5 September

‘Darwinian Honesty’, and Vegas

There is a school of thought that holds we are at our most honest, and most essentially human, when at our most animal level. This, at least, is a suggestion made by Marc Cooper in his book, The Last Honest Place in America, about high-stakes poker games in Las Vegas. ‘Its thesis’, writes David Flusfeder, ‘[is] that Las Vegas is brutal but self-evident: it’s all about money’. From this can be neatly extrapolated the idea that humans are, in a Darwinian sense, simply a ‘bundle of drives’ and part of no more than a competition for resources. In the end the strong win and the weak leave the gaming table of life. Moreover, to expect anything more of human endeavour is to deceive ourselves, to engage in mere wishful thinking about our role in some grand purpose, beyond the realm of cunning, physical strength and material need.

Superficially such a thesis attracts especially those of a materialist persuasion since it offers an empirical foundation upon which to base an understanding of humanity. But it also conceals beneath a veneer of natural selection implicit value judgements not based on material proof or verifiable evidence.

The desire for survival begs the question, ‘survival for what?’. Some take it to be self-evidently good, pointing to people and animals feeling it to be so. But under such a system a high-minded and heroic sacrifice such as martyrdom can have no value. Those who sacrifice themselves for the sake of others must be regarded simply as unfit to live. Their ideals drag them down for our benefit. We might thank them posthumously, but we ought not to honour them. In the name of scientific authenticity a noble ideal tumbles down.

More pointedly, the claim that ‘we are at our most honest’ when at our most animal is self-refuting. If honesty has any value at all it can only be insofar as it serves survival. Should survival be compromised by honesty the virtue must be abandoned. But it cannot be abandoned for the sake of some scientific claim to truth. Truths, scientific or otherwise, cannot have intrinsic value if we embrace Social Darwinism. They are merely tools for achieving a continued survival whose purpose is questionable.

This means there is nothing essentially wrong with lying or murder if they are means to power and survival. Even truth itself collapses into power, whether found in physical strength, ingenuity, or the ability to play a good hand at poker. Truth and honesty have no value beyond a capacity to reinforce the power of one bearing ‘truth’ or capable of ‘honesty’. Twentieth-century dictators and sham religious leaders need not be condemned. Joseph Stalin, Chairman Mao and countless cult leaders might as well be celebrated as powerful men who died in relatively peaceful circumstances of natural causes, unless, of course, that hinders one’s own accumulation of power.

But when honesty and truth are so dissolved we cannot in fact claim that there is honesty in such brutality. Rather, it is just brutality pure and simple, without value.

In the end the maxim forwarded by the likes of Marc Cooper is no more than a cover for pleasure. The dishonesty this engenders inevitably calls human relationships into question. In embracing the ethics of Social Darwinism our most intimate relationships must eventually be subject to our own will to power to which trust and love must give place. If we had hoped thereby to establish a secure basis upon which to found a definition of humanity we have in fact simply created a void in which the love and friendship that are so much a part of our shared life cannot survive. Such a ‘Darwinian Honesty’ is nothing of the kind. Rather, it destroys the very humanity we seek to preserve.


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