What shall I do? Why shall I do it? These are questions which human beings have been asking for thousands of years, and many have believed that some choices are right and others wrong. In the early twentieth century, however, the biologist Jacques Loeb argued against right and wrong as motivators for our actions:
If our existence is based on the play of blind forces and only a matter of chance; if we ourselves are only chemical mechanisms, how can there be an ethics for us? The answer is that our instincts are the root of our ethics and that the instincts are just as hereditary as is the form of our body. We eat, drink and reproduce not because mankind has reached an agreement that this is desirable, but because, machine-like, we are compelled to do so. The mother loves and cares for her children not because metaphysics had the idea that this was desirable, but because the instinct of taking care of the young is inherited. We struggle for justice and truth since we are instinctively compelled to see our fellow beings happy.Jacques Loeb, quoted on page 11 of Life Itself, by Boyce Rensberger
This view of ethics, especially familial ethics, is a common one. We know that animals care for their young and perform all that is needful for the survival of herd or pack by instinct; we learn more and more that in genetics, in the structure of cell, and even in the functions of the brain, man and beast are very similar; and seeing the similarity of our needs and actions with those of animals, we are inclined to consider man a sort of extra-developed animal, and to limit his motivations to those of animals. In some fields this means considering only the base desires of man; here it means deriving all motivation from instinct. Metaphysics, Loeb teaches, are superfluous. If we see that human mothers care for their children, and we see that animal mothers care for their young, why are we to suppose that any greater reason exists for the human actions? No. Loeb’s view is quite comprehensible when he ways that it is all instinct.
Loeb’s view is also, as it happens, quite insufficient. Perhaps animals eat, drink, reproduce, and care for their young with a machine-like regularity—but humans do not. “All the beasts of the field are respectable; it is only man who has broken loose,” Chesterton wrote in Tremendous Trifles. “All animals are domestic animals; only man is ever undomestic. All animals are tame animals; it is only we who are wild.” Wolves bring back prey for their cubs; herds of prey animals put their young in the safe center; penguins travel vast icy distances to bring food for their chicks; in them all, as Loeb says, the actions which can appear ethically motivated are instinctual; “instincts are just as hereditary as the form of [the] body”; and “the instinct of taking care of the young is inherited.”
Yet homo sapiens, alone of all the species inhabiting the earth, has left a trail through history of infidelity, murder, desertion of family, suicide, and self-destructive debauchery of all kinds—and this unethical behavior itself stands against Loeb to prove that ethics are possible. Ethics can truly exist because they can be rejected.
Indeed, Loeb has himself us with a last sentence which seems carefully composed to display the weakness of his position: “We struggle for justice and truth since we are instinctively compelled to see our fellow beings happy.” But this is nonsense. Even setting aside history’s record, the sentence destroys itself. If we were instinctively compelled to see our fellow beings happy, there would no need to struggle for justice and truth. Yet because we can not struggle for justice and truth, unlike the animal which never questions whether it shall bring food to its young—because, indeed, we can struggle very hard against justice and truth—it is possible for us to struggle for justice and truth. To us is given the possibility of disobeying; to us is given the possibility of obeying meaningfully. And ethics, a very real, very conscious, often very difficult ethics, is the question of whether we shall obey or not.