The idea that our moral sense is a product of human evolution has been around ever since Darwin, but in all those years it has never managed to convince most philosophers that it's plausible. Marc Hauser at Edge takes another stab at it in an article titled Biology (Not Religion) Equals Morality. There's much to think about (and to criticize) in his essay so I'd like to offer an analysis over the next several days. This post will be part I of the series.
For many, living a moral life is synonymous with living a religious life. Just as educated students of mathematics, chemistry and politics know that 1=1, water=H2O, and Barack Obama=US president, so, too, do religiously educated people know that religion=morality.
As simple and pleasing as this relationship may seem, it has at least three possible interpretations.
First, if religion represents the source of moral understanding, then those lacking a religious education are morally lost, adrift in a sea of sinful temptation. Those with a religious education not only chart a steady course, guided by the cliched moral compass but they know why some actions are morally virtuous and others are morally abhorrent.
Actually, it's not so much a lack of religious education which casts one adrift, it's the lack of any objective ground for moral judgment and moral obligation. If morality is not rooted in the goodness of a transcendent moral authority then it's entirely rooted in human subjectivity and what's moral is simply a matter of whatever feels right to me. Any ethics that seeks to ground itself in something other than God ultimately founders on the shoals of subjectivity, and, as we'll see Hauser's attempt is no exception.
Second, perhaps everyone has a standard engine for working out what is morally right or wrong but those with a religious background have extra accessories that refine our actions, fueling altruism and fending off harms to others.
Well, at least those who understand Christianity do. The "extra accessories" that the Christian has at her disposal are the twin motivators of love for, and gratitude to, God. The reason why there are relatively few charities run by atheists is that motives rooted in evolution will almost always drive people toward egoism rather than altruism. Love and gratitude, especially when directed toward something or someone beyond ourselves, are the most powerful incentives anyone has for caring about others, and the atheist has denied himself access to these resources.
Third, while religion certainly does provide moral inspiration, not all of its recommendations are morally laudatory. Though we can all applaud those religions that teach compassion, forgiveness and genuine altruism, we can also express disgust and moral outrage at those religions that promote ethnic cleansing, often by praising those willing to commit suicide for the good of the religious "team".
The obvious question Hauser raises for himself here is what standard is he using to judge compassion, forgiveness, and altruism as laudatory and ethnic cleansing as outrageous? Where does he get the idea that the former are good and the latter is bad? What is he basing this evaluation upon? The answer has to be either evolution or his own feelings, but if so how can either of these tell us that something is good or bad?
Indeed, an ethic based on evolution should see ethnic cleansing as a natural expression of the survival of the fittest gene pool. It should view suicide bombers as altruists sacrificing their own lives to promote the survival of the genes of the larger group of which he is a part.
In other words, Hauser wants to ground morality in the evolution of humanity, but as soon as he starts making moral judgments he finds himself forced to import values that have their source elsewhere. This is a problem that many naturalists face. They simply cannot consistently reconcile their naturalism with their moral sense. They see where the train of naturalist morality is taking them, and they don't like it so they make an irrational leap onto the back of Christian morality, and hope no one will notice as they piggyback upon the very assumptions they wish to discredit.