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No Lessons, No Morality

August 3, 2014

I recently read an article by a woman who had given up eating sugar two years previously.  She admitted that she still ate sugar occasionally.  She would share a sugary dessert between her and her two daughters.  Then she stated that sugar should be an occasional treat, as nature intended.  That statement got me thinking.  Perhaps it betrayed a misunderstanding of nature, one that’s all too common.  The only sugary food in nature is fruit.  That must have been what she referred to.  Trees that bear fruit, apple trees for example, don’t do it as an occasional treat for humans.  They do it as a means to disperse their seeds.  The sweet fruit attracts animals, us included, who pick the fruit, eat the pulp, and spit out the seeds all over the place.  That’s the apple tree’s strategy for living and producing more apple trees.  It obviously works for the tree.  In fact, the tree doesn’t care if we eat too much sugar and grow fat; it only cares that its seeds get dispersed.

There are no lessons for us in nature.  Creatures in nature look after themselves alone.  Aesop’s fables may suggest that we model ourselves on one animal and avoid being like another animal, but this is a message for us.  It’s not intended to be an accurate description of the behavior of these animals.  In truth, all possible lessons exist in nature, both positive and negative.  We can always find one that illustrates any story that we wish to tell.

There’s also no morality in nature.  A thousand years ago, people believed that everything in the world had morality, from all animals and plants to even ores ripening in the womb of the earth.  We don’t think that way anymore.  Inanimate objects don’t have morality.  Plants and animals compete with each other.  The ones that are successful in this process will continue in future generations.  There are many different strategies for living, but all of them must work if the plant or animal continues to exist.

We generally like certain animals and see them as morally good.  These are often grazing or browsing animals, ones that eat only plants.  Elephants and rabbits are good examples.  We also like animals that provide for themselves, as in the fable of the Ant and the Grasshopper.  These animals all have chosen their strategy for living.  All have been successful, although the elephant is the one that may have made the worst choice.

We dislike other animals and see them as morally evil.  These are often predators like lions and tigers.  Of course, most people understand that these animals have to kill in order to eat.  We also see parasites as morally evil.  Parasites inspire feelings of revulsion.  Charles Darwin noted that cats will play with mice before they kill them.  We see this as cruel behavior.  Again, all of these animals have chosen a strategy for living, one that works for them.

Morality is a human concept.  We should not apply it to other creatures, by showing our approval or disapproval of them.  We can, of course, use them as examples, but the morality applies to us, not to the animals.  We have the ability to act in a moral manner.  We have the ability to learn morality from stories told by other people.


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