On the Purpose of Civilization

There’s a new post up at Greg Swann’s place on the heels of our discussion of the Schiavo case (see here, which leads to all previous post on both sides). I think it’s probably no accident that Greg posted this now, though he doesn’t explicitly implicate Schiavo, et al. It’s an interesting argument, the barest gist of which, is:

The purpose of civilization is to prevent rape, to make the world safe for women and children. To make a world where women are not raped and killed and where children are not stolen and sold and raped and killed. Civilization is the means by which men make the world safe from their worst impulses, and it is remarkably successful.

I encourage you to go read the entire exchange and see the argument in full.

As for myself, count me agnostic. I tend to think that civilization is just as purposeless as human evolution—as is, indeed, existence itself. I believe that purpose applies only to individuals and that such purpose is inherently selfish. To the extent that individuals cooperate on a million different levels with one-another (from romantic love between a man and woman to mega-corporations, and everything in-between), it ultimately goes to a selfish and individual purpose.

So then, why do we have civilization? Well, because we’re smart and rational. We figured things out—like agriculture. Prior to that, you couldn’t have large groups of people inhabiting one spot. They’d all starve to death because all native animal and plant sources would be quickly expended. Agriculture, a human technology, is the very heart of civilization. In short, humans found they could stay in one spot and eat rather than hunt for food and be always on the move. It was selfish individual purpose. It was then possible to invest time and resources in acquiring and improving property and shelter, and all the tools necessary to build and maintain them. Selfish individual purpose. Larger families could be raised and fed. Civility followed for the selfish individual purpose of protecting it all—not just the women and children—but all of it.

If you read Greg’s argument in its entirety, I buy most or all of it—not as an aspect of human civilization, per se—but as an aspect of pre-civilized human evolution. If anything, civilization is in part what allows us to move beyond the confines of our biology and mysticisms that are designed to get us to behave in pre-ordained ways without a lot of explanation.

No, I think that civilization has no intrinsic purpose—but that the state and religious institutions, that grew up around civilization, do. The purpose of both institutions, of course, is to control people. At first, both controlled through violence and threat of violence. Now, it’s just the state (universally) that operates through violence and threat of violence, while most religious institutions (excluding Islam in most places) operate not through direct violence, but through a veiled form of threatened violence aided by limited (curable) mental retardation, brainwashing, lies, deceits, and guilt. Of course, the threat of violence is what God is going to do to you if you don’t subordinate your will to that of the church’s authority.

It’s been a long time since I consulted the figures, and I don’t recall who’s ahead of whom, but in all history of human civilization, there’s hundreds of millions dead over nation-state wars fought over territory, and hundreds of millions dead over religious ideology. Civilization, while being a protector, appears also to be a huge and efficient killer. But, it can afford to kill because it’s so efficient at producing offspring above replacement levels.

So, how does all this relate back to Schiavo? Well, if I get Greg’s idea, civilization is about protecting and preserving life, both at the beginning and at the end, to every extent possible. I agree, but there needs to be limits, definitions, distinctions. First, begin with what life really is. What are its limits? Why is it crucially important to distinguish a fetus from a conscious, thinking being exercising its human volition? Proceed from there.

There is something deeply ironic about the Schiavo case, however. Can you guess? It is religious doctrine that gives both sides of the conflict their necessary premise. The real argument here is nothing more than about who plays God. And this is why religionists will ultimately loose. They have granted the premise that a higher authority can decide when to take a life, for whatever mysterious purpose—you know, like how God murdered those 300,000 people in Southeast Asia on his Son’s birthday—and it need not even make any sense. So if God can see fit to wipe out millions every year in preventable accidents, disease, state tyranny, crime, then can’t a well-meaning family decide when it’s time for a loved-one to go?

But humans are coming to know the fact that they are God, and rather than a slippery slope (because, then , they’ll go and play God, and we can’t have that!), it’s really the dawning of real, universal civilization. Guess why? Because, at his best, God has always been far, far more evil than our worst human beings. Think about it. We’ve always been real-God, and we’ve always been far better than imagined-God, as evidenced by the simple fact of all the human suffering “he’s” caused or allowed to happen in human history. Suffering that dwarfs the evil of men.

We’re so much better. We always have been.

We can be trusted with decisions like Terri Schiavo—or at least those she entrusted with such decisions.


  1. John Sabotta on April 1, 2005 at 08:33

    I'll be more explicit. This victory over a helpless woman is disgusting and horrible, and those who envision a "dawning of a real universal civilization" should remember that the blood of the innocent cries to Heaven for vengeance. (You can substitute reality for Heaven, if you like) I hope I never live to see your wonderful universal civilization of death, and your boundless naive innocent confidence in man-as-God really only paves the way for some men to hold God-like powers over the weak and helpless. But God, I think, is not mocked.

    (The local proponents of the universal civilization are celebrating, of course. )

  2. John Sabotta on March 31, 2005 at 21:00

    Crystal meth does more than Nikoley can
    To justify non-God's ways to man

    – Anon, maybe

  3. Richard Nikoley on April 1, 2005 at 10:03

    With reagard to the crystal meth, I wouldn't know. Never got beyond weed in my youth, and now, that's about once per year, if that.

    With regard to Schiavo, I believe her own wishes were being carried out, and that's what's important to me. And, if she never made those wishes explicit, then I believe it's what she would have wished for. It seems to me that you believe either than she would have wanted to "live" like that, or, you don't care about her wishes. You're welcome to your position, but I don't envy it.

    With regard to God-man and universal civilizations, I'd have thought that you, John, of all people would grasp the essential metaphor. God, as he's known here (i.e., in the omnipotent formulation), is evil, and it's hard to deny that. If he's all-powerful, no one should ever want a thing to do with him. Humans, in general, are far more benevolent and holy that any formulation of "God" I've ever heard. Even the worst humans don't come close to inflicting the sort of suffering and misery that "God" has. That's the metaphor

    The abstract is that individuals _are_ God. That is, they are the only God that exists. Some do seek to hold sway over the weak and helpless, and all of us better Gods step right in and put an end to it. "God" will never be any more or any better than the best human individuals amongst us–and that's pretty good, in my book.

  4. John Sabotta on April 1, 2005 at 14:31

    With this conception of God, it seems virtually guaranteed that when man fully regards himself as God,he will act in evil ways. He'll do his best to even up that box score.

    It is both suggestive and sinister that the "dawning of the universal civilization" seems to hinge upon the acceptance of a sordid and merciless act of murder. Martin McPhillips says it better than I could.

    As for your notion that God is "evil", the Book of Job is more persuasive on this point than you could be. Where were you when the foundations of the earth were laid, Richard Nikoley?

    I'll be clear; I reject absolutely this blasphemous and sinister doctrine that "Man is God"; I disassociate myself from it without exception, and I refuse to accept or participate in the dawning universal civilization based on this notion.

    Maybe I'll be missing out on Utopia. But I don't think so.

  5. Richard Nikoley on April 1, 2005 at 14:54

    So, you think that man is evil, by nature. To the extent that he believes himself to be his own God, he has a greater and greater propensity towards evil. Wow, how "original."

    Where was I? I don't know, but subsequently, I might have been attending either of my many years of religious instruction, right up and including university.

    C'mon John, let yourself go. Embrace it. I'm not saying that I'm God and you have to obey me. I'm saying that you're God. You are, but I aint doing what you say, 'cause I am too.

    It won't seem like blasphemy once you get used to it.

    Liberate yourself. See everyone else as truly liberated. You'll have no notion of true liberty until you do.

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