Thursday, December 17, 2009

Evolutionary Ethics (Part II)

This post continues our discussion of Marc Hauser's essay Biology (Not Religion) Equals Morality in which he attempts to argue that morality can be, and should be, based upon our biological nature. You can read Part I here.

Hauser writes:

None of my comments so far are meant to be divisive with respect to the meaning and sense of community that many derive from religion. Where I intend to be divisive is with respect to the argument that religion, and moral education more generally, represent the only - or perhaps even the ultimate - source of moral reasoning. If anything, moral education is often motivated by self-interest, to do what's best for those within a moral community, preaching singularity, not plurality. Blame nurture, not nature, for our moral atrocities against humanity. And blame educated partiality more generally, as this allows us to lump into one category all those who fail to acknowledge our shared humanity and fail to use secular reasoning to practice compassion.

But why should we care about our "shared humanity?" Why should we practice compassion? Hauser never tells us. He just assumes that this is the right thing to do, but we need to ask him what fact of evolution or our biology is he basing this assumption upon? Indeed, what fact of our biology tells us that we should not act in our self-interest? To such questions Hauser gives no answer.

He adds this:

If religion is not the source of our moral insights - and moral education has the demonstrated potential to teach partiality and, therefore, morally destructive behaviour - then what other sources of inspiration are on offer?

One answer to this question is emerging from an unsuspected corner of academia: the mind sciences. Recent discoveries suggest that all humans, young and old, male and female, conservative and liberal, living in Sydney, San Francisco and Seoul, growing up as atheists, Buddhists, Catholics and Jews, with high school, university or professional degrees, are endowed with a gift from nature, a biological code for living a moral life.

This code, a universal moral grammar, provides us with an unconscious suite of principles for judging what is morally right and wrong. It is an impartial, rational and unemotional capacity. It doesn't dictate who we should help or who we are licensed to harm. Rather, it provides an abstract set of rules for how to intuitively understand when helping another is obligatory and when harming another is forbidden. And it does so dispassionately and impartially.

This is fascinating. It sounds exactly like what natural law philosophers and theologians have been saying for centuries. Indeed St. Paul writing to the church at Rome in the first century observed that everyone has a moral law "written on their hearts" (See Romans 2: 15).

But the question is not whether we have such a moral code or moral sense but rather where it comes from. This makes all the difference as to whether it is in any way incumbent upon us. If the code is inscribed on our hearts by God then it is presumably morally obligatory, but if it's the product of evolution then we're no more obligated to observe it than we are obligated to cover our mouth when yawning. If this law that Mr. Hauser thinks he has discovered is the product of blind chance and purposelessness which somehow conspired to fit us for life in the stone age then why should we live our lives by it today? It's merely an evolutionary vestige, like a man's beard, and can be ignored or removed with just as little moral consequence.

To argue that because we have a moral sense we are therefore bound to live by it is to commit the fallacy of deriving an "ought" from an "is" (sometimes called the naturalistic fallacy). It simply does not follow that because something is a certain way it therefore ought to be that way. Just because in some situations we feel compassion for others does not mean that if we didn't feel compassion we'd be in some sense morally wrong.

Moreover, evolution-based ethics are highly selective in what they deem right and wrong. On what basis, for instance, do we determine which of our evolved behaviors are morally good and which are not? Men are just as likely, perhaps more likely, to be selfish, cruel and violent as they are to be generous, kind, and peaceful. Both tendencies, according to Hauser's view, are part of our biological makeup and must result from our evolutionary development as a species. On what basis, then, does he prefer one behavior over the other? On what basis does he decide that we're required to do one and required to avoid the other? Why, exactly, should I care about the poor or care about the world my great-grandchildren will inherit? Why shouldn't I just live for myself and let the poor or future generations worry about their own survival? What answer based upon our biological make-up can Hauser possibly give to these questions?

The fact is that naturalistic, evolutionary ethics provide us no basis, other than one's individual feelings, for judging one behavior to be morally better than another and certainly no reason for thinking that we're in any way obligated to do one thing rather than its opposite. As a guide to moral behavior it is utterly useless.

More tomorrow.


Debunking the Shroud

I don't know what to make of the Shroud of Turin, the famous burial cloth that bears the scientifically inexplicable imprint of a man whose wounds appear consonant with those which Jesus is described as suffering during his execution.

The Shroud is believed by many to be the actual burial cloth of Christ and the imprint is believed to have been preternaturally impressed into the fabric. Perhaps. I'm not in a position to say. What I can say, however, is that arguments like the one below which purport to debunk the Shroud as spurious are risibly dumb.

According to an article in Science Daily another burial shroud has been unearthed in Jerusalem dating to the first century. The shroud is apparently that of a man who was a leper and who died of tuberculosis, all of which is pretty interesting, but then the article quotes the researchers as claiming that the leper's shroud proves that the Turin Shroud could not be that of Jesus:

This is also the first time fragments of a burial shroud have been found from the time of Jesus in Jerusalem. The shroud is very different to that of the Turin Shroud, hitherto assumed to be the one that was used to wrap the body of Jesus. Unlike the complex weave of the Turin Shroud, this is made up of a simple two-way weave, as the textiles historian Dr. Orit Shamir was able to show.

Based on the assumption that this is representative of a typical burial shroud widely used at the time of Jesus, the researchers conclude that the Turin Shroud did not originate from Jesus-era Jerusalem.

In other words, we can assume that the leper's shroud had a weave typical of the period and since the Turin Shroud had a more sophisticated weave it must have dated from a more recent era or a different place.

If the researchers are being accurately represented in the article theirs is a remarkably shallow argument. What reason is there for making the assumption that the weave of the leper's shroud is typical? How many such linens have we discovered that we can make such a determination? And even if it were typical of the common folk to use such shrouds do we know that the more expensive weave was not preferred by the well-to-do? Why could it not be that Jesus was buried in a fabric typically imported for purchase and use by the wealthy from outside Jerusalem? Why could it not be that the rich man who donated the grave for Jesus' burial also donated the shroud? It was also typical of that time that the garments people wore were stitched together from numerous strips of cloth and thus had many seams, but Jesus' garment was seamless and thus considered unusual enough by his executioners for them to gamble for it. Should we assume that this story is false because it suggests that Jesus wore a garment not typical of that worn in the region at the time?

Sometimes in their eagerness to discredit Christian belief skeptics resort to the most desperate reasoning and wind up saying the silliest things. The Shroud of Turin may not be what its devotees believe it to be, but it'll take a lot more than the reasons offered in this article to convince them of that.