Sunday, April 06, 2008

Can there be morality without God?

A silly question to ask, perhaps, given the answer is often patently clear depending on who you ask. Ask an atheist and they'll roll their eyes and point to the fact the haven't been raping or pillaging of late (even in spite of possible opportunities to do so). Ask a Christian, for example, and they'll frown and recite that often misquoted fragment of Dostoyevsky, "If God is not, everything is permitted."

I find it remarkable both that evolutionary accounts of morality are becoming increasingly cited by everyone from psychologists to philosophers to religious commentators - but also that evolutionary accounts of morality continue to be misunderstood by many of those critical of it. Namely, those who resort to supernatural explanations of morality.

Here's one, a fine example of the expertly crafted guides intended to equip Christians for heated dinner party conversations (why do secular thinkers not take the time to prepare such guides?).
This page has an interesting analysis of evolutionary accounts of morality from a Christian perspective, and some pointed criticisms of them.

Without getting into my own opinions on the matter, first and foremost I think it's critical that all sides at least get the facts (and theories) straight. So, in that light, I'd like to point out some unfortunate errors in this interpretation of atheistic morality and make some clarifications.

Point 1,1 kicks off the misunderstanding of evolutionary accounts of morality:
Humans, as social animals, have always lived in tribes or communal groups, and in this context, various rules for behavior evolved. Evolution has equipped humans with nervous systems biased in favor of social, rather than antisocial, behaviors. Man learned that cooperation is more beneficial than pure selfishness; cooperation with others naturally improves your life. Social customs (morals) naturally evolved. These customs benefited both the group and the individual. In time, religion developed and adopted many of these common rules. But they are no more than mere human inventions.
This suggests that we evolved social customs that encouraged pro-social behaviour. Furthermore, it states that these rules are entirely human inventions, eventually co-opted by religion. This is absolutely not what the latest evolutionary accounts of morality describe. In fact, one crucial property of judgements that spring forth from our evolved moral sense is that they are in some way universal. There is a stark difference in our psychology between actions or rules that are obligatory, and ones that are merely customary or based on individual preference. And this distinction seems to be apparent to people even at a very young age. What's important about this is that the obligatory rules are perceived to be universal, and the feeling is that they should apply to all people, in all situations, everywhere. Compare the way we think of cheating someone to the way we think of placing the fork on the left and the knife on the right.

All this suggests that our evolved moral sense is far more than a set of social customs. And they are equally far from being purely human inventions. Certainly the content of a rule may be contingent on culture, but the moral sense operates at the level of moral sentiments, such as disgust, outrage at unfairness or shame at breaking a social convention - and these are common across all cultures.

Point 1,2 also drags up that old straw man, Nietzsche, and the concept of 'survival of the fittest'.
Atheistic morality should be consistent with what is found in nature—survival of the fittest. This is the type of morality Nietzsche advocated: strive to fulfill one’s own desires, affirm your animal passions, and impose your strong will over those who are weak. Any goal is acceptable as long as one pursues it with energy, resolution, and power. Christian virtues like compassion, pity, and generosity are unbearably repulsive from this viewpoint.
I'm surprised, and disappointed, that this concept keeps rearing its ugly head. Natural selection is a very nuanced process that goes far beyond shaping organisms to 'fit' their environment. Furthermore, this discounts the power of cooperation and benefits provided by social existence - both of which are crucial to this discussion.

That's not to say that ruthless self-interest isn't the best strategy for some individuals. Certainly, if you're the dominant individual in a social hierarchy, it's likely in your best interests to do whatever you can to maintain that position (and privileged access to mates). Yet there are demonstrable advantages to a more equitable social hierarchy that encourages cooperation in certain circumstances, which may be one of the primary reasons why our moral sense evolved alongside our self-interested sense to temper it and promote pro-social behaviour.

The next paragraph is also somewhat unsophisticated:
Humans are perfectly capable of determining what is good or bad, helpful or hurtful, without consulting a supposed deity. The morality of a situation is determined by considering the rewards and disadvantages of an act. Self-interest drives the process. Whatever increases one’s chances of experiencing pleasure is “good”; whatever decreases such chances is “bad.” Morality is simply a strategy one employs for his own long-term benefit...
This is unfortunately not a very accurate representation of contemporary moral theories. Firstly, most moral theories don't suggest that people rationally weigh up advantages and disadvantages of an particular act to reckon whether it will increase or decrease pleasure. Such a theory would amount to a fairly trivial semi-utilitarian consequentialism - and as far as I know, not many would hold such a theory to be true.

There might be some truth in the sentence that "morality is simply a strategy one employs for his own long-term benefit", yet this ignores the critical distinction between proximate and ultimate cause. The ultimate cause of morality may be to provide a long term benefit (which is quite different to the above sentences implying that pleasure was the point of morality), although that benefit may be more for an individual's genes than the individual themselves. Yet the proximate cause of moral behaviour could well be sentiments such as a genuine empathy for other individuals.

Following are some more paragraphs that don't warrant direct attention, except for one old chestnut: that atheists believe that morality is inherently relative, not absolute. There are many who hold this view, but research into moral psychology is clearly pointing to that fact that while the content of our moral systems may be contingent on culture, the moral sense itself - and its promotion of pro-social behaviour - is universal across all cultures, and arguably hard wired into huamn nature. (I believe it is one of the major challenges for contemporary moral theory to map the terrain of this moral sense and see how it contributes to moral systems in conjunction with culture.)

Now, for the Christian responses:
Like anyone else, atheists know that God exists (Rom 1:19-20), have “the law written in their hearts” (Rom 2:15), and have a conscience, which means that they have a basic capacity to discern right from wrong, good from evil. Atheists “suppress” this knowledge (Rom 1:18), but they are still accountable for it. One’s conscience may be “defiled” (Titus 1:15) or “seared with a hot iron” (1 Tim 4:2), and thus inoperative or insensitive. Those who repeatedly violate their conscience can silence its gentle voice. The only way for an atheist to have a clear conscience is to deny God’s existence.
This first point barely rates a mention because it contributes nothing to a moral debate, except to provide some context for the following statements.
The atheistic assumption that the inner self or society are proper bases for morality is flawed. The inner depths of human nature is deeply sinful and cannot determine the “ought-ness” of any action. The human heart is “deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked” (Jer 17:9). Even “good” acts may be motivated by selfishness (cf. Isa 64:6). Society is equally unable to provide valid guidelines for morality. Some societies, like the ancient Assyrians, the Romans, or more recently, the Nazi regime in Germany, were barbaric and brutal. Thus, neither the self nor society provide suitable bases for determining morality.
Now we're getting to some interesting - and testable - stuff. This paragraph makes a strong assertion about the nature of the 'human heart', which I'll interpret as being equivalent to what I'd call our 'moral intuitions'. Yet, there's a growing body of research that tells a very different story about our 'heart'. In fact, it appears to be deeply morally ingrained. It can very quickly tell the difference between an arbitrary act and an act of injustice. Or tell a social contract violator from an innocent individual. It is far from perfect in determining these things, but it's far less imperfect than even our capacity to reason these things out.

It does make a good point about society not being able to provide a suitable basis for morality, but that assertion is never made by evolutionary moral theorists. Instead, it's our moral intuitions, interacting with our environment and culture, that shape our moral system, and our society is only a piece of that puzzle.

Then there's this again:
Atheistic morality is liable to change at any time to incorporate changes in taste or mood. There can be no sense of absolute or transcendent morality.
I won't add much here except to remind that contemporary evolutionary moral theory allows - and predicts - that moral systems will change, but that our inherent moral faculty remains largly the same. Think of it as like language. Languages differ from culture to culture, and they change over time. Yet all cultures have a language, they are based upon a fairly restricted set of grammatical rules, and we're born with an innate capacity to learn a language - which one depends on where we grow up. As for a transcendent morality, the research tells us that one fact about moral judgments is that they appear transcendent, whether they are truly universal or not. So perhaps there is no objective transcendent morality, which would apply just as much to Christian morality as secular morality.
Evolution does not provide a satisfactory process for how morality arose in humans. If man is an animal, why does he alone have a sense of right and wrong? How can evolution explain the kind of morality that has no genetic benefit? Why do virtually all human cultures recognize moral standards? Atheists commonly assert that the universe has no purpose, no evil and no good in it. How then can one judge that anything is evil or good? Atheists have no logical basis for morality and offer no means of determining moral choices, other than self-interest. There can be no morality for those who say we live in an amoral universe. Neither atheism nor Darwinism has any explanation for purely disinterested altruism, such as when a stranger risks his life for a fellow stranger.
As I've already mentioned (and hope to go into more detail in the future), there are answers to all these questions. Not all of those answers are complete nor are they without controversy, but there are cogent, reasoned answers increasingly backed up by evidence. For example, as I've stated above, the reason "all human cultures recognise moral standards" is because we have an evolved innate moral faculty. As for a logical basis for morality, this is a tough question, and one that I think applies to all moral systems (assuming you discount the voracity of the supernatural to explain the problem away). 'Good' and 'evil' may need to be redefined in a more comprehensive and nuanced way compared to the way we've used them traditionally. For example, ultimate good (passing genes on to the next generation) may need to be distinguished from proximate good (helping or cooperating with another individual). But to suggest that Darwinism provides for an amoral universe is an overly simplistic account.
Atheists really should be determinists. If the universe functions purely according to natural laws, then everything is governed by those laws, and whatever happens must happen. Each person is merely a collection of physical materials running a program, like a living computer. If that is true, then words like ought have no meaning. Materialism provides no means of deciding between one choice and another and no way of determining the morality of any situation. Our whole vocabulary of praise and blame, admiration and contempt, approval or disapproval can have no meaning if the atheists are right.
The issue of determinism is a side issue here. Whether determinism is true or not, and whether it is incompatible with free will, is irrelevant in a discussion of morality. Even if determinism is true, we still wish to behave well and shape the behaviour of other individuals (through punishment etc), and that forms the basis of a moral system.

There's lot here, and far more unsaid. There is a burgeoning body of research into our moral psychology, how it could have evolved and how it shapes our moral systems. I'll aim to flag much of it here on this blog, and place it in context of the moral debates that are occurring today.


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