On Universal Moral Grammar

C4 linked (embedded in this post, his review of Richard Dawkins’ book The God Delusion) to this article by Marc Hauser and Peter Singer in an article entitled Morality Without Religion. C4 has the pdf of the article within his post. It’s short and clearly lays out their views. As per

C4’s request that philosophers and theologians take me seriously this line of thinking, I’ll bite. I’ll say off the top I’m trying to be nice (as I can), but I won’t promise no zip in this one. I’m in a testy mood.

The article begins with this question:

Is religion necessary for morality?

Now, right off the bat, of course the answer is no. Not absolutely. But so what? Sure some knucklehead supernaturalist theists will say so, but obviously there are moral people on this planet who are not religious. Who may yes be influenced by the same general trends in society that are religious (handed down over time), etc.

Again when you don’t define religion how the hell do I answer this question? This is a dumb question and it hurts the rest of their essay. I actually sense it is veering towards the ideological but….

Moving on….second paragraph, some boilerplate about how the US (written in ’05, now dated politically might be argued) is sliding towards a Christian right-wing theocracy. Not so good. Blah blah blah.

Then this:

Yet problems abound for the view that morality comes from God. One problem is that we
cannot, without lapsing into tautology, simultaneously say that God is good, and that he gave us our
sense of good and bad. For then we are simply saying that God is in accordance with God’s standards.
That lacks the resonance of “Praise the Lord!” or “Allah is great!”

I don’t hold a Ph.D in philosophy, but I know a few things. In that vein, WTF? Where exactly is the tautology? Um….hmm…let me try to untangle this. To say God is good is to say that among other things that life is a blessing. Human relations, families, children, falling in love, work (noble work), the mind, study, play these are good things, gifts to us. And then there is a jump to saying that the Source of these Blessings must also be good. One of those goods, traditionally considered in religion, is the ability to discriminate between right and wrong. Memory, consciousness, etc. Still not seeing the tautology….

It is saying that the ability to reason and judge is a good thing and a gift. More like we reason to God from that experience of goodness, knowing that the word “good” in this context is metaphorical. Or in the apophatic tradition it is more correct to say that God is not Good (as we understand the term good, not that God is the opposite of good namely evil); not good meaning transcending our notions of good and evil.

No tautology there because no equivalence imo.

Not to mention the strains of Christian theology that talk about a natural law–i.e. the ability of reason without religious knowledge or revelation to make correct decisions about right and wrong. i.e. Plenty of Christian theologians would agree with some of what the authors are saying here, but of course you won’t hear anything that subtle.

Then this:

A second problem is that there are no moral principles shared by all religious people
(disregarding their specific religious membership) but no agnostics and atheists. This observation
leads to a second: atheists and agnostics do not behave less morally than religious believers, even if
their virtuous acts are mediated by different principles. They often have as strong and sound a sense
of right and wrong as anyone, including involvement in movements to abolish slavery and contribute
to relief efforts associated with human suffering. The converse is also true: religion has led people to
commit a long litany of horrendous crimes…

Yet again not defining which religions/religious believers we are discussing and which atheists makes this a pretty useless statement. Are we comparing Joseph Stalin with Mother Theresa? Sure there are moral atheists and yes (some) mythic religious believers can (and do) commit violent acts based on their religion.

But again this doesn’t link up with their thesis. Or rather it does, but their thesis is problematic in certain regards. The best response I have to this kind of statement–the same “bet” Christopher Hitchens makes–is that yes I can’t think of any moral position than an atheist couldn’t have that a religious person does and yes I can think of violence done in the name of religion. I also know however that the actual history of the world (rather than these abstract mind games) suggests that religions are the only forces that have had the social legitimacy (if nothing else or more) to carry large scale moral progress, in many instances. Abolition of slavery and the Civil Rights movements, which were both religious movements with political ends–which yes non-religious believers participated in but did not lead nor be able to marshal large-scale forces–come to mind.

So much for that critique.


The third difficulty for the view that morality has its origin in religion is that despite the sharp
doctrinal differences between the world’s major religions, and for that matter cultures like ancient
China in which religion has been less significant than philosophical outlooks like Confucianism, some
elements of morality seem to be universal.

Now here they are actually on to something, but then the authors make this statement (spot the major flaw):

One view is that a divine creator handed us the universal bits at the moment of creation. The alternative, consistent with the facts of biology and geology, is that we have evolved, over millions of years, a moral faculty that generates intuitions about right and

In other words, there are only those two choices. They didn’t define religion (or views of God) because they assume (incorrectly) a supernaturalistic theistic one. So either our morality is given by God in this supernaturalistic fashion or the evolutionary notion.

In process theology, God is at the center (or perhaps ahead of) of the universe and radiates persuasively throughout the entire cosmos. There is nothing incompatible with that view and one that a moral faculty is a product of evolutionary development. In fact they go together well. In fact process theology would say that this development is the response of creation to the initial aims of the divine.

The authors then get to their study (finally) which has three ethical scenarios which the respondent answers “permissible” “forbidden” and “obligatory” to. The answers received 90% or higher of the same answers to the questions. [For whatever it’s worth I answered differently on one of the questions then the majority].

Their analysis:

When asked to justify why some cases are permissible and others forbidden, subjects are either clueless or offer explanations that can not account for the differences in play. Importantly, those with a religious background are as clueless or incoherent as atheists.

That interpretation is meant to buttress their argument that this natural evolutionary based moral faculty (universal) is largely outside of our consciousness (hence the inability to speak intelligently on the subject). Given the history of the quadrune brain structure, it is certainly possibly that much of what they are tapping into are paleo-mammalian intuitions (emotion-based), which would explain the difficulty in making those intuitions connect with the frontal lobe/neo-cortex language and rational thought mode.

And/or humans do not think deeply enough about morality.

Hauser and Singer then to refute the position that the universality is explained by common Western (so-called Judeo-Christian culture):

First, the general deontological rules that organized religions bring forward, such as thou shalt not kill, fail to explain the patterns of judgments obtained. For example, either the action or the mission of an act in the trolley and organ problems lead to the death of one or more individuals.

Again, I’m sorry but this is not smart. From the looks of it, these guys have not read very deeply into religious ethical literature. The argument, if you caught it (or missed it) basically is this: The Ten Commandments are written in You Shall and You Shall Not. The ethical dilemmas proposed require different ethical judgments based on weighing relatively possible harm and good. Hence the religious view (which apparently is solely defined by The Ten Commandments) isn’t applicable here.

Again, WTF? The Rabbinic Judaic ethical position when dealing with tricky ethical positions, not clear cut ones like in The Commandments, is to begin by asking “what is my responsibility to the other person?” The Commandments, within both Christianity and Judaism are not absolute.

It’s wrong to lie (that’s a commandment), but only Kant (and not Jewish or Christian theologians) said that if your friend came rushing into your house telling you to hide him and then a man with a crazed look and a knife follows a minute later asking where your friend is, you lie. That’s your responsibility because the protection of life is more important (in this case) than whether you are lying or not.

And deliberating about how to protect life in situations where choices involve both life and death–as in the three cases in this experiment–is exactly at issue. So maybe this tradition doesn’t look so totally useless after all. Again, thanks for playing.

I’ll hazard a radical thesis: the authors don’t know this because they are locked into a caricatured (though real enough) vision of a certain kind of religion/religious thinking. One that again is totally supernaturalistic and simplistic.

I don’t go around promoting phlogiston because it’s wrong and outdated. If I did, I would rightly be ignored. Why the double standard? Why does these (so-called) experts get to make that level of stupidity in the reverse direction and not rightly be criticized and laughed out of serious discussion? [I’m not talking about their theory of morality, I’m talking about their ham-handed religious critiques].

[Their second point about why this isn’t a Western only issue, namely that tribal cultures without Western contact–other than this experiment I suppose–came back with the same answers. Better reasoning].

Their conclusion:

These studies begin to provide empirical support for the idea that like other psychological faculties of the mind, including language and mathematics, we are endowed with a moral faculty that guides our intuitive judgments of right and wrong, interacting in interesting ways with the local culture. These intuitions reflect the outcome of millions of years in which our ancestors have lived as social mammals, and are part of our common inheritance, as much as our opposable thumbs are. These facts are incompatible with the story of divine creation.

Now they had it right up to that stupid last sentence–a total unforced error. I accept–provisionally as a theory should be–that these faculties of the mind are universal. And morality has developed like the others. “Naturally” if you like. But that does not mean that these facts are incompatible with the story of divine creation. They are incompatible ONLY IF divine creation is considered supernaturalistically.

If, again as in process thought (or Platonic thought), creation is a calling out of chaos into greater order and complexity, then again divine creation and this view could easily line up. [It’s not a proof of God, it’s just not incompatible with this view of God].

Final one (I promise):

Our evolved intuitions do not necessarily give us the right or consistent answers to moral dilemmas. What was good for our ancestors may not be good for human beings as a whole today, let alone for our planet and all the other beings living on it. But insights into the changing moral landscape [e.g., animal rights, abortion, euthanasia, international aid] have not come from religion, but from careful reflection on humanity and what we consider a life well lived.

Now this is an interesting point. These moral reasonings are not necessarily “give us the right answers”. Obvious question: how do we know that? Evolutionary data alone and the scientific method (based only on objective, “universal”–spot the myth of the given–facts/3rd person pov) must argue for goodness based really only ever on adaptability and sexual fitness.

Which leaves the question about what other criteria is at work here to decide that what “nature has given us” is not good any longer? I think that’s right actually. I’m saying that theory lacks a reason as to why that is the case.

And then again that tone deaf last statement. These “insights have not come from religion but careful reflection on humanity and a life well lived?” Say what cracka? Religious people haven’t been reflecting on those questions? Aren’t still? Of course non-religious people are too?

Sounds like we’re back to Chris Hitchens saying that Martin Luther King, Jr. wasn’t really a Christian bc he (MLK) was clearly not the same as how Christopher Hitchens defined how all Christians must be.

My recommendation would be they stick to their work on natural morality (it’s very interesting) and keep the religion/theology out of it, ‘cuz they’re farm league on that subject.

PS Of course they never discussed how material forces caused consciousness, but f–k it why worry about something that fundamental at this point? They went from evolution to mind–by which they seem to mean brain. Unless I missed something they just equate the two.

Published in: on January 11, 2008 at 10:20 pm  Comments (2)  

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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Chris,

    thanks for taking a bite on that post 🙂

    i appreciate your impassioned critique of the morality case study/research i linked to. but for now, i’ll choose to set aside your theological/philosophical counter-arguments for two reasons: 1) i’m not equipped with theological knowledge as much as you; 2) the point of my post is exactly to set aside these theological/philosophical debates for the sake of a much simpler rational discussion.

    that said, for the record, i agree with you that the definition of religion is not well differentiated. as you may have noticed in my original post, i’ve alluded to that argument by suggesting that Dawkins (and the New Atheists) would be better off if they would have a more solid theory of human and cultural development (which in turn would have a more differentiated view of religion, e.g. Spiral Dynamics).

    i also agree with another part of your critique wherein you said, “They are incompatible ONLY IF divine creation is considered supernaturalistically.”

    you also said: “Which leaves the question about what other criteria is at work here to decide that what “nature has given us” is not good any longer? I think that’s right actually. I’m saying that theory lacks a reason as to why that is the case.”

    exactly! that’s why Dawkins (humbly) admitted that we need a theory to explain this. (too bad it looks like he’s not aware, or ignores, Spiral Dynamics).

    where we part ways is this statement of yours: “My recommendation would be they stick to their work on natural morality (it’s very interesting) and keep the religion/theology out of it, ‘cuz they’re farm league on that subject.”

    correct me if i’m wrong, but you seem to be taking your own absolutistic stance similar to Gould’s NOMA (i.e. that knowledge on natural morality and religion/theology are non overlapping domains). if that is what you meant, then that’s the part where i disagree with your assertion. in Breaking The Spell, Daniel Dennett has good counter argument to NOMA which you might find insightful.

    but before we tangent into more hifalutin philosophical arguments, let me remind you of the “context” why Dawkins’ cited Hauser’s research. the Chapters on morality from The God Delusion is Dawkins’ direct response to religious people, philosophers, theologians who insist that morality comes from God, religion, and/or their Holy Books. these are the same people who have a very narrow definition of religion. in most cases their definition of religion is simply, *their religion.*

    my point is: your theological arguments may have value in “higher” levels of rational (or even transrational, whatever that means) discussion, but they mean squat with most people (religious, or otherwise). your reasoning may be sound but, imho, it won’t provide people at the “lower” stage of development with the requisite *cognitive dissonance* to transform/translate to the next level (or structure of consciousness).

    here’s a case in point: almost ten years ago (way before the New Atheists are in vogue), Wilber published an excellent treatise on science and religion (Marriage of Sense and Soul). philosophically speaking, i think Wilber has a more sophisticated take as compared to Dawkins (and the New Atheists). however, Wilber’s work was so, um, politically correct and gentle, hence it didn’t get much attention (aside from Clinton and Gore, and a few of us geeks). where The God Delusion trumps Marriage of Sense and Soul is it’s style of writing and skillful propaganda in “raising consciousness” (to at least, the rational level). or, maybe, those books are talking to different audience? your guess is as good as mine 🙂

    my question to you is: when you are using your theological insights in critiquing empirical research, are you talking to the same audience that Dawkins is talking to?

    context all the way up, all the way down 🙂

    my two cents.


  2. […] January 13, 2008 Steven Pinker: Moral Instinct Posted by cjsmith under Integral, Religion, Science | Tags: Steven Pinker, The Moral Instinct |   Great piece in NyTimes Magazine on evolutionary morality.  This piece is light years better (imo) than the one I (somewhat snarkily) commented upon the other day. […]

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