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?

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33 thoughts on “Origins of the Moral Law

    • Thanks! I’ll definitely add that to my list. I’ve read quite a bit of Lewis, but not Abolition of Man.

  1. Excellent article, Matt! Astounding clarity and argumentation! I look forward to reading more of your posts. Your post brought to mind a quote from Etienne Gilson in his book, “God and Philosophy”: “That adaptations due to a purposeless struggle for life are no more mysterious than adaptations due to a purposeful struggle–whether this proposition is a ‘common fallacy,’ I do not know, but it certainly seems to be a fallacy. It is the fallacy of a scientist who, because he does not know how to ask metaphysical problems, obstinately refuses their correct metaphysical answers. In the Inferno of the world of knowledge, there is a special punishment for this sort of sin; it is the relapse into mythology” (New Haven: Yale, 2002, 135). It sounds like your environmentalist does not know how to ask ethical questions and give ethical answers. Your article very clearly demonstrates this. Thank you!

  2. Thanks Matt..Love Clive Staples..

    This “social darwinism” does take a fairly decent stab at explaining morality, but they also conveniently tip toe around anything absolute..

    PS: thanks for “like”n my blog

    • Yeah, I think a lot of times those who oppose Christianity are willingly blind to how important Christian-derived morality is to society.

  3. Matt,

    Thanks for your thoughtful post. I enjoyed Tim Keller’s book “The Reason for God” in which he challenges the atheist’s view to object to anything based on his own worldview. It relates to some of the logical issues you raise here.

    • No problem – and thanks for the feedback! I’ll check out the book you mentioned. I really enjoyed Keller’s “The Prodigal God” when I read it a few years ago.

  4. Matt sez:

    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.

    It hasn’t really gone out of fashion completely, and I would say that there’s been a resurgence of this Socialist thought in the last twenty years. It’s couched in semantics and, for the most part, denial, where abortions of black babies are concerned.

    In 1992 Nicholas Von Hoffman argued in the Philadelphia Inquirer:

    Free cheap abortion is a policy of social defense. To save ourselves from being murdered in our beds and raped on the streets, we should do everything possible to encourage pregnant women who don’t want the baby and will not take care of it to get rid of the thing before it turns into a monster… At their demonstration, the anti-abortionists parade around with pictures of dead and dismembered fetuses. The pro-abortionists should meet these displays with some of their own: pictures of the victims of the unaborted — murder victims, rape victims, mutilation victims — pictures to remind us that the fight for abortion is but part of the larger struggle for safe homes and safe streets.

    http://www.nationalreview.com/articles/224136/dark-past/jonah-goldberg?pg=2

    On page 3 is even more blatent eugenistis speak in a letter to then President Clinton concerning the RU 486 pill.

    You do write well! Thanks for this article. i especially liked that you considered the right word for it-“reduced” when you wrote this:

    a universe absent of spirituality, man can be reduced to his biochemistry

    You are being followed… 😎

    • Eugenics is far from an outdated idea, Peter Singer at Princeton is preaching the destruction of the infirm. The whole abortion movement is fueled by the idea. Read this gut wrencher from the NY Times, http://www.nytimes.com/2011/08/14/magazine/the-two-minus-one-pregnancy.html?pagewanted=all

      You might also like a post I wrote, dealing with the issue of morality and the non-theist. http://nobodysnormal.wordpress.com/2011/04/23/the-journey-sixth-overlook/

      Thanks for the quote from Von Hoffman.

      Thanks for the post Matt. Good stuff.

    • That was a creepy thing for Von Hoffman to say, ryan85. Its indicative of the spirit of the ungodly in our nation since abortion became a legal means of birth control. Life has no value so there’s no shame in speaking as he did. 😦

      Thanks for the links! I will, most likely share them! What a cute title for your blog-ain’t that the truth for us all, lol!~

    • You both bring up good points. I think it might have been more accurate had I said that, rather than falling out of popularity, the idea of eugenics has gone “incognito”. It’s still going on in a sense through abortion, and it’s still openly promoted by a handful of well-placed elitists and intellectuals.

      But I don’t think it’s quite as prominent in mainstream society as it was in the early 20th century. There would (I think and hope) be a public outcry, for example, if the government decided next week to mandate the forced sterilization of everyone below a certain IQ. Yet this wasn’t such a foreign possibility at that time.

      It’s true that abortion today enjoys a good deal of support, but I do think that your average pro-abortion citizen would recoil at the idea that there’s a racial/genetic agenda in place. Regardless of the evidence for or against such an agenda, they manage not to think about it.

      And yeah, that whole “two-minus-one pregnancy” concept is pretty abominable. Hopefully it forces abortion-supporters to stop and reevaluate. After all, what’s the difference between a standard abortion and a two-minus-one abortion? The end result for the child is the same.

    • I would hope there would be a public outcry, too, Matt, if our nation reinstituted sterilization of those they would deem unworthy to pro-create. I believe it was California that was the last state of the few that sterilized “less worthy” citizens to stop that practice and that was in 1972. It seems like yesterday to me as I was 12 years old. I never knew that such a horrible arcane practice was ever done in my lifetime pre-abortion. Yet, abortion for birth control purposes was made legal the very next year. And I remember the outcry against it, too. But no one was listening.

  5. Interesting! I am very interested in the conflict/comparison between science and faith. I will be writing a post on it soon from the standpoint of Romans 12:2 “be not conformed to this world but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind so that ye may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God”

  6. Excellent blog!

    Personally, I tend to (or try to) compare everything with what is written in the Bible. God says that the heart of man is “deceitful above all things and desperately wicked”, or as other translations render it, “incurably sick” (Jeremiah 17:9). Man left to his own devices may be able to come up with some things that would seem “moral” in nature, but 99.99% of the time there would be an ulterior motive, a payoff, behind any kindness. Which of course makes it an act of selfishness rather than selflessness, the seemingly selfless part being a charade, a put on.

    As to natural selection… it is self defeating, even in the moral sense talked about here. If the moral code is to get rid of defective people then all that is left is a bunch of killers, thus morality is out the window. And if all that’s left is a bunch of killers… they’re just going to be killing folks off. No, it’s not within man to direct himself in the way that he should go (Jeremiah 10:23).

    Cool commentary on God & Science: http://www.tomorrowsworld.org/commentary/god-and-the-foundation-of-science

  7. Great post! People who hold to Darwinian Evolution cannot live consistently within their worldview. On one hand they are forced to say that mentally disabled people are worthless yet they would never disregard someone because they were disabled. The theory of evolution would necessitate that we kill those weaker people but we don’t. Why? Cause we are made in the image of God!

    Keep Writing,

    Travis (anotherchristianblog.org)

  8. Socialism in any form does not work. God gave man freedom if choice. Adam made the wrong choice but God sent Jesus to make the right choices then to offer himself up as a pure living sacrifice. We could say if God wiped out all non-believers there would be plenty if room for the children of Africa. And since Africa has been in revival for about 20 years, they would most likely outnumber believers in the rest of the world. I know that won’t happen for some time. First the believers will be swept away and the environmentalist will say UFO’s took us all, or some other crazy theory. Then with out believers on the earth to stop Satan there will be hell on earth for a time. Then we will come back for a thousand years and the environmentalist, the atheist, the agnostic, most likely liberals (???) will be gone. And then there will be peace. Or something else could happen. I’m not God, just a guy replying to a blog.

  9. Wow, what great insight. There definitively is a conflict between science and faith on how we came to “be.” The religious view, suggests that there is a designer and the scientific view suggests we evolved from animals. The question I have of intellect design is, who created the designer? This debate raises a lot of interesting questions and points. Great post!

  10. That was a good post. I have two comments to make:

    First, concerning this bit: “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.”

    I would only like to point out that there is such a thing, often neglected, as a theology of the environment which is deeply informed by Trinitarian convictions. I take this to be a moral category as well. However, obviously if the environmentalist is treating human beings as means to an end instead of ends in themselves there is a moral problem. I don’t see, though, that this concern raised by the environmentalist cannot possibly be taken seriously by the Christian as a moral predicament. The question would be (if the problem were real, and here I don’t think it is real or significant, but for the sake of argument) how can we solve this problem for the greater good of man in the long run?

    The second comment I’d like to make is about this quote: “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?”

    First, I would argue that social Darwinism is not the logical corollary to biological Darwinism – however, it may be the logical corollary of Biological Darwinism coupled with something like Naturalism. I agree in principle with C.S. Lewis that Biological Darwinism should pose no real threat to Christian belief (at least in principle, whether or not its true – and as Christians we have the advantage of following the evidence wherever it leads, including to intelligent design if it leads us that way).

    As a final point, you’re argument here is a good one, but a response from the Evolutionary Psychologist is not impossible. They simply have to argue that the instincts evolved were not ‘evolved’ to deal with matters of global-population. In a sense, they will pull the same ‘wild’ card they pull when people point to martyrs who were mentally balanced. Whatever we have can in principle simply be our primitive instincts confused by a non-primitive situation.

    So, while I want to point out, as devil’s advocate, that a response is possible for the evolutionary psychologist, still the response is weak, and I think that is where this argument begins to find its strength. We just have to remember that it’s not a knock-down drag ’em out kind of argument, but merely a ‘good’ argument. I would point to William Lane Craig’s argument for morality for a better one though.

    • Thanks for the feedback!

      “First, I would argue that social Darwinism is not the logical corollary to biological Darwinism – however, it may be the logical corollary of Biological Darwinism coupled with something like Naturalism.”

      I definitely agree with you here, and I probably should have been a bit more precise when I talked about social Darwinism being the logical moral extension of biological Darwinism. I was intending to target the Naturalist’s evolutionary worldview rather than that of Theistic evolution, since the real issue seems to be the question of whether or not humans have intrinsic, God-given, objective value (as opposed to simply being particularly intelligent primates that evolved by chance). The exact method God used to create us (either directly or through evolution) is entirely beside the point. The really dangerous type of thinking, I believe, comes from those who believe our Moral Law can be explained *strictly* in evolutionary terms.

  11. Oh, and I can’t help myself, I will make a very ‘Catholic’ contribution 😛

    A book recommendation: “What we can’t not know” by J. Budziszewski

    If you’re interested in the Natural Law this is a good book to look into.

  12. Pingback: The Roots of the Abortion Debate | Well Spent Journey

  13. Pingback: The Paradox of Moral Intuition | Well Spent Journey

  14. Matt,

    Lewis: “two instincts…obviously the stronger of the two must win.”

    No. This is not how biology works. This paragraph tells us nothing about morality, and it certainly doesn’t do what it claims:

    “Another way of seeing that the Moral Law is not simply one of our instincts”

    There are many conflicting influences on human behaviour, and this is well understood from a natural perspective. Neuroscience and Psychology can demonstrate many of these influences at work, even unconscious ones. There’s no doubt that being a member of some moral system, such as many of the religions, can be socially persuasive in making you conform to its moral codes. But this only demonstrates the way the humans behave in groups. It says nothing about the content of specific beliefs. Child molesting priests are no more immune from human nature than any atheist. The detail of human behaviour is very clearly in the biology and the social nature of the individual.

    You present the naturalist case well enough, though simplistically. But your representation of the naive ‘environmentalist’ in the Forbes piece is totally bogus. Some extremist views may exist out there. But they are no different from the Animal Rights activists that act violently against the families of people who experiment on animals, or the Pro-Lifers that kill clinicians that provide abortions.

    The logic of the point in isolation is clear. Allowing population growth will lead to greater suffering. The more people around when the planet is at its limits the more there will be starving and suffering. But this is no different a point than arguing that we were better off, as a species, when there were only a few thousand early humans alive because there were fewer to suffer, no matter how much of a struggle it was for them.

    But, this is not a logical point in isolation. I doubt you would fine many atheists who would condone the withdrawal of food solutions for the overall benefit of the planet and future populations. It would be a naive solution, for many reasons. But primarily I don’t see atheists condoning starvation of currently living people. They are far more likely to want to promote birth control. So, on this point, where is the Christian moral high ground when many Christians would happily agree with us atheists that food should be provided, but not birth control. It is well demonstrated that lack of birth control leads to greater numbers starving, and coincidentally to the spread of disease where some forms of birth control can help prevent it. There are plenty of cases where Christian ‘morality’ causes far more moral evil than it prevents.

    “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.”

    Yes, I the atheist reader agree with you. But this post is totally irrelevant to the point you are trying to make. You are using one specific point made in response to another specific point – food and population growth – to support your case? It does not.

    “It doesn’t exactly fit well into the evolutionary form of morality that I described above. What about survival of the fittest?”

    Now you are being particularly egregious. I suspect you know full well that the evolutionary principle of survival of the fittest does not apply, and is anyway mischaracterised. The term ‘fittest’ in that sense means only fit in the context of survival, which can mean that any trait that aids survival works. That can include altruism. You misrepresent the interplay of traits grossly. It’s quite possible for a trait that sounds as though it should impair an individual’s survival can actually help the genes survive.

    Stating it simplistically, to make the point, a group of individuals that carry some trend towards altruism within the group may result in some individual being endangered by an altruistic act; but if more of the group survive by that act then the genes will go on to be carried forward. And altruistic act may cause the survival, making the trait more ‘fit’, than a genetic component that promotes individualism. The ‘fittest’ genes survive. It is the unscrupulous conflation of this meaning of ‘fittest’ with Social Darwinism that is really disingenuous of you.

    So, on this specific point, in your failure to criticise the natural causes of human morality you have still failed to offer any positive support for a religious case (much less a specifically Christian one).

    “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.”

    You have not shown this at all. Not even close. You have simply abused a simplistic point made by one environmentalist in the service of your support for Christian morality, and co-opted a misrepresentation of ‘fittest’ in the context of biological evolution. You have shown no connections whatsoever.

    Social Darwinism was as unevidenced an idea as any. Christianity has even less going for it. You are not providing positive support for Christian morality by picking up on some bogus ideas that also misrepresented biological Darwinism.

    “Shocking as it sounds today, this practice enjoyed considerable support.”

    Yes, well, can you say that no Christians supported it? http://www.patheos.com/blogs/rogereolson/2012/05/can-a-christian-be-a-social-darwinist/ A bad idea is a bad idea, no matter who has it.

    “What is Social Darwinism if not the logical moral extension of biological Darwinism?”

    It is not the logical moral extension of biological Darwinism. What it is, is a gross misunderstanding of biological Darwinism dragged inappropriately into a social context for the purpose of excusing pre-existing social agendas. And, just as proponents of Social Darwinism used it to egregiously further their cause, so do you egregiously use it to further yours now.

    “If our moral code is truly the direct result of evolutionary processes, then why is there a disconnect?”

    Who said it was both a direct and complete explanation of current moral values? Not neo-Darwinists. The complete explanation, which theists seem to choose to leave out, is that the biological drives that cause us to care for the young, for each other in-group, can, with observable social benefits, can lead to an intelligent species who can reason to agree to conform to codes of practice that we label as moral codes. The problem for biologists and anthropologists is that the early process is as lost in time as is the onset of speech and language. It’s difficult enough to track the origins of something like writing, which does leave survivable artefacts to trace. It’s near impossible to pin down the exact processes that would lead to the development of moral codes. God of the gaps isn’t an explanation here.

    No doubt that these moral codes were encoded further into other practices, such as religious ones. There is no denying that religions have had a great influence on the encoding of human moral behaviour. But that is no evidence of any factual truth in the nature of the particular beliefs. That millions of Christians act as if there were a God is evidence that millions of Christians act our moral codes attributed by them to God. It is not evidence for the God. All sorts of pagan religions that are the antithesis of Christianity have had moral codes. You reject the religious truths of those, but cannot deny they encoded morality. Your ultimate case for Christianity is not made.

    “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?”

    That we do innately feel this is wrong is just as easily explained by natural morality as anything else. That we do is no case for Christianity. Only if you misconstrue biological Darwinism for Social Darwinism, a mistake you perpetuate, would that connection be made.

    “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?”

    Well, you could start by providing evidence of a higher source. But this is always presupposed. Why? The argument appears like this:

    P1) There is a God
    P2) God provides morality
    P3) It’s obvious we have morality
    C1) therefore morality must be provided by God
    C2) Therefore there must be a God

    This is an invalid argument for a start, since there is no reason to suppose that God would be the only source of morality at P2. But more significantly there is no reason to accept your first premise, P1. And long winded Christian apologetics always make the circular move to C2. The whole lot could be simplified to the ridiculous: I assume there is a God, therefore there must be a God.

    If you genuinely want to question if there can be morality without God then you should be looking at the atheist humanist case for morality, not these trumped up straw men. Visit the various humanist sites and criticise their points specifically. If you play the card of Social Darwinism, then I play the card of abusing Catholic priests as evidence of how evil Christianity can corrupt minds.

    • I’m glad that you reject Social Darwinism. I also understand how certain types of altruism can be explained evolutionarily.

      What I don’t understand is how one arrives at a coherent system of morality grounded on biological Darwinism. Referring to Social Darwinism, you say, “It is not the logical moral extension of biological Darwinism.” If this is true, then what *IS* the logical moral extension of biological Darwinism? Because to the outsider, attempts to construct empathy-based moral codes on the basis of naturalism seem entirely arbitrary (with the Sam Harris attempt being particularly bad). Why should we value empathy over qualities like ruthlessness or raw power? Both can be effective survival tools in the right context, and obviously neither has been eliminated from the human psyche via evolutionary selection. Do we have any grounds, on naturalism, to tell the rapist that what he’s doing – spreading his genes in the manner he desires – is morally “wrong”?

      Basically, I would be interested to hear how you define morality.

  15. Hi Matt,

    My view on morality: Morality is entirely a human social invention that seems to have a relationship to some of our inherited biological drives. In the context of human morality it is inevitably a descriptive relativism of what we find to be the case: we make up our morals, so they are bound to vary to some degree, sitting on top of biological drives, which are also variable. What evidence is there at all for any other possibility? God? Well, you have to start presupposing God and use a hell of a lot of imagination about how God even gives a hoot to get to that point. Some absolute cosmological moral imperative? No evidence. These alternatives only fill the gaps in our knowledge in a God-of-the-gaps sense. They are not credible alternatives that I can see.

    Here’s a link to Russell Blackford’s views. It covers my views on morality pretty well, and he goes into some detail about how we mistake moral persuasions for moral absolutes:
    http://www.rationalhub.com/blogs/interviews/2012/10/23/interview-russell-blackford-on-atheism-philosophy-and-morality/

    ” then what *IS* the logical moral extension of biological Darwinism”

    There is no simple direct deductive logical extension that leads from biological Darwinism to human morality. The biological stuff is an influence that acts on our feelings. There’s the variety in our personal biologies, and a history that extends into forgotten pasts of social cohesion developed around the world. Our social moral norms are a messy complex. We can dig down and see the probable biological influences, but they have been so adapted as we have gone along that there is no clear logical connection.

    “Because to the outsider, attempts to construct empathy-based moral codes on the basis of naturalism seem entirely arbitrary”

    I couldn’t agree more. They are arbitrary, from an external perspective. That is, external to a human context. Take for example how male lions on forcing themselves on a new mate will kill the cubs of a previous male. Had we as early humans evolved with this trait, how would that have panned out in recent centuries? We might have stopped the infanticide, but would the principle have remained? Would it have been the norm, for example, for a new husband to insist that children by a previous man be put into public care? Would there have been institutions constructed for this purpose? Does this sound too barbaric to you? Then what about the Magdalene asylums? It seems incredible to us now that the supposedly caring institution of the Catholic Church would have so vilified and stigmatised young women sufficient to remove them from their families? You might say they were being charitable as the girls were outcast by their families, but it was the Catholic Church that instilled the moral codes into the families in the first place.

    There is no moral implication, outside of the human context, for any of the many grotesque human events, such as the sacking of Rome, or the Holocaust, or 9/11. It is only we humans that experience the pain associated with these events. But ask yourself, what feelings are stirred in you by the sacking of Rome, compare to the Holocaust and 9/11? Distance in time, space and culture seems to change the effect of events upon us, even when analytically we can categorise events as being equal in some way.

    Another question. What moral implication would there be for the last surviving human man? What would it matter what he did? Who is there to judge him other than himself? Again you have to presuppose some entity such as God, and then imagine even more moral connections to add any morality whatsoever to his burden. He may well have residual moral codes, or even biological survival drives, that prevent him from taking his own life; but if he hadn’t, really, what would be the problem if he decided enough was enough? Even if there was also a woman and the chance for the species to survive, what if they jointly decided that they will not in fact continue the species? Who is to say they are wrong?

    What do other animals care for us? They have no obligation to us. But, in external terms we have none to them. We find we choose to give a damn about other animals. We can’t help it – even though the extent of our feelings is not universal.

    Take the sociopath. Evolution takes place by natural selection acting on changes in the species. These changes are unguided, and effectively random. So, any change to an animal species should not really be considered abnormal. It is so considered only in the context of what we perceive as ‘normal’, by which we mean most common. Sociopaths are, in a stricter sense, a consequence of a part of the normal variation in human brains. There are genetic markers that are strongly associated with this type of brain, and so it really is a part of normal human variation. The only context in which a sociopath is ‘evil’ is in the sense that he differs from the norm, and acts out that difference to the determent of other humans. Consider this also in the concept of vestigial traits in evolutionary terms. These are traits that might have one function at one stage of evolution but which are adapted to some other function at a different stage. Who is to say that the now detrimental trait of having a sociopathic brain would not be adapted to some benign beneficial function in some distant future evolution of the human species?

    “Why should we value empathy over qualities like ruthlessness or raw power?”

    Becase perhaps this is the dominant factor that helps us survive as a species. It may seem unclear how such conflicting character traits can exist, empathy and ruthlessness, and how one can prevail. Clearly it’s not a walkover. We do struggle with this conflict. They are co-existing character traits. But take heart form the work of that fabulous monk Gregor Mendel. His pea plants can be used as a simplistic metaphor for the far more complex case of human character traits. But basically the dominace of one gene over another can be shown in theory and in experimental results. It can also be shown in various ways with multiple traits – the maths is more complex but still simple in principle. It’s easy then in princile to see how conflicting traits can co-exist in a species. Bear in mind or course that evolution isn’t so strait forward in its predictive nature as the complexity increases. A species where the dominance of agression has its place, as in many animal societies.

    Those are just a few of the points that lead us to question our views on morality that are based on the limited traditional theological and philosophical thinking that presumes some special place for humans.

    My particular view on how we go about applying the moral codes we come to have by various means goes as follows. This isn’t as strongly evidence based as we might like, but I think there are is sufficient science to infer something of this kind; and it is a stronger inference than some imagined God can provide.

    We can’t help but impose our own ideas on other people. It’s our nature. Add to that the following, that one of the overriding human biological experiences is empathy, sometimes to the point of what feels like a guilt of inadequacy. I felt some guilt subjecting my children to pains that were good for them, such as injections. I even felt extreme guilt when my young daughter had a kidney stone and suffered in pain. I knew I was innocent, but I still felt the guilt of not being able to relieve the pain.

    And I feel a shared guilt at the pain of seeing genital mutilation exposed on TV, and mostly feel justified in that feeling since there is clearly no clinical benefit to the child, and clearly some harm now and as they grow. I cannot share in this guilt and stand by, so I object to it.

    This seems to me what drives our prescriptive and proscriptive moral interference in the freedom of others. I’m not anti-abortion, but I can see where anti-abortionists are coming from, even when I disagree with issues of the sentience of the foetus, or the boundary of a feeling life. These feelings are so strong that some people are prepared to kill to save the victims. Anti-abortionists will kill clinicians to prevent abortion. A US president will kill thousands in Iraq to further what he (maybe) felt was a just war to save many. It’s easy to transfer guilt onto those more blameworthy than we think we are. The truth about where the guilt lies, or about if there is any guilt to answer for, sort of gets lost when feelings run high.

    It doesn’t help that there are so many influences that it’s hard to see how the simplicity of our moral positions can apply in some cases. The problem is we want concrete answers to simple questions, when the problem is more complex.

    Try more from Russell Blackford: “Thus, we look for an answer that is factually correct. We then insist on our view prevailing … I think that the error theorist has a point here. We do have this tendency … to think that we are applying absolute, transcendent standards”

    Moral error theorists will say that “Torturing babies is wrong” is a false statement, in the philosophical sense in which it not a statement that contains any absolute truth. It is false in the sense that it means “Torturing babies is forbidden by an inescapably binding and transcendent standard”. But it becomes true when put in the context of those humans that feel it and believe it because they are driven to do so, or because they have learned to understand that it is true in the human context. It would be true if rephrased as something like: “Humans suffer what amounts to physical empathetic pain when they witness harm being done to babies, and so humans, on the whole, decide, dictate, that torturing babies is wrong.”

    And you can see the this phrasing difficulty in action when it comes to framing a moral statement in the UN as they try to put together a common position in the security council, and often fail. Or when states come together to decide what to do about global warming. There are so many social and political influences that the morally right path is not at all clear cut. It’s easy to make simplistic statements: we should prevent the atrocities in Syria; we should save our childrens’ future by preventing global warming. But this hides the real messy nature of human morality. Looking for moral absolutes, or God-given ones will not solve these problems. And as far as I can tell praying has never helped either – the suffering goes on.

    There are some simple moral codes that most if not all of us can agree are useful, such as the Golden Rule. And religious moral claims based on religious texts are equally simplistic, and apply far less consistently among those of different beliefs (and those of no religious belief). It’s the agreeing on which codes apply, and the putting into practice that’s the tricky bit, especially when we don’t agree. We are moral relativists to some extent, whether we like it or not.

    So, under naturalism, how do we apply our morality, and how do we obtain our moral views? The same way that the religious do, through our human nature and our social learning. The key difference is that any traditional moral codes we accept as a guide, such as the Golden Rule, we evaluate ourselves.

    This is of course what the religious do too, for even though many religious people proclaim that their morality is based on some religious belief or other they mostly adapt those beliefs to suit themselves, just as we atheists do. You’re not a Biblical Literalist I presume? I don’t think self-proclaimed Biblical Literalists are either when you pin them down – there is always some requirement to interpret.

    Though an atheist I’m also a secularist in that I believe freedom is so valuable that I’m in favour of freedom of belief. I might want to argue the atheist case, but I have no wish to impose it forcefully (as if that would work) or install it as a political state system of belief. That in itself is a moral position I have come to hold. Another consequence of this is that I have no issue with a religious believer using some holy book as a basis for their own moral views. But I do reserve the right to criticise those views on their own merit, without any concern for the religious source. This I also see religious believers doing too, as they negotiate the meaning of their texts among themselves.

    So the naturalist perspective on morality seems to me not only the most viable one, but also the one that we all practice in the end.

    And finally, “Do we have any grounds, on naturalism, to tell the rapist that what he’s doing – spreading his genes in the manner he desires – is morally “wrong”?”

    Only as described above. Given the external arbitrariness, maybe we could have evolved to value rape; but then biological changes in the raped would probably have evolved to see this as acceptable. But hold on, the dominance of males in our societies does survive, and is only just being ironed out, in the workplace, for example. Curiously though, it’s some religious contexts in which male dominance prevails – female bishops? Not as vile as rape to most of us, but pretty damned oppressive to many women, and to many men that have sufficient human empathy for their case.

  16. Pingback: On Raising Children Without God | Well Spent Journey

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