Origins of the Moral Law

“Another way of seeing that the Moral Law is not simply one of our instincts is this. If two instincts are in conflict, and there is nothing in a creature’s mind except those two instincts, obviously the stronger of the two must win. But at those moments when we are most conscious of the Moral Law, it usually seems to be telling us to side with the weaker of the two impulses. You probably want to be safe much more than you want to help the man who is drowning: but the Moral Law tells you to help him all the same.” -CS Lewis in “Mere Christianity”

Given my current position in the medical/scientific field, I am regularly reminded of one of the most basic assumptions of the secular worldview. This is the idea that humanity can be biologically, psychologically, and even morally defined strictly in terms of natural physical processes. In a universe absent of spirituality, man can be reduced to his biochemistry – vastly complex though it may be.

In the view of the naturalist, mankind’s moral code is the result of millennia of natural selection. While it would be impossible for me to fully give this viewpoint justice in my short blog post, the basic idea is that selective pressures have programmed humans to make morality-based decisions in terms of “survival of the individual”, “survival of the tribe,” and “survival of the species”.

And within the naturalist paradigm, this idea usually does a pretty decent job of explaining things. Since there are a few different levels to this, let’s start by looking at the physical survival response in the individual, then build up to some larger morality-based decisions:

– When we’re being attacked by a tiger, our sympathetic nervous system rapidly initiates the “fight or flight” response. Those of us more adept at fighting or fleeing would therefore be more likely to survive the attack and pass along our genes.

– When we’re hungry, the natural response might be to steal food from the caveman next door to feed ourselves. Yet for the naturalist, this benefit would be offset by the “tribal mindset”. In other words, stealing from the other guy might result in either driving him away (leaving us more vulnerable to tiger attacks), or in him coming after us with a club. Instead, learning to constructively negotiate with our neighbors (or the tribe) best equips us for long-term survival and allows us to pass along our genes.

– Finally, on a population level, it would be inferred that tribes most adept at placing the needs of the group ahead of the needs of the individual would be more likely to survive droughts, harsh winters, etc. Thus, over countless generations, we would end up with brains programmed with a “moral code” that would include ideas like “do not steal” and “do not murder,” as well as an instinct for taking measures to ensure the long-term survival of the species.

All of this sounds reasonable…but now allow me to explain why I believe our ingrained sense of right and wrong is inconsistent with the logical outcomes of this narrative.

Last April, I read an article that brought up the issue of whether or not it is morally responsible to “[increase] the carrying capacity of the world” by increasing the food supply to impoverished countries. The environmentalist might argue that, by enabling those in the Third World to better feed themselves and procreate, we’re artificially inflating the world’s population and condemning our species to the long-term threat of global warming and other ecological crises. Of course, while it might be easy enough for an environmentalist to make this judgement from her ivory tower, I suspect it would be considerably more difficult for her to explain to that starving African boy that he doesn’t deserve to be fed.

I’m going to go out on a limb here and assume that you, the reader, are equally sickened by the environmentalist’s line of thinking. Your moral code is (presumably) rebelling against the idea of allowing the weak to die off in order to ensure long-term stability. But why is this? It doesn’t exactly fit well into the evolutionary form of morality that I described above. What about survival of the fittest? Our moral conclusions, in this case, include no obvious benefit for ourselves as individuals, nor for our immediate “tribe” (neighborhood/city/state/nation), nor for the survival of our species as a whole.

The concept of “Social Darwinism” gained considerable momentum in the latter part of the nineteenth century. It arose as a direct response to the emerging popularity of Darwin’s theory of evolution, and sought to integrate the idea of natural selection into the sociopolitical realm. Early on, this ideology reared its ugly head primarily through eugenics programs – resulting in the forced sterilization of hundreds of thousands of the “genetically unfit” in countries such as Japan, Germany, Canada, and the United States. Shocking as it sounds today, this practice enjoyed considerable support. In fact, eugenics didn’t fall out of popularity until the post-WWII era, due in large part to the stigma of being associated with the Holocaust.

The overwhelming majority of modern atheists and naturalists vehemently reject Social Darwinism and regret the dark chapter of our history that it led us into. Great pains are often taken in debates to separate the biological idea of natural selection from the sociopolitical idea of natural selection. Yet this begs several important questions. What is Social Darwinism if not the logical moral extension of biological Darwinism? If our moral code is truly the direct result of evolutionary processes, then why is there a disconnect? Shouldn’t we be working to improve our gene pool by sterilizing or exterminating the physically and mentally unfit? If so, why do we innately recognize this as being wrong?

This brings me back to the CS Lewis quote that I opened with. I think it’s of paramount importance that we ask ourselves why this “Moral Law” has an uncomfortable tendency to nudge us toward “the weaker of the two impulses”. Can we honestly convince ourselves that the naturalist’s account is the most compelling? Might it be possible, rather, that our ingrained sense of right and wrong is derived from a Higher source?