Last week I had nightmares after reading Nicholas Kristof’s description of the Guinea worm–a two-foot long parasite that lives inside human beings and slowly burrows out of their bodies in the most unpleasant places–in his editorial on Jimmy Carter’s work to eradicate the disease. Besides my sleepless night, the article helped to solidify two things for me.
The first is that parasites like the Guinea worm should forever lay to rest the notion that there is a benevolent god who created humans in his or her image and the Earth as the place for our dominion. (It’s ironic that Carter, a devout evangelical, has done more than any other single person to help wipe out this disease; then again, those who believe in a god who would send his only son down to earth to be tortured and nailed to a cross have set the bar very low for the evidence of a benevolent divinity).
Bottom line: In this world we are but one among millions of creatures competing for resources. There are many out to kill us, but also many living inside of us that do us great service (or great disservice). Within the cycle of life that we call nature we humans do not take precedence; we are not the end point of all natural processes. While on many dimensions we are the most advanced, there are areas where we are less advanced. But perhaps most important, the extent to which we adhere to moral principles and ethics is due solely to our own conceptions of how things ought to be, not how they are.
Where this morality comes from is one of the great questions humanity faces. Increasingly, I believe that evolutionary explanations are the most persuasive, but not necessarily in a traditional way. Yes, we evolved to cooperate because it was in our interests to do so; but as our knowledge has grown so has our ability to empathize with other humans and non-humans. This ability, I conjecture, is at the root of our moral progress. We know pain and are able to easily conceptualize how others feel pain. For most of us it makes us feel better to help prevent that pain rather than to inflict it. The more our ability to empathize grows the more we are willing to alter our behavior to serve the needs of others.
This brings me to my second realization. We really need to do a better job of prioritizing the problems that we address as a global community. Curing the world’s most terrible diseases and making sure that not a single human being ever has to suffer the pain and indignity of diseases like the Guinea worm should be at the top of the list. There are many other issues hovering near the top, such as providing clean drinking water for all. Only when those problems have been adequately addressed should we then turn our attention to the next tier of problems, no matter how pressing they may seem to some. This next tier includes many environmental concerns, which I specialize in.
In this spirit I decided to shift the bulk of my charitable giving in order to reflect these new priorities (even though this will mean not giving, at least temporarily, to causes that I have long supported). I also plan to shift some of my research to areas of higher priority as well.
I am thankful that Mr. Kristof helped to remind me of these priorities.