Monday, March 26, 2007

God, Morality, and Human Nature

Over on Religious Forums is a very intelligent young man from Saudi Arabia who goes by the username, "The Truth".

Not so long ago, The Truth started a discussion thread in which he asked whether all morality was ultimately derived from religion. From the responses the thread's been getting, it seems some people do in fact believe morality is derived from religion. But is that always true? And, if morality is not always derived from religion, then where exactly does it come from?

Not everyone asks those questions. But it might be a good idea if more of us did, especially in America, where the Religious Right for decades has been hammering folks with the peculiar notion that, unless they tightly cling to conservative Judeo-Christian values, they will set themselves -- and perhaps the entire nation -- adrift in a decadent sea of moral relativism.

In a very limited way, I actually find myself agreeing with the Religious Right. Surely, pure moral relativism is a foundation too weak to build much on. By "moral relativism", I mean the notion that anything goes; anything is alright so long as you or someone else thinks it's alright. That's really moral anarchy, and both I and the Religious Right agree that it would suck for society to widely adopt it.

About everything else, we disagree. Usually, the Religious Right would have us believe we have only two choices: Biblical morality or moral relativism. Yet, that's false.

In the first place, humans have invented many moral codes over the years. The Biblical moral code is only one of many codes that humans have invented, and certainly not the best of them. Therefore, we are not limited in our choice of moralities to just two inane choices: Biblical morality or moral relativism. Instead, we have many options, a whole treasury of options.

In the second place, there is surprising new evidence that at least some moral principles are hardwired into our very nature. That is, we need look no further than human nature to find a basis for some of our morals.

Writing in The New York Times, the Harvard psychologist, Daniel Gilbert makes the point rather eloquently:

Research suggests that we are hard-wired with a strong and intuitive moral impulse — an urge to help others that is every bit as basic as the selfish urges that get all the press. Infants as young as 18 months will spontaneously comfort those who appear distressed and help those who are having difficulty retrieving or balancing objects. Chimpanzees will do the same, though not so reliably, which has led scientists to speculate about the precise point in our evolutionary history at which we became the “hypercooperative” species that out-nices the rest.
Gilbert's remarks remind me of primatologist Alison Jolly's observation in her book, Lucy's Legacy, that humans are almost the most cooperative species known to science. Only the social insects, and a couple species of lower mammals, in some ways out do us.

Yet, our natural moral foundation seems to go far beyond a built in propensity for hypercooperation. Joshua Greene, another Harvard professor, has discovered that in some circumstances, most people will agree on what is right and what is wrong.

Greene studies how people respond to a set of imaginary dilemmas. For instance, in one dilemma: are standing by a railroad track when you notice that a trolley, with no one aboard, is heading for a group of five people. They will all be killed if it continues on its current track. The only thing you can do to prevent these five deaths is to throw a switch that will divert the trolley on to a side track, where it will kill only one person.

What do you do?

"When asked what you should do in these circumstances, most people say you should divert the trolley on to the side track, thus saving a net four lives. [italics mine]" That is, there is a majority consensus among people that a right course of action exists. So far as I know, nothing in the Bible suggests that saving a net four lives by sacrificing one life is the moral thing to do -- yet in those specific circumstances, that's what most people think is moral.

In fact, Greene's colleague, Marc Hauser, has discovered that people of different societies and cultures will largely respond the same way to the same set of circumstances. What an American likely thinks is right in certain circumstances is precisely what a Chinese person likely thinks is right in the same circumstances.

All of the above suggests that at least some morality is derived directly from human nature, and not necessarily from either religion or God. Shocking?

It really should be shocking. Almost all of us have been saturated with the view that religion and God are the foundations of morality. After hearing all that propaganda, the news that science is discovering a basis for morality in human nature should at least cause us wonder.

I predict it will be quite a while before it is widely known and accepted in the West that morality is -- at least to some extent -- derived not from holy scripture, but from human nature. In the meantime, many religious leaders will still promote the notion that their religions have a monopoly on morality.


Brendan said...

I wouldn't call it a "moral impulse" so much as a "social impulse." We have evolved an innate need to feel part of a group (not to do the right thing). Thus, it is through this social impulse that "morality" is implanted. This explains am interesting phenomenon that would remain unaccounted for with just a "moral impulse." Morals vary largely from culture to culture. And often what seems "moral" to some seems exactly the opposite of "moral" to others. The difference? A social reality constructed in a different cultural context OR a differing level of construct awareness (the wild card in the evolutionary morals game).

Brendan said...

And I would add that in hypotheticals like the dilemma you pose, the answers are very different than the real world ones because it's not just a question of killing one person to save five. It's a question of "who are the five" and who is the "one"? Then it's a complex dance of justifications and moral reasoning. The five are Muslims and the one is a Christian, for example. Or the one is my brother and the five are strangers.

Paul said...

Thank you for some excellent comments, Brendan. I agree with you this far: The scientific jury is still out on this issue. Some years ago, I would have said, much as you, that morality was mostly determined by culture. But I've gradually come to susptect that it's more like a 50/50 split between nature and nurture. I think the evidence is growing that we have some sort of innate moral propensities.

Brendan said...

What do you make of people in power who do not behave according to even broadly accepted "morality"? Indeed, doesn't it seem that the more powerful a person is in the world of social reality, the less constrained that person's behavior seems to be by any sense of innate "morality"?

Is that because there are no consequences for the powerful in social reality? Is "morality" ultimately a nuanced manipulation of the human survival instinct?

Dilemma: Your landlord has just given you an eviction notice requiring you to pay $2000 back rent by the end of the month. He arbitrarily raised the rent after you lost your job and you just don't have the money. As your landlord is getting into his new BMW he drops his wallet. In it you find $2000 in cash. Setting aside the issue of whether it's "right" or "wrong" to keep the money, what do you think will you actually do?

Paul said...

I think the points you make, Brendan, need to be addressed at some length, so I'm going to do just that at some time during this week. I'll need to do some research first, because I want to supply you with the best quality information I can find on the net.