Sunday, September 23, 2007

.

Religion, atheism, and morality

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:

  1. preventing harm to individuals,
  2. establishing reciprocity and fairness,
  3. loyalty to the in-group,
  4. respect for authority and hierarchy, and
  5. 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.”

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.

“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.

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.

7 comments:

salient said...

Good post! I agree that religion is not the only route to moral behavior.

I have a somewhat different problem with Haidt's proposed definitions, though. In including parameters such as loyalty to appeals to sanctity by in-group authorities, he is broadening "morality" to include attitudes that do not necessarily lead to moral behavior. Your example of the impact of Dubaya's pet war is a perfect example of the risk of conservative worship of Those who Claim to Speak for God.

Masameus said...

I agree that moral ideas do not as such originate from religion but I also believe that religion may have played an instrumental role in the dissemination of certain rationally justified values. Morality as such does not originate in religious thought but perhaps religion has operated as a "useful idiot" for the good of humanity by communicating moral ideas that were developed independent of religious thought but which religion hijacked on an 'a posteriori' basis and claimed its own.

I must say, however, that morality is in a complex relationship with religious thought because just as religion may have been of instrumental value in the dissemination of moral ideas, so too has morality been regarded as of strictly instrumental value within religion. I am referring to the rather cynical morality-as-ticket-to-Heaven mentality which is prevalent in religion and is often perversely argued to be the basis of morality as such.

On the other hand, I disagree with evolution scientists on the nature of morality, too, because their views are so devoid of any philosophical consideration of the value of morality that they risk turning morality into its amoral opposite. Just as religion threatens to degrade morality with its Heaven-gazing egocentrism, so too the utilitarian spirit of scientific reasoning threatens to abolish morality by turning it into a biological object, granting it only the hard instrumental value of species survival.

In other words, instrumental rationalism, like religion, is yet another obfuscating and mystifying element in moral thought which may lead us to believe that we are not directly resposible for our actions to other people after all but have moral obligations only to distant abstractions like the Evolution. We are already seeing this kind of moral obfuscation at work when we look at the personification of evolution in moral discourse. Apparently, we are now under a moral obligation to adjust our sex lives to better serve the purpose of maximal gene diversity and species survival.

Which is kind of ironic, because wasn't this something that the all-powerful Evolution was supposed to do for us, leaving us no option but to comly? The connection to contradictions in religious thought are all too obvious to relate.

Barry Leiba said...

Salient and Masameus, thanks for the thoughtful comments. Yes, a lot of this sort of discussion brings up the initial question of "What is 'morality'?", to which the answer isn't always clear.

Masameus: I don't think that science is "turning [morality] into a biological object, granting it only the hard instrumental value of species survival," nor is science trying to do that. It's trying to develop a species-survival-based explanation for how morality developed in the first place, but that still leaves plenty of room for consideration of where we, as sentient, moral, philosophical beings, took it from there.

Maggie said...

To masameus: I don't think understanding where morality comes from is going to undo our fundamental make-up. "A moral obligation to evolution" sounds like you are substituting science for religion, which sounds like you believe that our morality does come from religion after all. The research you're discussing is saying that a moral obligation to each other is built into our genes. Understanding can't make that go away, any more than understanding they're unhealthy can make me not like potato chips.

I've noticed that people use science the same way they use religion -- to support the pursuit of what they selfishly want. That's why Christianity has so many perverted flavors, from "love they neighbor" to "shoot thy abortion doctor." And the bible obliges by being full of contradictions and open to interpretation, just as science obliges by being complicated and open to interpretation. So I don't doubt that some selfish individual will use whatever reasoning he can dream up to support his selfish goals, from appeal to religious authority to appeal to scientific authority (e.g. "survival of the fittest," which applies to genes, not individuals, but that doesn't stop the social Darwinists). That doesn't make his reasoning correct, and it isn't the fault of the correct reasoning that it's misunderstood and perverted.

In general: Dawkins discusses this in The God Delusion, and that led me to start reading Marc Hauser because of the research discussed in the article and also in Dawkins' book. I recommend both authors.

The way to determine what's in our genes is to see what moral values hold across cultures. Preservation of human life, including not dragging an innocent victim into a situation to save many others, is a fundamental moral value.

I read this article a few days ago, Barry, and I thought the conclusions were a little muddled, especially when it came to the idea that progressives have less of the "morals" that bind societies together and more "individual rights"-type morals. It strikes me more as different levels of intelligence -- fear of what is different because of an inability to categorize and foresee effects on society because of the difference -- and that seems to be in that layer on top of the moral intuition. So it's not that progressives don't have the moral intuition to reject what's different (if that can even be called moral), but that they can reason themselves to a society that respects the individual. That's my opinion!

This is an interest of mine that I haven't had much of a chance to pursue since May, when I started reading the Hauser book. There was another article on the Times site about the origins of morality in primates that I'm half-way through reading that also looked interesting. What I need to get straight is the authors' distinctions between morality and values. I guess values are based on societal influences? And that's what's difficult to tease out.

salient said...

A comprehensive reply, Masameus.

I agree that religions are used to disseminate reward-punishment-linked moral ideas, though much of what is ‘taught’ is already ‘known’. Most of us love our parents regardless of whether they were particularly good parents and most of us have an aversion to killing other humans, etcetera. I learned much of what I’d term moral behavior from my parents—the do-unto-others rule—but they have never admonished me not to kill because I’m sure that they did not think that they needed to emphasize this aspect of do-no-harm.

The ability to love and the desire not to kill are most likely inherited in our genes. This is what evolution gave us and its interesting to speculate the survival value that these feelings have conferred on species. Mother animals don’t think, ‘Ooo, I must protect my genes in my offspring’, their brains produce oxytocin postpartum and they presumaby feel love as human mothers do, which makes them more likely to tend their babies. There is an area in the brain that, when stimulated, produces mothering behavior by male rats. I don’t think that an awareness of this instinctive aspect to behavior negates the reality that humans have elaborated a post hoc system by which to understand moral behavior.

“I disagree with evolution scientists on the nature of morality, too, because their views are so devoid of any philosophical consideration of the value of morality that they risk turning morality into its amoral opposite.”

I’m not sure to which evolution scientists you refer. As I understand ‘amoral’, it means devoid of moral standards. Any evolution scientist who has set out to study natural selection for moral impulses must have a sense of morality or he or she would not know what to study, much less have any urge to study moral behavior.

If you are referring to evolutionary biologists in general as lacking ‘any philosophical consideration of the value of morality’, then I think that you must be muddling the impartiality that must accompany scientific inquiry with personal lack of moral philosophy. There is no way to discern the researcher’s morality from his or her research.

“In other words, instrumental rationalism, like religion, is yet another obfuscating and mystifying element in moral thought which may lead us to believe that we are not directly resposible for our actions to other people after all but have moral obligations only to distant abstractions like the Evolution.”

Instrumental rationalism is a philosophical proposition, not a scientific position, though the philosophy may have resulted from a misapplication of the scientific principle that all psychological processes result from smaller-scale natural processes. Philosophers, not scientists, promulgate such misapplications.

“distant abstractions like the Evolution. We are already seeing this kind of moral obfuscation at work when we look at the personification of evolution in moral discourse.”

Biological evolution is a fact and not a ‘distant abstraction’. I’m not completely certain of how you infer ‘The personification of evolution in moral discourse’ from the demonstration that we share some of our basic moral feelings with other animals. I have yet to see an evolutionary biologist ‘personify’ evolution, though I guess that your thinking they do so is probably a personalized misinterpretation.

“Apparently, we are now under a moral obligation to adjust our sex lives to better serve the purpose of maximal gene diversity and species survival.”

That sounds like the Biblical ‘don’t spill your seed on barren ground’ nonsense. These are the sorts of moralistic pronouncement made in religion and not in science. I assume that you have come from a background of religious teaching (most of us have!).

Evolutionary biologists were not making a moral recommendation when they recognized the personal-gene-survival advantage of animal behaviors such as male cats’ killing the very young offspring of other males. They were merely looking for a good explanation for an otherwise inexplicable behavior. I suspect that the actual mechanism reflects the fact that postpartum oxytocin renders females sexually unreceptive, and a male lion taking over another male’s harem wants to get down to business. He’s interested in the sex and not in spreading his genes, just as adult males and females are interested in sex (with the gender of choice) and not necessarily in making babies (which purpose can damage interest in sex).

I have repeatedly found that people who were not educated in science not only are not acquainted with the body of scientific knowledge, but that they don’t understand what science is an how it operates. It’s a vast field, so this is hardly surprising, particularly since it has been in the best survival interests of religious dogma to kill off the ‘offspring’ of the competing body of knowledge. Does this sound like lions? I meant it to.

You appear to have been led off track by religiously motivated false interpretations of realities.

salient said...

Maggie: "just as science obliges by being complicated and open to interpretation."

Science is vast, complicated, and not really as open to interpretation as misinterpreted and misrepresented by those who:
a) do not have much science education,
b) those who deny scientific knowledge, or
c) those who distort scientific knowledge into pseudoscience

Obviously, the first is understandable and forgiveable, whereas the last two are egregious manipulations that perpetuate an ignorance that spreads into other areas of critical thinking.

"I thought the conclusions were a little muddled, especially when it came to the idea that progressives have less of the "morals" that bind societies together and more "individual rights"-type morals."

If you read it again, you might come to the conclusion that liberals base their sense of what is moral on fewer criteria because liberals consider morality to be founded in the do-no-harm principle with justice tossed into the mix. The three additional, conservative criteria are moral dangerous, as I'll explaing below.

"It strikes me more as different levels of intelligence -- fear of what is different because of an inability to categorize and foresee effects on society because of the difference -- and that seems to be in that layer on top of the moral intuition."

I agree that it reflects difficulty with critical thinking, though I wouldn't categorize obedience to authority/in-group loyalty/purity (anti-disgust) as moral intuitions. I see them as I-cannot-think-for-myself fear or laziness.

They are the sorts of impulses of which dictators love to take advantage, so that they can induce the obedient into harming others. In other words, those criteria leave people susceptible to acting in un-moral ways -- not amoral, not immoral, but anti-moral.

Bertsura said...

With all the death and destruction in the Bible, I seriously doubt that even the most devout Christian would want to follow it.