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November 17, 2011

Where does our morality come from?

For reasons that are not clear to me, some religious people seem to think that the moral sense that we possess is evidence for god. In fact, some of them (such as Francis Collins in his book The Language of God) go so far as to claim that this is a really powerful argument for god. They point to the fact that there are quite a few moral impulses that seem to be universal and claim that this must mean that they were implanted in us by god.

This is a specious argument. In my series of posts on the biological basis for justice and altruism (part 1, part 2, part 3, and part 4), I discussed how our ideas of justice and our altruistic impulses can be traced to biological origins. What science is making abundantly clear is that the foundation of our moral senses also are evolutionary in origin and that culture builds on those basic biological impulses to create moral system of increasing generality.

Paul Bloom has studied this question by looking at what we can learn about the moral thinking of babies and in his article The Moral Life of Babies in the New York Times issue on May 5, 2010 writes:

The notion at the core of any mature morality is that of impartiality. If you are asked to justify your actions, and you say, "Because I wanted to," this is just an expression of selfish desire. But explanations like "It was my turn" or "It's my fair share" are potentially moral, because they imply that anyone else in the same situation could have done the same. This is the sort of argument that could be convincing to a neutral observer and is at the foundation of standards of justice and law. The philosopher Peter Singer has pointed out that this notion of impartiality can be found in religious and philosophical systems of morality, from the golden rule in Christianity to the teachings of Confucius to the political philosopher John Rawls's landmark theory of justice. This is an insight that emerges within communities of intelligent, deliberating and negotiating beings, and it can override our parochial impulses.

The aspect of morality that we truly marvel at — its generality and universality — is the product of culture, not of biology. There is no need to posit divine intervention. A fully developed morality is the product of cultural development, of the accumulation of rational insight and hard-earned innovations. The morality we start off with is primitive, not merely in the obvious sense that it's incomplete, but in the deeper sense that when individuals and societies aspire toward an enlightened morality — one in which all beings capable of reason and suffering are on an equal footing, where all people are equal — they are fighting with what children have from the get-go.

Babies possess certain moral foundations — the capacity and willingness to judge the actions of others, some sense of justice, gut responses to altruism and nastiness. Regardless of how smart we are, if we didn't start with this basic apparatus, we would be nothing more than amoral agents, ruthlessly driven to pursue our self-interest. But our capacities as babies are sharply limited. It is the insights of rational individuals that make a truly universal and unselfish morality something that our species can aspire to.

There is a nice video of the experiments that Bloom has done with babies.

This is why science and religion are at loggerheads. As science advances, religion simply has less room to exist. This is true in all areas of knowledge and, in particular, in the area of morality. We now realize that evolution has given us two great gifts: basic moral instincts and the capacity to reason. The latter has enabled us to build on the former and create the complex moral systems that currently exist. God is entirely superfluous.

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