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Morality: Divine Spark or Evolutionary Trick?

A good deal of my reading this week has been on human moral intuitions and the role they are playing in the jeremiads against God and religion served up by the “new atheists.” I’ve read enough over the years to be roughly familiar with the typical evolutionary story told about the origins of morality: morality has evolved because it enhanced our evolutionary fitness. Whether the story told is one of group selection, preserving social cohesion, or reciprocal altruism, at the end of the day, the scientists tell us, we are moral creatures because this is the best way to get our genes into the next generation.

The story is familiar enough, but many, including yours truly, find it to be an incomplete and unsatisfactory tale on its own. Consequently I was interested to see if the well-known evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker had any light to shed on the matter in his article in today’s New York Times.  One of the more interesting sections of the article is where Pinker, relying on the research of anthropologists Richard Shweder and Alan Fiske, identifies five broad moral themes which appear to be virtually universal:

  • The idea that it is bad to harm others and good to help them
  • A sense of fairness: that one should reciprocate favors, reward benefactors and punish cheaters
  • The value of loyalty to a group, sharing and solidarity among its members and conformity to its norms
  • The belief that it is right to defer to legitimate authorities and to respect people with high status
  • The exaltation of purity, cleanliness and sanctity and the corresponding loathing of defilement, contamination and carnality

According to Pinker, these five themes represent the universal raw moral material upon which socio-cultural factors operate, which accounts for the moral diversity we see cross-culturally. Some cultures will elevate the importance of purity at the expense of fairness or the injunction not to harm, others will accord more respect to authority than they will to group loyalty. The moral universals remain firmly in the picture, but they are emphasized to varying degrees depending upon the cultural context.

This makes sense, and seems to be a compelling affirmation of, for example, C.S. Lewis‘s concept of “The Tao”—a universal moral law that admits of development from within, and can be modified over time and in different cultural contexts, but whose fundamental nature we are no more free to change than we are to “imagine a new primary colour” or create “a new sun and a new sky for it to move in.” Far from advocating a form of ethical relativism based primary on utility, Pinker seems to recommend a (heavily) qualified version of moral realism which is interesting, coming from a hard-boiled scientist such as himself.

But is it consistent? Later in the article Pinker attempts to find a way out of the familiar problem posed by all purely naturalistic accounts of the origins of morality. If, at rock bottom, what we consider to be objective morality is simply the result of an amoral process whose sole “goal” is the survival of this or that organism’s genetic material, how can we claim that morality is in any sense “objective?” Perhaps more worryingly, what is to prevent our abandonment of what we naively thought was “objective morality” now that we know it is just our genes tricking us about what is, inherently, nothing more than a survival technique? Pinker explains the problem well:

The attempt to dissect our moral intuitions can look like an attempt to debunk them. Evolutionary psychologists seem to want to unmask our noblest motives as ultimately self-interested—to show that our love for children, compassion for the unfortunate and sense of justice are just tactics in a Darwinian struggle to perpetuate our genes. The explanation of how different cultures appeal to different spheres could lead to a spineless relativism, in which we would never have grounds to criticize the practice of another culture, no matter how barbaric, because “we have our kind of morality and they have theirs.” And the whole enterprise seems to be dragging us to an amoral nihilism, in which morality itself would be demoted from a transcendent principle to a figment of our neural circuitry.

Of course Pinker doesn’t believe any of this, and he has his reasons for this. First, he claims, we need to be careful about “anthropomorphizing” our discussion of evolutionary science. Just because genes seek to get themselves replicated doesn’t mean that the organisms of which they are a part are behaving “selfishly.” Genes do not have motives after all, and the only reason we describe them in terms of agency is because this is how we understand it best. According to Pinker, “‘Selfish’ genes are perfectly compatible with selfless organisms, because a gene’s metaphorical goal of selfishly replicating itself can be implemented by wiring up the brain of the organism to do unselfish things, like being nice to relatives or doing good deeds for needy strangers.” No matter what’s going on beneath the surface, he seems to be saying, human beings really are behaving morally when they do these kinds of things.

In addition, Pinker appeals to Robert Trivers to show how the evolutionary strategy of reciprocal altruism – you scratch my back, and I’ll scratch yours—can produce genuinely selfless creatures by continually raising the stakes, rewarding those who do the best job of appearing to be generous in a kind of benevolence arms race:

The most effective way to seem generous and fair, under harsh scrutiny, is to be generous and fair. In the long run, then, reputation can be secured only by commitment. At least some agents evolve to be genuinely high-minded and self-sacrificing—they are moral not because of what it brings them but because that’s the kind of people they are.

But what has caused them to be “the kind of people they are?” And once this cause is understood, what justification do they have for continuing to act in this way? At the end of the day, Pinker’s argument here seems to amount to little more than saying that evolution has done a really, really, really, really good job in tricking us into being moral. It’s done such a good job that human beings have reached a point where not only do we (mistakenly) believe that objective morality exists and that we have an obligation to behave according to its dictates , but we also have an apparent need to attach objective value to the results of this entire process.

When we push this view to its logical conclusions, however, the whole thing—the behaviour that counts as moral and our curious ability/requirement to label it as such and attribute to it objective value—is nothing more than an elaborate survival strategy. No matter how desperately scientists like Pinker, who seem unwilling to admit that morality might have some kind of a divine cause, might want science to yield the picture of a genuinely moral being who behaves morally for its own sake, rather than for the benefits it can secure, it simply doesn’t work.

The big picture is still of an essentially amoral world which, through an impersonal, mechanistic, and thoroughly amoral (if not immoral—think of Tennyson’s “Nature, red in tooth and claw”) process has managed to produce a creature who thinks and acts in terms of values and morals, and who believes these to make demands upon him which go beyond the kind of selfish behaviour that would seem sensible on a naturalistic picture of the world. The lengths to which we we will go to avoid the distasteful ethical conclusions of the process which has led to our arrival on the scene provides, in my opinion, a powerful testimony to the universality, inviolability, and beauty of our strongest moral intuitions.

14 Comments Post a comment
  1. jc #

    “No matter how desperately scientists like Pinker, who seem unwilling to admit that morality might have some kind of a divine cause, might want science to yield the picture of a genuinely moral being who behaves morally for its own sake, rather than for the benefits it can secure, it simply doesn’t work.”

    Assuming this is an accurate description of Pinker’s[I have not read enough of him to know] philosophy I am left wondering why he would want to strive to use science to paint a picture of a morality in this way. Why do Scientist’s like Pinker and Dawkins try and show that evolutionary morality produces altruistic behavior.

    To me, trying to explain modern ideas of what is the good through evolution seems lacking and speculative. It is interesting to consider the possibilities but I think hardly anything can be concluded based on what we know thus far. Trying to explain morality from a Biblical perspective seems just as, if not more, incoherent. Some of the horrible things attributed to God in the Old and New Testament leave me shaking my head and unable to believe that it has much to offer in moral teaching.

    I can see your point that for you a divine spark might explain human morality better at this point than the theory of evolution. I just am not sure if combining the idea of divine spark and the stories of the Bible can offer much.

    January 12, 2008
  2. doubtingthomas426 #

    Good post, though I’m still unclear why divinity is required for a man to behave in a moral or ethical way. And it seems that divine spark exists in quite a few monsters whose moral compass seems to shift depending on if their cock is hard or their bank account is empty. What is more moral, a Believer that assists someone in need with the expectation of a special reward in the afterlife, or an Atheist who helps simply because they feel this is the right thing to do?

    http://doubtingthomas426.wordpress.com/

    January 13, 2008
  3. jc,

    I suppose the main reason folks like Dawkins and Pinker feel an evolutionary account of altruism is necessary is because they admire it and want to provide a philosophical justification for preserving it that makes no appeal to God. They obviously recognize that, on the face of it, it’s difficult to say that altruistic behaviour makes contact with objective reality when one’s view of the world sees human beings as ultimately little more than survival machines conditioned to seek any advantage possible.

    Re: the stories of the Bible representing a better alternative, I didn’t suggest in this post that human beings would be better served by going to the Bible for their ethics. Of course there are many morally distasteful stories in the Bible. While I would question whether or not every story in the Bible was intended for our moral edification, there’s undoubtedly some problematic stuff in there.

    A lot depends on the kind of book you see the Bible as here – if you see it as nothing more than a moral rule-book, then it’s very difficult to set it up as a straightforward alternative to other ethical systems. If you see it as the broad story of God’s interaction with the world, which portrays human beings as capable of and obligated to engage in moral reasoning, things aren’t quite so simple. I’m certainly not of the opinion that without the Bible human beings would be lost in a fog of moral confusion. That seems to be far too low a view of God and human beings for my liking.

    January 13, 2008
  4. doubtingthomas426,

    As I see it, whatever the “divine spark” might be, it’s a human characteristic, not a religious one. And of course conscience can be suppressed or ignored by human beings, whether that is through free choice and deliberation, or by being acted upon by various biological, social forces.

    I’m not suggesting that one has to be religious to be moral, or that the the most authentically religious motivation for moral behaviour is the “carrot” of an afterlife. Far from it. I agree with you, human beings ought to behave morally simply because it is the right thing to do. I would simply say that there is a reason that we have the ability to make this judgment, and that the world seems to work best if human beings act morally.

    January 13, 2008
  5. Thomas,

    I’ll chime in…

    Divinity is “required” for moral existence (though “requiring” God to exist is an exercise in hubris), not in the sense that one must believe in God in order to be moral—which is patently false, and easily disproved with a few “upright” atheist counter-examples.

    The idea behind Dostoevsky’s phrase “apart from God, everything is permissible,” and the assertion sometimes made that ethics genuinely requires contact with a creator is a bit trickier. What is at stake in whether human morality is tethered to a creator or not is simply the question of whether Nietzsche’s re-valuation of values is self-delusion or not.

    Even Nietzsche recognized that the life of the ubermensch, spent living according to his (emphatically “his” for Nietzsche) own redefinition of good and evil was going to be an ascetic enterprise. Giving common morality the big middle finger will, as Pinker, Dawkins, et al. have no trouble admitting, cause a person a great deal of misery in life (and probably not help the cause of his “genes” either). But the real question is whether the ubermensch is actually capable of living “beyond good and evil” or merely thinks that he is.

    In other words, showing that morals have a genealogy does not necessarily make morality (even theoretically) “optional”, if those morals also have a deeper grounding.

    January 14, 2008
  6. Oh, and thanks for a great post Ryan…

    January 14, 2008
  7. Paul Johnston #

    Hi Ryan, another brilliant post. You are a gifted man who appears to be dilligently engaged in maximizing his potentials….:)

    Ryan, I am troubled regarding Mr. Pinker’s five “moral themes.”

    Examining individual behavior, I can at least see the possibility of these themes existing. Yet, when I look at communal behaviors, expressed politically, with particular attention to human history’s empires, I feel very differently. So much so, that I think empires would be better discribed as an antithesis to these five moral themes.

    Am I just another cynic? Or does my concern resonate with you and other readers here?

    January 14, 2008
  8. jc #

    “A lot depends on the kind of book you see the Bible as here – if you see it as nothing more than a moral rule-book, then it’s very difficult to set it up as a straightforward alternative to other ethical systems. If you see it as the broad story of God’s interaction with the world, which portrays human beings as capable of and obligated to engage in moral reasoning, things aren’t quite so simple. I’m certainly not of the opinion that without the Bible human beings would be lost in a fog of moral confusion. That seems to be far too low a view of God and human beings for my liking.”

    I think that what humans commonly understand as moral clashes so much with the Bible that it seems to disqualify the Bible from giving us insight on where or morals might originate. What I am suggesting is that if we grant your point that morals might come from a divine spark from within us there is not much reason to think they came from the Christian God. There is too much that clashes. Maybe the Bible isn’t strictly a moral rule book but according to Christianity it is the main medium from which man is able to know God. It is the foundation of Christianity. But if the God in those pages acts in a way that most would agree is immoral for them to act, what are we to make of it?

    January 14, 2008
  9. Paul Johnston #

    Hey Jc,

    One size doesn’t fit all Christian expression and many would agree that the motives and activities ascribed to God, particularly with reference to the OT, may not be accurate.

    My Catholic faith for example, describes scripture as “inspired” by God but not (as I interpret it) dictated. It is a belief system that allows for errors in fact, judgement and understanding on the part of it’s authors.

    The real foundation of Christianity (for me at least) is, Jesus Christ, not some later account of His life or the culture that begat Him.

    Perhaps part of the reason Jesus came was to rectify the many gross violations of God’s law that was being perpetrated in His name, by His people.

    January 14, 2008
  10. Thanks Eric and Paul for your kind words and insight.

    Eric, thanks for bringing Nietzsche into the discussion. As always, he seems to ruthlessly force us to take these issues to their logical conclusions. As you suggest, Nietzsche is a lot more consistent than Dawkins & co. re: what happens when God is removed from the equation. Where Nietzsche was (or at least thought he was) quite happy to abandon “common morality,” Dawkins and the new atheists seem not only to want to keep it, and explain it exclusively in terms of adaptive utility, but they want to make it the primary ground of their protest against God and religion.

    Paul, re: the five themes articulated by Pinker. The only reason I drew attention to these was because I found it refreshing to see a scientist arguing for something like a rock-bottom “universal” human moral impulse. I would obviously agree with you that human beings and institutions have proven tragically capable of defacing and obscuring these universal moral themes, but in my opinion this says more about the extent of human freedom than it does about the nature of the morality.

    January 14, 2008
  11. jc,

    The questions you’re asking are obviously very difficult ones – I spend a lot of time thinking about them as well. I find it frustrating that there is no non-circular position in matters such as these. I obviously don’t have the definitive answer to the question of why the Bible presents God as acting in ways that seem morally problematic to us today. A lot would depend on the context in which these texts were written, and the extent to which they represent definitive pronouncements upon the timeless nature of God as opposed to a part of the religious experience of a group of people who lived in a time and place very different than our own.

    Like Paul, I would question your assertion that the Bible is “the foundation of Christianity.” I think that Jesus is the foundation of Christianity. Obviously we know of Jesus from the pages of the Bible, and he must be understood in the context of the story of Israel, but as I see it the authenticity of my Christianity is not tied to what I believe about a book; rather, it has to do with whether or not my life is on a trajectory of conforming my life to the image of Christ.

    As a Christian, I see Jesus Christ as the most complete and accurate representation of the nature of God. And Jesus is, manifestly, morally praiseworthy, at least in my estimation. It’s hard to imagine how Western history would have turned out without his dignifying of the individual, his emphasis upon love of enemies, compassion, etc. For all the emphasis on the hateful texts of the OT, people who read this book and believe in the God it reveals somehow seem to have found a lot of moral inspiration in its pages and have produced a surprising amount of good in the world as well.

    I might even venture to say that the moral intuitions which are virtually instinctive for us, and by which we evaluate the Bible are the direct result of the cultural influence exerted by the Bible in the first place. I’m not trying to minimize the difficulties you’re raising, but I also think that the line being sold by Hitchen, Dawkins etc that we owe our gratitude to the heroically moral Enlightenment for liberating us from our primitive, superstitious, immoral religious past is more than a little problematic as well (I’m not suggesting that this is what you are claiming, but it’s a common enough sentiment these days).

    January 14, 2008
  12. Hey Ryan,

    Sorry to throw my frustration your way, but I don’t know what to do with this: “scientists like Pinker, who seem unwilling to admit that morality might have some kind of a divine cause”

    From what I gather, scientists willingly admit their tools are useless to explore an immaterial reality. So, are you expecting those skilled in acquiring natural methods, material tools to explore and encounter more of the material reality, to somehow find immaterial methods or tools to explore and encounter more of an immaterial reality?

    If so, an interesting endeavor to say the least. If we can’t use the brain’s ability to reason, how should we gain an immaterial sense of this phenomenon? Would you say, Ryan, that “our strongest moral intuitions” are the workings of an immaterial reality? But that would mean that the immaterial (or supernatural) reality somehow had a material influence on our brains to make our minds aware of this intuition. How is that possible?

    I suppose, while scientists continue to explore material effects and their causes, we should consider the possibility that they may eventually discover and significantly recognize an immaterial cause with their immaterial spirits – but what’s a spirit?

    January 15, 2008
  13. Paul Johnston #

    Jesus Christ was a material reality.

    January 15, 2008
  14. Jerry,

    I’m certainly not suggesting that scientists ought to be attempting to discover some kind of parallel “immaterial” method of inquiry. All I’m saying is that it’s possible for study of the natural world (and all of the limitations this study reveals) to lead one to rationally believe in an immaterial world. The existence and nature of morality strikes me as one area where this might be the case.

    Would you say, Ryan, that “our strongest moral intuitions” are the workings of an immaterial reality? But that would mean that the immaterial (or supernatural) reality somehow had a material influence on our brains to make our minds aware of this intuition. How is that possible?

    Yes, I think that an immaterial reality plays a role in the designing and shaping of our moral intuitions, and yes, I think that this immaterial reality can and does influence material brains. I’m not exactly sure how this is possible but I take comfort in the fact that the mind-body problem has kept minds much sharper than my own occupied for quite some time now.

    January 15, 2008

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