Monday, October 18, 2010

God, morality and monkeys

And by "monkeys" I really mean "altruistic chimpanzees", but I'm a sucker for alliteration...

I stumbled on a really excellent opinion piece in today's New York Times: "Morals without God" by the Dutch primatologist and ethologist, Frans De Waal. I'm loathe to highlight any particular parts because the whole thing is so good, but here are three excerpts...

First up: Morality without God.
Can we envision a world without God? Would this world be good? Don’t think for one moment that the current battle lines between biology and fundamentalist Christianity turn around evidence. One has to be pretty immune to data to doubt evolution, which is why books and documentaries aimed at convincing the skeptics are a waste of effort. They are helpful for those prepared to listen, but fail to reach their target audience. The debate is less about the truth than about how to handle it. For those who believe that morality comes straight from God the creator, acceptance of evolution would open a moral abyss.
Echoing this view, Reverend Al Sharpton opined in a recent videotaped debate: “If there is no order to the universe, and therefore some being, some force that ordered it, then who determines what is right or wrong? There is nothing immoral if there’s nothing in charge.” Similarly, I have heard people echo Dostoevsky’s Ivan Karamazov, exclaiming that “If there is no God, I am free to rape my neighbor!”
Perhaps it is just me, but I am wary of anyone whose belief system is the only thing standing between them and repulsive behavior. Why not assume that our humanity, including the self-control needed for livable societies, is built into us? Does anyone truly believe that our ancestors lacked social norms before they had religion? Did they never assist others in need, or complain about an unfair deal? Humans must have worried about the functioning of their communities well before the current religions arose, which is only a few thousand years ago. Not that religion is irrelevant — I will get to this — but it is an add-on rather than the wellspring of morality. 
This very closely describes my own feelings. I've often tried to point out that morality derived from personal and social value systems just seems more genuine than morality which is (passively?) adopted as part of a religious system. If a religious person does something “good” because of the threat of hell -- or lure of heaven -- can this really be framed as a question of morality?[*] I doubt it... Now, obviously there are healthy reasons for keeping reward and punishment systems that protect the stability of a society as a whole, but the concept of "managed morality" still appears to me as little more than a lame oxymoron.

Next: Thoughts on Altruism.
Modern popularizers [have argued] that true moral tendencies cannot exist — not in humans and even less in other animals — since nature is one hundred percent selfish. Morality is just a thin veneer over a cauldron of nasty tendencies. [However], instead of blaming atrocious behavior on our biology (“we’re acting like animals!”), while claiming our noble traits for ourselves, why not view the entire package as a product of evolution? Fortunately, there has been a resurgence of the Darwinian view that morality grew out of the social instincts. Psychologists stress the intuitive way we arrive at moral judgments while activating emotional brain areas, and economists and anthropologists have shown humanity to be far more cooperative, altruistic, and fair than predicted by self-interest models. Similarly, the latest experiments in primatology reveal that our close relatives will do each other favors even if there’s nothing in it for themselves. 
Even though altruistic behavior evolved for the advantages it confers, this does not make it selfishly motivated. Future benefits rarely figure in the minds of animals. For example, animals engage in sex without knowing its reproductive consequences, and even humans had to develop the morning-after pill. This is because sexual motivation is unconcerned with the reason why sex exists. The same is true for the altruistic impulse, which is unconcerned with evolutionary consequences. It is this disconnect between evolution and motivation that befuddled the Veneer Theorists, and made them reduce everything to selfishness. 
Nature often equips life’s essentials — sex, eating, nursing — with built-in gratification. One study found that pleasure centers in the human brain light up when we give to charity. This is of course no reason to call such behavior “selfish” as it would make the word totally meaningless. A selfish individual has no trouble walking away from another in need. Someone is drowning: let him drown. Someone cries: let her cry. These are truly selfish reactions, which are quite different from empathic ones. Yes, we experience a “warm glow,” and perhaps some other animals do as well, but since this glow reaches us via the other, and only via the other, the helping is genuinely other-oriented.
Quite so. I'm tired of all the Ayn Rand types bleating on about selfishness all the time. Trust me, I get it: self-interest is very important... But I feel much of the Randian contribution these days is simply to fixate on meaningless semantics. Apart from the fact that altruistic acts often confer no obvious or immediate benefits to us, surely the exact point is that altruism is concerned with the well-being of others? "Altruism" exists as a singular -- and separate -- construct because it reflects a very specific set of actions and motivations.

Finally: Extending an olive branch to religion.
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. We, 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.
Other primates have of course none of these problems, but even they strive for a certain kind of society. For example, female chimpanzees have been seen to drag reluctant males towards each other to make up after a fight, removing weapons from their hands, and high-ranking males regularly act as impartial arbiters to settle disputes in the community. I take these hints of community concern as yet another sign that the building blocks of morality are older than humanity, and that we do not need God to explain how we got where we are today. On the other hand, what would happen if we were able to excise religion from society? I doubt that science and the naturalistic worldview could fill the void and become an inspiration for the good. Any framework we develop to advocate a certain moral outlook is bound to produce its own list of principles, its own prophets, and attract its own devoted followers, so that it will soon look like any old religion.
As something of a secular humanist myself, I'll have to mull over the very last of these points. I strongly identify with many of the moral teachings that I've read in religious texts... But I also think that this reflects the innate strength of certain religions: They simply codified a set of moral guidelines that societies needed to "evolve" if they wanted to survive and flourish over the long-run. This, in turn, acted as the ballast for these religions to endure. The fact that we -- at least in Western societies -- seem far less concerned with certain rules than we might have been in previous years (e.g. don't eat shellfish, no sex before marriage) reinforces my belief that our morality will partly evolve with the times. (We even reject outright certain notions from religious texts, such as the right to own slaves.) Nevertheless, I completely agree that there is no need to insult someone who finds value in religion; provided their beliefs cause no demonstrable harm to others. And, as I have said previously, I look forward to the day when we come around to the idea that calling someone an "idiot" is not the best way of convincing them of your position.

THOUGHT FOR THE DAY: Too much, I fear, in this piece to sum up in a few lines. Perhaps I can do no worse than...
Oh, oobee doo!
I wanna be like you (oo-oo-oo)
I wanna walk like you
Talk like you, too (oo-oo-oo)
You'll see it's true (oo-oo-oo)
An ape like me
Can learn to be human too!

[*] An analogy is the paradox of intrinsic versus instrumental ethics that you often hear about in courses on business ethics... The basic idea being that trying to “manage” the ethics of employees is a contradiction in terms: By subjecting ethical matters to regulation and management control, employees aren't necessarily doing something good because of it's innate goodness, but rather because they are told to so or suffer the consequences. Similarly, it could be argued that ethics derived from any authority – moral or otherwise – has some element of inherent contradiction. 

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