Morality for Morons

[info]curvemudgeon points me to an article by Steve Alderman in the apparently badly misnamed American Thinker. This is a response to an op-ed in the LA Times by Sam Harris, author of The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation and one of the more outspoken critics of faith.


Alderman writes:

Let’s assume for a moment that Harris is correct, that is, believers are delusional and misguided, faith is false, God does not exist, and the greatest threat to human survival is the irreconcilable conflict between the major world religions and their inflexible and delusional beliefs. What then is the basis for his desire to save humanity from itself? At the end of his screed, Harris says:

“There is no question that many people do good things in the name of their faith – but there are better reasons to help the poor, feed the hungry and defend the weak than the belief that an Imaginary Friend wants you to do it. Compassion is deeper than religion. As is ecstasy. It is time that we acknowledge that human beings can be profoundly ethical – and even spiritual – without pretending to know things they do not know.”

So what does it mean to be ethical, or especially spiritual, with an atheistic worldview? The underlying premise of Harris’ disdain for believers is that delusional beliefs threaten the existence of mankind. What are these “better reasons” for helping the poor, feeding the hungry, and defending the weak?

You want better reasons? How about compassion? It’s right there in the section of Harris’s article that Alderman quoted. This isn’t rocket science:

I have stuff. I like my stuff. I can see that you’re a human, so you’re probably like me, which means you like your stuff. If we can agree not to steal from each other, we both get to keep our stuff.

There. A simple, rational basis for not stealing and not tolerating theft. Was that so hard?

Alderman continues:

From an evolutionary point of view, what is the advantage of helping the poor, feeding the hungry or defending the weak?

Compassion makes us feel others’ pain, and makes us feel good when they feel better. This results in a society where people help each other, and everyone benefits.

There’s a classic problem in game theory called the Prisoner’s Dilemma. One version of it is this: I have something that you want (say, a box of office supplies), and you have money, which I want. Now, I can either sell you the thing you want, or I can cheat you by selling you an empty box. Likewise, you can give me your money, or you can pass me a bad check. If I give you an empty box and you give me money, then I get what I wanted, and you get screwed. If I give you the goods and you give me a bad check, then you get what you wanted, and I get screwed. If we both cheat the other, we both get screwed, but we haven’t really lost anything. If we both deal honestly, we both get what we want (but I don’t get to keep the office supplies, and you don’t get to keep your money).

So it would seem that the rational thing to do is to pass me a bad check: either I give you the goods that you wanted and you win, or I give you an empty box and you haven’t lost anything. But by the same reasoning, the rational thing for me to do is to cheat you. This seems to be as far as Alderman has gotten in his thinking.

But we’re social creatures. We live in a society. This means that you and I are most likely going to have future dealings. You might return to try again to buy the office supplies I didn’t sell you last time. Or I might need to buy something from you, or from someone to whom you told the story of what happened with me last time.

So the transaction described above isn’t a one-shot; it’s one in a series of transactions. And the iterated prisoner’s dilemma has a quite different solution from the one-shot version.

If we repeatedly screw each other, then neither of us gets what we want. If we repeatedly deal honestly with each other, then both of us get what we want. Granted, if I could repeatedly cheat you out of your money, I’d win more, but you’re not going to let me get away with that, are you? If I keep trying to cheat you, you’re going to cheat me back, to minimize your losses, and we’re back to the situation where no one wins. So the rational, indeed selfish thing for me to do is to be honest with you, and vice-versa. The transactions don’t have to be simultaneous, either: if I do you a favor “for free” today, and you do me a favor “for free” tomorrow, then we both win.

This is the sort of solution that evolution is quite good at discovering, and I suspect that compassion was selected for because it enhances the individual’s survival by enhancing the group’s survival.

Of course, it’s one thing to help family members, neighbors, and other people with whom we deal on a daily basis. It’s quite another to feel compassion for total strangers whom we’ll never meet, like victims of hurricane Katrina or the Indian Ocean tsunami, or Iraqi IED victims. It’s possible that the compassionate response that evolved at a time when our ancestors lived in small clans and most of our neighbors were related by blood, is now “misfiring” and being triggered in a situation where the rational solution might be to ignore the suffering of others. But that doesn’t make it any less real.

Of course, it might also be rational to want to help total strangers. After all, if I help them today when they need it, they might help me tomorrow when I need it.

Francis Schaeffer said that secular man can only live in the lower storey (secular world) by borrowing from the upper storey (spiritual world). In other words, atheists can only talk about ethics because they are immersed in a social structure sustained by the “mythology” they reject.

It sounds to me more as if Alderman can’t imagine figuring out a reason to be good without looking up the answer in the back of his holy book. Of course, just because he can’t doesn’t mean that the rest of us can’t.

They borrow ethics from God and then claim that these ethics exist without a transcendent law-giving God to uphold them. What the atheists cannot explain is how they justify their ethical standards.

How’s this, then?: I behave in such a way as to bring about the sort of world I want to live in, a world where people don’t steal my stuff, don’t try to kill me, deal honestly with me, and so on. But since we humans imitate each other (peer pressure, societal norms, and so forth), that means that I have to behave ethically to set an example. Fine. That’s a small price to pay. Besides, I find that life is much simpler when I don’t lie: I don’t have to remember which story I told to whom. As I get older and my memory gets worse, that’s a considerable benefit.

Oh, and you know where I got that from? Some of it was from that famous atheist, Jean-Paul Sartre. The rest I worked out on my own, by thinking about it. Alderman might want to try it some time, especially if he’s going to continue to write for a publication that has “Thinker” in its name.

What does it mean to say that compassion is deeper than religion? Perhaps we should adopt the behavioral model and realize that in a world without God, compassion does not really mean anything, just like freedom and dignity. Maybe compassion is behavioral conditioning and has evolutionary value, but if so, we can hardly call this deep. It is worse than shallow, because it is something we pretend to know which we do not really know. We only respond to stimuli.

Oh, please. Compassion doesn’t mean anything unless it’s mandated by a deity? That’s just stupid.

On the contrary: if the only reason you help others is because it’s a way of sucking up to the Big Guy Upstairs so he’ll save you a seat in heaven, then that’s just looking out for number one. Isn’t it better to help others even if you don’t expect a reward, either in this life or some putative afterlife? And since when does “X is a result of evolution” mean “X is meaningless”? Love and compassion are as much a result of evolution as bones and T-cells. That doesn’t change what they are, or why they’re good.

Besides, the God of the Bible is hardly a moral role model, is he? When he’s not smiting people for daring to collect firewood on the day they’re supposed to be kissing his ass, or committing global genocide by flood, he’s sending people to be tortured forever for finite crimes (the worst of which, apparently, is not kissing his ass enough). This is the transcendent being from whom all goodness flows? Hell, I can do better than that, and I’m just this guy, you know?

3 thoughts on “Morality for Morons”

  1. I always thought that it was interesting when people claimed that pure altruism can’t possibly be the result of evolution. They’ll acknowledge that caring for one’s immediate family is a rational behavior that aids in propagating one’s genes, but it makes no sense for evolution to produce a person who would risk his life for or give aid to complete strangers.

    To some extent, I suppose that makes sense. I doubt that abstract altruism is a directly evolved trait. There’s no biological benefit for me to send a check to an organization that feeds the poor in another country. It’s easy to see how the basic empathy we evolved for one another combined with the ability to think abstractly can produce the results. Not everything has to be the sole result of evolution and natural instinct. Combining those basic building blocks with a brain that is capable of building abstractions and thinking about why it does things can result in much more complex patterns of behavior.

    When I build electronics, I’m probably acting partially out of some ingrained tendency to make tools that make my life easier, but I’m also using the higher, more flexible parts of my brain for their own sake. I’m taking something built in and combining it with higher brain functions. I’m generalizing that behavior and doing something else with it. It’s not a big leap to say that the same holds true for sending some food to hungry people I’ll never meet. I get an inherent satisfaction from caring for my loved ones, and my higher brain functions allow me to understand that sending food to the hungry is doing much the same thing, so I get satisfaction from the latter activity as well.

    A lot of people seem to ignore the fact that these fundamental instincts, when combined with abstract, self-aware reflection, can produce very complex behaviors that are grounded in basic biological imperatives but have infinitely more comlpexity to them.

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  2. As an aside, even though I can almost understand people claiming that divine inspiration is the only source of objective morality, I really can’t understand how so many people think that it must be their particular religion that came up with it. Do they seriously think that before their preferred god came along, nobody figured out that they’re better off without people murdering and stealing from each other? I’m almost certain, for example, that when European Christians started exploring the rest of the world, they found societies that had ironed out those basic morals without Jesus spelling them out. It’s amazing to me that so few people take that fact as evidence that a basic objective moral system can arise simply from practical human social interactions.

    Sure, I’ll give specific religions credit for rules like “no eating pork” or “dancing is immoral” but the rules that measurably make society run more smoothly seem to be a no-brainer.

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  3. Troublesome Frog:

    I always thought that it was interesting when people claimed that pure altruism can’t possibly be the result of evolution.

    One analogy I like to use is to think of a perfectly soulless, amoral, greedy corporation, one that’ll do anything it can get away with to make as much money as it can. If the market is such that the way to make the most money is to manufacture high-quality products, sell them at a fair price, and build customer loyalty, that’s what the company will do.

    Sure, I’ll give specific religions credit for rules like “no eating pork” or “dancing is immoral” but the rules that measurably make society run more smoothly seem to be a no-brainer.

    One interesting thought i ran across recently (not from a reputable source, alas, and now I can’t find the link) concerned an experiment in which people were presented with scenarios like “there’s a runaway train headed for a group of five people on the tracks; the only way to prevent it from killing them is to shunt it off to a side track, but if you do that, you’ll kill a person standing on the side track. What do you do, and why?”

    Allegedly, people from all sorts of cultures, religions, etc. pretty much agreed on what to do in any given situation, but not on why.

    The implication was that our morality or ethics is pretty much hardwired into us, perhaps by evolution, but “it feels right” is not a satisfying explanation for why we choose to do this or that thing, so we make up stories to connect our actions to some set of ethical principles.

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