What law of physics obligates the existence of a moral code? Why don’t rocks and trees and lions and zebras have moral codes? What is it that makes human decisions a special case that is different from all other things and creatures? Philosophers have struggled over the concept of right and wrong since before fire was captured for domestic use. In the time since then there have probably been as many moral codes as there have been philosophers to think of them. Most of them have one thing in common; they are claiming a lever to compel the behavior of others. Do lions and zebras have moral codes? Of course not. Lions attack and zebras defend. Zebras are (I’ve heard) a principal non-human killer of lions. They break the lion’s jaw with well placed kicks while attempting to escape. Unable to eat, the lion starves to death. Is a lion committing a moral wrong when it attacks a zebra? Is a zebra committing a moral wrong when it kicks a lion? Of course not, lions are lions and zebras are zebras. There is no moral code for lions and zebras beyond continuing their gene pool. With only that for guidance, all of their interactions tend towards extreme violence. Carrying on one’s gene pool is an internal imperative to each individual. There is no external imperative in the laws of physics that a particular gene pool must be continued. If one line ends, (other) life goes on. There is no external imperative for a lion or zebras’ moral code. Nor for a human’s. If there is no external imperative obligating a moral code, is no moral code possible? Must people live in a world where humans interact as zebras and lions? Not necessarily. Humans are social, thoughtful and planning creatures. Most of us are quite capable of understanding that in some circumstances we could be a capable aggressor and in some cases we could be an unwilling target. If I expect that at some point in time I will be a target, I might want there to be rules against aggression, even if I am at the moment acting from a position of great strength. From our positions of strength, we look to the future and seek allies that will honor our proposed rules and will continue to enforce them even when we are not strong enough to do so. From our simple agreements warding off aggression, complex societies formed. With the passage of time, complexity increases and that original foundational source is forgotten. People begin searching for external sources of a moral imperative to impose on others. This is the point at which participants either deliberately or unconsciously begin gaming the system. What started as a reciprocal agreement to not kill your neighbors and steal their food and to protect each other if attacked, has morphed into incomprehensibly complex systems with minute rules administered by free-standing third-parties called “governments” and their original foundation as a mutual non-aggression pact has been lost to posterity.
Forgetting the original mutual non-aggression pact foundation and looking for external sources of moral codes invites theories of how people deserve to be treated. How does a zebra or a lion “deserve” to be treated? The question is silly because a zebra is a zebra and a lion is a lion; each is what it is. In the ‘here and now’ mind of a zebra or a lion, a human crossing the Serengeti is just another thing and “deserves” nothing. In the much posited “state of nature”, the only restraint on the strongest is a sated appetite. It is only through temporally durable agreements that humans are restrained. “Deserve” is a human invention and subject to human definition. You deserve only what the contract you have with other individuals says you “deserve”. If there is no contract, there is no “deserve”. At root, these mutual non-aggression contracts between humans, acting individually and in cooperation, stand as the only barrier between each of us and unlimited, literally unlimited, violence.
The binding strength of our constitutional contracts is all that holds back violent aggression by whoever is strongest at the moment. Once a society slips from its contractual moorings and floats free, it cannot but drift into primal carnage. If the rules can be flexed with good intentions, it is the strongest who will bend them. Regardless of the good intentions behind constitutional nullification, sooner or later the broken remnants of what started as a mutual non-aggression pact become weapons in the hands of aggressors. When the constitutional contract is nullified it is the strongest, not the weakest, who benefit.