Saturday, December 19, 2009

Evolutionary Ethics (Part III)

This post concludes 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 Parts I and II here and here.

Mr. Hauser's essay continues by presenting us with examples of moral dilemmas from which he draws the wrong conclusion:

... if five people in a hospital each require an organ to survive, is it permissible for a doctor to take the organs of a healthy person who happens to walk by the hospital? Or if a lethal gas has leaked into the vent of a factory and is headed towards a room with seven people, is it permissible to push someone into the vent, preventing the gas from reaching the seven but killing the one? These are true moral dilemmas - challenging problems that push on our intuitions as lay jurists, forcing us to wrestle with the opposing forces of consequences (saving the lives of many) and rules (killing is wrong).

Based on the responses of thousands of participants to more than 100 dilemmas, we find no difference between men and women, young and old, theistic believers and non-believers, liberals and conservatives. When it comes to judging unfamiliar moral scenarios, your cultural background is virtually irrelevant.

Well, maybe, but it shouldn't be. I would be among the last to say that moral choices are never excruciatingly difficult, but, in the cases that Hauser cites, not so much. The Christian is guided by one overarching principle: Always do the act which maximizes compassion and justice. In the scenarios that Hauser constructs it would be manifestly unjust to take organs from an unwilling passerby and equally unjust to push someone into the vent to save others, even if the others were children, even if they were your own children (surely an individual should jump into the vent himself rather than push another into it).

Hauser assumes, apparently, that everyone thinks in utilitarian terms which require of us that we produce the greatest happiness for the greatest number. A utilitarian could superficially justify sacrificing the happiness of one innocent person in order to maximize the happiness of many, but a Christian cannot.

What guides your judgments is the universal and unconscious voice of our species, a biological code, a universal moral grammar....If this code is universal and impartial, then why are there are so many moral atrocities in the world? The answer comes from thinking about our emotions, the feelings we recruit to fuel in-group favouritism, out-group hatred and, ultimately, dehumanisation.

Actually the answer is because atheism offers us no reason why we should not submit to our emotions, nor does it offer us any reason why we should care about anyone but ourselves, but that aside, on what biological or evolutionary grounds does Mr. Hauser condemn in-group favoritism or out-group hatred? These behaviors are as natural to our species as breathing. They've been encoded in our DNA by millenia of evolution. Why, in an atheistic view of things, are they wrong? What is the standard Mr. Hauser is smuggling in here in order to judge them as wrong?

It can't be that he finds warrant for disdaining them in our biological nature because these behaviors are fundamentally ingrained in that nature. It can't be that evolution gives him reason to condemn them because on his view evolution is responsible for their existence.

Mr. Hauser wants to say that out-group hatred is wrong but he can't tell us why. He wants to say, in effect, that there is a natural law written on our hearts that forbids such behavior, but no natural "law" rooted in our evolutionary development can be morally obligatory (see part II). Favoritism or hatred can only be wrong if the source of the natural law is a transcendent moral authority, and that's something Hauser's atheism does not allow.

Consider the psychopath, Hollywood's favourite moral monster. Clinical studies reveal that they feel no remorse, shame, guilt or empathy, and lack the tools for self-control. Because they lacked these capacities, several experts have argued that they lack the wherewithal to understand what is right or wrong and, consequently, to do the wrong thing. New studies show, however, that this conclusion is at least partially wrong. Psychopaths know full well what is right and wrong but don't care. Their moral knowledge is intact but their moral emotions are damaged. They are perfectly normal jurists but perfectly abnormal moral actors. For the psychopath, other humans are no different from rocks or artefacts. They are disposable.

In fact, if naturalism is true we should all be moral psychopaths. Remorse, guilt, shame, etc. are simply illusions that deceive us into thinking we've done something terribly wrong when in fact we haven't. Now that we're enlightened and realize, as atheist Michael Ruse puts it, that "morality is just an illusion fobbed off upon us by our genes in order to get us to cooperate," we should shed these emotions like a growing child sheds his fear of the dark and face the fact that we have nothing to feel guilty about because there's no such thing as guilt.

Guilt can only exist in a world in which our behavior stands condemned by a competent moral judge. In the world of the naturalist there are no moral judges, only, in Richard Dawkins' words, "blind, pitiless indifference."



A while ago we made brief mention of the increasing popularity of microfinance as a great way to help poor entrepreneurs get enough capital to start or maintain their businesses. In the post we touted an organization called Kiva which is involved in this sort of work. I've since come across an article about Kiva in Christianity Today that some of you might like to check out. It's a wonderful way to do something truly meaningful this Christmas season.