Sunday, January 31, 2021

We Are Life

Onion cells dividing

Consider that every human being alive today, and every creature that we would call alive, is part of an immortal cell line that goes back to the first life—probably some form of bacteria or blue-green algae—on this planet.1

You have come down through the ages, first as some kind of cellular life, then as a worm or starfish, then something with a backbone that lived in the sea, a chordate, a fish, then a fish with four stumpy limbs that crawled to the edge of the land, then an amphibian, a reptile, a mammal, a primate, and finally a human being. You have not necessarily been a prime example in the fossil record of any one of these creatures, because they were all fixed in form when they lived and died. But your cell line shares a common ancestor with each organism that can be found in the fossil record. You have ultra-great grandparents who are the parent to them all. We don’t have the same branchings, necessarily, but all humans have the same common ancestor somewhere, up the line, with sharks, spiders, sequoia trees, and slime molds.

We are the survivors. We are immortal. We are life itself.

We are in the direct cell line of the killers, too, who moved fastest to eat first rather than be eaten. We are the breeders, also, who chose quickly, pursued, and mated with the best example of our kind. We are the adapters, who were gifted by random mutation with the tool set to make the most of an ever-changing environment and survive on a malleable planet under a variable star.

In every parent going back to the one-celled predators—for we come most recently from the eaters, the animal line, rather than the chlorophyl-bearing, sun-absorbing plant line—we were the ones throughout history that stubbornly persisted, divided, grew up, bred, and survived to care for our young. The weak, the faint hearts, the maladapted died out and left no trace in the genetic record, although they may have solidified in the mud to join other examples in the fossil record. We are the winners of the race, the victors on this planet.

If we seem to be supremely well-adapted to the conditions on Earth, it is because our DNA has mutated—randomly, unexpectedly, sometimes with disastrously bad effect, sometimes with fortunately good effect, but mostly with no immediate effect until somewhere down the line that particular protein modification is needed—to stay in touch with and survive in the place where we happen to be. But we have also shaped the Earth itself, terraformed it to the needs of our particular kind of life.

The original atmosphere on Earth was formed in the outgassing of volcanos that accompanied the planet’s creation. They vented carbon dioxide, methane, ammonia, sulfur oxides, and water vapor. As air, none of this was breathable by any form of life that exists today. But those earliest blue-green algae converted sunlight and carbon dioxide into carbohydrates, the first building blocks and nutrients for other forms of life, and gave oxygen as their byproduct. This started the cycle that converted our atmosphere to the nitrogen-oxygen mix we all inhale today.

Similarly, life itself converted sterile rock, which water erosion and wave action had converted to sand grains and clay deposits, into the rich, dark, loamy soil that land-based plants need to survive. Generation after generation of living things dying in a particular place, being devoured by scavengers, worms, and bacteria, and then their traces being burned by the sun and distributed by the rain, contributed to making the planet’s surface more and more congenial to the life that would come after it.

Look around, and you can see the marks of life everywhere: the color of the sky, the shapes of the hills, the shoots of green plants poking up through the sandiest, least forgiving patches of ground, and the insects that come out of that ground every year. And we haven’t even gotten to the human presence yet.

Any straight line or smoothed curve you see, from the corners or roof lines of a building, the lanes in a road and its banked edges, the telephone and power lines strung across the landscape in a calculated catenary hanging between poles and towers, the planting of orchards and vineyards and the staking of fences and trellises—every instance of these things you see was conceived, planned, and placed by the hand of some human being. Every bridge that crosses a river or a bay on foundations of stone and wood or concrete and steel represents the choice of some human group that wanted to move themselves and their goods over there. Every village, town, or city that grew up beside river crossing, or the place where two trails met, or in a bay where you could pull up your boats, has its existence because some human group decided that here was a good place to live.

We have been on this planet a long time. If you look closely enough and read carefully enough, you can see how we have shaped it.

The question then—for both the world builders in fiction and the world explorers when we humans go out among the stars—is what marks we may find on the new planet telling of the life that has made its home there. No place is barren. Every place is a work of art in progress.

The next time you feel down, question the value of your life, and wonder what comes next, remember this. You are from the lineage of the stubborn, the survivors, the persisters, the winners. And you are still a work in progress. Nothing is barren. Everything lives, even when it dies.

1. Life has certainly evolved over time to adapt to the changing conditions on this planet, and it probably started out here as a bacteria or some other single-celled form. But whether the mechanism of that adaptation itself, the DNA-RNA-protein coding system, actually evolved on Earth from basic inorganic chemistry is still, in my mind, an open question. See, for example, Could DNA Evolve? from July 16, 2017.

Sunday, January 24, 2021

Once Again Contrary

Stampeding horses

Once again, I find myself taking the contrarian position.1 When everyone is going in a certain direction, when the “popular wisdom” is pointing most definitely toward a certain conclusion, when the public choir has reached its perfect pitch, I tend to step out of line and sit down. My first question is usually, “Well, what about … [fill in the blank]?”

I feel this most strongly right now on the political scene. We are seeing an avalanche of opinion in the popular press and punditry that the conservative viewpoint is the voice of the fascist, undemocratic mob, of howling devils incarnate (including the one wearing a painted face and fur hat with buffalo horns), who would bring down the country in favor of an angry right-wing coup. And, as someone who has always skated toward the middle of a very broad political spectrum—although about three points out of a hundred to the right of center in any of those once ubiquitous online tests—I say it is not so.

If you look at the votes, this country is fairly evenly divided between the Left and the Right. That’s three million votes, give or take, either way, in a voting population of 161 million eligible Americans. This is within the margin of error for any reasonable projection—which is why polling is so difficult and unreliable these days. Neither of the two main political parties has achieved a landslide victory in any national race in the last couple of decades—not in my memory since the Reagan years, and that was after a decade of political turmoil and economic stagnation. Since then, the votes have been a lot closer.

Yes, in 2020 there were sudden changes in the voting laws, largely due to the pandemic, that offered incentives for fraud over in-person voting. And yes, there were many instances of suspicious behavior in the battleground states. Whether these were part of a larger conspiracy or just the usual isolated attempts at manipulation that have also been common for the last couple of decades, who can say? Also, whether the irregularities were enough to swing the election away from the conservative candidate and his party, again who can say? I think there have been claims and lies, coverups and failures to investigate, to an extent equal or greater than the original infractions. I don’t trust any of the media anymore, from the Left or the Right.

And that’s where my contrarian instinct comes alive, like a warning. When the stridency, the certainty, and the outright noise level rises so high, when emotions are driving the resolutions, I get suspicious. Reasonable discussion and evaluation has gone out the window. When the mainstream media is buttressing its rejection of any claims about electoral fraud, decorating its reporting with adverbial phrases like “totally no evidence” and “absolutely none,” then I think they’re tapdancing too hard.2 And when the alternative, right-wing media starts focusing on statistical anomalies and mathematical probabilities in the vote counts, rather than the red-handed capture of felons followed by admission wrongdoing, then I think they’re reaching too far.

Let’s face it: Donald Trump is an unlovely character. He was a real-estate promoter who focused on trophy properties and the appearance of grand excess, a television personality who claimed to represent the height of business acumen but who relished humiliating people and yelling, “You’re fired!” Still, his brash style and plain talk—maybe not always sensible or factually provable, but always clear about the intent of his feelings—appealed to a great many people who had grown tired of the mellifluous preachments and posturings of Barack Obama.

The trouble was, Donald Trump had been the chief executive of a one-man corporation. Sure, he had hundreds of people building and running his hotels and casinos. But he never had to deal with a board of directors or an employee base who stood in opposition to his plans and programs, never had to compromise from a position of weakness to achieve his goals. That failed to prepare him for American politics, especially in this age of bitter contest, where every move ahead is won by compromise with the dedicated opposition. In addition, like a neophyte, he turned every challenge into a personal attack, instead of deflecting it back onto the underlying values and facts that would support his positions. He made himself a target, which no practiced politician would ever do. Sad, really. And his actions at the end, challenging the vote without ever getting into court, so that he looked like a sore loser and got deeper and deeper in the hole at every turn, let the media play him for a petulant fool. Even if there was election fraud, he now looks like the loser who tried to stage a coup d’état.

I’m not here to defend Donald Trump. But my “truth sense” is violated by the sweeping allegations now being made in the press—even by some on the right—that the last five weeks have somehow invalidated the conservative position. That the people who were saying “Now wait a minute!” about the progressive march to the left—toward higher taxes, increased national debt, more invasive government regulation, and contempt for traditional values3—have been proven wrong because of the Republican losses in closely contested elections across the nation, and then by the President’s challenges and the thousand or so protestors—out of a rally attended by tens of thousands—who walked into the Capitol Building. Half the population, those in the middle and on the right, have not been made into fools and buffoons by these relatively isolated and easily disparaged actions.

Indeed, the fact that I have drifted to the right in my personal views over the years is a contrarian sign. The mainstream media—the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the news departments of the alphabet networks ABC, CBS, and NBC—have all drifted leftward in my political lifetime. They now openly question the legitimacy of any kind of “objectivity” in journalism while simultaneously claiming to present “the truth.” You can’t have it both ways. So my contrary nature moves correspondingly to the right.

Not, however, to the fantasy “alt-right” of Nazi sympathizers, Klan activists, Confederate flag wavers, and supposed Christian theocrats. Such people might exist, somewhere, in closets and cornfields across America, but their numbers are vanishingly small—in inverse proportion to their penchant for coming out in marches and getting themselves photographed. Most of the “right wing” people I know are householders and family members who are basically trying to survive, teach their children honest values, and be good citizens. And, oh yes, they pay taxes and believe in and defend the Constitution. They want the vote to be honest, even if a candidate of the Left wins.

The part of all this that has me worried is that I believe the middle in this country, the moderate view, is very strong. As I believe that the people on the Right of Center despise the clowns with their face paints and buffalo hats, Confederate flags, and Nazi salutes, so I hope that the people on the Left of Center despise the people who would harvest and backdate ballots, manipulate the vote, and walk off grinning. I hope that the Left wants the vote to be honest, even if a candidate of the Right wins. I hope that most of us in this country just want to survive, teach our children, be good citizens, pay taxes, and defend the Constitution. I listen for the reasonable voices of the middle saying, like Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet, “a plague on both your houses.”

And I’m not hearing it. So, like the Martians in Stranger in a Strange Land, I want to turn myself “ninety degrees from everything else” and disappear. I’m that upset.

1. See, for example, On Being Contrarian from January 13, 2013, and On the Virtues of Being a Contrarian from January 11, 2015. I’ve taken this position most of my life, as a reading of these previous essays will show. And, from their dates, the impulse seems to come out most strongly in January.

2. In reporting on the claims of election fraud, I note the absence of the word “alleged.” These are all claims of alleged fraud, aren’t they? Use of the word would suggest the claims are still to be proven in court. But in popular parlance and in most journalism these days, alleged has become a verbal fig leaf, a wink and a nod toward something taken as generally understood—as in, “we all know the defendant is guilty as charged, but we’ll talk about his alleged crimes up until the point we convict him.” In the case of the election, however, the media has closed ranks and won’t extend the word alleged, because there never will be any testing of these claims in court. So claims of fraud have to be characterized as baseless, unfounded, a total fairytale—and there the story sits for all eternity.

3. It’s not that conservatives want no taxes, social services, or government regulations. It’s just that we believe a reasonable line can be drawn beyond which the burdens of government intervention in daily life stifle personal initiative and stagnate the economy.

Sunday, January 17, 2021

Know Thy Enemy

Yin and yang stones

This country is in a bad way now. We have two dominant political forces: call them Democrats and Republicans, or Liberals/Progressives and Conservatives, or Left and Right, or Blue and Red states. Each side, supposedly, is one thing, one creed, one code, one truth. And the other side is … dogshit.

We no longer can see with eyes of questioning, of forgiveness, or charity. Instead, we see with the interpretations put into the public mind by the left-dominated mainstream media or by the equally powerful and deeply saturated right-dominated alternative media and “talk radio.”

In the eyes of the mainstream media, anyone who is not a true-blue Democrat is a xenophobic, Bible-thumping, Sieg-heiling, Neanderthal subhuman. In the eyes of the alternative media, anyone who is not a red-state Republican or, more recently, a Donald Trump supporter is a marshmallow, America-hating, Marxist- and/or Soviet- (or Chinese-Communist–) loving, pajama-boy elitist. We carry the caricatures in our minds and see them instead of the people and positions we meet in real life, on the street, and sometimes in our own families.

And what is the reality? Most people vote according to their family traditions, perhaps according to the political environment they picked up in college or in their earliest job environments. People tend to stay with the party they adopted in their youth and seldom, if ever, examine their assumptions and associations in order to change their allegiance. But, for most people, their politics is not an all-consuming pastime. Neither is their religion. They are too busy making a living, raising children, worrying about the mortgage or doctor bills or credit cards, furthering their education, or rooting for their favorite sports team.

And what’s wrong with that? These are the things that people can choose to do and have an effect on in their daily lives. Supporting a party or a political cause is a distant second. Unless a person is monomaniacally focused on the political issues of the day—attending rallies and marches, writing to state and federal representatives, contributing hard-earned cash, and yes, voting once every two years—the issues addressed by political programs and parties are abstruse, nebulous, distant in time and place, and not all that personally interesting. For most people, political movements are figments of their imagination, taking place far away and in the distant future, the stuff of “well, if this goes on” and “one day, eventually.” Political concerns are not real, not personal.

And when someone does care about politics, what is actually going on in their mind? For most people—not the addicts, but most of the people you meet—their personal views are shaped by those same childhood, adolescent, and young-adult attitudes.

For most people on the Left, the attitude is one of concern and compassion. They want a better life for the people around them, both near and far, who may not be faring as well as they believe they themselves are doing. They see for people of other races, classes, and ethnic backgrounds a distinct lack of the opportunities and benefits that they themselves have had, and they feel badly about this. Their concern is that everyone—in America and all around the world—get a good life and an opportunity for peace and prosperity. This attitude may be based on non-economic, magical thinking1 and presumes that this good life is infinitely divisible and universally obtainable. And if it’s not, then it should be. And then society or the government or the party in power should be forced to provide it.

For most people on the Right, the attitude is one of responsibility and self-reliance. They want that good life for themselves and for others, regardless of race, class, or ethnic background, but they believe it can only be obtained through personal effort. That a person can realize benefits and seize the opportunities that come along only by preparing oneself and one’s children through a mindful approach to life. Such an approach involves dedication to a certain sober style of living, respecting others and the rules set by family and society, getting a good education to the limits of one’s abilities, working hard at a meaningful job, and saving for whatever the future may bring. If other people fall short in this regard, then it is through their own fault. This is hard economic thinking, and if the person can’t help him- or herself, then society or the government can’t do much more.

If there is a dominant streak in either view, the Left is aspirational while the Right is foundational. The Left’s programs appeal to emotional attachments and sensitivity, while the Right’s programs appeal to detachment and stoicism. These root feelings go back a long way in human psychology.

I am reminded of the two great variants in Buddhist thinking. In the original dharma, or ideal truth as taught by the Buddha himself, a person achieves mastery, breaks the karmic cycle, and enters Nirvana upon death only by having a correct understanding and practicing the right beliefs and actions. This is the Hinayana, or “Lesser Vehicle,” approach, the path of the individual seeker. But going that route is hard: you have to put off family attachments, daily business, and the distractions of living. This is the conservative view. You really have to shave your head, put on a saffron robe, pick up a begging bowl, and live like a monk, focusing only what will get you into heaven. Most people don’t have the strength or such focused purpose—and it would be terrible for society and the rest of us if everyone practiced this form of Buddhism. For one thing, humanity would die out for lack of procreation!

And so, over time—and certainly after the Buddha’s own lifetime—the Mahayana, or “Greater Vehicle,” tradition arose for the rest of us. This form supposes that those who are about to become Buddhas themselves, the bodhisattvas, store up so much positive, karma-calming energy that they can share it with those who pray to them. The bodhisattvas become like angels or gods—whom the Buddha himself either denied or found irrelevant to the process of personal salvation—and dispense compassion and personal salvation to those who believe and generally try to do the right things. This is the broader, more social view of the situation. They don’t deny the reality of the narrower view, but they try to allow for—and provide some path and benefit to—those who show human frailty.

Another set of roots to today’s parties can be found in ancient Greece. In Athens after the Peloponnesian War (431-403 BC, which the democratic, philosophical, free-thinking Athens lost to the dour, tight-lipped, militaristic Spartans), a dominant school of thought arose with Plato and his mentor Socrates. They were philosophers but also radical thinkers, which was the reason Socrates was tried and sentenced to self-inflicted death. Plato’s best remembered work—or at least the one that most people read in college—is The Republic, and you can consider it as recoiling from, or trying to reconcile with, the views and attributes that Sparta imposed on the Athenians. The Republic that Plato describes is not a democracy, and it’s not a nice place to live: popular opinions are repressed, the population is socially regimented, with music and the arts strictly prescribed—martial music is the only kind allowed—and all the important decisions are made by “philosopher kings.” Hooray for the philosophers, but not so good for anyone who disagrees with them. That would be the little people, the hoi polloi, the no-accounts. It’s a streamlined state where you shut up and pull your oar.

This kind of thinking, that better minds than yours know what’s good for you, has come down through the ages. It certainly drove the aspirations of both military conquerors like Alexander and Caesar and religious inquisitors like Torquemada and Sir Thomas More.2 It erupted in the French Revolution when the philosophes, or public intellectuals, tried to remake society all at once along perfectly rational lines and failed miserably, bringing on the Reign of Terror and rise of Napoleon. We see it today in the Progressives of the early twentieth century, encouraged by Woodrow Wilson and empowered by Franklin D. Roosevelt, who wanted to radically remake society along scientific and liberal lines. Their beliefs are definitely utopian—aspirational—and waste no time on the traditional social mores and attitudes—foundational—with which everyone is familiar, even though the results are sometimes unpalatable.

With these last comments, I consciously reveal my own biases. My politics are somewhere in the middle of all this, not absolute, and nothing pure. I am a little-D democrat and come from a Christian- and Western-based conservative tradition. I believe in the freedom and agency of individuals to shape their own lives. I am socially liberal—in the old sense of the word, based on freedom, rather than the modern, “woke” sense, based on identity and conformity. And I am fiscally conservative, concerned about preserving my family’s wealth, paying my taxes, and the limiting the national debt. At heart, I want me, my family, and my friends to be left alone—with a safety net, of course, and the protections of enough government regulation to guard against systematic looting by the rich and powerful. And I think most people want this in some form for themselves. Where we draw the line, I think, is on whether we trust other people to be able to live according to their own thoughts and desires, or whether they should be helped, or forced, by wiser heads to live a better life.

But no matter which side of the line you occupy, only a select few among us are actually red-faced, bellowing demons intent on burning and destruction. Most of us are kindly folk who want good things for other people. But that may be too much like crazy thinking these days.

1. Most of human life is based on non-economic and magical thinking. That is why lotteries and Ponzi schemes are so popular. It’s the triumph of emotion—hope—over hard-headed reality, of dreams over certainty, of “what might be” over “what is.” If we woke up every day conscious of how perilous living is, how close behind is the tiger tracking our footsteps, and how quick collapse, famine, and death can come to any one of us, then we wouldn’t get out of bed.

2. Utopia—which is based on two Greek words for “nowhere”—was the title of More’s vision for a perfectly orderly society. It wasn’t such a fun place to live, either, because farmland, people, and all of their associations were mechanically redistributed for the benefit of more rational production, among other things. More was another reformer—except when it came to religion, where he adhered to church teaching to the point of burning heretics alive.

Sunday, January 10, 2021

Revised Honor Code

Knight in armor

Cadets at our military academies are supposed to have an honor code. It is engraved in stone on each campus and reads: “A cadet will not lie, cheat, steal, nor tolerate those who do.” Apparently seventy-five cadets at West Point were accused in December of cheating on a calculus exam; so maybe faith in the code is not as strong as it once was.

For some of us, honor is an important part of character that is hardly taught in schools anymore. For some of us, honor comes from the teachings of our family, our fathers and mothers by word and example. And honor has more depth than the cadet code, which is really too easy.

Aside from the simple negatives of not lying, cheating, or stealing, an honorable person has many positive actions he or she needs to undertake. One such is keeping your word. If you make a promise, even one that is merely implied by your assurances to another person, then you are honor-bound to keep it or fail and perhaps die in the trying. One’s word is a commitment, and any pledge is sacred. This applies not only to friends and families but also to the people with whom one associates, perhaps even former and potential enemies. For this reason, an honorable person is not easy or loose with his or her commitments. An examined conscience—and a knowledge of what one’s life is worth, because that person has fully considered the possibility of losing it—necessarily limits the ways and directions in which he or she might spread personal loyalties. Being ready to try and die is serious business. Giving oneself an escape clause, by not really “meaning it,” is the sign of a weak character.

In that same line, an honorable person pays his or her debts. Gambling debts, personal loans, extended credit, even serious favors, and other obligations weigh upon his or her soul. And the sooner they are paid off, the happier the honorable man or woman feels. While he or she will not necessarily reject an offer to rescind a debt or cancel a loan, the honorable person will not seek it. And the person will realize that being forgiven a debt or loan creates further obligations that are moral, personal, and perhaps payable only in the future. All of this is because the honorable person sees existence, life, and one’s passage through it as a kind of balancing act, an attempt at equilibrium. What is taken or accepted must also be paid back or given again. Good deeds are repaid with good. Bad deeds receive retribution. This is not “an eye for an eye,” because vengeance is a choice that can be rejected. But to achieve peace and the benefits of a quiet life, the honorable person must be ready to sacrifice.

The honorable person is not just honest in words but also in actions. That is, he or she lives according to a professed faith and set of beliefs. This does not necessarily require faith in a god—personal or distant—or some other form of supreme being.1 But a life of honor means being consistent as a whole person. Believing, speaking, and acting are a conscious pattern that is based on either a conception of the truth or acknowledgment and acceptance of lies. The honorable person knows that inconsistencies, falsehoods, and the lies told to cover up the inconsistencies creates a pattern: a personal maze full of dead ends, with no clear way through to success, a quiet life, and a good death.

The honorable person also treats others—or at least those whom he or she is prepared to accept as peers—with respect and good intentions. Respect may be offered provisionally, and good intentions may be extended as a gamble, to those with whom the person is unfamiliar or whose status remains in doubt. Enemies once declared may be fought and defeated, but all others should be granted the benefit of the doubt. Respect and benign—if not positively good—intentions create the easiest path for a person to achieve that success, quiet life, and good death. The paths of suspicion, of deceit and double-dealing, of putting personal interests first—all of these lead to chaos. And inviting chaos is not what the honorable person does.

Ultimately, the honorable person serves a higher purpose than satisfying oneself and fulfilling personal desires. Such a purpose may not necessarily involve the sacrifice of surrendering to the needs of other people. It may involve sacrificing in order to hone a talent and develop a skill or an art form that—eventually, in the long run—might give aid or pleasure to others. But for the present, that effort and sacrifice might look like selfishness. Still, it is serving a purpose beyond immediate pleasures and careless actions. Similarly, the person might sacrifice to become a better advocate, or the creator of some useful invention or positive belief system, or a soldier willing to give a life for the benefit of culture, society, or country. This higher purpose is unique to each person —but it is always there.

Compared to these various dimensions of honor, the code of the cadets is just too simple, too easy. And yet, in the December calculus exam, the little boys of West Point could not even serve that. We can weep for them.

1. I myself have no supernatural allegiance to such a being. But I do have faith in the consistency of certain processes: the interactions of physical laws, which we are discovering even now; the operations of evolution to maintain a viable kernel of life in a changing earthly environment; the efficacy of basic moral laws, which play out in different cultures and different times; the beauty of the human mind and of the universe which we inhabit. These things are good enough for me.

Sunday, January 3, 2021

Actions and Consequences

Total honesty

Because I am an atheist, not believing in any god or even in eternal life, people sometimes wonder how I can construct and abide by any moral values. They believe this is impossible without a supernatural judge looking over my shoulder and promising existential and eternal justice if I should transgress his/her/its moral code. Fear of far-distant, drastic consequences is, for them, the only reason a person would obey any kind or law or attempt to do the “right thing.”

But I do have an extra-human judge, built into the natural structure of human life and enshrined in the basic laws—derived from human observation—of physics and of social interaction. This natural truth is that actions create reactions. Actions have consequences. And they don’t have to wait for me to die to make their judgment and take effect.

If I do something obviously wrong or unfair in the sight of other human beings, they will generally notice. And that notice will lead to comparable counteractions on their part. Perhaps they will merely avoid me by withdrawing from my acquaintance and friendship, or shun me by casting me out of their social circle. If my actions are disagreeable enough, they may seek to inflict punishment by fining me—taking my property—or by denying my civil rights, and perhaps even taking my life.

Ah, but what if I can act in a way that my action, such as a masked rape or hidden murder, is not detected and so passes without consequence in the sight of others?

This proposition presumes that I am a creature of singular time, having no memory of past actions or expectation of future actions. And perhaps, if I were such a solitary, amnesiac, unsuspecting presence in the world—a true psychopath or sociopath—then I could get away with a clever murder.

Like most people, however, I am a creature of experience and habit. The things that I do affect my perceptions of risk and reward, of safety and vulnerability, of opportunity and danger. Having discovered that I can get away with brutalizing or killing another human being, or performing any other act that the majority of humans might disdain or consider shameful, I would as a thinking person be tempted to try it again. And as the risk in that first incident appeared small, so the risks in subsequent endeavors will appear smaller or, conversely, the rewards that I might expect to derive will appear greater. And whatever the calculation, my perception of the world and human action in it will be changed, so that I would be less emotionally reflective and involved with the consequences of the action. Eventually, those consequences would catch up with me. Eventually, other people would notice, trace a connection to me, and I would suffer.

But what happens if the world I inhabit is filled with people just like me in that emotionally diminished state, who are without memory or expectation, all psychopaths or sociopaths, all clever opportunists with impaired ability to see and judge, shun and punish? Do we not then have chaos without a supernatural judge and the promise of eternal torment if we break an externally imposed code?

Ah, but we don’t live in such a world! Most people do not have to quote scripture or a book of laws to identify unfair, callous, unfeeling, and damaging actions. Most people learn the basic truths about honesty, reciprocity, “fairness,” and keeping faith from their dealings among family members—often taught as precepts by mothers and fathers—and on the playground. Let someone hurt you enough times—a father who beats you without cause, a friend who cheats you and others in games—and you quickly come to realize the difference between good and bad behavior. It doesn’t take a god, avenging angel, or eternal hellfire to convince most sociable people that life goes better when we are honest, courteous, and deal fairly with others.

Now suppose that the consequences of my action are so delayed that an observer cannot trace the path from cause to effect.

For most of us, such an observer would include our own selves, because the consequences of actions are indeed sometimes hard to foresee. And in that case, we have to adhere to the folklore of our culture, passed down by parents, aunts and uncles, and grandparents. They have a greater experience of life, as well as the folklore passed down in the generations before them, that suggests the long-term consequences of casual actions. So when your mother tells you not to litter—not to drop that candy wrapper on the ground but instead hold it until you find a trash bin—she is conveying the knowledge that the wrapper won’t suddenly disappear or disintegrate, even if it has passed out of your mind and awareness. It will collect with other discarded materials into an unsightly mound and decay only slowly, over months and years. Or it will fall to some better-trained person who comes after you to pick up and dispose of it in the bin. Or the city will be required to hire someone at public expense to come along and collect the dropped trash—and in the meantime, until that thoughtful person or paid sweeper next passes this way, the area will look unsightly.

Part of that folklore may include a religious dimension and the invocation of an all-knowing god to look down upon the world, note personal transgressions, and ultimately pass judgment on the individual at the time of death. Think of this as a shorthand version of passing along the rules for living, useful when parents and grandparents are either too busy to explain everything to a child or not completely observant themselves.

Actions have consequences, and human beings evolved to survive by observing the world, noting relationships, making rules for themselves, and recognizing their own part in the process. This habit of understanding through self-reflection is going to be part of any civilization of sentient beings. We will even encounter it out among the stars. Perhaps they will also have gods. Perhaps they will have a civilizational rulebook. But they certainly will have morals.