News+and+politics religion philosophy the cynic librarian: Hardwired for Ethics?

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Hardwired for Ethics?

Why not be hardwired for knowing what's right and wrong? Ethically, there's nothing to say that that's somehow contra religion (contra suggestions to the contrary by some). Indeed, it's the basic assumption by many Christian theologians that the Transcendent does indeed instill in each human a basic love of and desire for the good.

Following Aristotle, Aquinas makes exactly this point. Even those philosophers like Kierkegaard who are often called "irrationalists," assume this very basic drive. For Kierkegaard--following Kant and Socrates in some ways--there's a higher ethics that characterizes religious ethics. This higher ethics is distinctly opposed to natural inclinations, calling into play a higher sense of purpose than common desires for biological, social, or political ethics entail. ...

According to NYTimes:

The moral grammar now universal among people presumably evolved to its final shape during the hunter-gatherer phase of the human past, before the dispersal from the ancestral homeland in northeast Africa some 50,000 years ago. This may be why events before our eyes carry far greater moral weight than happenings far away, Dr. Hauser believes, since in those days one never had to care about people remote from one’s environment.

Dr. Hauser believes that the moral grammar may have evolved through the evolutionary mechanism known as group selection. A group bound by altruism toward its members and rigorous discouragement of cheaters would be more likely to prevail over a less cohesive society, so genes for moral grammar would become more common.

Many evolutionary biologists frown on the idea of group selection, noting that genes cannot become more frequent unless they benefit the individual who carries them, and a person who contributes altruistically to people not related to him will reduce his own fitness and leave fewer offspring.

But though group selection has not been proved to occur in animals, Dr. Hauser believes that it may have operated in people because of their greater social conformity and willingness to punish or ostracize those who disobey moral codes.

“That permits strong group cohesion you don’t see in other animals, which may make for group selection,” he said.


Ruchira Paul said...

Thanks for linking to my post. Here is what I said to a comment left on my blog on this matter.

"I am neither a philosopher nor an evolutionary biologist. But I have thought about morality / religion a lot. Let me put down here at the risk of facing ridicule, my own jumbled thoughts on this matter. I don't think our morality is such an exalted quality on the whole.

I do believe that indeed we are born with an innate sense of right and wrong which may or may not be related to a "morality organ" but is probably rather more intimately related to our sense of survival and our tendency to choose reward over punishment. Neither do I believe that our morality is in some fundamental way superior to etiquette.

That nature provides us with the morality "hardware" seems intuitively plausible. How the "program" will run, depends much on nurture and the need of the moment. I think the ancient Vedic scholars were going somewhere along these lines with their Brahman/ Atman postulates. As did Spinoza.

Both reviews focus on the conflict between the accepted paradigm of evolutionary biology and what Hauser calls "group selection" in case of social animals like apes and humans who are more overtly capable of empathy. This clash and constant tug of war in our minds between our own needs and that of others is precisely why human morality is so complex and why we look upon it with such awe. Yet as thoroughly social animals, we cannot ignore either. In case of humans, the death of the group spells doom for the individual almost as surely his own demise.

I think the reason why we are still arguing about this is because we cannot quite decide which "program" we want the "hardware" to run. The survival as a group or as individuals? What is the "reward" we seek by our moral acts?

Is it the one "nurtured" by religion - one which despite its message of brotherhood, promises us unverifiable personal rewards which accrue invariably after death (Nirvana, heaven, hell, eternal life etc.)? Or do we go with secular ethics whose much less dazzling and incremental rewards are here and now?

If there is a biological basis for morality, it will make sense that it will be for the latter more mundane reason, rather than the former. Hence also why it will be less glamorous.

My larger concern is not so much the "nature" or "nurture" angle of morality. I am more interested in figuring out if secular ethics can be as persuasive about the "reward" of morality as religion has been. Whether we can overcome our "selfish genes" of individual well being to extend to the the well being of others without the allure of an "eternal life."

That religion is not a biolgical basis of morality is borne out by the fact that some of us can lead an ethical life without it."

the cynic librarian said...

ruchira paul: Thanks for your response to the posting and link. It sounds like we have little disagreement, although I guess the devil's in the details. I would note that while you disavow a religious aspect on these issues, you do mention in a positive vein Hinduism and Spinoza. The latter does bring in God into his theories and his philosophy has often been characterized as a form of pantheism.

You also mention the notion of the survival of the soul after death, a subject I discussed in this posting.

On the whole, I think that ethics, as far back as Aristotle, has seen an intimate link with nature, that all humans are indeed hardwired with a moral sense for what's right and wrong. I tried to show that a religious ethics is on higher plane since it calls into question the types of the survival of the species that the article in the NYTimes describes.

In its most boiled down version, you could see this as the moral sense that critiques social ethics because they will bring about an injustice that appeals to a higher type of right and wrong that is inaccessible to the inborn ethics.

In the Christian tradition, this higher morality was voiced by Jesus when he says to love neighbor and enemy as oneself. By most analyses, this type of love is impossible via the inborn biological ethics.