In last Tuesday’s Science Times, the New York Times tells us about the work of Dr Jonathan Haidt, of the University of Virginia, on the evolution of morality:
Where do moral rules come from? From reason, some philosophers say. From God, say believers. Seldom considered is a source now being advocated by some biologists, that of evolution.
At first glance, natural selection and the survival of the fittest may seem to reward only the most selfish values. But for animals that live in groups, selfishness must be strictly curbed or there will be no advantage to social living. Could the behaviors evolved by social animals to make societies work be the foundation from which human morality evolved?
Dr Haidt separates morality into two aspects, which he calls moral intuition and moral judgment. The first, he postulates, is a basic sense that we’re born with, while the second is a social side, built into our society, which, in part, provides explanations for what our moral intuition tells us.
To further qualify things, he “identified five components of morality that were common to most cultures.” These components deal with:
- preventing harm to individuals,
- establishing reciprocity and fairness,
- loyalty to the in-group,
- respect for authority and hierarchy, and
- a sense of purity or sanctity.
Given all that, I find it curious, then, that Dr Haidt goes off in this direction:
Dr. Haidt believes that religion has played an important role in human evolution by strengthening and extending the cohesion provided by the moral systems. “If we didn’t have religious minds we would not have stepped through the transition to groupishness,” he said. “We’d still be just small bands roving around.”“Most cultures”, with vastly different religious traditions, have five common components of morality, and humans seem to have an innate sense of morality, a “moral intuition”; these do not lead me to think that we would be “just small bands roving around” without religion to glue us together.
Religious behavior may be the result of natural selection, in his view, shaped at a time when early human groups were competing with one another. “Those who found ways to bind themselves together were more successful,” he said.
I’ve said before that I see religion as being neither necessary nor sufficient to make us moral, ethical beings. We have many social rules that we are, by and large, pleased to break — most of us exceed speed limits without thinking much about it, and certainly without fear of divine retribution. That we’re less likely to blast through red lights is due more to the police than to God. But when we get to those things that we think God does care about — theft and murder, for instance — it isn’t just the believers who toe the line. I won’t kill you and take your money, but that’s not because I fear God, nor because I fear the police. It’s because I believe it’s wrong, and that belief comes from deep within me, from my “moral intuition”.
At the same time, we have people like these, who would profess a devout belief in God and yet find some way to violate every moral code in Heaven and on Earth. We have a president who styles himself as the most Godly, Christian president ever, yet who is responsible for a war and for the deaths of an uncertain number of people, surely going into the hundreds of thousands.
It’s clear to us that working together, in more than “small bands”, gives us a huge developmental advantage — as Dr Haidt says, “Those who found ways to bind themselves together were more successful.” That religion is used as a tool in that binding is also clear; that it’s necessary to it is not. It seems to me, rather, that an ethical, moral, cohesive society can be built without religion.
Unfortunately, it seems an impossible thesis to test, either way. As an atheist, I can tell you that my moral values have nothing to do with God... yet I wasn’t raised by wolves in the forest; I grew up with exposure to religion and with parents who professed belief in God, so how can I really separate what I was born with from what I came to believe on my own, from what I learned from secular society, from what society uses religion to reinforce?
What I do know is this: given what I see around me, if I thought that the only reason people didn’t murder each other was fear of punishment from God... I would be terribly frightened.