Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Moral Values

Where do they come from? As we were created by evolution, so were our moral values -- but it's not that simple. The most distinctive human attribute is culture. Human culture rests upon human nature, but common building blocks can make an infinite variety of structures. One of the cutting edge projects in social science these days is the effort to identify the common elements of morality across cultures, which has the equal and opposite effect of illuminating the differences.

As the religious claim over morality depends on telling us what God wants us to do, religions must perforce claim to show us God's instructions, which since the rise of literacy has generally been found in an old book. Since those various old books contain many odd and conflicting stories and claims, they have to be explained to us by a clearly labeled caste that mediates between God and the rest of us. One common objection to religious beliefs is that they are simply arbitrary. You have to pick one of the books, and one of the societies of priests, and believe what those particular priests tell you. Ipso facto, you must disbelieve all the rest. So the first consequence of religious belief is that you must conclude that the vast majority of humans believe in falsehoods, about which you know better -- and furthermore, that the vast majority of people fail the test of moral values, whether because they don't engage in the right rituals, don't observe the sabbath on the correct day, call God by the wrong name, don't observe the right marital, or sexual, or dietary taboos, or for some other category of transgression.

It is obviously correct that most people try to conform their behavior to some religious prescriptions. For example, people attend religious ceremonies, typically according to a 7-day rhythm, all around the world. People everywhere depend on religious ceremonies to accomplish marriage and sometimes divorce, the creation of an identity for a newborn, the dissolution of an identity at death, condemnation of deviance, encouragement of conformity -- with the occasional twist of empowering a deviant minority by creating within-group solidarity using the language of rebellion. Religious institutions in many societies are responsible for functions such as record keeping, maintenance of libraries, psychological counseling, physical healing using scientific medicine, care of orphans, care for the dying, matchmaking, and other public goods.

Religious institutions are also frequently responsible for torturing and murdering dissenters, oppressing creativity and diversity, stealing vast sums from poor people, preposterous self-aggrandizement and pretension, and the denial of obvious physical reality in the cause of their own power, i.e. massive and remorseless lying.

Whatever their specific behavior and relationship to the dominant culture, religious institutions proclaim a bewildering variety of prescriptions, proscriptions, principles and metaphysical bases for morality.

So if morality does come from God, no-one can come up with a convincing argument why we should prefer one version of What God Wants Us To Do over another. They're all pulling it out of the air anyway, and at most only a small minority of humans can possibly be right about exactly What God Wants Us To Do, which is to say the chances are overwhelming that both you and I are going to hell, unless we can somehow pluck the single magic straw from the haystack.

Rather than grasp at straws, I say that God is a human invention and morality can be explained with God as at most an intermediary variable, i.e. a process within the human psyche that may be separately definable. The subject of exactly how the psychological foundations of morality evolved, and how the universal building blocks of morality may be described, is still an active area of investigation. Here's one recent popular discussion of one investigator's studies of chimpanzees, but others are studying humans directly. For example, as I discussed a while back, Marc Hauser and Peter Singer have set up a web site where you can respond to various scenarios posing moral problems. By seeing how people of various religions, cultures, and social backgrounds respond to these problems, they are extracting an understanding of the universal basis of moral reasoning.

The moral impulse given us by evolution is not hard to explain in general terms. We are social animals; we succeed by cooperation, by protecting and teaching our young and working together for the good of the group. Without going into a lot of evolutionary biology, I'll just say that it's easy to explain how reciprocal altruism evolved among kin, but it gets a little trickier to explain how and why it expands beyond our biological relatives. One essential goal of the humanist project is to expand moral status from close kin, to community, to nation, and to all humanity. Racists and nationalists -- such as dominate our political discourse today -- do not really share this goal, but it feels right to me.

While the universal principles of morality have to do with respecting others and caring for their interests and feelings, religious morality is highly prescriptive -- based on detailed rules. Here are some interesting examples of the morally pure.

If there are to be rules, I prefer to derive them rationally from principles, not the ravings of some long-dead eccentric who heard voices in the night. And so we will press forward on that basis. Whatever vocabulary you may prefer, I will say ethics to refer to the principles of respect, caring and reciprocity with which evolution has endowed us as social beings; and morality to refer to the detailed rules, prescriptions and proscriptions of religion and convention. Some such rules may be helpful to lubricate society, but rules with such purely pragmatic justification -- e.g., drive on the right -- have a different status from basic principles of ethics. We will work diligently to observe the difference.

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