The evolution of morality

Mid-afternoon yesterday two well-dressed men knocked on my door; my suspicion that they were Jehovah’s Witnesses was quickly strengthened when one of them asked my thoughts on the decline of our society’s morality (and confirmed when they handed me a couple issues of The Watchtower). This is an interesting question – not something most people ask when they knock at your door. They were a bit shocked when I told them I didn’t think there was a decline in morality; anyone who knows anything about history can see that sin is prevalent throughout the ages.

The timing of this question, however, was interesting, just a few days after the Virginia Tech shootings. Understandably, this raises the issue of morality and what is happening in our society; a certain amount of self-examination is probably required. Now, I’m not going to address the incident itself, but rather, something which I find much more concerning: the new materialism’s views on morality.

In the April 19 edition of the New York Times, Op-ed Columnist David Brooks wrote a column entitled The Morality Line, in which he stated:

In short, the killings at Virginia Tech happen at a moment when we are renegotiating what you might call the Morality Line, the spot where background forces stop and individual choice — and individual responsibility — begins. The killings happen at a moment when the people who explain behavior by talking about biology, chemistry and social science are assertive and on the march, while the people who explain behavior by talking about individual character are confused and losing ground. And it’s true. We’re never going back. We’re not going to put our knowledge of brain chemistry or evolutionary psychology back in the bottle. It would be madness to think Cho Seung-Hui could have been saved from his demons with better sermons.

Brooks refers to Evolutionary Psychology, which is a pseudo-science – a theoretical approach to psychology attempting to use hypotheses such as natural selection to explain our mental processes as adaptations. It’s more debated than even evolutionary biology, but it’s all the rage in some circles, including those sometimes known as the New Atheists. Morality is not, then, based on any universal, absolute morality (which could suggest the existence of a deity), but has evolved in order to best serve humanity.

Richard Dawkins, one of the more notable New Atheists, wrote an essay a couple of years ago for Edge.org’s The World Question Center in answer to the question What is your dangerous idea? A quote:

Retribution as a moral principle is incompatible with a scientific view of human behaviour. As scientists, we believe that human brains, though they may not work in the same way as man-made computers, are as surely governed by the laws of physics. When a computer malfunctions, we do not punish it. We track down the problem and fix it, usually by replacing a damaged component, either in hardware or software.

But doesn’t a truly scientific, mechanistic view of the nervous system make nonsense of the very idea of responsibility, whether diminished or not? Any crime, however heinous, is in principle to be blamed on antecedent conditions acting through the accused’s physiology, heredity and environment. …

Why is it that we humans find it almost impossible to accept such conclusions? Why do we vent such visceral hatred on child murderers, or on thuggish vandals, when we should simply regard them as faulty units that need fixing or replacing? Presumably because mental constructs like blame and responsibility, indeed evil and good, are built into our brains by millennia of Darwinian evolution. Assigning blame and responsibility is an aspect of the useful fiction of intentional agents that we construct in our brains as a means of short-cutting a truer analysis of what is going on in the world in which we have to live.

At times Dawkins sounds like a character straight out of A Brave New World, or perhaps The Matrix. If we – body, mind and [what we perceive as] soul – are simply the product of the random, materialistic process of evolution, then what do we say about morality? Sam Harris tries to argue that materialism can provide a moral foundation, but the logic breaks down. If I read Dawkins right, there is no morality, only biological, mechanical function.

A dangerous idea indeed…

6 thoughts on “The evolution of morality”

  1. Mike, I’d like to read that. I’ve heard Jim Henderson (the guy who “bought” Mehta) speak, and am on the “off-the-map” (Henderson’s organization) mailing list, so I’ve read a little about the e-bay deal. I like Off the Map – they’ve done a lot to open the dialog between Christians and “unChristians.”

    I understand your concerns about the book being used as an evangelism tool; however, if Christians accept the point that I understand the book is making, then evangelism becomes more of a dialog in search of truth rather than the “Amway” approach.

  2. As soon as I finish it, I would like to send you my copy of the book I Sold My Soul On E-bay by Hemant Mehta. I met him at a meeting of the Minnesota Atheists (I am a card-carrying member) and he made a presentation then did a book-signing. I bought a copy and am nearly done with it. It is an interesting discussion of his visits to various churches and his unbiased critiques of the services themselves from the point of view of an atheist without anti-Christian roots. It is published by a Christian publishing house, and many churches now are using it as a stepping-off point to critically examine the ways that they present themselves visitors.

    I think it is a book that should be shared for several reasons:

    1. It is a counterpoint to the writings of Dawkins, Harris and Myers, at all, and is approachable for everyone because of the fact that it doesn’t attack the religion itself.

    2. Christians can use it as a mirror to see how they look to non-Christians, how we evaluate their walk, etc. While I have written that I don’t like that it will probably used as a new tool for evangelization, I do like that it helps open a dialog between Christians and Atheists so that we can talk to each other like people rather than enemies.

    Let me know by e-mail if you would like it and send me your address.

  3. Absolutely! I freely admit that. Christianity starts with the presupposition, or conclusion, that Jesus is who he says he is. However, my conclusions about Christianity are not foundational to my own conclusions about Darwinism, although my belief in God allows me to accept different options than someone who presupposes materialism.

    Another thought, that I may write more about in the near future: I do not believe that you have to believe in God in order to have “acceptable” moral standards; I believe, at this point anyway, that humanity’s morality – which is fairly universal – is because we are all created “in God’s image.” The uniquely human characteristics – like morality, altruism and creativity for creativity’s sake – are also reflections of God. So, to some extent, we are hard-wired with “godly” potential, but at the same time have free will to reject these things.

  4. Randomness seems to be a concept that is used when necessary, but dismissed when it is obviously illogical. A couple of quotes:

    As a sculptor shapes a statue by subtraction of marble, so natural selection chisels the gene pool towards perfection as generations go by. It isn’t only subtraction. New variation is added to the gene pool by mutation ? random mistakes which occasionally turn out to be superior. The randomness of mutation is partly responsible for the widespread, ludicrous misconception that natural selection itself is a random process.
    Richard Dawkins

    I think the mistake that many people make about natural selection is thinking that since it’s inexorable without exception, that it leaves no room for randomness, for chaos to come in and upset the directions that it’s taken so far.

    In fact, the process of natural selection feeds on randomness. It feeds on accident and contingency, and exploits that in ways that couldn’t be predicted. It’s still an inexorable process. It’s still always gradually improves the fit between whatever organisms there are and the environment in which they’re being selected.

    But there’s no predictability about what particular accidents are going to be exploited in this process.
    Daniel Dennett

    Now, I’m not trying to say that materialists believe that the development of morality was randomly generated. However, as I understand it, randomness is a key point in neo-Darwinism, and would have some involvement in the development of the brain & psyche (and therefore, a foundational involvement in the development of morality).

    To clarify a point re your final comment: for Christians, morality should be based primarily on the life and teaching of Jesus, who claimed to be the full representation of God (“If you have seen me, you have seen the Father”). If Christians actually adopted this teaching, it would be wonderful. However, Christianity is in many respects an “un-religion,” as it is based on grace, not performance. Which, by the way, supports the notion that at least Christianity – being so non-intuitive that many Christians never “get it” – is not of human invention.

  5. But again, randomness is not a great factor in evolution. Our morality is not randomly assembled, it has been worked out through our own application of intellect (even in its primitive stages, and as a growth of group solidarity altruism itself has an easily demonstrated evolutionary pathway.)

    You are reading Dawkins and Harris incorrectly. Sociologists posit that religion itself developed as a means of enforcing morality, placing it as the instructions of higher, creator-type beings.

    Natural selection is a far greater force in evolution than randomness, and as I wrote in December, randomness is a bogeyman used to denigrate the process of evolution. Some would call it a strawman, because its main role is in splitting point mutations and alterations of DNA structure. The genes thus modified face the grueling task of survival, and in the case of humans, even a willful opposition. (despite all of its other historical inaccuracies, the movie 300 was accurate in its depiction of the Spartans reliance on eugenics.)

    Dawkins, in The Blind Watchmaker explains why evolution is far more reliant on natural selection than randomness, and I am not sure if you are wilfully putting words in his mouth regarding the development of morality and the development of conscious human shaping of morality.

    Harris argues not that materialism provides a moral foundation, but that humanity shapes a moral foundation. Given the bizarre range of “absolute moralities” created by all of the varieties of the monotheistic religions, I am not sure how you can argue that belief in God necessarily is the only foundation for morality.

    We’re smart enough to figure it out ourselves, and Dawkin’s reference to “Delusion” is that we need to make up a smarter source than the evolutionarily developed human mind.

    It has come out that Cho’s mother had wanted to get treatment for his mental illness but was discouraged from seeking treatment by her pastor. Is that true? I don’t know and I really don’t care, because just like in Columbine there is way too much blame going around on this one. There is one person to blame here, the one that pulled the trigger. It was a conscious decision and he is at fault. I think it shameful that so many people from all positions are using this just as they did the tragedies at Columbine, Paducah, Red Lake School, etc etc etc, are trying to make some poltical or religious hay out of the tragic loss of life.

    And finally, the dangerous idea is really that anyone can discern a correct morality based on a perception of what God wants. The freaks at Westboro Baptist Church are as convinced that they have the Truth about Morality as anyone else does.

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