Buddha says, apparently – and I agree, so he must be onto something – that there is no right and wrong, things just ‘are’.
So, like, you’re a fish. A shark. You see a baby dolphin enjoying itself in the water, its mother is looking at the underwater equivalent of the sunset, so you bite its head off. Anything wrong with that? No, it’s a shark. But say you’re a monkey. There’s a rival tribe of monkeys in the next door part of the jungle, and they’ve got better banana trees than you, so you start a war, kill most of them, rape the remaining females, and move onto their patch. Wrong? Not really, you’re a monkey, you don’t know any better. That’s what monkeys do. And lions, and ants, and bees, and snakes, and just about everything alive down to and including viruses. Why do they do it? Because at some point in their evolution, it was useful to do that. You got violent, you ended up with the bananas and the spare females, you reproduced, the other lot didn’t. You took over the pride, you killed the previous king’s kids, your lot got to grow up, his lot didn’t.
On the other hand, if cruelty and violence can be useful, so can sweetness and light. If you’re a monkey, or a lion, and you go round being mean to everyone, someone in your own group is going to get sick of you and bite your head off. It helps to be cooperative. To cooperate, you have to have an idea of what the other guy might want, how he might feel. It helps when you’re hunting, too, because if you know what, say, deer like – drinking, green grass, sex in the mating season – you can catch them more easily.
Which brings me to the point of this small essay, which is, how are people any different? We’re all, to a greater or lesser degree, empathetic, cooperative, sociable, violent, cruel, spiteful – and all these characteristics are built in to come in useful under some conditions or other. It might not be very useful to be a psychopathic rapist in your average western democracy, but it probably really helps you along in the Congo. So why is ‘kindness’ a virtue and ‘cruelty’ a vice? Because we LIVE in the aforesaid average western democracy and in our social structure and conditions, generally, cruelty makes the social order break down rather than encouraging us all to work together in a jolly team.
And since humans are a social animal and are designed to get along with each other in groups, most of the time, we have an inbuilt dislike of team-splitting acts. The other reason that we hate them is because we’re empathetic. Humans, more than dogs probably or even the saintly dolphins, can imagine what it’s like to be the other – even if the other is a rat, literally. So things that WE wouldn’t like, we can imagine THEM not liking – and that leads to a natural revulsion in many humans to inflicting pain. With notable exceptions in people who work in abattoirs, policepersons, and some heavy metal bands.
Anyway so in a nutshell, right and wrong come down to two principles, usefulness, and empathy. Given that, why the hell am I so concerned about the ‘wickedness’ in the world (especially after reading Robert Fisk) – after all it’s only natural – and why should it matter, cosmically speaking, if I do ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. Buddha says it does. But why? Sure, right actions might lead to a ‘righter’ world or get you closer to enlightenment – but why should you want a ‘better’ world, or to be enlightened. Why not be a real meanie and enjoy torturing kittens, if that’s what you’re into – nobody would say anything against it if you were a hyena (at least, I guess I wouldn’t, given the foregoing, though I do like kittens and not so much hyenas).