is difficult enough to establish this code theoretically, even if we treat it as self-evidently useful to society and necessary for harmony in human relationships. Why, then, compound these difficulties and force things out of focus by involving ethics with metaphys­ics? The uncertain, in this or any other area, is shored up by relat­ing it to the certain; but when you hook ethics up with meta­physics, you relate it to the even more uncertain, to the dubious! We don’t need a transcendent sanction in order to validate or prove a down-to-earth ethic.

To which the theist might re­spond: If you appeal to Nature to sanction human conduct, you haven’t looked very far into Na­ture. Not even Kropotkin with his mutual aid theories denied the Darwinian struggle for existence; he merely desired to point out that it was not the whole story. But it is part of the story, and a large enough part so that we are justified in saying that Nature gives a mandate to the powerful, the fleet, the unscrupulous to live off the weaker, the slower, the in­nocent. And if you think to draw your ethical sanctions from soci­ety, whose society are you talking about? A society of headhunters? Nazi society? Communist society? The Great Society? As a matter of fact, if a significant number of people can be made to believe that moral conduct is merely that which is sanctioned by the society in which they live, then morality is subverted into merely custom­ary behavior and mere legality. Furthermore, you are confusing sanctions with consequences. An ethical code resides somewhere be­hind the sanctions advanced to validate it, and the consequences cited to justify it. If the code is put into practice, the consequences may well be personal happiness, interpersonal harmony, and a prosperous society. But these re­sults do not constitute a set of sanctions; the sanctions are on the other side of the code, in the realm of philosophy. Once we are intellectually convinced that our moral code is valid, then muster enough will power to practice it, then—and only then—do we get a bonus in the form of well-being in society. But you have the thing turned around! So much for the preliminary give and take.

A Way Through the Dilemma

Evidently, each side has a case which might be spelled out at length. Is it a deadlock, or do we have here an instance of an im­passe due to the hardening of the categories on either side to the point where their usefulness as conceptual tools has been im­paired? And, if this is so, is there a way between the horns of the dilemma? There might be such a breakthrough if we could—by adopting a new perspective—pose and develop a thesis which might avail itself of certain strong points in both positions. Here’s such a thesis: The moral code plays a role in the life of man comparable to the role of instinct in the lower organisms, in that each functions to relate the inner nature of the respective organism to the full range of its environment.

The recently published Harper Encyclopedia of Science says that "the scientific study of instinct has increased greatly in recent years, and the concept itself has regained an academic respectabil­ity it has not had since the time of Darwin." At the forefront of this research, much of it under field conditions, are Tinbergen, Lorenz, Thorne and Barrends; Eu­ropeans all. "It now seems clear," the entry continues, "that instinct and intelligence are two quite dif­ferent ways by which animals meet life’s problems. Instincts are essentially prefabricated answers." In a word, an organism’s instinc­tual equipment adapts it optimally to its normal environment. Ani­mals—along with birds, insects, and fish—are equipped with a kind of internal servomechanism, or automatic pilot, which keeps them effortlessly on the beam. In­stincts align the animal with the forces of life, or with the laws of its own nature. Organism and en­vironment are thus kept "in play" with each other—except when en­vironmental changes are so catas­trophic that the automatic adjust­ment equipment fails, the organ­ism perishes, and perhaps a spe­cies becomes extinct.

The very perfection of auto­matic, instinctual adjustment may prove the undoing of organisms relying on this device; when sur­vival depends on a creative re­sponse to novel environmental changes, something other than in­stinct is needed. This is, of course, intelligence. Instinct is not a mere precursor of intelligence, nor is intelligence an outgrowth of in­stinct; they are radically different. In order for intelligence in man to have an opportunity to flourish, the instincts had to be suppressed.

The Absence of Instincts

Human beings are virtually without specific instincts. There is no servomechanism in men which automatically keeps the human organism or the species within the pattern laid down for human life. Men have to figure things out and, by enormous effort, learn to con­form their actions to the relevant norms in the various sectors of life. This absence of instincts in man constitutes the ground for man’s radical inner freedom, the freedom of his will. Animal lives are fixed to run in narrow, con­stricted channels; they obey the will of God willy-nilly. Men, how­ever, vary enormously from each other at birth, and the differences widen as individuals mature each into his specialized individuality. And each person has the gift of a freedom so radical that he can deny the existence of the creative forces which produced him. This freedom of his makes it not only possible but mandatory that man take a hand in the fashioning of his own life. No man creates him­self, but every man makes himself, using the created portions of his being as his resources. This is what it means to say that man is a responsible being.

A magnificent animal like Man o’ War is not a natural horse; he is the product of generations of human breeders and trainers of horses. They are mainly respons­ible for his superiority, not he. Of all the orders of creation only man is a responsible being; ev­erything else, every horse, dog, lion, tiger, and shark is what it is. Only man is, in any measure, re­sponsible for what he is. Man makes himself, and therefore each person is morally responsible for himself. This is possible because man has escaped from the strait jacket of instinct.

Let me quote from a once well-known Dreiser novel, Sister Carrie, which appeared in 1900. "Among the forces which sweep and play throughout the universe, untu­tored man is but a wisp in the wind. Our civilization is but a wisp in the wind, scarcely beast, in that it is no longer wholly guid­ed by instinct; scarcely human, in that it is not yet wholly guided by reason. On the tiger no responsi­bility rests. We see him aligned by nature with the forces of life—he is born into their keeping and without thought he is protect­ed. We see man far removed from the lairs of the jungles, his innate instincts dulled by too near ap­proach to free will, his free will not sufficiently developed to re­place his instincts and afford him perfect guidance. He is becoming too wise to hearken always to in­stincts and desire; he is still too weak to always prevail against them."

Dreiser makes full use of a nov­elist’s liberties here, but his point­er is in the right direction. Some­thing within the tiger causes it to obey the laws of its inner nature unconsciously and easily, and, by so doing, the beast is in harmony with outer nature as well. But man’s case is radically different. Does he have a true nature deep within him, visible when the en­vironmentally imposed camouflag­es are peeled off? And, if so, what are its mandates? Once man knows the laws of his own being, how shall he muster sufficient will power to obey them while avoid­ing distractions and temptations that emanate from other facets of his complex nature?

My thesis is that the role played by instinct in the lower order—keeping the organism on target—is assumed in man by the ethical code. Animals have in­stincts but no morals; men have morality but no instincts. An ani­mal’s instincts guarantee that he will neither disobey nor deviate from the law of his being; a fish does not seek the dry land, a robin does not try to burrow in the ground, a gibbon does not yearn to swing on the North Pole. But man fulfills the law of his being only with the utmost difficulty —if then—and the only means at his disposal to align him with the forces of life is his ethical code. It is this code, and this alone, which may provide him with a life-giv­ing, life-enhancing regimen.

A Single Ethical Code

Let me anticipate two quibbles. Instinct is sometimes contrasted with intelligence, and it is the lat­ter, some say, on which man must rely. Or reason, as Dreiser sug­gests above. This is a play on words. We rely on intelligence to improve transportation, but we ac­tually ride in automobiles or air­planes, which are the end result of applying intelligence to the prob­lem of getting from here to there. Similarly, it is intelligence that discovers, analyzes, frames, and selects the ethical code. Which brings up the second quibble. Why the ethical code? Are there not many conflicting codes? Well, no—to be dogmatic! There is a hard core of similarity, almost identity, in every one of the world’s devel­oped moral codes. This is the Tao, the Way, referred to by the great ethical and religious teachers in all cultures. Without it, man ceases to be man. (For an expansion of this point the interested reader is referred to C. S. Lewis’ The Ab­olition of Man.)

This begins to move us away from the humanistic ethics re­ferred to earlier. Do we need to part company, and if so, by how much? The two most prominent schools of naturalistic ethics are the utilitarians and the pragma­tists. It was John Stuart Mill who invented the name and argued the case for the former. He described it as "the creed which accepts as the foundation of morals, utility, or the Greatest Happiness Prin­ciple." It "holds that actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of hap­piness. By happiness is intended pleasure, and the absence of pain; by unhappiness, pain, and the pri­vation of pleasure."

Pleasure and happiness are de­sirable indeed, and we wish more of them for everyone. But to equate "pleasure producing" with "right" at the outset of a pro­posed ethical inquiry is to beg the question. There is undoubtedly a connection here, for doing the right thing has a high degree of correlation with happiness, but the connection is along the lines of the intelligence-automobile il­lustration above. It is as if the utilitarian were asked, "What is the temperature of this room?" and he answered, "I feel chilly." Now there is some relation be­tween this question and the an­swer, but the answer is not direct­ly responsive to the question. It evades the question, implying that there is no way of finding out the temperature. There is no ther­mometer, perhaps. Mill and the utilitarians do not really get at the ethical question. They think they are talking about ethics when, in fact, they are discussing something else. Similarly, the pragmatists.

Why Does It Work?

The pragmatists are mainly con­cerned with workability; it’s right if it works. Here is a map of the New England states. The pragma­tist follows it and drives to Bos­ton without getting lost. "Wherein lies the virtue of this map?" you ask him. "This map is good be­cause it works; it got me to where I wanted to go." "Why," you pur­sue, "do you suppose this map got you to your destination?" "That," says our pragmatist, "is a meta­physical question of the sort I cannot be bothered with." So, we have to answer the question for him. The map "worked" because it was not just any old map; it was a map which corresponded to the terrain over which our pragmatist traveled.

An eminent British philosopher of a generation or two ago, W. P. Sorley, neatly wraps up and dis­poses of utility-workability theor­ies. "It may be allowed," he writes, that the "relation between theory and practice does not necessitate the pragmatic explanation that the truth of the theory simply consists in its practical utility. The corre­spondence between theory and practice can also be explained on the view that the knowledge proves itself useful in its applica­tions because it is true: the utility does not make it true; its truth is the ground of its utility. The for­mer explanation is open to the fatal objection that it tends to dis­credit itself; for, according to it, the truth of the view that truth consists in utility must consist in the utility of this view. It would be difficult to show any practical utility which the explanation pos­sesses; but if we did succeed in showing such utility, it would be formulated in yet another propo­sition, whose truth again would have to consist in some practical end supposed to be served by it, and so on indefinitely. But if the truth of the proposition does not consist in or depend upon its util­ity, then we may hold that its util­ity depends upon its truth: it is useful because it expresses reality or real relations in the form of knowledge, and this brings them within the range, and possibly within the power, of the human mind."

Objective Moral Values

And now what about the weak­nesses in the case for the theistic ethics, as that case is usually put? Fundamental to this position is the conviction that moral norms and standards are as much a part of the ultimate nature of things as the fact of the specific gravity of water. It might be convenient, at times, if water had other char­acteristics, but wishing won’t al­ter the facts. Likewise, moral val­ues. Honesty is right, and most of the time it may also be the best policy. But there are times when dishonesty would pay, where hon­esty makes us mighty uncomfort­able; there is a conflict between what I want to do and what I know I ought to do. In order to maintain the integrity of the moral life, the ethicist champions the view that moral values are "out there," objective, as impervi­ous to human tampering as any other fact of nature. Emphasis on their objectivity seems to imply that moral values are alien to hu­man nature, and, if alien, hostile to man. If they are equated with God’s will, God comes to seem an Oriental despot inflicting arbi­trary and perverse rules upon his creatures for his pleasure and their frustration. This syndrome is, of course, a caricature.

Moral values are said to be ob­jective in the sense that their val­idity is part of the system and order of the universe, of that same universe which is manifested also in persons. Neither is alien to the other, because both are part of the same reality. Sorley goes a step further. "The objective moral value is valid independently of me and my will, and yet it is some­thing which satisfies my purpose and completes my nature." The ethical code may come into con­flict with our superficial self on occasion, precisely because it takes its orders from our real self. Inner conflicts are a part of living, and we encounter them in all the ven­tures of life.

Take any sport played to win.

It becomes a day and night preoc­cupation, with hours given over day after day for years to strenu­ous workouts. But this is only the visible part of the story. There is also a perpetual conflict with the impulse that wants to break train­ing, to goof off, to lead a more normal life. Then there is the agony of the contest itself where the will to win takes over and pushes the athlete beyond his powers of conscious endurance in­to collapse the moment after his victory. His deepest will had at­tached itself to a regimen for op­timum functioning, overcoming the continuous static and rebellion from other facets of his person­ality. Similar experiences are en­countered in the intellectual life, and in the moral life.

Check out the latter with a me­dieval theologian. Thomas Aquin­as says: "If virtue were at odds with man’s nature, it would not be an act of the man himself, but of some alien force subtracting from or going beyond the man’s own identity." Go back to St. Paul. The Gentiles do not have the Mosaic law, he writes in his Epistle to the Romans, but "they show the work of a law written in their hearts." And Moses himself, as recorded in Deuteronomy, com­mends the keeping of God’s com­mandments in order that there shall be flourishing life. "Choose life," he says. Where is this com­mandment, he asks rhetorically; is it up in heaven or beyond the sea? No, he declares, "the word is very nigh unto thee, in thy mouth and in thy heart, that thou mayest do it." What are we to understand Thomas, Paul, and Moses to be saying? Are they saying that to obey God’s will for us is equiva­lent to following the laws of our own being? It’s pretty close to that. And that is precisely what an animal’s instincts do for him. The difference is that we are free to ignore or disobey the laws of our being, whereas no animal has that power.

Tested by Time, the Human Potential Emerges

In the course of several thou­sand generations of human be­ings a slow deposit has accumu­lated as the result of individuals here and there successfully realiz­ing a portion of the human poten­tial. The recipes they left behind, tested and winnowed over the cen­turies, form the hard core of the ethical code. This is not a pre­scription for a life of power-seek­ing, or one of money-making, or a life devoted to fun and games, or to fame. These things are not intrinsically evil, but an inordi­nate attachment to any one of them breaks training, so to speak. Proper use of them, on the other hand, is part of life’s schooling process.

What are we being schooled for? A clear-cut positive answer to this question is impossible, for it outruns human experience. But a pretty clear hint comes through when we contemplate the alterna­tives. Wealth, pleasure, power, and even knowledge, when sought as ends in themselves, begin to send up signals that they are, in real­ity, only means to ends beyond themselves. The space scientists "build redundancy" into their capsules, more of everything than normal requirements would ever demand. Man, too, is overbuilt, in that each person has a wide range of potencies and a reservoir of untapped energy at his disposal, more than any of us ever use. Nor is man left on dead center with all this latent power. He has a chart containing the salient landmarks, and this chart is the ethical code. Let him begin to use this chart and the pieces fall into place, bits of the great design begin to em­erge, the person fulfills his des­tiny. "The event is in the hands of God."

Facebook Comments

Dr. Norman Horn

Norman founded and the Libertarian Christian Institute, and currently serves as its President and Editor-in-Chief. He holds a PhD in Chemical Engineering from the University of Texas at Austin and a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from the Austin Graduate School of Theology. He currently is a Postdoctoral researcher in Chemical Engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Back To Top