Monday, January 21, 2008

Did Morality Evolve? Part 2

Last week I commented on an article by Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker about what he called the "moral instinct." Pinker reviewed scientific efforts to study moral thinking in the brain and across cultures which showed that (a) moral issues are treated differently in the brain than other kinds of thought processes and (b) there seems to be a core of moral principles or categories that show up in every culture studied. I pointed out that the second fact was noticed long before Pinker and his colleagues came along, in the form of the theory of natural law. But I left for today the question of where these core principles come from.

As a subscriber to the evolutionary origin of everything human, Pinker believes that morality is ultimately attributable to evolution. However, he is sensitive to the jaundiced eye with which the general public tends to view evolutionary psychology. As Pinker puts this dim view, "Evolutionary psychologists seem to want to unmask our noblest motives as ultimately self-interested — to show that our love for children, compassion for the unfortunate and sense of justice are just tactics in a Darwinian struggle to perpetuate our genes."

This is all wrong, Pinker says, and he gives two reasons for why we shouldn't be afraid or concerned when people like him show us the true foundations of morality.

For one thing, the idea of the "selfish gene" is only a metaphor. Genes aren't really selfish, he says, but in order to simplify complex concepts for mass consumption, geneticists have sometimes talked about genes as though they had personality traits such as selfishness and a determination to survive. And people take this the wrong way to mean that if my genes are selfish, then I must be too, even when I think I'm being generous or self-sacrificing, because it's all really a ploy to perpetuate my genes.

Okay, but Pinker can't have things both ways in this regard. Either the idea of the selfish gene is a reality, or it is a metaphor. If we are moral and believe in the absolute rightness of certain moral principles merely because we evolved that way, then the selfish gene is more than a metaphor: it is the bottom level of reality, the ultimate explanation. And if talking about selfish genes is just a metaphor, and the reality is that genes are just molecules, then what does that make people? Just bigger collections of molecules. And if genes can't be selfish in any meaningful sense, why can the larger collections of molecules called people be selfish, or moral, or anything else other than passive followers of physical law?

To his credit, Pinker senses these questions at some level, because next he asks with regard to the idea that morality evolved, ". . . where does it leave the concept of morality itself?" Does it have a real, objective existence independent of genes or evolution, or is it just foam on the ocean of evolved life, a superficial feature that would cease to exist if the evolved creatures called human beings died out?

Pinker notes that many people attribute the origin of moral principles to God. Then he misapplies what is known to philosophers as the "Euthyphro dilemma." Euthypro is the title of one of Plato's dialogs in which Plato describes a conversation between Socrates and a young man named Euthyphro who wants to prosecute his own father for murder. Disrespect for elders was an impiety in Greek society, but so was murder—hence the dilemma. Socrates asks why the moral or pious act is regarded as moral or pious: "Is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?"

Pinker takes this dilemma and uses it as a supposedly bulletproof response to anyone who claims a divine origin for morality. And he does it not by asserting anything, but by throwing up a cloud of questions which he leaves to the reader to answer in the desired way: "Does God have a good reason for designating certain acts as moral and others as immoral? If not — if his dictates are divine whims — why should we take them seriously? Suppose that God commanded us to torture a child. Would that make it all right, or would some other standard give us reasons to resist?"

After disposing of the God alternative, Pinker admits that maybe moral principles have a kind of Platonic existence "out there," like the truths of mathematics. Even atheists can believe in the Pythagorean Theorem, and Pinker seems to be comfortable with the idea of "moral realism"—the notion that maybe there really are moral principles that we discover, but which would be there even if people weren't around to understand them. And he winds up by saying that maybe we'll behave better if we understand where our morality comes from and how our bodies work when we deal with moral issues.

If Pinker had looked a little more seriously at the Euthyphro dilemma, he would have realized that Socrates didn't so much dispose of the idea of a divine origin for morality as he tried to lead Euthyphro to a deeper understanding of what piety is. Philosophers still discuss various ways of concluding the Euthyphro argument, which is by no means universally regarded as a knockout response to the contention that God invented morality.

If one believes in a God outside the natural universe and time, a God who created everything, then morality must be one of the things God created. Philosophers like to pose "what-if" questions that are titillating to our intellects, but often these questions disregard the character of the personalities involved. My own answer to the question of whether God would suddenly turn around and make the good today bad tomorrow, is that "God wouldn't do a thing like that." Maybe in some abstract God-of-the-philosophers world, such a thing is a logical possibility. But those who know God, which is just an extension of how one person knows another, know that God doesn't act that way. Never has and never will.

So a viable alternative to Pinker's Platonic moral realism is a theologically informed belief that somehow—perhaps by using evolutionary processes—God wrote the moral law on our hearts. Either way, I can say along with Pinker that we didn't just make it up by ourselves.

Sources: Pinker's article can be found at Both Wikipedia ("Euthyphro dilemma") and the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy ("Religion and morality") have good discussions of the Euthyphro dialogue and its implications. The quotation from Socrates above was taken from the Wikipedia article.


  1. Hi, I thought you might like to read this article:
    "A Christian Answer to the Euthyphro Dilemma" (link).

  2. Excellent pair of posts - thanks for writing them. You may be interested in the one I did today (which quotes the first part of this essay):