The basis of all morality

May 17, 2012

Cover of Plato

I feel like I’ve written this article several times before. But since it’s been awhile, since I got into a lengthy exchange with a commenter on the topic of morality, and since reading a recent piece on the moderate Christian site, Think Christian, I’ve decided to return to this subject of morality and hopefully go a bit deeper on the topic than in the past.

Though religion typically takes credit for morality, it’s really philosophy that has made all the true breakthroughs in this arena. And though many religious folks insist that objective morality can’t exist without a divine dictator, it’s the opposite that’s true. The presence of some divine dictator who unilaterally decides good and evil on his/her/it’s own is anything but objective morality. Further, the very concept of an absolute moral standard is antithetical to justice. As Captain Jean Luc Picard so eloquently said, “There can be no justice so long as laws are absolute.” And of course Plato dispensed with this whole hypothesis 2,400 years ago with the Euthyphro Dilemma. But since Plato, many philosophers have contributed to how we think about ethics such as Aristotle, Kant, Hume, Rousseau, Locke, Mill, Rawls, etc.

For a much richer discussion than I can provide here on the most prominent schools of ethical thought, contemporary philosopher Massimo Pigliucci has written a lengthy series on the subject:  “On ethics, part I: Moral philosophy’s third way”, “On ethics, part II: Consequentialism”, “On ethics, part III: Deontology”“On ethics, part IV: Virtue ethics”“On ethics, part V: Contractarianism”, “On ethics, part VI: Egalitarianism”, and “On ethics, part VII: the full picture”. I’m not going to get into these distinctions here, however. But that should at least give those who like to think morality begins and ends with “for the Bible tells me so” something to consider.

The three topics that even the most liberal religious followers seem to have the most difficult time accepting without appealing to a third party deity are:  something from nothing or “first cause”, meaning or value, and of course morality. Hell, if you ask Kirk Cameron, he’ll tell you that without a god, his specific god, there would be no reason to not just rape and murder people indiscriminately. The idea that one might actually think of good reasons on their own for not doing so seems to utterly baffle him to no end. But of course that’s because Kirk Cameron is an idiot. Or just a terrible liar. Either way though, it kinda gets us back to idiot.

What it really seems to come down to for the religious, in my opinion, is they don’t seem to like the idea that the universe is chaotic. As the commenter who inspired this piece argued:

Why does chaos result in biology sprouting a moral stem, and us its flower? Niether [sic] Aristotle, Kant, Hume or any other philosopher can give us a WHY, without a ‘God’, without INTENTION.

I’d say it’s so because we want to survive and thrive in our environment. Why would you choose behavior that wasn’t advantageous to your survival? It’s easy to look at homo sapiens and say look how good we turned out, but what about all those millions of species that failed to learn how to work together and perished as a result? And even humans have hardly mastered the art of cooperation. We risk our own extinction as a result.

There is no objective morality in the sense that the religious often mean it. It is a chaotic world with no inherent morality but that which we define for ourselves as a social species. Morality has two main elements as far as I can tell:  the biological and the the social.  Social species realize that their survival depends on social dynamics of cooperation and trust. The universe is a struggle for existence. Social species must learn very quickly that if they are to survive, they’re going to have to work together and form cooperative groups such as herds, packs, prides, schools, societies, etc. Then they must quickly learn that if these cooperative enterprises are to be maintained, they must form rules to govern behavior as to guarantee the safety of the individuals within the group. It’s this that we call “morality.”

All morality, more or less, can be summed up as our trial and error process of figuring out what’s most advantageous for our survival and flourishing, as in the survival and flourishing of society. It’s like traffic law. There was no god of traffic who decreed that we must have stop signs. We just figured out as a group that stop signs were useful. Same with the rules we came up with for governing who has the right of way at a 4-way stop. In a short-sighted Randian objectivist society where everyone just does what they want and “don’t stick my neck out for nobody,” as Rick Blaine from Casablanca would say, a 4-way stop would likely just invite collisions. But we recognize that rules governing our behavior on the road is advantageous for all motorists in that it will facilitate less traffic and less accidents while making everyone’s travel more efficient. I contend that traffic law is a microcosm for all morality in that way. There was no need for an outside third party to devise it but it was designed by us within the system. Our laws are certainly not perfect. But they tend to gradually improve over time as we learn. And improvement is generally defined in this sense as working more efficiently and effectively for the community they govern.

Again, here’s how my commenter responded:

Fair enough, a compelling argument for beasts, but for the human individual, schooled in science, entirely irelevant [sic]. Our one mortal existence is all we shall know, and all we can get from it. The past, the future, pride and pack mean little more than what we can get from them, so long as we are individually victorious.

I said morality derived from both biological and social forces. I’ve just discussed the social aspects. This is where the biological components come in. We, like the proto-RNA we started as, are genetically programed with the drive to replicate or reproduce. Now as we evolved higher order thinking and grew more social, that drive has begun to mutate. Our programing used to drive us to spread our own genes. But once we developed social structures like herds, packs, and societies built around reciprocal altruism, it became less important for individuals to protect and spread their own genes and more important for individuals to protect and propagate the genes within the pack, whether they belonged to that individual specifically or not. Now because there was no guiding hand behind this social grouping, many social species further developed a sense of empathy for those outside of their pack or even outside of their species altogether. This is why we’ll sometimes see chimps and monkeys protect birds or see dogs protect humans, or humans protect whales, etc. Through an evolutionary misfire, we’ve come to identify with other species and empathize with them.

This expansion of herd mentality goes beyond just including other species in our sense of the herd but also allows some people to not have the same drive to propagate their own genes at all, leaving the application of the survival instinct to others in the society. There’s no separating beasts from humans because humans are beasts. We’re just really, really social ones, a trait that puts us at the top of the food chain and allows us to dominate this planet over all other species.

So while it’s almost certainly true that I get only one life, neuro-biological processes I have no control over make me care about the continued survival and flourishing of the species and other species after I’m gone. And those instincts to propagate human genes are as ingrained in me as any other aspect of my personality. But while that may be important to me as a human, the universe has no such affection for humanity or the Earth. The universe has the feelings of a dining room table. It didn’t smile when we were born and it won’t cry when we die, and it won’t miss us when we’re gone. It looks on us, as Richard Dawkins once wrote, with “pitiless indifference.”

Can an individual choose to forgo the society and choose an “every man for himself” lifestyle? Sure, but as millions of non-social, now extinct species would tell you, the odds do not favor the uncooperative individual. If there is an ultimate morality, then it’s live together or die alone.

Again, my commenter:

Amen. But what matter if you die alone, if you had a rich and powerful life? What matter if the rest of you species goes extinct, if you are but your mortal life and the power and pleasure you derive from it? You admit life is amoral, then speak as if it there are some kind of moral balances that tilt toward us living together, but where are those balances? What makes it favourable for us to live together? You are getting dangerously close to a God here, my friend.

I’d say it doesn’t matter, at least not in any larger, cosmic sense. Though in the grand scheme of things, being the king ant on a tiny blue dot in an unremarkable sector of the universe for shorter than blink in the existence of the cosmos is a far less ambitious goal or at least a less impactful one than helping to build a legacy that will greatly outlive you. But to each his or her own, I suppose. You can decide that in the face of an absurd universe, nothing matters or everything matters. Your choice.

NOw I thought I covered what makes it favorable for us to live together. To quote an old obscure movie from the 80’s, “it’s cheaper, faster, much, much safer.” You didn’t have to build your house or your car. You don’t have to hunt for your food or build a fire to cook it. Or sow your own clothes to keep warm in the winter. We have developed a complex system that allows everyone (at least ideally because let’s keep it real here) to get what they need by compartmentalizing and delegating labor responsibilities. This is massively advantageous and has allowed us the time to make countless technologies and discoveries we would never have otherwise found the time for. Some of which, like medical science, allow us to live much longer lives, which if your goal is survival, is kind of a no-brainer advantage.

Last year, I attended a lecture by Patricia Churchland, who wrote the book, Braintrust: What Neuroscience Tells Us About Morality, where she took a look at the evolution of moral behavior common to all mammals. In that talk, she emphasized this combination of biology and social components by suggesting trust and attachment are the platform for moral values, aided by oxytocin and vasopressin. Mammal evolution produced an expansion of the pre-frontal cortex, which gives us our inhibitions or self-control. Oxytocin decreases defense postures and  fear responses from the amygdala, increases the level of trust and safety signals, and decreases autonomic-arousal. She continued that cooperation is the result of a general platform of trust and that all highly social animals take care of others:  kin, herd, or species. Mercats and wolves, she said, only have one reproducing couple in the group and any others are killed.

Other areas Churchland discussed included in-group bonding and how as a population grows, benefits can come from expanding trust relationships and the emergence of institutions that enforce their trust-conventions. She cited a case of an orangutan and dog who befriended each other and became inseparable as a demonstration of how group bonding can emerge between species.

In conclusion, I could go on but I don’t think I need to. The facts overwhelmingly show that what we think of as morality is simply the name we call the bi-product of biology and social dynamics relating to trust, attachment, and cooperation. Non-social species don’t display a sense of morality while all social animals that we have observed do. It has nothing to do with any supernatural third party dictator who makes grand pronouncements about how we should or shouldn’t live our lives, and calling an action immoral or evil divorced from any actual societal harm is simply incoherent. Life is struggle. And if we hope to live long and prosper, the best long-term strategy is to work together. Live together or die alone. And that is the nature of all morality.

Though I’m also quite fond of this quote from John F. Kennedy:

A man does what he must, in spite of personal consequences, in spite of obstacles and dangers and pressures. And that is the basis of all human morality.

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Miss USA contestants on teaching evolution

June 23, 2011

The Miss USA pageant was held this past weekend, and one of the questions put to the contestants was whether they thought evolution should be taught in schools:

Actually, there’s at least a fifty percent chance that that was a clip from a GOP presidential candidate Q&A. Regardless however, it demonstrates a mind-boggling poor education on the part of the young contestants as well as the pageant committee themselves, considering there’s no debate over whether scientific facts should be taught in science classrooms.

Now some bloggers have been overjoyed that one of the few contestants who could be said to have actually supported the teaching of evolution in her answer, Miss California Alyssa Campanella ended up winning the pageant. I find this position overly optimistic given how poor even her answer was:

Well, I was taught evolution in my high school growing up, and I do believe in it. I mean, I’m a huge science geek, so I like to believe in, like, the Big Bang Theory and, you know, the evolution of humans, you know, throughout, you know, time.

While certainly one of the better answers, that doesn’t say much. Even this answer is asinine. Evolution and the Big Bang aren’t ideas one just decides to believe; they’re facts. I don’t “like to believe” in gravity; I simply recognize that gravity is an undeniable fact.

And while nobody really takes the idea seriously that the women who win these pageants are “role models,” I resent any organization that would attempt to present such woefully uneducated as role models for anyone. Not a single woman in this pageant is intellectually qualified to be a role model for anyone. The one legitimately positive thing I’ll say about the winner, Alyssa Campanella , is that she endorses the No on Prop 8 campaign, a welcome change from two years ago when former Miss California Carrie Prejean made headlines when she expressed her disapproval of marriage equality:

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News From Around The Blogosphere 5.4.11

May 4, 2011

1. Mark Geier is stripped of his medical license – For those who don’t know, Mark Geier and his son David have been “treating” autistic children with chemical castration for several years now. As far as I’m concerned, that puts them pretty much write behind Osama bin Laden on the list of worst human beings alive. Oh, that’s right. Osama’s dead. That might possibly bump father and son Geier up to worst people on Earth. So I’m delighted to hear that the Maryland medical board decided to strip Mark Geier of his medical license. You can see the official 48-page decision in .pdf format here. Also, Orac chimes in on the news here.

2. Robots learn to share -This article is deceptively more about the evolution of altruism than robots, but still pretty interesting and worth the read:

Using simple robots to simulate genetic evolution over hundreds of generations, Swiss scientists provide quantitative proof of kin selection and shed light on one of the most enduring puzzles in biology: Why do most social animals, including humans, go out of their way to help each other? In the online, open access journal PLoS Biology, EPFL robotics professor Dario Floreano teams up with University of Lausanne biologist Laurent Keller to weigh in on the oft-debated question of the evolution of altruism genes.

3. Acupuncture needle found in former South Korean president’s lung

Former South Korean president Roh Tae-woo was admitted to hospital with a bad cough and ended up on the operating table to remove an acupuncture needle from his right lung.

So let’s look at the cost/benefit ratio. Acupuncture has no benefit, and it can possibly kill you.

“I can’t figure out how the needle got into there,” Dr Sung Myung-whun was quoted as telling reporters at the hospital after the operation. “It is a mystery for me, too.”

Call me crazy, but I suspect the needle “got into there” while you were callously jabbing them into the man’s body. Just a thought. How appropriate that “woo” is in the ex-president’s name. I think comedian Dmitri Martin had the best response to acupuncture.

4. The illusion of being watched can make you a better person – We’re already well past the final nail in the coffin of the Christian view of morality, but here’s just another interesting incite into human behavior. Not only do we tend to act more morally when being watched, but we even do so when we see posters of staring eyes.

5. Facebook finally answers age-old question of who’d win in a fight: Jesus or Batman?

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News From Around The Blogosphere 12.22.10

December 22, 2010

1. Catholic Church tells hospital they should have let patient die – A pregnant woman who was almost certainly going to die came into St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center. The doctors knew that in order to save the woman’s life, they’d have to abort the fetus. And it worked. But the Roman Catholic Diocese of Phoenix didn’t like that decision and so they essentially excommunicated the hospital from any Catholic affiliation. They actually punished a hospital for putting patient life first. Though I guess it’s not really a punishment since now the hospital administration can continue to act ethically without having to give the misguided and ignorant opinions of Catholic officials another thought.

And speaking of the Catholic Church…

2. WikiLeaks uncovers another possible Vatican scandal – The Vatican originally agreed in writing to take up observer status with the International Task Force on Holocaust Education, Remembrance, and Research, referred to as the ITF. Then, according to a U.S. diplomatic cable from WikiLeaks, they reneged on the agreement amid controversy over the role of the war-time pope.

She added that the deal “had fallen apart completely … due to Vatican back-pedaling,” according to the cable, which was published by the newspaper.

The message says this decision “may have been taken by the Vatican’s relatively inexperienced new deputy foreign minister (Ettore Balestrero), and if so, would not be the first time he has complicated Vatican foreign relations.”

However, it added: “The Vatican may also be pulling back due to concerns about ITF pressure to declassify records from the WWII-era pontificate of Pope Pius XII.

Yup, you can always count on the Vatican…for a good scandal.

3. Gallop poll suggests America is gradually moving towards accepting evolution – When it comes to accepting evolution, America is somewhat of an embarrassment to the rest of the world. In recent years, polls have shown that up to 47% of Americans are Young Earth Creationists. But a new poll suggests that number is now only 40%. Still not anything remotely to be proud of but it suggests that maybe our efforts to take on the creationists may be yielding positive results.

4. Sanjay Gupta embarrassingly uncritical of John of God – Unfortunately, CNN hasn’t put up the video yet of this segment, but I’ve linked to their blog about it. For those who don’t know, John of God is a Brazilian con artist posing as a faith healer. He does nothing we haven’t seen other “faith healers” who have been exposed as frauds have done, and yet Sanjay Gupta and his guests still found him to be “mysterious.” In fact, given how many times they reminded the audience during this segment that the universe is mysterious and there are still things we don’t know, Gupta made it clear that journalistic and scientific integrity was not very high on his list of priorities. I intend to write to CNN to express my outrage over the segment and demand that they fire Sanjay Gupta for his anti-intellectual nonsense. I hope others will join me in this campaign.

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Creationism loses in Louisiana

December 9, 2010


Suck it, bitches!

Not long ago, the Louisiana school board bought into the “teach the controversy” campaign being sold by the cdesign proponentsists. Fortunately, cooler heads have now finally prevailed.

In a preliminary vote a few days ago, the Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE) voted 6-1 to  accept a proper treatment of Evolution free from insane disclaimers like that it’s “only a theory” or that Intelligent Design is to be taken seriously.

Today, the final vote that included the entire board found 8-2 in favor of Evolution and a quality science education. Yet again, creationism has been defeated. Of course, sadly, as I must say whenever we score such victories, the battle continues. Ideologues never give in no matter how many times they’re shown to be dead wrong and no matter how many times their attempts to change public policy are defeated.

They just continue to move the goalpost and change strategies. First, it was “Creation Science.” Then when the Supreme Court ruled against it, they created Intelligent Design (w/ a brief unfortunate stop over in “cdesign proponentsists”). Then when that was defeated in the Kitzmiller vs. Dover trial, they branched off into “teach the controversy”, “academic freedom”, and “teach the strengths and weaknesses of Evolution.” Now that all those tactics are starting to fail, they’ll just come up with something else, whatever it takes to chip away at the legitimacy of Evolution.

Fortunately, we have the National Center for Science Education and guys like Ken Miller keeping up with the latest tactics and tirelessly fighting the good fight for truth, justice, and the American way.

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News From Around The Blogosphere 11.12.10

November 12, 2010

1. Modeling autism in a lab dish

A collaborative effort between researchers at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies and the University of California, San Diego, successfully used human induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells derived from patients with Rett syndrome to replicate autism in the lab and study the molecular pathogenesis of the disease.

Their findings, published in the Nov. 12, 2010, issue of Cell, revealed disease-specific cellular defects, such as fewer functional connections between Rett neurons, and demonstrated that these symptoms are reversible, raising the hope that, one day, autism maybe turn into a treatable condition.

2. Louisiana at war with textbooks over evolution – High school biology textbooks are being accused of putting “too much credibility in the theory of evolution.” And in related news, math text books are being accused of putting too much credibility in subtraction.

3. All life on Earth could originate from alien zombies -An interesting twist on the speculation of panspermia is that life on Earth could have emerged from alien viruses that were already dead but still carried enough information to spawn new life.

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2 billion year old fossil discovered

July 1, 2010

1. 2 billion year old fossil found

A newly discovered group of 2.1-billion-year-old fossil organisms may be the earliest known example of complex life on Earth. They could help scientists understand not just when higher life forms evolved, but why.

Single-celled organisms emerged from the primordial soup about 3.4 billion years ago. Almost immediately, some gathered in mats. But it was another 1.4 billion years before the first truly multicellular organism, called Grypania spiralis, appears in the fossil record.

The newly described fossils, which have yet to be given a species name, make Grypania less solitary. They lived at roughly the same time — Grypania in what is now the northern United States, the new fossils in Gabon. By raising the possiblity that multicellularity was a trend rather than an aberration, they also hint at an answer to the question of why complex life evolved, not just when.

2.1 BILLION! That’s with a “B”. For those keeping track, that’s 2,099,994,000 before the existence of the entire universe, according to Young Earth Creationists.