Wednesday, March 5, 2008

The Morals of Orange Blobs: Good and Bad, Belief and Nonbelief

Both Greta Christina and J. Carter Wood have recently touched on the biological basis for morality by linking to a good summary of the current state of the science by Steven Pinker appearing in the New York Times. From there Greta C. derives a conclusion about the ways believers and nonbelievers evaluate each other as moral creatures:

[I]f we all have the same morals for the same reasons, it doesn't make any sense to say that the atheist basis for morality is superior to the theistic basis. It's not like atheists and believers are a different species, after all; and I haven't seen any studies showing that the wiring of the atheist brain is radically different from the wiring of the theist brain.

In other words, atheist morality isn't superior to theist morality -- for the simple reason that it's the same morality.

Same species; same evolution; same neurological wiring; same morality.
Yes and no.

Yes: I will add to Greta C's broad-mindedness in by conceding, as she does, that atheists do sometimes go too far in dismissing the moral abilities of theists. I agree with her that people who believe in god are as incapable of avoiding moral conclusions as anyone, and that their conclusions will tend to align with everyone else's. And that is how I prefer to put the matter: that morals are not just a "nice feature" of humankind or a really useful trick we've managed to develop, but unavoidable. To be human is to possess an instinctual moral ability comparable to the instinctual ability to see colors within a certain swath of the electromagnetic spectrum and to hear sounds within a certain range of frequencies. We can't help being moral, and people genuinely lacking moral instincts are, I believe the science will continue to demonstrate, physiologically or biochemically lacking.

On the other hand, no. Suppose we view an animation of, say, an amorphous orange blob striking another, smaller amorphous orange blob. Even without dialogue or sound, we can't help but start having moral thoughts about the scene, and questions start tumbling in: what prior interactions between the blobs might contextualize this interaction? It's easy to think of circumstances that would tilt the moral evaluation to favor one of the orange blobs or the other (the smaller blob is a child; the smaller blob is the member of a different 'tribe' of orange blobs; the smaller blob has just told a lie, stolen, violated the space of the larger blob; the larger blob is acting defensively, jealously, vengefully, etc.)

The insight I want to glean from the imaginary orange blob animation is that moral intuitions arise quickly and effortlessly, but the quality of these 'first blush' intuitions can and will vary dramatically depending on the quality of the questions raised about them, and the quality of the answers supplied. Which is to say, the quality of the thinking and exploring done in response to the quick work of moral instinct matters a great deal.

The possibility of atheist morals -- not to say the really-existing reality of it as performed in blogs and columns and drunken bull sessions and the collected writings of Christopher Hitchens -- is that it recognizes the actual basis of morality (as outlined above) and the importance of taking a closer second look at whatever the gut has instructed.

(This, incidentally, is precisely the advantage of science over common sense -- common sense suggests this or that about the motions of the moon, but science requires assessing those common-sense intuitions against the evidence, and discarding common sense when unsupported by deeper critical examination.)

The peril of theistic morals is that it begins from not only a false foundation but a foundation that explicitly rejects questioning. The claim that morals come from a god who must be obeyed may not undergird the really-existing moral work of theists -- in the vast majority of cases, I don't think it does. When faced with a novel moral dilemma, we don't see theists at a loss until they can check their holy writ. But the holy text is there in all its blood-soaked bluntness, a loaded pistol sitting on the table waiting to be picked up. And history is replete with instances of people doing exactly as their holy texts command, and managing to rationalize what they've done on grounds of so it is written.

Circling back to Hitchens: the above holds the key to Hitchens' debating point in which he asks believers to give a single example of a good moral act that would not be possible without belief in god. And then he asks for an example of an evil act that would not be possible without belief in god. Answers to the former are never forthcoming, and answers to the latter are all too easy to generate.

The reasons and context matters, and religion provides 'good' reasons to do terrible things. It is distressingly easy to imagine the large blob striking the smaller orange blob because the smaller orange blob is a witch, an apostate, a violator of taboos, a sexual deviant, etc.

Do I think religion always or necessarily poisons morals? No. I think the everyday ways that humans process morals obtain in the brains of believers and nonbelievers alike. All of us do this well at times, and not so well at others. But I do think religious thinking enables grave moral dangers, and that nothing in human affairs does so in the same degree, or, to be exact, with the same straightforwardness and proclaimed certainty. There are many forms of tribalism, but faith-based tribalism is especially acute and especially closed to challenge.

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For further reading on these topics, apart from the works cited above, see chapters 16 and 17 of Daniel Dennett's Darwin's Dangerous Idea, to which this post might, on its best day, qualify as a footnote.

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