• Strange Notions Strange Notions Strange Notions

Morality Is Not a Biological Issue

Bear

Modern biology makes us believe that we descended from the animal world and that we are nothing more than glorified animals. However, even if we did descend from the animal world, that doesn’t mean all our characteristics were transferred to us through genes and umbilical cords. For example, our anatomy and physiology did come from there, but what about our rationality and morality? In this article, I will focus on morality alone and argue that what sets us apart from the animal world is exactly the fact that we are rational and moral beings who can make rational and moral decisions. Take rationality or morality away from us, and we are indistinguishable from animals.

Is there Morality in the Animal World?

 
Morality is about what we owe others, our duties, and what others owe us, our rights. Morality is unconditional. Most other rules and laws tell us what we should do in order to reach a certain goal—they are conditional, means-to-other-ends. For instance, if you want to learn, you must do this; if you want to recover from a cold, you must do that, and so on. Moral laws and rules, on the other hand, are based on absolute, universal, non-negotiable moral values, so they are un-conditional ends in themselves. Morality tells us what ought to be done—no matter what, whether we like it or not, whether we feel it or not, or whether others enforce it or not.

Animals, however, live in a world of “what is,” not of “what ought to be.” They can just follow whatever pops up in their brains. The relationship between predator and prey, for instance, has nothing to do with morality. If predators really had to act morally, their lives would be pretty tough. Animals never do awful things out of meanness or cruelty, for the simple reason that they have no morality—and thus no cruelty or meanness. But humans definitely do have the capacity of performing real atrocities.

On the other hand, if animals do seem to do awful things, it’s only because we as human beings consider their actions “awful” according to our own standards of morality. Yet, we will never arrange court sessions for grizzly bears that maul hikers, because they are not morally responsible for their actions.

Where Does Morality Come From?

 
Once we accept this, we might wonder where our morality comes from, if not from the animal world. Is it still something anchored in our genes? Some biologists think that evolutionary biology can explain how humanity acquired its morality. The moral value of paternal care for children, for instance, must be a product of natural selection, for fathers who don’t feel an “instinctive” responsibility towards their underage children would reduce their offspring’s reproductive success. In this line of thought, moral values would just be inborn, a product of evolution.

What is wrong with such a viewpoint? My fundamental question to these biologists is as follows: Why would we need an articulated moral rule to reinforce what “by nature” we would or would not desire to do anyway? Reality tells us that far too many people are willing to break a moral rule when they can get away with it. As a matter of fact, moral laws tell us to do what our genes do not make us do “by nature.” The offenders of moral laws—the killers and the promiscuous—would actually reproduce much better than their victims. Since moral laws are not means to other ends, they have no survival value, and therefore cannot be promoted by natural selection.

Well, if biology cannot explain morality, perhaps it can steer our morality. Consider, for instance, the abortion debate. The moral value of human life has often been based on biological criteria, such as the extent of cerebral activity. The “moral argument” goes along these lines: The more cerebral activity there is, the more value a human life has, and therefore, the more protection it deserves.

The problem with this viewpoint is that we try to base absolute moral values on relative biological characteristics. Let me quote an example Abraham Lincoln used. Honest Abe asked people why they think enslaving others isn’t morally wrong. Is it because of their darker skin color? If so, he said, you might be next when someone with a lighter skin color would show up to enslave you. Is it because of a lower intelligence? If so, you might be next when someone more intelligent than you wants to enslave you, etc. Lincoln’s point is clear: Moral values cannot be counted or measured like numeric values can be. They are unquantifiable; they do not depend on non-moral properties and cannot be defined in non-moral terms.

There is another reason why biology cannot help us when it comes to morality. Moral values make for universal, absolute, objective, and binding prescriptions. They are ends-in-themselves—and never means-to-other-ends. As I said earlier, there’s nothing “useful” about them. If anyone ever wonders why a certain act (say, saving a human life) is “good” in this moral sense, we have no explanation to offer and cannot refer to other ends; all we can say is “It’s self-evident.” The “moral eye” sees values in life, just like the “physical eye” sees colors in nature. Like mathematical laws, moral laws are intrinsically right, even when we do not see yet that they are. C.S. Lewis put it well: “The human mind has no more power of inventing a new value than of imagining a new primary color.”

Don’t Moral Values Change, Though?

 
The answer is, "No, it’s not the moral values that change but rather our moral evaluations, that is, the way we discern moral values." A few centuries ago, for instance, slavery was not evaluated as morally wrong, but nowadays it is by most people. Did our moral values change? No, they did not; but our evaluations certainly did. Only a few people in the past were able to discern the objective and universal value of personal freedom and human dignity (versus slavery), whereas most of their contemporaries were blind toward this value.

So where do our morals and moral values come from then? The answer is quite straightforward: They are not products of evolution but gifts of creation. They are “evident” because they are “God-given.” Human rights are not man-made entitlements but God-given rights that we cannot invent and manipulate at will. The only authority that can obligate you or me is Someone infinitely superior to me.

Without God, we would have no right to claim any rights. Even an atheist such as the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre realized this when he said: If atheism is true, there can be no absolute or objective standard of right and wrong, for there is no eternal heaven that would make values objective and universal. If rights really came from men, and not God, men could take them away anytime—and they certainly have tried many times.

To say it another way, there has got to be an eternal heaven for our moral values so as to make them objective and universal. No wonder the Ten Commandments were etched in stone, but certainly not in our genes.
 
 
(Image credit: Wallpapers Wiki)

Gerard M. Verschuuren

Written by

Gerard M. Verschuuren is a human geneticist who also earned a doctorate in the philosophy of science. He studied and worked at universities in Europe and the United States. His latest books include God and Evolution?: Science Meets Faith (Pauline Books, 2012), What Makes You Tick: A New Paradigm for Neuroscience (Solas Press, 2012), Darwin’s Philosophical Legacy: The Good and the Not-So-Good (Lexington Books, 2012), Of All That Is, Seen and Unseen (Queenship Publishing, 2012), and his upcoming book The Destiny of the Universe: In Pursuit of the Great Unknown (Paragon House, 2014). He can be contacted at Where-Do-We-Come-From.com.

Enjoy this article? Receive future posts free by email:

Note: Our goal is to cultivate serious and respectful dialogue. While it's OK to disagree—even encouraged!—any snarky, offensive, or off-topic comments will be deleted. Before commenting please read the Commenting Rules and Tips. If you're having trouble commenting, read the Commenting Instructions.

  • Loreen Lee

    Could you please explain the distinction, if it is one, between 'necessary' and 'objective. I am thinking of Kant's 'rational criteria of the moral law' which holds that 'duty' is based on universality and necessity. Thank you.

  • David Nickol

    I thinks this guy are wrong.

    Or should that be "I think this guy is wrong"? It should be the latter, because of the rules of English grammar. The rules of English grammar are not biological, but does that mean they are given by God?

    • http://www.brandonvogt.com/ Brandon Vogt

      "The rules of English grammar are not biological, but does that mean they are given by God?"

      The rules of English grammar do not concern morality, in the relevant sense, any more than the law of gravity or the rules of baseball do. They do not concern ethics, only convention.

      Most people make this distinction. It's why our courts try murderers for murder but not dunces for bad grammar.

      • josh

        Courts rule on the local conventions of law, that's why they differ from place to place. If bad grammar is illegal, courts will rule on it.

        However, we do have speech and ethical behavior tendencies inherent in our brains. This is because both are in fact the product of biology and evolution and we aren't disconnected from other animals as the article claims. Animals, particularly those closely related to us, have ethical-like and speech-like behavior. The specifics of our speech and morality are dependent on culture, which evolves in it's own way alongside but dependent on biology.

        • http://www.brandonvogt.com/ Brandon Vogt

          "The specifics of our speech and morality are dependent on culture, which evolves in it's own way alongside but dependent on biology."

          Suppose American society evolved, through biological impulses, to believe that a singular proximal demonstrative (e.g. "this") can be used in reference to multiple objects, and that the torture and murder of young children was morally permissible. Would they be right on both accounts?

          • David Nickol

            Would they be right on both accounts?

            It seems to me you are assuming what you need to prove. Was slavery wrong when nobody thought it was wrong? My first reaction is to say that it was, but what does it mean for something to be wrong if nobody believes it is wrong? Is there anything that is nearly universally considered right today that people hundreds of years from now will consider as demonstrably wrong as we have come to think slavery is today?

            The OP seems to imply that the existence of morality is proof of the existence of God, since objective morality exists, and since objective morality can only come from God. But maybe objective morality doesn't exist. Or maybe it does exist but doesn't come from God.

            Sam Harris makes an interesting point which I will no doubt garble here, and hopefully someone will correct me. As I understand him, he says that what is moral is what promotes human flourishing, and what is immoral is what works against human flourishing. He says human flourishing is a concept similar to human health. While there is no perfectly fixed and totally objective idea of what constitutes human health, we are able to arrive at a very reasonable and noncontroversial set of basics about what constitutes health. The idea of what is health is partly dependent on nature, but not entirely. There is no God-given definition of health, but we have no trouble understanding the concept.

          • http://www.brandonvogt.com/ Brandon Vogt

            "It seems to me you are assuming what you need to prove."

            Than your sight has deceived you. I didn't assume or assert anything, I merely asked a question.

            "Was slavery wrong when nobody thought it was wrong?"

            Yes, because the enslavement of a human being is objectively wrong, even when most people don't know this fact. The objective immorality of slavery is precisely why we're disgusted by historical examples of it. If slavery is only *subjectively* wrong, we have no grounds on which to criticize our 18th- and 19th century American forebears.

            "Is there anything that is nearly universally considered right today that people hundreds of years from now will consider as demonstrably wrong as we have come to think slavery is today?"

            Perhaps, and I'd even say "likely." Forty years ago in this country, it was almost unanimously agreed that abortion was morally permissible in all situations. Now the tide has turned. Only 41% of Americans consider themselves "pro-choice", a record low.

            I'd like to think our society, and specifically my generation, will similarly come around on contraception, torture, and capital punishment (at least in the Western world, where it's unnecessary to protect citizens from further crime.)

            "The OP seems to imply that the existence of morality is proof of the existence of God, since objective morality exists, and since objective morality can only come from God. But maybe objective morality doesn't exist. Or maybe it does exist but doesn't come from God."

            I'm not sure that's his central argument. His main point was that morality *can't come from biology*, though it did lead him to the conclusion that it must come from God.

            Your last two sentences are common objections. Let's look at each one. Do you believe objective morality exists? Or do you think every moral value and right is subjective?

            Taking the second question, if objective morality exists, but isn't grounded on biology or God, what else could possibly ground it?

            "Sam Harris makes an interesting point which I will no doubt garble here, and hopefully someone will correct me. As I understand him, he says that what is moral is what promotes human flourishing, and what is immoral is what works against human flourishing."

            We've engaged Harris' argument on this site before. I've read Harris' book, The Moral Landscape, and noticed the same glaring flaws as almost every other reviewer. William Lane Craig offers a particularly devastating review of Harris' proposal:

            http://www.reasonablefaith.org/navigating-sam-harris-the-moral-landscape

          • David Nickol

            Forty years ago in this country, it was almost unanimously agreed that abortion was morally permissible in all situations.

            I don't want to get into a discussion of abortion, and I am sure you don't either, but there have always been moral objections to abortion in the United States. There may have been a shift from 40 years ago, but it is not correct to say that back then there was any particular position that was "almost unanimous." Just before Roe v. Wade was decided, abortion was still illegal in 33 states.

          • Andre Boillot

            Brandon,

            "Forty years ago in this country, it was almost unanimously agreed that abortion was morally permissible in all situations."

            Could you support this statement with some evidence?

          • David Nickol

            Do you believe objective morality exists?

            It's very difficult to say. I would like to believe that it does, but wanting to believe something doesn't make it so. That is true for those who want to believe there is objective morality as well as those who want to believe there isn't. I am not sure how one would go about proving that there is objective morality.

            Taking the second question, if objective morality exists, but isn't grounded on biology or God, what else could possibly ground it?

            Well, to a certain extent, everything human must be grounded in biology in one way or another. Even if there is a commandment from God against murder, certain aspects of murder depend totally on biology.

            It seems to me that there are certain things that are necessary for human civilization that are more or less objective. A prohibition against most kinds of killing would be one of those. You can't have civilization if there is total anarchy. So it could be that the demands of certain moral requirements (don't kill, don't steal, don't lie) may not be absolute but conditional—"If you want to have civilization, then you must have some kind of basic moral norms." So in that case, morality wouldn't come from biology or God, it would come from culture. It would be, in a certain sense, like grammar or etiquette. What is moral and not moral varies from age to age and from culture to culture. Would this be so if it were objective?

            It seems like "God" for theists is the answer to many questions. Why is there something rather than nothing? God. Where did morality come from? God. How can there be human consciousness? God made it possible by giving humans a spiritual soul. Why is there life? God created it. On the one hand, it may actually be true. On the other, God may be the all-purpose explanation every time a difficulty is encountered.

          • Andre Boillot

            Brandon,

            "I've read Harris' book, The Moral Landscape, and noticed the same glaring flaws as almost every other reviewer. William Lane Craig offers a particularly devastating review of Harris' proposal:

            http://www.reasonablefaith.org..."

            First, it should be noted that, at least of the criticism I've seen of his work, people seem to object to Harris' views for very different (sometimes incompatible) reasons. Plenty of criticism of the notion that objective moral facts exist at all, as well as objections of the notion that these facts can exist without positing a divine law-giver. Your comment left the impression that there was some widespread agreement as to what the flaws in Harris' arguments were - I don't think that's accurate.

            As far as I can tell, WLC's review is almost identical to his talking points during his debate with Harris. I think most people will find that he hasn't accurately represented Harris' view, and resorts to petty debate tactics in an effort to obfuscate, so I hope he doesn't represent your criticisms.

            http://www.samharris.org/blog/item/the-god-debate

            PS. Don't take this to mean that I 100% agree with Harris, or that there are no legitimate criticisms of his ideas - I just felt like some clarity was needed.

            PPS. Disqus has locked up the last few times I've tried to post this - sorry if it creates duplicates.

          • robtish

            It's ironic that WLC dismisses Harris' intuitively appealing equation of "good" with "well-being of conscious creatures" (not just intuitive, in fact, but almost tautological), and dismisses is as "just a semantic trick of providing an arbitrary and idiosyncratic redefinition of the words "good" and "evil" in nonmoral terms."

            Ironic, I say, because many atheists (well, this one, anyway), think theists commit a semantic trick when they identify "good" with "God" and then use that to declare without God there can be not objective morality.

          • Andre Boillot

            If you take a look at Harris' post, it's very illuminating in terms of why so many people think that WLC is a tough debater. The reality is much more mundane: step 1) insist on going first; 2) redefine the debate; 3) begin with a long series of questions/arguments to be refuted; 4) claim any unanswered points as conceded and/or complain about the amount of time the opposition spends attempting to answer; 5) declare victory.

          • MattyTheD

            Andre, I wish I had the time to find all the contradictory evidence, but none of those five points seem correct to me. 1) I've seen WLC go second and first, 2) From what I remember, he usually *brings the debate back* to the debate topic, after others, say, Hitchens start getting arbitrary, 3) That's called argument, 4) I've never seen him do either, though maybe I watched the only exceptions, 5) That's called debating. In general, it seems to me he's considered a tough debater because he's actually a tough debater.

          • Andre Boillot

            Matty,

            1) I was referring to the anecdotes of the debate organizers that Harris mentions:

            Craig took part in the planning from the start. He insisted on particular details of the debate’s format, down to the timing of each speech and the placement of the clocks. (”Probably the most important technique to master,” he has told me about debating, “is managing the clock.”) Craig made sure that he would go first. He also suggested the topic, which bears on the subject of Harris’s latest book, The Moral Landscape.

            2) It's one thing to refocus the debate back to the initial topic, it's another to act as if you're the moderator, and the the opponent must respond to your points, regardless of how they relate to the topic of the debate.

            3) It's a cheap debate trick when you, as one of the debaters, have laid out the format and timing, demanded to go first, and then attempted to burden the opposition with a long list of concepts to be refuted - note that Craig gives only the barest of summaries of these concepts - and then hold the opposition to the fire for not refuting every item on the list (or worse, complain that they are taking too long), instead of engaging with what they have said.

            4) Watch more Craig debates, you'll find plenty of examples.

            5) To my mind, a tough debater doesn't need to have everything his way, dictate what the topic of the debate is, what the timing is, etc. A tough debater relies on the strength of his arguments, and his ability to point out the flaws in his opponent's.

          • MattyTheD

            Well, I don't want to deviate too much from the blog topic, but each of those things strike me as kind of sore-loser complaints. If you're claiming that he's not *really* a tough debater, I've seen videos where Hitchens and Dennet would disagree with you. I'll grant that there's plenty to not like about his style (nasally, robotic, etc), but I think it's incredibly facile to suggest that he's all technique. The guy is a rigorous philosopher, debater, logician. I saw a fairly long reflection by Daniel Dennet explaining that still, after the debate, he couldn't find the holes in Craig's arguments and only had vague notions of where others might begin looking. To me it's absolutely predictable that detractors refrain from taking on the substance of his arguments.

          • Andre Boillot

            Matty,

            "I think it's incredibly facile to suggest that he's all technique."

            See, this is what happens when I try to sprinkle in some hyperbole (you happy Dave?)... He's not ALL technique. I just think it's what sets him apart from other popular religious apologists.

            "The guy is a rigorous philosopher, debater, logician."

            Certainly the second, but I his rigorous philosophy and logic find him agreeing that the genocides in the OT where morally correct on divine command theory, and essentially saying that trouble with radical Islam is that they have the wrong god.

            http://www.reasonablefaith.org/slaughter-of-the-canaanites

          • http://www.brandonvogt.com/ Brandon Vogt

            "Ironic, I say, because many atheists (well, this one, anyway), think theists commit a semantic trick when they identify "good" with "God" and then use that to declare without God there can be not objective morality."

            Except this is not what theists do. You've simply offered an absurdly reductionist version of the moral argument. No serious theist uses the argument that you propose:

            1. God and good are identical.
            2. Without good there could be no God.
            3. Therefore God exists.

            We'd both agree this argument is full of holes.

          • Andre Boillot

            I'll let David respond for himself, but I've seen WLC do something very similar in debates.

            "God is by definition the greatest conceivable being and therefore the highest Good. Indeed, He is not merely perfectly good; He is the locus and paradigm of moral value."

            https://www.facebook.com/notes/reasonable-faith/text-of-my-opening-speech-in-the-harris-debate/147379088662327

          • Steve Willy

            But doesn't the typical GNU atheist/protoneckbeard invariably open the discussion with "he he he which god? He he he You're certainly atheistic to Zeus, Thor, etc." If the theist cannot distinguish the God of Christianity from those figures, you declare yourself the winner. If the theist offers a definition of God as Craig does, you object to the definition and declare yourself the winner. Its almost as if you are going to deny God's existence no matter what, isn't it?

          • Octavo

            Short version of your comment: atheists have multiple reasons for not believing in god(s). Please re-read the comment policy. Insults are not permitted here.

            ~Jesse Webster

          • Steve Willy

            The purpose of the site is to facilitate meaningful dialogue. Atheists such as the one I was responding to, who basically just respond "yeah, but God is imaginary" to EVERYTHING do not advance that purpose. Perhaps it is you who needs to review the site rules as well as my comment, which illustrates not that Andre has "multiple reasons for deing any gods exist" but rather, that Andre is operating within a paradigm that does not allow him to reach any other conclusion.

          • Andre Boillot

            Steve,

            "Atheists such as the one I was responding to, who basically just respond "yeah, but God is imaginary" to EVERYTHING do not advance that purpose."

            Can you show where I've made such simplistic responses ("to EVERYTHING", no less)?

            Would you classify your contributions so far as "facilitating meaningful dialogue"?

          • Steve Willy

            The fact that you have the time and the educational capacity to "neckbeard up" your responses with psedo-philosophical sophistry does not prevent them from being, at bottom, simplistic finger-in-ear "la la la God can't exist" assertions.

          • Andre Boillot

            So...can you get around to showing me where I've done this? A quote, perhaps?

          • Octavo

            Pretty sure that using the pejorative "GNU atheist/protoneckbeard" unequivocally violates the comment policy.

          • Paul Boillot

            "The purpose of the site is to facilitate meaningful dialogue."

            vs.

            "...GNU atheist/protoneckbeard..."

            In company, face-a-face, it's easy enough to deal with an interlocutor who opens with insults, but since those sorts of exchanges seem to be frowned upon here I'll just flag these for you.

          • Andre Boillot

            Steve,

            But doesn't the typical GNU atheist/protoneckbeard invariably open the discussion with "he he he which god? He he he You're certainly atheistic to Zeus, Thor, etc."

            I suppose this would be a common tactic to pursue if the question did not specify which god(s).

            If the theist offers a definition of God as Craig does, you object to the definition and declare yourself the winner.

            Merely stating that your God is good by definition begs some questions, doesn't it?

            Its almost as if you are going to deny God's existence no matter what, isn't it?

            I mean, I've recently been made to suffer through the platitude of: 'To one who has faith, no explanation is necessary. To one without faith, no explanation is possible.'

            I get it, sort of. On the other hand, it's hardly like I -- living in the 21st century, relying on what seems to be some contradictory scriptures and what I view as a dubious tradition -- bear any resemblance to a certain Thomas, staring the risen lord in the face, and withholding belief until I can get up in the guy's abdominal cavity. Having previously been (what I thought of as) a pretty solid Catholic K-16, I think I can say that I would be open to being shown I'm wrong.

            Can you say the same?

          • Paul Boillot

            First of all, I shaved my neck yesterday.

            Secondly, why on earth are you mixing in "GNU" with with this discussion? GNU is Not Unix has...little?...to do with this.

          • robtish

            Well, yes, that's not the argument I propose (I'm not referencing an argument for the existence of God, but rather of good), but I do confess I'd have to look deeper into older posts to pinpoint exactly how slippery the good/God connection can get, and I just don't have time for it today (yesterday was so interesting here that I feel way behind on work!).

            But my bigger point remains: that WLC accuses Harris of employing a semantic trick while atheists think theists do the exact same thing. Perhaps ironic isn't the right word, but it's certainly, in words of Sir Elton John, a little bit funny.

          • Valkr

            "God is, by definition, pure goodness. That's what Christians mean when they say God." - Brandon Vogt

          • Steve Willy

            Then you are lost.

          • robtish

            Thank you, Steve, for that deep and insightful response. Your carefully crafted argument shall surely force me to reconsider my position, and though it may take me some time to explore all the nuances of your beautiful exemplar of tight logical reasoning, I shall endeavor to do my best to raise myself up to the new level of reasoned discourse that you have so marvelously introduced.

          • JohnC

            I know this is a bit of a tangent, but your abortion statement from gallup is a bit misleading, esp. if you read down a little bit. Only 20% of Americans think abortion should be illegal under all circumstances (which I believe, and I would love to be corrected here, is the Catholic Church's position). Moreover, the conclusion from gallup is as follows:

            "However, it is notable that while Americans' labeling of their position has changed, their fundamental views on the issue have not. If the advantage for the "pro-life" position persists in future Gallup updates on abortion, these would seem to be important factors to look at to help explain the shift in labeling."

            Thus, Americans have adopted the "pro-life" label, but not the underlying policy positions.

          • Andre Boillot

            David,

            Close enough

            As I understand [Harris], he says that what is moral is what [maximizes the well-being of conscious creatures], and what is immoral is what [maximizes the suffering of conscious creatures].

          • Steve Willy

            Your invocation of Sam Harris is the reducio ad absurdum of your entire worldview.

          • Andre Boillot

            Steve,

            I can only assume, after bearing the brunt of such a furious, devastating pillory, that David will now be retiring from the internet, effective immediately, and hope that his family will still have him despite the shame he now bears.

            As for the rest of us, I can assure you we realize that we have been put on notice, and now tremble at the thought of being similarly skewered by such an awesome intellect.

            God help us all.

          • David Nickol

            Your invocation of Sam Harris is the reducio ad absurdum of your entire worldview.

            Your meaning is not clear, but your attitude is.

            I made no "invocation" of Sam Harris. I alluded to a point Sam Harris made about thinking of human well-being as analogous to human health in terms of being able to agree on a definition of human well-being as a basis for a system of morality in somewhat the same way we can be in general agreement about a definition of health as a basis for proceeding with endeavors involving physical well-being.

            You said in a message to Octavio about two hours ago, "The purpose of the site is to facilitate meaningful dialogue." To my way of thinking, saying, "Your invocation of Sam Harris is the reducio ad absurdum of your entire worldview," is not meaningful dialogue.

            By the way, you misspelled reductio.

          • robtish

            Steve, your comments will have more impact if you:
            1) Give some reasoning to back up your pronouncements
            2) Focus your criticism on the person's statements rather than on the person.

            Also, (2) is a requirement of this forum.

          • josh

            "Would they be right on both accounts?"

            They would be right on neither. Or rather, it makes no sense to ask the question 'is this standard right' in those (this :) ) cases.

            Between two different conventions of grammar, one is not right while the other is wrong. However, within a particular convention, certain uses may be correct or incorrect. The convention itself is at least partly arbitrary. Although, you could argue that if we want to convey certain information in our speech, then certain conventions will do better and worse for that purpose. I hope this at least we can agree on.

            So, what about conventions of morality? Again, we find differences between cultures, so we can sensibly ask within a culture, 'how is this judged?' But between cultures there isn't a purely objective standard of right and wrong. But, if we (the cultures) can agree to a common goal or value, then the means to best pursue that goal can be objective. This doesn't mean that I can't criticize another culture where torture is more accepted, it just means I acknowledge a subjective component to it, which in principle the other may not share.

            So to summarize: the motivation is subjective and can be judged only with respect to another subjective standard, right and wrong don't apply; but the means can be objective.

        • vito

          "if bad grammar is illegal, courts will rule on it."
          Exactly. Quite a few countries, especially in europe, where they try to protect their languages from foreign (English, Russian etc) influences, you may end up punished for bad language used in public. If humans want to make something a moral and/or legal issue, they do that.

      • David Nickol

        The rules of English grammar do not concern morality, in the relevant sense, any more than the law of gravity or the rules of baseball do.

        It did not in any way assume the rules of English grammar concern morality. My point is that there are rules of English grammar, and they are not determined by biology. The OP (and you) seem to assume that when it comes to rules of human behavior, there are only two answers to the question, "Where did it come from?" It either came from biology or from God. Since the rules of English grammar are not determined by genetics or biology, it would seem that they come from God.

        My point is that there are more than two answers to the question, "Where do rules of human behavior come from?"

        • http://www.brandonvogt.com/ Brandon Vogt

          "My point is that there are more than two answers to the question, "Where do rules of human behavior come from?""

          Ah, I think I understand your position better now. I assumed your were suggesting grammar was analogous to morality, and that if the former stems from biology, the latter must as well.

          Regarding your point, we Catholics would certainly agree that things can have multiple causes. What you're suggesting is basically the causal theory of Aristotle. For example, a chair can be caused by the wood it's made of; the hammer and nails that shaped it; or the mind that conceived and then built it.

          So Catholics would say that though morality is *ultimately* caused by God, it *could( have proximate or secondary causes, too (such as biology.)

          Yet while it is possible morality could be caused by both God and biology, it cannot be caused by biology alone. This was Dr. Verschuuren's main point in the article.

          • http://www.gettingholdofgod.com/ Glenn Dickinson

            "Yet while it is possible morality could be caused by both God and biology, it cannot be caused by biology alone."

            David, if I may jump in, this really seems to me to be a key
            point, because it is a specific instance of the general argument against reductionist explanations that insist on materialist causes for all observable phenomena. One can argue that biological factors cause morality, or give rise to moral rules, or whatever other reductionist formulation suits you. It seems to me – and perhaps I don’t understand the argument – that what you’re saying, fundamentally, is: We can correlate moral rules with the biological effects they bring about in populations, and in family groups, even in individuals; therefore, we can reverse direction, start with biology,
            and build up a system of morality. The post-hoc-ergo-propter-hoc fallacy seems obvious, when the argument is stated
            this way. Which is why I think I might not understand the point being made by David.

            But it is a problem with very many materialist reductionist analyses of spiritual phenomena, such as near-death experiences, or miraculous healings, or even mundane experiences such as overcoming addictions and depressions. Yes, the purportedly spiritual aspect is manifested in psychological and physiological effects (how else?). This does not in any way support the conclusion that the experience is ONLY psychological or physiological. In the
            same way, the fact that moral rules often lead to behaviors with social utility does not in any way support the conclusion that morality is simply a manifestation of some behavioral or genetic tendency towards socially useful behaviors. This is a bit like the pre-scientific idea that untended piles of hay give rise to mice by a process of spontaneous generation.

            Sorry if this is a bit of a digression, but the parallel structure of these various reductionist arguments seems worth mentioning

        • MattyTheD

          David, on the surface that's very compelling. But the more I think on it, the more I find myself asking, "But, wait, why *do* humans have rules of grammar at all"? Mightn't it have something to do with a very unique, and distinctly intense, human desire to *connect* with one another? And to connect with one another in ways that move toward order, rather than disorder? Toward intelligibility rather than toward meaninglessness? It seems to me that grammar, like human morality, raises some tough questions about humans. Questions that suggest (though I do not say "prove") the existence of a transcendent intelligence. Of course I'm not saying that God decreed the rules of grammar. But I am saying that in a random universe, the idea of beings with language, is incredibly and strangely, non-random.

          • josh

            MattyTheD,

            The questions aren't terribly tough. The universe isn't random, at least to all appearances, it obeys a set of regular laws which we call physics. Based on these laws certain things are guaranteed or at least very likely to happen. Various elements will form from the big bang in predictable ratios. Galaxies, stars and planets will form. Certain chemical compounds will exist on certain planets. Under the right conditions, which seem quite likely to occur at least somewhere in the universe, the chemicals will begin a chain of interaction that leads to a relatively stable replication process. Given that, evolution is inevitable. Evolution will, at least for earth-like conditions, tend to generate a diversity of species with many different survival strategies. One group of strategies/behaviors is a social structure of small bands of individuals with both cooperation and competition within the band (and between other bands). Part of this is also a highly adaptable yet inheritable set of traits that comes from non-genetic transmission of behavior, i.e. learning. Along this trajectory of evolution we are not surprised that one selected survival strategy is the development of language and ethics, as well as increasingly abstract intelligence.

            A 'transcendent' intelligence to start with however, would provide no explanation. It would in fact be equivalent to random since it lacks a deeper explanation (and has no evidence to support it to boot).

  • http://briangreenadams.wordpress.com/ Brian Green Adams

    I think a good analogy of how I see this might be human cuisine. Humans have an extremely complex relationship with food. We have cooking, restaurants, recipes, fast food, organic food, agriculture and so on. We have all kinds of ideas about soup and the soul and spiritual foods.

    But the complexity and sophistication of our relationships with food doesn't really make us question that our instincts with respect to food, eg hunger and cravings, and disgust with various foods derive largely from our biological evolution. Some of this may be instinctual some of this learned. We may feel naturally disgusted at rotting flesh and bugs in our society, but not in others. We have cultural prohibitions on some foods and cannibalism which is something that I do not think we do not see in animals, but we can understand how these can develop along with culture.

    It seems to me that what we call moral instincts come from the same kind of origin. We have both instincts to compete and even overpower others within and without social groups, but we also have instincts to protect members of our own groups even at the expense of our lives. This has gotten extremely complex in humans and developed along with culture, but there is no social or moral instinct that I can think of which cannot plausibly thought to have evolved. And of course we see these instincts being played out in animals such as chimps and wolves, rather complex rules develop facilitating a mix of competition and cooperation. I think the discussion of "cans" and "shoulds" and "oughts" is us trying to understand and deal with these instincts and traditions, but I see no evidence that they exist in any way other than conceptually.

    • http://bywayofbeauty.com/ Matthew Becklo

      Hey Brian - This strikes me as a very Humean conception of morality. But I think very few people who make this argument really live or talk as if it were true. (Hume himself confessed that at the end of the day, there was a great chasm between his thought and his life; he dined with friends, played backgammon, and got on with the business of living.)

      For instance: do you think atheists ought not become fundamentalist Christians? If no, why? If yes, does that "ought not" point to any real badness about fundamentalism, or just to a complex conceptual rule resulting from man's evolutionary survival?

      Another example. In looking back over some of your comments I found statements like:

      "Freedom of religion should not grant individuals or groups the right to significantly impinge on the rights of others."
      "His parents should have the right to consent on his behalf..."
      "Goodness just nationalize your health care like a civilized country."
      "A growing fertility rates are just as bad as a declining one."

      That's a lot of talk about "should," "should not," "good," and "bad." Don't get me wrong, I think you're perfectly right to engage in it; what confuses is me is then turning around and sawing off the tree branch you're sitting on. If moral judgments are reducible to evolutionary "tastes," all appeals to "the good" and "badness" are illusory; since they are clearly not illusory, it seems to me that we should revisit the question of their grounding.

      • http://briangreenadams.wordpress.com/ Brian Green Adams

        I do not deny for an instant that the moral framework I apply results in all kinds of "shoulds". I also think we can be objective about them, but I do not use the word "objective" in the way that I think the author does.

        I do not say moral judgments are reducible to evolutionary "tastes". Rather they arise out of basic and more complex evolved instincts. We see chimps, wolves and many other animals act on these instincts in sometimes quite complex ways. But unlike animals our brains have allowed us to reflect on what we do with these instincts and develop complex systems that have been incredibly useful and terrible. Like chimps, we make tools, but ours result in the large hadron collider. Like all animals we eat, and are choosy about our food. But we have developed French cuisine. Like wolves, we have a mixture of instincts that sometimes drive us to compete and sometimes drive us to work together to protect each other. But we have developed the UN Human Rights Committee, and, i grant you, religion.

        • http://bywayofbeauty.com/ Matthew Becklo

          It's hard for me to see how this view of morality, as you've described it, could be considered "objective." You said "we can be objective about [shoulds]," but that you would use "objective" differently. But I'm curious in what sense you would use the word other than mind-independent moral or evaluative truth?

          The second morality ceases to be mind-independent the alternative is some form of subjectivism, where moral truth depends on our motivational dispositions and responses. That's what I'm hearing in your description. If human morality emerges as a more sophisticated and nuanced instance of animal cooperation and the Darwinian struggle for survival, the aversion to pain, for example, is good only by virtue of its leading to the avoidance of physical injury and death, and not by virtue of any objective, non-empirical badness that transcends a stimulus-response pattern. So far as natural selection goes, pain may actually be good, bad, or more plausibly, absolutely valueless. There's very little objective about that framework.

          • http://briangreenadams.wordpress.com/ Brian Green Adams

            There are axioms in my way of thinking which I cannot justify. These have to do with reasonable assumptions gained from observation and induction that all humans share some basic values of well-being and avoidance of suffering. These axioms are, in a way subjective, but they are not arbitrary which is a big difference. I can draw on these shared values to demonstrate objectively that some conduct furthers these values and others do not. This is an admitted limitation to my system, but it does not break down because of this. It would only break down if it were the case that the vast majority of human individuals do not share these values. We can see from observation that they do.

            But lets look at the alternative. How do people who accept that there are moral truths which are objective in this absolute sense of the word? How do we know these truths exist, much less what they are? All I have heard is that without them we are left with moral relativism. In other words, absent a bedrock of absolute moral truth, we could not say anything is absolutely morally wrong. Well I think we can say some things are objectively morally wrong based on the reasonable axioms. I do not think we can say something is absolutely morally wrong.

            The example that is always given is "it is objectively wrong to torture babies for fun". Why do we say that? Well, it feels wrong instinctively, it is repugnant to our sense of morality.
            But instinct, feelings and having a sense of morality is not how we identify objective truths is it? To the contrary, these things are indications of subjectivity, the wrongness is all in the individuals mind without some independent framework to analyze it. In my system we are much closer to objectivity. While it feels wrong, it also clearly harms the baby to an extent that cannot be justified by anything like "fun" and so on. If the moral wrongness is not about these physical and emotional effects, we don't know what the wrongness is at all, we just have some subjective "sense" of it.

            Do you think it is objectively absolutely morally wrong to torture babies, just because it is "obvious"? Would you not try to convince someone that the effects on the child are a big part of why you say it is objectively wrong?

          • http://bywayofbeauty.com/ Matthew Becklo

            Well I think we can say some things are objectively morally wrong based on the reasonable axioms.

            But you admit in the first line of your comment that you can't justify those axioms, and that they are "subjective" in the sense of mind-dependent. Those are grave problems for any sense of objectivity you're trying to maintain. Your description of their objectivity is that they are not arbitrary, and that those "values" are furthered by some actions and not by others. But again, so far as natural selection is concerned, we may be systematically wrong about our evaluative judgments about good and bad, operating from a web of dispositions and motivations. And we can't justify that web according to anything extrinsic, no matter how nuanced we make it. It is a self-contained wheel spinning in empty space.

            Do you think it is objectively absolutely morally wrong to torture babies, just because it is "obvious"?

            In a word, yes. Don't you think it's obvious? It also seems obvious to me that if a person or even an entire society decides that it is objectively morally right to torture babies, then that person's or society's subjective judgments fall short of a moral truth extrinsic to their conscious experience of the world.

            And no, I don't think moral realism demands at all that one discounts the consequences on the child in expounding on that obviousness. The difference is that moral realism does not finally ground the moral evaluation in something other than itself, i.e., empathetic aversion to pain and other motivations or dispositions in nature. It is just true its own right; like any other truth, we discover it, and the consequences of our actions are a part of that moral discovery. To quote Thomas Nagel:

            Realists believe that moral and other evaluative judgments can often be explained by more general or basic evaluative truths, together with the facts that bring them into play [the example he gives is the fact that if I don't slam on my brakes, I will run over and kill this dog]. But they do not believe that the evaluative element in such a judgment can be explained by anything else...

            That doesn't mean that our visceral responses are infallible, any more than our prereflective visual perceptions are. They are merely the starting points for the exploration of a domain that may require extensvie practical and moral reasoning to understand. On the Darwinian account, this must be regarded as an illusion - perhaps an illusion of objectivity that is itself the product of natural selection because of its contribution to reproductive fitness.

            Great discussion by the way!

          • http://briangreenadams.wordpress.com/ Brian Green Adams

            I think the limitations you've identified are going to arise no matter what one's position on the kinds of platonic truths you seem to accept.

            I see no evidence of absolute moral values or truths. And and even if I were to accept they exist I wouldn't look to my feelings and intuitions for guidance on what they are. I think a sense that something is "obvious" or a "feeling" or "intuition" are markers of subjectivity not objectivity. Yes I feel and think it is obvious that torturing a baby is wrong, but that is not why I think it is immoral. I know my feelings are too unreliable to indicate truth.

            Agreed good chat.

          • RayIngles

            The rules of chess are mind-dependent, right? Humans simply made them up. And not all humans find playing chess to their taste, right?

            But we can still make objective statements about chess! For example, given the FIDE rules of chess, and if you want to win the game, then you shouldn't sacrifice your queen for a pawn in the opening moves of the game.

            That's a strategic rule; it's objectively true that such a move does not further the goal of winning the game (defined by a particular set of laws). It's not against the FIDE rules to sacrifice your queen - it's not like the rule forbidding putting your king into check. It arises from the interaction of the fundamental rules, and the desire to win the game.

            If you have a set of fixed objects, and a spotlight, then depending on where you put the spotlight, they will cast different shadows. But that doesn't mean the shadows are imaginary! Similarly, given a fixed set of rules and constraints, and a desire to accomplish a goal, strategies arise like shadows cast by a light source.

            Given a different goal, different strategies may arise, of course. But that doesn't mean the strategies themselves aren't objective - strategies are simply what arise when desires smack into fixed constraints, like shadows happen when light smacks into objects.

            Now, perhaps biology gives us facts about humans and their goals (one might even call it a 'human nature'). And the laws of physics are enforced even more strictly than FIDE enforces its rules of chess. Is it imaginable that strategies might arise when human desires smack into the real world?

          • http://bywayofbeauty.com/ Matthew Becklo

            Hey Ray - Thanks for the thoughtful comment! I agree that the rules of chess are mind-dependent, human conventions. I don't agree that these can be termed "objective" in any sense, and precisely because they meet that first definition. You write:

            Such a move does not further the goal of winning the game (defined by a particular set of laws)...Given a different goal, different strategies may arise, of course. But that doesn't mean the strategies themselves aren't objective

            What you're trying to show, I think, is that the strategies of chess are "locked" by or "grounded" in the goal of winning the game and the particular set of laws that get you there. But you yourself offer the reason why this groundedness is finally illusory: the goal can change, and the laws are just one particular set of laws. What if the goal becomes losing the game? What if the laws are distorted? The strategies then change too. The very analogy of a "game" gives the lie to any sense that morality is objective while still being mind-dependent. Games can be changed: actual mind-independent reality cannot.

          • Andre Boillot

            Matthew,

            "What if the goal becomes losing the game? What if the laws are distorted? The strategies then change too."

            I don't think it's the strategies that change in your scenario, rather what you are playing. It's no longer chess, in your example.

          • RayIngles

            But you yourself offer the reason why this groundedness is finally illusory: the goal can change, and the laws are just one particular set of laws.

            My last paragraph tried to address both of those objections.

            If there is such a thing as a human nature - whether understood in theological or biological terms - that could (a least) restrict the range of goals that humans have. Like, in the shadow analogy, restricting the position of the spotlight to a particular range. In such a case, some areas might always be in shadow, and others in light, no matter where in that range you put the spotlight. Similarly, it seems at least reasonable to suppose that there's enough commonality in humans to be able to at least set some fundamentals about what goals are worth pursuing for humans - and thus, what strategies apply.

            Especially because, yes, "the laws [of chess can be] distorted" - but you can't distort the laws of physics. That is "actual mind-independent reality", as you put it. I mean, sure, 'if wishes were horses, beggars would ride' - but I'll bet all of my money you can't wish up a horse. So we humans are stuck with particular 'rules of the game' - those are fixed.

            So, immutable 'rules of the game', restricted range of goals - check out the link I gave above for a strategy that works well in a wide range of games and goals...

        • MattyTheD

          BGA, I ask this honestly, not as a debate. Are you fully satisfied by the genetic explanation for the Human Morality? I'll admit I haven't studied this as much as I'd like to, but it seems to me that there's a vast chasm between human morality and what some call "animal morality". A difference in kind, not in degree. Just one example off the top of my head: though a wolf might choose to "cooperate", as you say, I'm not aware that a wolf would ever experience regret or shame for not "cooperating" on some given occasion. Not even for an instant. Whereas a human might regret if for the rest of their life, and in a way that actually pains them. A lab chimp might get very upset that it doesn't get the grape that it has "earned" for pressing the cage button (one of the experiments intended to show animal sense of "fairness"). But is that really demonstrating a sense of "morality"? Seems to me it's demonstrating that animals capable of being trained expect certain patterns of cause and effect, or they get distressed. What would really surprise me is if a chimp got upset because *a different chimp* didn't get the grape it deserved. (Which is a behavior we see, and celebrate, in humans, quite often). Is the 2nd concept -- the human version of morality -- really *that* much more complicated? Can the human version be explained only greater cognitive capacity? If that were so, it seems to be that a chimp might spend their entire lives wrestling with the dumbed-down version of morality. Perhaps they'd spend their entire lives trying to give up their seat for an older chimp, "Hey, it's all I can do, I"m not so smart". But what we actually see is a total disinterest in anything resembling human morality. There's a chasm of difference that evolution seems terribly ill-equipped to explain.

          • Horatio

            I think evolution can indeed present some plausible suggestions to the problem, albeit none of them may be definitively provable (though that doesn't mean one can't present proof in support!).

            Your example of laboratory chimps with grapes is plausible enough, but many social nonhuman animals do in fact demonstrate behaviors that look like distress over wrongs visited on other members of their in-group. Elephants, for example, have been observed to perform certain behaviors which look to us like mourning their dead. Chimpanzees will in fact gang up on a harasser, as will crows, dolphins, and even bees. Doing so maintains the in-group on which they depend. Perhaps this IS their "dumbed down" version of morality: an behavioral program which is relatively limited in its complexity only because their social interactions are relatively simple when compared to ours. The fact that it doesn't look exactly like the kind of primitive morality you describe might just be because that's not what primitive morality actually looks like. Perhaps one day, millions of years from now, they will exhibit more complex social behaviors as fully moral agents.

            If there is a truly a difference in kind, perhaps its arises from the our possession of language (and we are unique in the animal world for our use of language, so far as we know), which has enabled us to create and share information complexes that are totally beyond an animal not capable of such symbolic thought and syntactic structure. We so often *think* in our own heads in terms of language, after all. What would the state of our morality be without this novel adaptation? Far more primitive, I should think. Perhaps this source of rich complexity gave a field of play to the evolution (and I think this word is appropriate) of memes that propagated because they were beneficial both to the in-group as a whole, and to individuals within the in-group which depend (to some extent) on inclusion by the group in order to thrive --such as fair play. In this view, many of the moral codes that cannot be explained in terms of immediate benefit to the individual or the group are left as random trappings that just happen to exist in a particular distribution in time and space, more or less arbitrarily.

          • http://briangreenadams.wordpress.com/ Brian Green Adams

            Satisfied? I don't know what you mean exactly.It is not a question of being satisfied, we do the best with what we have.

            Now don't get me wrong, I am not saying humans do or act morally in the same way other animals do. This was the point of the analogy. Human eating and chimp eating have the same origin and overall purpose, but human cuisine is incredibly more sophisticated pleasurable and useful in terms of aesthetics and nutrition.
            My "shoulds" come from what I can best determine will further well-being and it is tough enough without trying to interpret the will of an invisible, inaudible god who communicates through vague feelings and 2000 year old text that can't seem to drop the passages that are quite nasty.

  • jakael02

    I really liked the line: "Without God, we would have no right to claim any rights.".

  • vito

    "Only a few people in the past were able to discern the objective and universal value of personal freedom and human dignity"
    Yes, a few were able. Not Jesus though.

  • Octavo

    "So where do our morals and moral values come from then? The answer is quite straightforward: They are not products of evolution but gifts of creation. They are “evident” because they are “God-given."

    Brings to mind the HL Menken quote: "For every complex problem there is a simple solution... and it is wrong."

    ~Jesse Webster

  • Steven Carr

    'However, even if we did descend from the animal world, that doesn’t mean all our characteristics were transferred to us through genes and umbilical cords'

    How does original sin get transmitted?

    I guess this is another question that theology can't answer.

    'Human rights are not man-made entitlements but God-given rights that we cannot invent and manipulate at will. '

    So how did we get the right not to be killed by God?

    • http://www.gettingholdofgod.com/ Glenn Dickinson

      I am not a theologian, but my understanding of Catholic theology is that original sin is not so much a matter of something that is transmitted as something that is not transmitted, namely, imminent divine grace. Our pre-Adamite ancestors enjoyed a direct experience of divine grace. The Fall signifies the event or process by which human beings voluntarily separated themselves and their world from that imminent grace. If dad burns down the kitchen making breakfast, then we're having cereal and milk for dinner, if you'll pardon the analogy. Jimmy Akin would be a good source for more information on this point. He's a real theologian.

      "the right not to be killed by God" . . . not sure what you mean by that, but again I'd look to Jimmy Akin, especially his recent post on death before the Fall. http://www.strangenotions.com/did-dinosaurs-die-before-the-fall/

      Peace

    • Horatio

      "How does original sin get transmitted?"

      I don't propose to know the answer to this, but this is an acceptable excuse to share one of my favorite passages from a true science-fiction classic:

      "And yet, Dom Paulo’s own Faith told him that the burden was there, had been there since Adam’s time — and the burden imposed by a fiend crying in mockery, “Man!” at man.

      “Man!” — calling each to account for the deeds of all since the beginning; a burden impressed upon every generation before the opening of the womb, the burden of the guilt of original sin. Let the fool dispute it. The same fool with great delight accepted the other inheritance — the inheritance of ancestral glory, virtue, triumph, and dignity which rendered him “courageous and noble by reason of birthright,” without protesting that he personally had done nothing to earn that inheritance beyond being born of the race of Man. The protest was reserved for the inherited burden which rendered him “guilty and outcast by reason of birthright,” and against that verdict he strained to close his ears. The burden, indeed, was hard."

  • Horatio

    What a wonderful article. Thank you.

    "My fundamental question to these biologists is as follows: Why would we need an articulated moral rule to reinforce what “by nature” we would or would not desire to do anyway? Reality tells us that far too many people are willing to break a moral rule when they can get away with it. As a matter of fact, moral laws tell us to do what our genes do not make us do “by nature.”

    Couldn't such a biologist suggest that our most basic moral rules --the rules that are more or less common to disparate cultures-- are explainable in the context of inclusive fitness, or even of group selection (or to go a step further: in the context of the individual's dependence on the group, and the morality that may stem from the requirements of acceptance)? And couldn't they argue that more specialized, complex, and geographically specific moral rules (e.g. the moratorium on cannibalism, ritual human sacrifice, and pornography) are memetic in nature and basically arbitrary?

    To me, it's my subjective experience of (objective) morality that leads me to believe it is True, and that it is from God; in this regard the mechanics of how we came to that morality seem rather unimportant, as is any (real or perceived) inability of mechanics to explain them.

  • Dan Carollo

    It can be both/and. And it depends on what we mean by "come from". Biology is simply the stuff we're made of (ie. "material cause"). Even if we evolved with a moral capacity to perceive right from wrong --- it's that very capacity itself, and the structure of an objectively moral universe itself that I see as ultimately is the work of a personal God ("final cause"). There not need be a conflict between "secondary" and "primary" causes. (see also John Polkinghorne's tea kettle analogy)

  • Paul Boillot

    I'm not going to cede jurisdiction on the question "is 'morality' biological in nature" to a commentator who writes

    Modern biology makes us believe that we descended from the animal world...even if we did descend from the animal world...

    I'm sorry, but if you want to be taken seriously in my book on a subject, any subject, you must first demonstrate elementary knowledge and understanding of the same.

    "Makes us believe" and "even if" are litmus papers showing a negative result on that assay.

  • RayIngles

    Most other rules and laws tell us what we
    should do in order to reach a certain goal—they are conditional,
    means-to-other-ends... Morality tells us what ought
    to be done—no matter what, whether we like it or not, whether we feel
    it or not, or whether others enforce it or not.

    That seems to me to be the the key claim in the article. That the laws of morality are not 'strategic' rules - that they are "ends in themselves", not means of achieving some purpose.

    I'm... not convinced. What if morality is more like engineering - strategies for accomplishing human goals that we've worked out over millennia? The fact that humans can cooperate and take into account the desires of others is kind of a key differentiator between us and animals. Maybe we don't have morality because we're better off than animals that don't have morality - maybe we're better off than animals that don't have morality because we have morality - strategies for cooperating and working together?

    Take slavery. It was actually an improvement over 'kill everyone in the opposing tribe' - in that tribes that practiced it did better than those that didn't. But slave societies become stagnant; they have to spend lots of resources on policing the slaves, and can't risk social changes because of the risk of rebellion. (C.f. the South in the American Civil War, or Communist regimes...)

    A few centuries ago, people kept slaves - and used animal power, water power, and wind power. We've improved our strategies on both an engineering and moral level since then.

  • Geena Safire

    Where Does Morality Come From? Is it still something anchored in our genes? Some biologists think that evolutionary biology can explain how humanity acquired its morality.

    Oxytocin. Serotonin. Dopamine. Mirror neurons The anterior insular cortex. The ventromedial prefrontal cortex. The orbital frontal cortex. The dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. The anterior and posterior cingulate cortices. The amygdala. The superior temporal gyrus. The posterior superior temporal sulcus. The temperoparietal junction. The temporal and frontal poles.

    Morality seems to have evolved like many of our other traits, gradually over time in our ancestor species. Certain traits emerged by mutation and were then naturally selected. These genetic, hormonally-incentivized pro-social drives and behaviors survived where group living conferred a survival advantage.

    Or it may be that a deity caused this to happen. If so, however, it was caused to exist in us (and in our cousins) in just such a haphazard way throughout the brain as evolution would have likely done it.

    [E]ven if we did descend from the animal world, that doesn’t mean all our characteristics were transferred to us through genes and umbilical cords.

    No, it doesn't necessarily mean that. But it's more likely than any alternative until that alternative is supported by evidence.

    I understand that the Catholic teaching is that a Catholic is allowed to believe (or not believe) in physical evolution but must believe that the soul and reason were not a result of evolution. So I can understand that Geert, as a former Jesuit and practicing Catholic, could not write otherwise.

    [O]ur anatomy and physiology did come from [descent from the animal world], but what about our rationality and morality? Take rationality or morality away from us, and we are indistinguishable from animals.

    I'm glad Gerard dropped the "if" regarding human evolution generally. It's why I generally prefer dialogue with Catholics over fundamentalists -- because of the latter's blind denial of the fact of evolution.

    But this assertion is merely asserted, that we are animals except for rationality and morality. I disagree, on several levels.

    First, there are many things that make us different from our closest cousin apes, including bipedalism and its related anatomical changes, less dimorphism, short, weaker arms and longer, stronger legs, weak jaw muscles (which may have contributed to the ability for our brains to grow), hairlessness and the ability to sweat extensively, allowing high physical endurance including long-distance running or travel in general, a huge brain allowing many uniquely-human emergent properties, frequent birth problems due to size of said brain, extended childhood dependence, weaker senses of hearing and smell, plus the significant ability for language.

    Second, many animals share a degree of rationality and extensive moral behavior. Gerard might counter that these aren't validly rationality and morality, according to his definitions.

    If one uses a tautological definition – that "rationality" is defined as "the mental
    abilities that humans do not share with other animals" then, of course,
    one can say that humans are the only rational creatures. But that isn't saying
    anything.

    Similarly, if one uses a tautological definition – that "morality" is defined as "the mental considerations regarding ethics and morality that humans do not share with other animals" then, of course, one can say that humans are the only moral creatures. But that isn't saying anything either.

    ----

    The fact that Gerard found zero neuroscientists and zero biologists to express even modest affection for his theories regarding neuroscience for the book jacket of his recent book on the topic, What
    Makes you Tick?: A New Paradigm for Neuroscience
    , indicates that either he was unable to find any or that he didn't care to find any. Neither gives me confidence in his critique of neuroscience or his claim of extra-biological insertion of reason and morals. Nor can I parse this article as anything other than sermonizing based on an Affirming the Consequent fallacy: God is required for the existence of morality, therefore the existence of morality proves the existence of God. If P then Q. Q. Therefore P.

    • Horatio

      Geena,

      I greatly admire the thrust of this comment, but surely Dr. Verschuuren must be familiar with the rudiments of neuroanatomy and neurophysiology as they pertain to emotion, reward pathways, etc etc (I could be wrong here, I suppose). I believe he falls flat primarily where he poses his "fundamental question" to certain biologists re: how can social morals be explained biologically, when the violation of those morals is clearly advantageous. I believe many great biologists have provided multiple possible answers for him already, though he doesn't give the impression of being familiar with them (and this is startling). Looking at his book online, he apparently did manage to secure more-than-modest praise from the chair of neurosurgery at UK and a psychiatrist at Georgetown U SOM (a Jesuit school, it's true). I'll grant you they aren't pure neuroscientists, but they've had original work published in clinical- and basic-science journals, and obviously their fields are inextricable from neuroscience.

      "the Consequent fallacy: God is required for the existence of morality, therefore the existence of morality proves the existence of God. If P then Q. Q. Therefore P."

      Here here. There is no better way to distill this fallacious line of argument.

      • Geena Safire

        My list was a partial list of neurotransmitters, neurons and parts of the brain shown to be highly involved with the processing of different aspects of what we generally call morality.

        I don't doubt that, as a presumably conscientious author, Gerard did some significant background research about neuroscience before daring to write a book that endeavors to propose a new paradigm for the field.

        But if that book is anything like this article, all I can imagine is chapter after chapter restating, "It's really all about God. Yes we have brains, but they are magnificent because of God. And the mind, reason, rationality, morality, and consciousness -- gifts from God -- must exist outside or beyond the brain because they could not have evolved by random chance. Because God. Therefore God."

        I haven't posted even a tenth of my fisking of this article sermon, because it wouldn't be polite. I'll post it later, after the discussion dies down.

        Gerard's biography here and at Wikipedia
        claims he is a geneticist. He seems to have been involved in some undergraduate research in biology, but it is not clear whether he ever got even the equivalent of a BS in biology. It does say, at his LinkedIn
        page, that he wrote a thesis – on statistical analysis. His three textbooks were about the philosophy of science. His consulting work for biopharmaceutical companies (from Wikipedia) and his publications at Amazon, indicate that his work has been primarily involved with computer programming related to statistics, not in genetics as such, a field in biology. Obviously, genetics involves bioinformatics and is heavily dependent on computers. But IIRC having done some population genetics work as a student doesn't make one a geneticist.

        Also, I was surprised to see that, at this Catholic web site, his bio here didn't mention that he is a former Jesuit priest.

         

        The book jacket reviewers of Gerard's book, What Makes you Tick?: A New Paradigm for Neuroscience are: Paul J. Camarata, a Catholic neurosurgeon; Paul Copan, evangelical, with PhD in Philosophy of Religion, at a Christian university; John Siberski, Jesuit priest and psychiatrist; Kevin Flemming, a psychologist and life coach; Richard
        Schenk
        , Dominican priest and Catholic university president, and Michael J. Dodds, a Dominican priest and professor in the Catholic school of philosophy and theology at GTU.

        Zero neuroscientists.

        (Neurosurgeons, with few exceptions, are not neuroscientists.)

        • Horatio

          "My list was a partial list of neurotransmitters, neurons and parts of the brain shown to be highly involved with the processing of different aspects of what we generally call morality."

          Yes, I am familiar with them all from my days as an undergraduate and medical student. However, I don't think their mention would sway the commentator, who could simply say: "well, their presence and function do not in themselves explain how the morality program evolved in the first place, and as such, that they don't answer my Question." This, even if he agreed that those structures and systems *fully* account for moral behavior, which he may dispute.

          While I think it's inappropriate to debate his credentials or religious background as a means to discredit his argument talis qualis, I do agree that his biography is suspiciously written, as if it were deliberately trying to gloss over his lack of a formal degree in the life sciences. If this is true, then what bothers me is: why should he --or anyone-- be self conscious about this? If you know a thing, you know a thing. Nothing's stopping a layman from picking up a textbook or subscribing to Nature. Plus, his book looks to be primarily about the more philosophical implications of his views on neuroscience than about cutting-edge science.

          "(Neurosurgeons, with few exceptions, are not neuroscientists.)"

          Obviously they are not synonymous, but this is disingenuous. He's a neurosurgery chair at a major American teaching hospital. Any academic physician must "do science" and publish or they won't keep his or her job --let alone advance to a chair position. Dr. Camarata has clearly done neuroscience, albeit with a largely clinical focus (but not exclusively! do a pubmed or Google scholar search). He also must have demonstrated proficiency in neuroscience, or he wouldn't have made it through his education and he definitely wouldn't have found or kept his place in a neurosurgery residency. If this isn't enough for you, then I think you're being far too granular in your delineation of precisely what qualifies a person to speak about neuroscience. But this is a digression; I will drop it here.

          • Geena Safire

            "My list was a partial list ... .... morality"

            I don't think their mention here would sway the commentator,...

            It wasn't my intention to sway the author. It was my intention to (a) remind the author about what is known about the physical reality of morality in the brain, of which, as you note, the author presented no evidence of being aware, and (b) provide some Google/Wikipedia fodder about the neuroscience of morality which the general readership here may be unaware. I'd also recommend Patricia Churchland's 'Braintrust: What Neuroscience Tells Us About Morality." But I digress...

            While I think it's inappropriate to debate his credentials or religious background as a means to discredit his argument talis qualis

            I only presented his credentials in direct response to your statement that "surely Dr. Verschuuren is familiar with the rudiments of neuroanatomy and neurophysiology" as a way of saying, "Yes, he should be. And yes, maybe he is. Or even probably. But evidence doesn't get me all the way to 'surely'."

            I do agree that his biography is suspiciously written,

            Mm-hmm.

            "(Neurosurgeons, with few exceptions, are
            not neuroscientists.)"

            [Dr. Camarata] is a neurosurgery chair at a majorAmerican teaching hospital. [He] has clearly done neuroscience, albeit with a largely clinical focus (but not exclusively! do a pubmed or Google scholar search).

            I had already checked pubmed. Very impressive, but completely clinical studies IMHO; otherwise I wouldn't have brought it up. And, you may note, I mentioned it in a less specific way -- about neurosurgeons in general -- precisely because I was trying to avoid being too granular wrt Dr. Camarata. Given his position, I'm sure Dr. Camarata has excellent credentials and a good reputation. But, after all, this isn't brain surgery. Oh, wait, yeah, in his case, it actually is.

            [Camarata] must also have demonstrated proficiency in neuroscience,

            I was making a distinction between a career focused on 'what we can do to the brain' (neurosurgery) versus 'what the brain does that we didn't know before' (neuroscience research)'. And I thought vetting by a member of the latter camp would be more relevant to a book that aims to alter the fundamental paradigm of neuroscience.

    • Paul Boillot

      Thanks for throwing some of your knowledge and analysis our way.

  • Adam Wykes

    Well, this is awkward. I fully support the hypothesis presented, but reject the underpinning for its justification.

    You say animals don't live in a world of oughts, but some of them definitely do. My dog has a sense that when food is procured by her "pack" that she is entitled to a bit of it, and if she doesn't get it then she will act differently toward me in retaliation. It is an evaluation of my fairness toward her. http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=97944783

    A tiger, its food stolen by a hunter in siberia, hunts down the man for days - far past the point of simply doing so to retrieve its meal or get a new one - because the hunter had the gall to take food from the tiger in its territory. The tiger has a sense of what an "inferior" like the hunter ought to do.
    http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=129551459

    (hm, perhaps I listen to too much NPR).

  • Paul Boillot

    "Since moral laws are not means to other ends, they have no survival value, and therefore cannot be promoted by natural selection."

    My favorite example, among many strong contenders, of rickety rhetoric mixed in equal parts with null reasoning.

    Shaken, not stirred.

  • Geena Safire

    As I noted in a previous comment for this article two months ago, I had written a more extensive set of responses to this article. In order not to hog space from other commenters, I said I would post these additional comments later. I'll post them in a series of responses to this 'header' comment numbered by the location of the text (to which I am replying) in the article.

    • Geena Safire

      Comment 20 of 20

      Gerard's biography here and at Wikipedia
      claim he is a geneticist. He seems to have been involved in some undergraduate research in biology, but it is not clear whether he ever got even the equivalent of a BS in biology. It does say, at his LinkedIn
      page, that he wrote a thesis – on statistical analysis. His three textbooks were about philosophy of sciend His consulting work for biopharmaceutical companies (from Wikipedia) and his publications at
      Amazon, indicate that his work has been primarily involved with computer programming related to statistics, not in genetics, a field in biology. Obviously, genetics involves bioinformatics and is heavily dependent on computers. But IIRC having done some population genetics work as a student doesn't make one a geneticist.

      Also, I was surprised to see that, at this Catholic web site, his bio here didn't mention that he is a former Jesuit priest.

      Separately, Gerard's link to Where-Do-We-Come-From.com is broken. It leads to here: http:// www . strangenotions . com / morality – is – not – a – biological – issue / www . where – do – we – come – from . com

    • Geena Safire

      Comment 19 of 20

      The book jacket reviewers of Gerard's book, What Makes you Tick?: A New Paradigm for Neuroscience are: Paul J. Camarata, a Catholic neurosurgeon; Paul Copan, evangelical, with PhD in Philosophy of Religion, at a Christian university; John Siberski, Jesuit priest and psychiatrist; Kevin Flemming, a psychologist and life coach; Richard Schenk, Dominican priest and Catholic university president, and Michael J. Dodds, a Dominican priest and professor in the Catholic school of philosophy and theology at GTU.

      Zero neuroscientists.

      If Gerard was unable to convince at least one neuroscientist to express even modest affection for his theories regarding neuroscience on a book jacket, it is likely they are much more on the philosophy end of the philosophy of science. Except that the reviewers don't have any philosophers either. So it's likely straight Catholic apologetics. (The only neurologist, his main reviewer, Camarata, seems interested in are those that have left that field to pursue the mind-brain problem.)

    • Geena Safire

      Comment 18

      No wonder the Ten Commandments were etched in stone, but certainly not in our genes.

      First, Moses didn't historically exist, and the Exodus didn't happen, so no ten commandments carved by a deity in stone either.

      However, of the first ten commandments in the old testament (out of a list of 613, actually), I would agree that many of them are not etched in our genes.

      Although due to humans being pattern seekers and meaning seekers, especially when life is difficult or unpredictable, it is not surprising that beliefs in deities would tend to arise. But the first three commandments are quite specific to a desert tribe at a certain very recent point in history, evolutionarily speaking.

      The deities of most religions are not like that deity, punishing four generations of descendants an their ancestor's crime of worshiping the wrong deity and making a really big deal out of not working one day a week. 1, 2, and 3 are not genetic.

      Valuing one's parents is an evolutionary trait, but not usually into adulthood in non-human animals, so I wouldn't call number 4 genetic.

      Avoidance of unjustified homicide we share with all our primate kin (although the rules for justifiable homicide vary between societies and, within a society, between classes). Oxytocin promotes pair bonding in humans and a number of other mammals, although very few mammals made for life. Not violating property rights is another trait we share with our primate kin; theft happens, but it is punished (although the rules for property rights vary between societies and, within a society, between classes). So I'd call 5, 6, and 7 to be etched in our genes.

      Avoiding deception is another trait we share with our primate kin, if the commandment were about lying. But this commandment is about false accusation, and that level of duplicity is rare outside of humans.

      But coveting? Coveting is not an evolutionary wrong. Thought crime is not generally punished except by Christianity. Managing one's desires is central to Buddhism, becoming less attached to them, but having desires per se is not viewed as evil. So 9 and 10 are not etched in our genes.

      So three of the ten commandments are etched in our genes, with the proviso that all three are culturally bound.

    • Geena Safire

      Comment 17 of 20

      If rights really came from men, and not God, men could take them away anytime—and they certainly have tried many times. To say it another way, there has got to be an eternal heaven for our moral values so as to make them objective and universal.

      Humans value humans because we are hard-wired to do so. There are various camps in the diverse atheist community regarding objective morality. But all of them (except those pesky few nihilists) believe in morality and its importance – without any assistance from heaven or eternity – or the threat of hell, either. Heaven is only required if you define morality in such a way that requires it. Tautology.

      The atheistic proponents of objective morality define it differently than Gerard and more like the word 'objective' is actually defined in English. We are physical beings living in a physical universe, and our actions have consequences. If we posit that morality (as it is commonly defined in English) is about the well-being of humans and other conscious creatures, and the flourishing of our societies, then many actions can be proven, objectively, to be more moral than others.

    • Geena Safire

      Comment 16 of 20

      So where do our morals and moral values come from then? The answer is quite straightforward: They are not products of evolution but gifts of creation. They are “evident” because they are “God-given.” Human rights are not man-made entitlements but God-given rights that we cannot invent and manipulate at will. The only authority that can obligate you or me is Someone infinitely superior to me. Without God, we would have no right to claim any rights.

      If Gerard can't prove that his God exists, to begin with, then he can't use it to prove that it has revealed the "true" morals and moral values. A non-existent deity cannot obligate me to anyone, no matter how infinitely superior it may be defined to be. Morals cannot be "evident" due to a non-evident deity.

      When humans could not imagine how three pounds of grey jelly could generate thoughts, it was reasonable to posit a non-material something – a disembodied mind – that caused thoughts to happen. And since thoughts were higher than physical things, then thoughts about abstract things (intellect) are better than thoughts about physical things (imagination). And if a disembodied mind that was bound to a physical body was great, then wouldn't a disembodied mind not bound to anything physical be even more wondrous.

      But the three pounds of grey jelly does generate thoughts. And emotions. And imagination. And intellect. And rationality. And morality. And, although we haven't yet figured out how, it's the most likely explanation also for consciousness. To argue against it seems a God-of-the-Gaps appeal.

    • Geena Safire

      Comment 15 of 20

      Don’t Moral Values Change, Though? The answer is, "No, it’s not the moral values that change but rather our moral evaluations, that is, the way we discern moral values." A few centuries ago, for instance, slavery was not evaluated as morally wrong, but nowadays it is by most people. Did our moral values change? No, they did not; but our evaluations certainly did. Only a few people in the past were able to discern the objective and universal value of personal freedom and human dignity (versus slavery), whereas most of their contemporaries were blind toward this value.

      Right. (/s) This is the old bait-and-switch, playing loose with definitions. None of the actual "moral values", which Gerard claims are absolute and universal and so forth, may actually be known by humans. All we have is our current "moral evaluations", he says. This way, the "moral values" can be claimed to be "eternal" and "unchanging," because, by definition, they
      can never be known to be known by humans.

      I prefer a more humble approach. Each society tries, at any given time, to discern the best moral values of which they are able. As time goes on, conditions may change, so their moral values may change, and moral rules may change.

    • Geena Safire

      Comment 14 of 20

      There is another reason why biology cannot help us when it comes to morality. Moral values make for universal, absolute, objective, and binding prescriptions. They are ends-in-themselves—and never means-to-other-ends. As I said earlier, there’s nothing “useful” about them. If anyone ever wonders why a certain act (say, saving a human life) is “good” in this moral sense, we have no explanation to offer and cannot refer to other ends; all we can say is “It’s self-evident.” The “moral eye” sees values in life, just like the “physical eye” sees colors in nature. Like mathematical laws, moral laws are intrinsically right, even when we do not see yet that they are. C.S. Lewis put it well: “The human mind has no more power of inventing a new value than of imagining a new primary color.”

      Again, that kind of definition is ludicrous. How can they be morals if there is nothing "useful" about them? What good are they? If you have no explanations to offer, why should anybody be convinced or even care about them? Why should they be binding on me if I haven't agreed to them and can't possibly be provided with justification for them?

      Perhaps you are saying that one must posit certain axioms in order to develop a moral structure. For example, if we accept as an axiom that human well-being is a value and societal flourishing is a value, then we can evaluate various actions as 'good' or 'bad' with respect to how the actions affect these. If so, then I could agree with that part.

      But I cannot agree that, even given certain axioms that the resulting prescriptive morals will be universal, absolute, objective, binding, and intrinsically right. Where is your justification for such a claim? And how could someone evaluate your "universal moral prescriptions" and the differing "universal moral prescriptions" of some other group?

      With regard to your analogy to mathematical laws, no one – especially not a mathematician – accepts any mathematical proposition as a law unless it has been proven. It may be that, for a given law, only the elite could ever fully understand the proof. But even if some proposition actually is true, beyond our current knowledge, it cannot be and should not be accepted as true until proven.

    • Geena Safire

      Comment 13 of 20

      Moral values cannot be counted or measured like numeric values can be. They are unquantifiable; they do not depend on non-moral properties and cannot be defined in non-moral terms.

      I'll agree that moral values are different from mathematics. But morals are quantifiable to some degree – some things are more immoral than others, and some things are more immoral for one person to do than another. But morality is not some ethereal abstract entity apart from the properties and experiences of human beings and their societies. Moral values are based on what is valued; the axioms one takes as true before anything can be defined as moral.

    • Geena Safire

      Comment 12 of 20

      Well, if biology cannot explain morality, perhaps it can steer our morality. Consider, for instance, the abortion debate. The moral value of human life has often been based on biological criteria, such as the extent of cerebral activity. The “moral argument” goes along these lines: The more cerebral activity there is, the more value a human life has, and therefore, the more protection it deserves.

      Clearly, Gerard is completely unfamiliar with the range of pro-choice arguments. But this isn't the place to get into that discussion, except to suggest that he study the pro-choice position better, if only to be better able to argue against it. In any case, this article also isn't the place to bring up the hugely controversial issue of abortion -- as a mere aside -- in an article at a site dedicated to a dialogue between Catholics and atheists.

    • Geena Safire

      Comment 11 of 20

      Since moral laws are not means to other ends, they have no survival value, and therefore cannot be promoted by natural selection.

      Again, I take issue with this odd definition of morality as being somehow unrelated to the "end" or goal of well-being of people in a society and the "end" or goal of the eudaimonia (flourishing) of the society as a whole. If morality is not for these "ends", then how is 'good' defined by which such moral rules can be derived?

    • Geena Safire

      Comment 10 of 20

      Reality tells us that far too many people are willing to break a moral rule when they can get away with it. As a matter of fact, moral laws tell us to do what our genes do not make us do “by nature.” The offenders of moral laws—the killers and the promiscuous—would actually reproduce much better than their victims.

      It is true that often, in a conflict between our moral drives and our self-interested drives, self-interest wins out. And one of the main challenges for a society is how to deal with people who significantly or consistently break societal rules.

      As noted above, social groups do not tolerate random violence, especially unjustified killing. Not necessarily so much out of affection for the one killed as the sense of tension or unpredictability in a group with a killer present. The murderer would be exiled or killed. (If the killer is in a position of power, greater leeway is given for violence against those less powerful, but not carte blanche.) So, in general, killers are less likely to reproduce than their law-abiding neighbors.

      Different societies have widely varying rules regarding sexuality. And, except in extremely repressive societies, as long as rule-breaking isn't flaunted too visibly, some hanky-panky is tolerated. In the United States, for example, as soon as genetic testing became available, researchers discovered that at least ten percent of offspring, of all ages, are not genetically related to the husband of the mother at the time of birth.

      So, yes, some degree of promiscuity might give a person a slight advantage to the genes of the promiscuous person. But those who disregard the sexual rules recklessly or too frequently will be
      punished by the group, or by sexually-transmitted disease. Further, promiscuity is not a heritable trait.

    • Geena Safire

      Comment 9 of 20

      In this line of thought, moral values would just be inborn, a product of evolution. What is wrong with such a viewpoint? My fundamental question to these biologists is as follows: Why would we need an articulated moral rule to reinforce what “by nature” we would or would not desire to do anyway?

      In the small bands in which we evolved and lived for at least 250,000 years, such articulated rules weren't needed.

      As discussed with non-human animals above, there will always be conflicts between individuals with different interests, and within each individual between moral (pro-social) drives and more self-centered drives. Each group has ways of resolving interpersonal conflicts. And, as noted above, if an individual is not adequately moral, s/he will be punished, killed or exiled.

      As groups grew larger, especially when settled places developed, and as trade increased, society became more complex and one didn't have kinship ties or a lifetime of experience with every other member of the group. The group mores had to become more explicit, as did societal roles and social classes. This is why articulated rules were developed.

    • Geena Safire

      Comment 8 of 20

      Where Does Morality Come From? Is it still something anchored in our genes? Some biologists think that evolutionary biology can explain how humanity acquired its morality.

      Oxytocin. Serotonin. Dopamine. Mirror neurons The anterior insular cortex. The ventromedial prefrontal cortex. The orbital frontal cortex. The dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. The anterior and posterior cingulate cortices. The amygdala. The superior temporal gyrus. The posterior superior temporal sulcus. The temperoparietal junction. The temporal and frontal poles.

      Evolved in species in which, over time, certain traits emerged by mutation and were then naturally selected, that hormonally incentivized pro-social behavior such that group living conferred a survival advantage and was able to be tolerated.

      Or it may be that a deity caused this to happen. If so, it was caused to exist in just such a haphazard way throughout the brain as evolution would have likely done it.

    • Geena Safire

      Comment 7 of 20

      But humans definitely do have the capacity of performing real atrocities.

      "With or without [religion] you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion." Steven Weinberg

      Yet, we will never arrange court sessions for grizzly bears that maul hikers, because they are not morally responsible for their actions.

      Any bear that has attacked a human is hunted and killed. Not, of course, because of immorality but because it is more likely to attack humans again.

      On the other hand, when two she-bears kill 42 children simply because they insulted the prophet Elisha by calling him "bald head," in 2 Kings 2, this was moral behavior for bears, because it is moral that children should be gruesomely mauled to death for insulting a man.

      Perhaps this is a valid punishment for a violation of the fourth commandment to honor one's father and mother, which could be interpreted as one's elders in general, and Leviticus 20:9 says "Anyone who curses their father or mother is to be put to death. Because they have cursed their father or mother, their blood will be on their own head." Since Elisha didn't have enough stones handy for killing 42 children, apparently calling out the she-bears was a moral alternative. But I digress...

    • Geena Safire

      Comment 6 of 20

      Animals never do awful things out of meanness or cruelty, for the simple reason that they have no morality—and thus no cruelty or meanness.

      If one defines morality at Gerard does above, tautologically, then animals cannot have morality because he defines it a something only humans possess.

      Some of their behaviors, such as what appears to us as cruelty and inequity in strict social hierarchy in canids, actually serve group cohesion and predictability.

      But some individuals are cruel; they have a mean disposition toward those in its group or may even be sociopathic. They continuously disobey moral rules. As in human societies, these individuals are shunned, lose friends and social status, are punished and eventually, if the behavior is severe, are killed or exiled.

      And some animals do exhibit cruelty and torture: dolphins with porpoises, killer whales with seals. They seem oblivious to the pain they inflict when they play for extended periods with their injured and dying prey, or perhaps they enjoy their contortions.

    • Geena Safire

      Comment 5 of 20

      Animals, however, live in a world of “what is,” not of “what ought to be.” They can just follow whatever pops up in their brains.

      This is completely wrong unless, as I wrote above, Gerard uses a tautological definition that first requires that morality is something only humans have, and thus concludes that non-human animals cannot therefore act morally. But when I write, I prefer to use words using their generally-accepted definitions instead of redefining them.

      This is not to say that humans should not act at a different level of morality than our cousins. But it must be said of our social cousins that they possess moral drives, that is, the innate drive to act in pro-social ways, which may conflict at times with their drive to act in one's self interest—and it can be seen that they struggle with these conflicts and decide how to act. And, for the most part, they decide to act morally.

      Examples of moral drives in animals:
      A dog will complain and decline to cooperate if it receives a lesser treat for
      the same behavior as another dog. (Equity) A vampire bat that does not
      disgorge, after a successful night, to also feed the young of its less
      successful neighbors will die soon because the neighbors punish lack of sharing. (Reciprocity) An entire primate troop acts less happy when one is injured. (Empathy) A chimpanzee or wolf that is randomly violent will be severely punished and, eventually, exiled. (Justice)

      A successful social mammal is one that is able to learn the social rules of the group and is generally able to comply. In reality, most social animals behave mostly morally most of the time toward most members of the group. (Wildlife documentaries only show the few action-packed minutes of conflict out of days of monotonous eating and grooming and mating.)

      Social species cannot become social without first having acquired moral traits. Animals have an innate drive to behave morally, that is, to act as a dog or a bat or a primate "ought" to act. There is not a division between "is" and "ought" in non-human animals and humans, but rather a division
      between an "ought that is" and an "ought that ought." This gap is narrower.

    • Geena Safire

      Comment 4 of 20

      Morality tells us what ought to be done—no matter what, whether we like it or not, whether we feel it or not, or whether others enforce it or not.

      Morality guides us in deciding how to best act in the complex situations life presents to us daily. And often the moral action is not the pleasant one or the easy one, and should be chosen without respect to one's chance of getting caught.

      But I have some issue with "whether we feel it or not," depending on how it is meant. I can agree if it means that the moral action may be one I know is right although I might not 'feel' so inclined.. But I cannot agree if it means that I am supposed to follow some "moral rule" even if my conscience tells me that it is immoral in a given situation, if I deeply 'feel' it to be wrong.

    • Geena Safire

      Comment 3 of 20

      Morality is unconditional. Most other rules and laws tell us what we should do in order to reach a certain goal—they are conditional, means-to-other-ends. Moral laws and rules, on the other hand, are based on absolute, universal, non-negotiable moral values, so they are un-conditional ends in themselves.

      We differ here fundamentally, on a meta-ethical level. Gerard seems to be a proponent of deontology, the ethical theory that posits that morality is concerned with duties and rights (from Greek deon 'obligation, duty'). I'm not a strict utilitarian, because I believe that some actions are wrong despite a net positive outcome. But I'm not generally a fan of deontology. So we disagree at a pretty fundamental level.

      We also disagree about the purpose and function of morality. How can it be said that moral laws are "unconditional ends in themselves"? This makes no sense. Laws can be descriptive -- e.g., the "law of gravity"
      describes our perceptions of the effect of bodies with mass – or prescriptive -- e.g., moral laws. Prescriptive laws have the goal of motivating behavior for a given purpose; in this case, improving our lives, the lives of those around us, and our greater society.

      Is Gerard saying that "being good" or "doing good" is just done for its "goodness" alone? Morality is about 'good' and 'bad' conduct with respect to ourselves and others. It is, therefore, for the benefit
      of ourselves and others. The goal of morality, being good, is to benefit ourselves and others. Moral laws are instructions regarding pursuing and achieving these benefits.

      Moral rules shouldn't be followed just because they are moral rules. In fact, they cannot be ends in themselves. Rules exist for a purpose – if there is no purpose, there should be no rule.

      Then Gerard posits that moral laws are "based on absolute, universal, non-negotiable moral values." That's quite an assertion to make. On what basis is he making this claim? What is his evidence for this assertion? I disagree that moral values are those things or that they even can be.

      I think that the Catholic church proposes that morality is part of the deity's nature and thus derives from said deity and thus is absolute and so forth – as I said above, divine command theory. But as an atheist, I counter with the Euthyphro
      dilemma
      : "Is what is morally good commanded by God because it is
      morally good, or is it morally good because it is commanded by God?"

    • Geena Safire

      Comment 2 of 20

      Morality is about what we owe others, our duties, and what others owe us, our rights.

      Gerard seems to be using a definition related less to morality per se and more to ethics, or moral philosophy, which is about describing, organizing and recommending ideas about right and wrong behavior. Perhaps not surprising, given his profession. But while moral philosophy may be uniquely human, we share morality with our animal cousins

      However, in a general way I could possibly work with this part of his definition – if moral philosophy is about what we believe we should do (duties) and what we believe others should do with respect to us (rights). But I think Gerard would demur because, it seems, he sees these duties and these rights as extant in some Platonic realm, completely independent of whether we perceive them or not, whether we believe them or not, and whether any other human(s) believe them or not.

    • Geena Safire

      Comment 1 of 20

      [O]ur anatomy and physiology did come from [descent from the animal world], but what about our rationality and morality? Take rationality or morality away from us, and we are indistinguishable from animals.

      I understand that the Catholic teaching is that a Catholic may believe in physical evolution but must believe that the soul and reason were
      not a result of evolution. So I can understand that Geert, as a former Jesuit and practicing Catholic, could not write otherwise.

      But this assertion is just asserted, that we are mere animals except for rationality and morality. I disagree, on several levels.

      First, there are many things that make us different from our closest cousin apes, including bipedalism and its related anatomical changes, hairlessness and the ability to sweat extensively, allowing high physical endurance including long-distance running or travel in general, less dimorphism, short, weaker arms and longer, stronger legs, weak jaw muscles (which may have contributed to the ability for our brains to grow), a huge brain, frequent birth problems due to said brain, extended childhood, weaker senses of hearing and smell, plus the significant ability for language.

      Second, many animals share a degree of rationality and extensive moral behavior. Gerard might counter that these aren't valid (according to his definition of rationality and morality).

      If one uses a tautological definition – that "rationality" is defined as "the mental abilities that humans do not share with other animals" then, of course, one can say that humans are the only rational creatures. But that isn't saying anything.

      Similarly, if one uses a tautological definition – that "morality" is defined as "the mental considerations regarding ethics and morality that humans do not share with other animals" then, of course, one can say that humans are the only moral creatures. But that isn't saying anything either.

      Here are some common definitions of morality:

      Wikipedia defines Morality as (from the Latin moralitas 'manner, character, proper behavior') is the differentiation of intentions, decisions, and actions between those that are 'good' (or right) and those that are 'bad' (or wrong)." The Stanford Encyclopedia of Morality says "The term 'morality' can be used either (1) descriptively to refer to some codes of conduct put forward by (a) a society or (b) some other group, such as a religion, or (c) accepted by an individual for her own behavior or (2) normatively to refer to a code of conduct that, given specified conditions, would be put forward by all rational persons."

      Are these similar to the definitions Gerard uses? Not really. His are partly, as above, tautological, and partly Divine Command Theory.

  • M J

    Morality is not only an ought to argument, why then we 'ought to' anything.. Isn't it more about living up to our creation? http://forhewas.blogspot.dk/2013/04/morality-human-v-animal.html