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More on Morality

Given some of the discussion that has been taking place on an earlier post, I thought I would pass on this link to an interesting article by biologist Frans de Waal in today’s edition of “The Stone” (a philosophy forum from The New York Times). The entire article is worth reading as I think he touches on a number of very important points (including the limits of science), but I was especially drawn to one particular section.

While de Waal has observed a good deal of what might be called altruistic behaviour from primates, he stops short of equating this with human morality. For de Waal, human morality is qualitatively different than behaviour observed in primates, and this qualitative difference is inextricably bound up with religion (it’s a longish quote but, again, very intriguing and relevant to recent conversations around here):

At the same time, however, I am reluctant to call a chimpanzee a “moral being.” This is because sentiments do not suffice. We strive for a logically coherent system, and have debates about how the death penalty fits arguments for the sanctity of life, or whether an unchosen sexual orientation can be wrong. These debates are uniquely human. We have no evidence that other animals judge the appropriateness of actions that do not affect themselves. The great pioneer of morality research, the Finn Edward Westermarck, explained what makes the moral emotions special: “Moral emotions are disconnected from one’s immediate situation: they deal with good and bad at a more abstract, disinterested level.” This is what sets human morality apart: a move towards universal standards combined with an elaborate system of justification, monitoring and punishment.

At this point, religion comes in. Think of the narrative support for compassion, such as the Parable of the Good Samaritan, or the challenge to fairness, such as the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard, with its famous conclusion “The last will be first, and the first will be last.” Add to this an almost Skinnerian fondness of reward and punishment—from the virgins to be met in heaven to the hell fire that awaits sinners—and the exploitation of our desire to be “praiseworthy,” as Adam Smith called it. Humans are so sensitive to public opinion that we only need to see a picture of two eyes glued to the wall to respond with good behavior, which explains the image in some religions of an all-seeing eye to symbolize an omniscient God.

Over the past few years, we have gotten used to a strident atheism arguing that God is not great (Christopher Hitchens) or a delusion (Richard Dawkins). The new atheists call themselves “brights,” thus hinting that believers are not so bright. They urge trust in science, and want to root ethics in a naturalistic worldview.

While I do consider religious institutions and their representatives—popes, bishops, mega-preachers, ayatollahs, and rabbis—fair game for criticism, what good could come from insulting individuals who find value in religion? And more pertinently, what alternative does science have to offer? Science is not in the business of spelling out the meaning of life and even less in telling us how to live our lives. Scientists, are good at finding out why things are the way they are, or how things work, and I do believe that biology can help us understand what kind of animals we are and why our morality looks the way it does. But to go from there to offering moral guidance seems a stretch.

Even the staunchest atheist growing up in Western society cannot avoid having absorbed the basic tenets of Christian morality. Our societies are steeped in it: everything we have accomplished over the centuries, even science, developed either hand in hand with or in opposition to religion, but never separately. It is impossible to know what morality would look like without religion. It would require a visit to a human culture that is not now and never was religious. That such cultures do not exist should give us pause.

18 Comments Post a comment
  1. Gil #

    Appreciate the perspective here.

    October 17, 2010
  2. Interesting and considerable level of insight. Definitely something to ponder.

    October 17, 2010
  3. Tyler Brown #

    An excellent article, thanks so much for bringing attention to it.

    October 18, 2010
  4. Ken #

    Science is bound up historically with morality, with the idea that we could make the world better and alleviate suffering. That is how Bacon saw it and how many people see it today.

    I think it is unfortunate when we bind up religion with morality. Academically, this binding does not hold. And as we experience life and religion, even while religion involves how we live, religion is diminished, as is life, with too great an emphasis on morality.

    I think that nature is more accepting of variation in behavior than is humanity, certainly more than moralistic Christianity or its cousin, new-atheism. We should take a lesson from nature. Its acceptance is not unlike the grace of God.

    Perhaps we should take a lesson from the other apes. Lets leave the fixation on morality to the new atheists.

    October 18, 2010
    • James #

      “Perhaps we should take a lesson from the other apes. Lets leave the fixation on morality to the new atheists.”
      Interesting take as usual, Ken. But I suppose it is our fixation with morality also distinguishes, even the new atheists from the other apes.

      October 18, 2010
      • Ken #

        Yes, them too, even if only barely:)

        October 18, 2010
    • Tyler Brown #

      A difference between us and the apes might be that our reason or logos allows us to hone our morality. To deny our morality would be to deny our nature, the only lessons we can learn are humans ones as we are not apes.

      October 18, 2010
      • Ken #

        I thought we are apes, primates, Hominoidea. I thought that is our nature, our genes, our phenotype, moral or not. Apes with vestigial tails.

        October 18, 2010
      • Tyler Brown #

        Was merely following the terms previously used.

        October 18, 2010
    • Ken, I think that to say that science is “bound up historically with morality, with the idea that we could make the world better and alleviate suffering” is simply to affirm that science has always been in the business of pursuing ends that it obtained somewhere else (even if this somewhere else goes unrecognized and/or unacknowledged). Whether we like it or not, “somewhere else” is religious in nature.

      I don’t think we can separate religion from some conception of how human life ought to be lived, even if this conception can be the subject of considerable discussion and debate.

      October 19, 2010
      • Ken #

        Okay. And in that seeking of a way to live, perhaps we can take a lesson from the other apes, which is to say, from nature.

        Just as some scientists and others adopt a view that may be called scientism, some Christians and others, including the new atheists, adopt a view that analogously might be called “moralism.”

        But the other apes, they don’t seem to have that problem. They are, in that sense, more religious than we are.

        October 19, 2010
      • I think that we should absolutely be willing to learn what we can from nature about our moral intuitions. I also think that there is large and generous space between the scientism and moralism you’ve described for an appropriately humble and appropriately unique understanding of human beings as creatures whose manner of thinking and living necessarily involves questions of meaning, purpose, and some kind of moral telos. This is the sense in which I think that we are irreducibly “religious” in a way that apes are not.

        October 19, 2010
      • Ken #

        I don’t know. Could just be monkey see, monkey do:)

        October 19, 2010
    • Ken #

      One other story about apes. Annie Dillard told it in Teaching a Stone to Talk.

      A researcher spent years teaching a chimp to talk. In spite of years of training, the chimp only learned to say, “mama, papa and cup.” Then she taught the chimp sign language. She (the chimp) did better at this. And then one morning, the researcher asked the chimp how she was doing. The chimp signed back, “I felt sad this morning.” The researcher, as told by Annie, thought to herself, I wish I had not asked. Is there not a prayer in this?

      There is more to life than we have thought. I suspect even the trees have a religious life. I know some trees. I pray with them.

      October 19, 2010
  5. jc #

    “These debates are uniquely human. We have no evidence that other animals judge the appropriateness of actions that do not affect themselves.”

    Almost done with Sam Harris ‘The Moral Landscape’ and I came across this relevant passage. I have not researched any of the studies cited here but I thought it was worth putting up as a comment.

    “One wonders if the author has ever read a newspaper. The behavior of humans
    offers no such “dramatic contrast”? How badly must human beings behave to put this
    “sense of universal rightness” in doubt? While no other species can match us for altruism,
    none can match us for sadistic cruelty either. And just how widespread must
    “glimmerings” of morality be among other animals before Collins—who, after all, knows
    a thing or two about genes—begins to wonder whether our moral sense has evolutionary
    precursors? What if mice show greater distress at the suffering of familiar mice than
    unfamiliar ones? (They do.88) What if monkeys will starve themselves to prevent their
    cage mates from receiving painful shocks? (They will. 89) What if chimps have a
    demonstrable sense of fairness when receiving food rewards? (They have. 90) What if
    dogs do too? (Ditto. 91) Wouldn’t these be precisely the sorts of findings one would
    expect if our morality were the product of evolution?”

    October 19, 2010
    • Interesting quote—thanks for sharing it. I think Harris is right that human beings are matchless when it comes to both altruism and cruelty. Perhaps ironically, I think both are more consistent with a Christian anthropology than a strictly materialist one. The good we are capable of, inspired by, and drawn toward seems almost divine, while the evil we commit borders on the demonic. I think this makes sense on a conception of human sin as genuine rebellion (as opposed to merely adaptive behaviour) and human goodness as responding to that for which we were made.

      The rest of the quote is less compelling, at least for me. It’s not as though I expect to see goodness in human beings and human beings alone. Again, I think that Harris sets up a false dichotomy here. If traces of morality can be found in other species, then human beings are not unique/religion is false, etc, etc. I don’t think it’s nearly that simple. Holmes Rolston III calls this the “if functional, false” fallacy—if some feature can be shown to have an evolutionary history, it must have no connection to or origin with God. I don’t think that telling an evolutionary story about some feature or other of human existence necessarily explains said feature without remainder, much less explains away God.

      October 20, 2010
      • Ken #

        It does explain away a theistic God if one accepts that evolution works by chance and necessity. On the other hand if one believes in theistic evolution, which is not the evolution story that is the basis of biology, then one can hold as you do that the “evolutionary story” does not explain away God.

        I don’t think we are more cruel than other species. Remember Darwin’s wasp. And I don’t think we are kinder. But then, these are judgments that one cannot quantify, not measure in a verifiable way. In addition, these judgments require agreement on a common standard of goodness – agreement that does not exist.

        October 20, 2010
      • Yes, it is certainly true (if somewhat redundant) that if one accepts that chance and necessity represent the deepest explanation of our story and its origins, then a theistic God is explained away.

        Re: whether we are more cruel/more kind than the rest of nature, I maintain my assertion that, as human beings, we are capable of more (and less) than any other creature. Here in Canada, we are learning the horrific story of Col. Russell Williams—a man who raped, tortured, and murdered two women in the last few years. According to news I heard on the radio yesterday, Williams videotaped and took photographs of his crimes as he was committing them over a number of days, even taking care to provide extra lighting for the camera in one case and moving to a more favourable location for another.

        This is just one story but I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to say that as human beings we are capable of genuinely unparalleled evil, with all due respect (?) to Darwin’s wasp.

        (Needless to say, I think the converse is true as well. I don’t think it is difficult to find evidence of human kindness and self-sacrifice that is qualitatively different than anything we see in nature, however interesting this might be.)

        October 20, 2010

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