There once was a time when philosophers of western culture wrestled in deep contemplation about the ethical life. What is good? What is right? What is true? These questions led both the common man and intellectual to wrestle with deep questions of morality and virtue. There was a desire to live according to a way that was truly good, not simply advantageous in the moment. These days are long gone.
I was recently reminded of the impoverished state of ethical reasoning today in light of the reductions of philosophical naturalism. In the Chronicle for Higher Education, I read an essay where psychology professor David P. Barash meditates on our cultures obsession with sports. The essay is entitled The Roar of the Crowd and me thinks Dr. B is not a sports fan. The whole essay is a looking down on the raucous crowds herding in and out of grand stadiums cheering for their team. Barash’s disdain can be heard in the opening of the article:
Marx was wrong: The opiate of the masses isn’t religion, but spectator sports. What else explains the astounding fact that millions of seemingly intelligent human beings feel that the athletic exertions of total strangers are somehow consequential for themselves? The real question we should be asking during the madness surrounding this month’s collegiate basketball championship season is not who will win, but why anyone cares.
Not that I would try to stop anyone from root, root, rooting to his or her heart’s content. It’s just that such things are normally done by pigs, in the mud, or by seedlings, lacking a firm grip on reality— fine for them, but I am not at all sure this is something that human beings should do. In desperation, if threatened with starvation, I suppose that I would root— for dinner. But for the home team? Never.
Wow, I think he is better than me. How silly of me to chant “Go Heels!” last month when the Tarheels triumphed in the Final Four. So what sort of reasons does Dr. Barash provide for us in his essay as to why we are so into the games of March Madness? Lions and Tigers and Bears…what else. In the worldview of many intellectuals today, human beings are the process of blind, natural forces that simply exist and produce what they may. In such a view, moral values and human behaviors are something created by evolution and not something outside of us to which we owe some allegiance. Ethics (and all our behavior) is evolution, or a by product of environments. In fact, the facile nature of discussions of “why we do anything” is often boiled down to Lions and Tigers and Bears…oh my.
Most of us can recall the scene from the Wizard of Oz where Dorothy, Scarecrow and Tinman walk through a forest in fear. They are worried about the wild beasts that might be there to tear them apart - of course all they find is a cowardly lion. Yet today’s evolutionary psychologist can tell you why you do everything by appealing to your ancient ancestor on the African savanna running hither and yon being chased by Lions and Tigers and Bears (or to be more precise, whatever predator which was chasing in that time/place).
Here is the beginning of Barash’s explanation as to why groups of bipedal apes go to sporting events:
For tens of thousands of years during our early evolutionary history, there was safety in numbers, just as there is today for ants, horses, or chimpanzees. A single herring, swimming fearfully in the cold Atlantic, or a lonely wildebeest tramping its solitary way over the African savannah, is vulnerable to a hungry tuna or lion. But that herring or wildebeest can make itself somewhat safer by sidling up close to another herring or wildebeest, if only because a potential predator might choose the neighbor instead. Better yet, get yourself near a pair of herrings or wildebeests, or a dozen, or a hundred. For their part, the other group members aren’t feeling “used,” since they have been figuring the same way. They positively invite you to join because your presence makes them safer, too. Very likely such evolutionary factors were operating among our ancestors. Groups also provided the opportunity for division of labor, made it easier for prospective mates to meet, and provided for the pooling of material resources (like food) and for sharing precious wisdom (where to find water during those once-in-50-year droughts).
In addition— and this may well have been especially important for early human beings— we doubtless benefited from group size when we became enemies to each other. Even as affiliative grouping undoubtedly contributed to our survival and success, it could well have created its own kind of Frankenstein’s monster: other groups. Although considerations of efficiency might have meant that our social units sometimes became oversized, it is easy to imagine how the presence of large, threatening bands of our own species pressured us to seek numbers to find safety.
Then it really becomes almost comical in the way he reduces the behavior of the unenlightened, mob following sports fan:
Certainly we can be bamboozled, induced to sit atop our various self-identified groups in an orgy of affiliation that makes the oystercatcher seem downright insightful. But it feels good because as we perch there, we satisfy a deep craving, indulging the illusion of being part of something larger than ourselves and thus nurtured, understood, accepted, enlarged, empowered, gratified, protected.
The observer of spectator sports cannot help but confront the odd underbelly of this passion: the yearning to be someone else, or at least, a very small part of something else, so long as that something else is Something Else, large and imposing, impressive and thus irresistible. That dark desire for deindividuation was felt for millennia by the herring and the wildebeest, and perfected by human beings centuries ago: interestingly, not by sports franchises but by the world’s military forces.
We love groups because we are afraid of lions, tigers, bears and other big groups of mean people. We identify to feel safe, important even. Now consider the evolutionary psychology of “doing the Wave”:
The Wave, which many fans say originated in my hometown of Seattle, is a good example. Even though they don’t get to swing a bat, throw a pass, or sink a three-pointer, fans have been inventive in providing themselves with ritualized, shared movements that further embellish the allure as well as the illusion of being part of the larger, shared whole, tapping into that primitive satisfaction that moves at almost lightning speed from shared, ritual action to a tempestuous sense of expanded self. One becomes part of a great beckoning, grunting, yet smoothly functioning, and, presumably, security-generating Beast. And for those involved, it apparently feels good to be thus devoured whole and to live in its belly.
And you thought you were having fun with your friends…silly psychologically naive human! In all seriousness, Barash does have some good insights in the article but his reduction of human beings make even his insights into group behavior a bit shallow. In the utility of sex and survival among our apish ancestors we find the answers to why we do everything: Why do we love? It helped us to pair bond to protect or progeny (which has selfish genes) from Lions and Tigers and Bears! Why are we worshipping creatures? We were afraid of the Lions and Tigers and Bears so we invented gods to help us! Why do we do anything at all? Human life and behavior is lions all the way down.
It seems to me that Mr. Barash may have a beast that he does find morally repugnant. Perhaps a patriotic, sports fan in the military doing the wave. Yet where does Mr. Barash get off in his judgments? After all, if evolution made them all do it, it just is. He really should not push his morality on the flag waving sports fan.
I like the old pagan reasoning about ethics and behavior much better than the new. At least the old pagans (like Aristotle) seemed to be searching for the truly good. Today, the new pagan just explains it all away and then makes moral judgments on those beneath his own evolutionary enlightenment. I find it all rather simplistic and intellectually boring; the telling of just so stories without much philosophical reflection. But maybe there are just more tigers under my bed.