All of what I know about baboons I learned from watching nature shows, so I am not an expert. But I don’t like them. They only good thing you can say about them is that they seem to be fearless, but that might be just because they are stupid and aggressive. Beyond that, they seem to have most of our petty human failings, except worse. Baboons are intensely social and hierarchical and enforce their social status by violence and humiliation. Among their communications methods is displaying their big red asses to the lesser baboons. This is the kind of nature we hope that culture and civilization will help us rise above.
But I have been in enough group interactions to know that we don’t always rise much above the red assed baboon, but there are particular situations that bring out the better or the worse in us. When cut through all the fog, obfuscations and commentary, you see the key factor is the sense of objective truth, a goal beyond the particular personal preferences of individual group members. W/o that, we are victims of popularity, personalities and ephemeral politics.
Think about some easy examples. Working with engineers, scientists, farmers and foresters is relatively straightforward because you can point to objective results. You can argue about how best to build the bridge but only within what is permitted by the constraints of topography rules of physics and the characteristics of materials. Or consider agriculture. A farmer’s work ethic and decision making is on display literally on the ground. A flamboyant personality or wonderful aspirations don’t make up for not getting the seeds in at the right time.
Now consider the opposite side of the spectrum: fashion and entertainment. In these fields of human endeavor success depend on almost nothing but personality or celebrity and everything is open to interpretation and restatement. An aggressive personality is more important than core competence and winners are willing – often eager – to put down and humiliate subordinates and potential rivals. Many of the most successful leaders in these fields seem to revel in this and have developed a kind of dark ethical system of insincerity and shallow coolness. Speaking of “A-list” or “B-list” or even “C-list” celebrities is just a human equivalent of showing your red ass and the display has the same purpose as it does among the baboons.
I am afraid that our society has been drifting away from the tangible truth and more in the direction of power of personality as fewer and fewer of us work on task that yield tangible results and an even smaller minority can see long-term outcomes of their efforts. It is no surprise if more people behave like selfish baboons.
I don’t consider myself a moralist or an example for that, but I understand that society must be based on transcendent moral principles that allow us to see beyond the problems of today or the personalities or proclivities of the participants. There should come a bottom line where you can say, “that just ain’t right” or “this is what we have to do” w/o reference to who did it or who you are talking about.
One of the practical benefits of a moral compass is that it makes life more predictable and helps protect people when their status in the group changes. Among baboons, it is all about power and position. Baboons have no objective morality. Humans should. What the big baboon can enforce is the truth … until he can’t do it anymore. We humans should be above that and I do say above in the sense of better. Yes I am making a judgment about a moral position.
Our experiences reinforce each other and color our judgments of the wider world. I know that my experience with long-term requirements of forestry informs my thinking on many ostensible unrelated issues and helps balance the venality of some of my public affairs work, where staging for today may be rewarded more profusely than building for tomorrow. If we rarely anymore see the consequences of our ordinary daily choices, we start to lose the capacity to judge moral choices. Everything starts to be relative and standards drop. As Daniel Patrick Moynihan said, we define deviancy downward. The neutral – and wrong – way to put this would be that morality has been redefined to be more inclusive.
Moral decisions should be hard. We are likely to make many mistakes and none of us can live up to our highest aspirations, provided our aspirations are set properly high. We often won’t make the cut and some people will never make it at all. Put in traditional terms, we are all sinners and can never overcome our base natures, but we are constrained continually to strive to be better.
Otherwise we are all just a bunch of red assed baboons.