Scratching the Itch of Morality

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In the next chapter, Richard Dawkins undertakes the question of morality, seeking to ground that morality on the unshakeable foundation of evolution. What kind of foundation might that be? Well, let’s go down into the basement and have ourselves a little check.

But before getting to this important issue, Dawkins gives us some samples of the hate mail he and other atheists receive. In order to really engage with your religious adversaries, it is important to understand them, and quote representative spokesmen accurately and fairly. You really want to pick the most able adversaries so that no one can accuse you of cherry-picking your opponents. That is no doubt the principle behind Dawkins’ selection of fellow Oxfordian Alistair McGrath to represent the opposition. Just kidding.

“Satan worshiping scum . . . Please die and go to hell . . . I hope you get a painful disease like rectal cancer and die a slow painful death, so you can meet your God, SATAN . . . Hey dude this freedom from religion thing sux . . . So you fags and dykes take it easy and watch where you go cuz wheneer you least expect it god will get you . . . If you don’t like this country and what it was founded on & for, get the f*** out of it and go straight to hell . . . PS. F*** you, you communist whore . . . Get your black asses out of the U.S.A . . . You are without excuse. Creation is more than enough evidence of the LORD JESUS CHRIST’S omnipotent power (pp. 212-213).

Apparently Christian apologetics has three schools of thought: evidentialism, presuppositionalism, and scurrilous antinomian abuse.

Dawkins wants us to realize that religious believers think that belief in God is really, really important and essential and non-negotiable when it comes to grounding morality in something other than humanistic brain fog. But Dawkins is ready for us, and seeks to show us that we have a scientific (read, evolutionary) basis that accounts for our feelings of moral sentiments.

“We now have four good Darwinian reasons for individuals to be altruistic, generous or ‘moral’ towards each other. First, there is the special case of genetic kindship. Second, there is reciprocation: the repayment of favours given, and the giving of favours in ‘anticipation’ of payback. Following on from this there is, third, the Darwinian benefit of acquiring a reputation for generosity and kindness. And fourth, if Zahavi is right, there is the particular additional benefit of conspicuous generosity as a way of buying unfakeably authentic adverstising” (pp. 219-220).

Dawkins compares the altruistic urges we have to our sexual impulses. The fact that the original reasons for their formation may be missing now does not keep us from feeling them. He points out (obviously) that the sexual urges were programmed into us (back in our babooon-like stage) in order to further the propagation of childresn, or as the mother baboon might say affectionately, yard apes. He then points out that a modern couple can know that the woman is infertile (because she is on the pill, say) and yet this does not make the sexual desire go away (p. 221).

“I am suggesting that the same is true of the urge to kindness — to altruism, to generosity, to empathy, to pity. In ancestral times, we had the opportunity to be altruistic only towards close kin and potential reciprocators. Nowadays that restruction is no longer there, but the rule of thumb persists. Why would it not? It is just like sexual desire . . . Both are misfirings, Darwinian mistakes: blessed, previous mistakes” (p. 221).

In other words, back when we lived in villages, just down from the trees, the promotion of our own genetic offspring, the rules of reciprocity, reputation issues, and ways of showing dominance were all crucial to survival, and so natural selection favored them all. Today, it might be the case that none of these things apply to some anonymous resident of some big city, but that doesn’t keep him from feeling empathy when he sees a fitting object of compassion. Just as a man might lust after a woman he knows to be infertile, so another man might feel compassion toward someone with no connection to his genes at all.

So, okay, I follow all this. But this simply accounts for the existence of my moral sentiments. It gives me no reason at all to obey them. Just as a man might know that sexual desire was evolution’s way of propagating those critical and irreplaceable genes of his, and yet decide to live in a way that thwarts this intent (getting a vasectomy, for example), so another man might know that his feelings of compassion are, at the end of the day, just feelings. If he goes with them, fine, if not, equally fine. What authority does the genetic residue of ancient village life actually have? It may have explanatory power with regard to my moral feelings, but it can have no imperatival authority. If one man wants to go with his feelings, and show compassion and kindness, then why not? Scratch what itches. But if he doesn’t want to drift with his feelings, and wants to discipline himself contrary to the known evolutionary reasons for having the feelings, why shouldn’t he?

Dawkins says that our moral sentiments are just like our sexual desires. We can know that the reasons for having the desires are obsolete, and yet we still have them. This misses two crucial points. The first is that the existence of sexual desire brings with it no moral imperative to have a sexual desire, or to have it directed in fruitful directions. So if a man desires to redirect his sexual desire, or if he castrates himself in order to pursue some other end, there is no reason (located in the sexual desire itself) that can provide any direction in making such choices. Evolution provides the is, it has nothing whatever to say about the ought. But if our feelings of altruism and compassion are exactly the same kind of thing, than this means that if the vast bulk of the human species, when feeling this way, decides to be nice, that is just fine. And if others, deciding to go the sociopathic route, well then, equally fine. Of course, we might decide to hang all the sociopaths on utilitarian grounds, but that is just a matter of keeping order — keeping the sewers working, the electrical grid up, and the homicidal lunatics off the street. Not really a question of morality.

But this leads to the second question. We want to be careful about killing too many of the sociopaths because we must never forget the next big jump in evolution. Natural selection is still on-going, and so we want to be wary about killing the mutants. Might be a tad uncomfortable for us moral dinosaurs for a time, but hey, progress is always like that. In other words, if speciation is still occuring, then why shouldn’t big city anonymity have its crack at programming the future, just like small village closeness had its shot? But Dawkins is way too much of a sentimentalist to swallow any of these reductios. No, he wants to settle in permanently with his nice, cozy morality, the fruit of those “blessed, previous mistakes,” and just keep things the way they are, with everybody being nice to each other.

But the question won’t go away. Why? What do you say to the person who disputes all this, and wants to do whatever he wants to do, milk of human kindness be damned? And when you say it to him, why should he listen to you? Hume posited a chasm between is and ought, and Dawkins has not only not engineered a bridge across the chasm, but his attempts appear to consist almost entirely of, “Gee, wouldn’t it be nice if we had a bridge here?”

At first Dawkins says that the notion that we “need God to be good” is just plain crass — as though Christians are only capable of being good as long as the celestial surveillance camera is pointed in our direction. And of course, if that is what we were doing, this would be crass. But then Dawkins really surprised me, for the first time in this book. He stepped away from the caricatures, and actually represented the views of a hypothetical (and capable) Christian apologist. The point is not that we will only be good if someone is watching, but rather that, in the absence of a transcendental moral abolute, we have no way of telling whether we are being good or not. He indulged in the caricature for several pages, but then he gave an effective answer to all that. At first we were all in a room with the rules clearly posted, and then the sky camera is taken away, and there was no way to tell who has kept the rules or not. In this setting, the Christians wee clearly “eyepleasers,” to use the language of the apostle Paul. But then a real response from Christinas was anticipated. Suppose that not only the camera is taken away, but so are the posted rules. No one is told to do anything, one way or the other, no one is watching, and we are all trying to cheer ourselves up with nebulous notions of altruism while milling around confusedly in the room with no name. Now what?

To his credit, Dawkins actually raises this potent objection to his argument. But then, in a lame way, he doesn’t answer it at all. He brings up Kant’s categorical imperative, says that it seems to work for some things like truth-telling, but not for other stuff, and then tells us that “moral philosophers are the professionals when it comes to thinking about right and wrong” (p. 232). And it turns out that they divide into two camps — the deontologists, who think that morality consists of doing one’s duty, and the consequentialists, who think that actions should be evaluated for their morality on the basis of their consequences. Oh. So what does natural selection have to say about deontology and consequentialism? And most importantly, why? Nothing at all apparently. Dawkins then lamely concludes the chapter by pointing out that patriotism can generate a close approximation of moral absolutism. Okay, not to the mention the last refuge of the scoundrel. But we still have been given no information about what constitutes a moral choice or action. Which option does Dawkins take and why? He can’t just wave his hands over the ethical conundrum and move on to the next chapter. But that is what he does.

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