Posted by: bridget | 1 November 2006

Moral Atheism?

The pachyderm is often asked how she can be both an atheist and believe in an absolute morality.  Marc Hauser of Harvard has tried to answer that question.  In his new book, Moral Minds: How Nature Designed Our Universal Sense of Right and Wrong, he explains that humans are hard-wired with a “moral grammar, ” developed through evolution.  This theory requires (correctly or not) that genes which aid the survival of a group are more likely to be passed on, even though an individual may be harmed by having those genes.  (The pachyderm thinks that  explanation is turned inside out.  With small societies, there is a pronoucned assymetric distribution of genes; groups without the “moral” genes would gradually die off, leaving only those with a hardwired “moral grammar.”)

While the pachyderm has not read Dr. Hauser’s treatise, she fears that he has overstated his case.  (She is also hoping that he has not; philosophers have deigned to discuss the origins of morality outside of the spiritual realm.)  His examples (such as the trolley problems) really only tell us that humans know that intent matters (as any first year law student can tell you, mens rea is the foundation of criminal law).  This does not immediately argue for an atheist source of morality; genetics don’t really care about one’s intent so much as whether or one’s genes get passed along.  Contariwise, religion is fixated on intent and mental capacity – the concept of sinning by thoughts as well as actions would  not spring up from a system which relies only upon results.

Dr. Hauser also makes much ado re: human’s inability to articulate the difference between commission and omission (although any law student could tell you why it is wrong to throw someone in front of a trolley to save other people, but is not wrong to have the same person die in collateral damage).   The fact that humans are hard-wired to be held accountable only for that which we can control does not logically lead to mechanisms of social preservation.  The man who accidentally dies at the hands of a sabertooth tiger will not pass his genes along to his cavekids any more than a man sacrificed in a hunting accident.  In genetics, results matter: the ultimate test is, does the person procreate?

Dr. Hauser’s model would leave us with a different world than the one in which we live: humans would be entirely altruistic but less moral.  There is little evolutionary reason to condemn anyone for adultery, which only increases the chances of survival of those particular people (group friction from condemning and judging a person is often as great as or stronger than the friction from adultery itself).  Yet, nearly every culture damns it.  We certainly would not praise anyone who dies to save another: a one-for-one exchange does not increase group survival, yet we reserve our highest praise for those who die for a single other person.



  1. Well you know where I stand on these questions, ultimately. :) But my very simple criticism of attempts to explain the human soul via evolution or other enviro-biological means is: a theorem/ideology (whatever you want to call it) that tries to trace the most complex features of human existence (love, altruism, imagination, etc.) to the most base and primal of human instincts (fucking, having babies, eating, shitting, etc.) is hopelessly inadequate and close-minded. It ain’t ever gonna work, but I suppose it’s possible for someone someday to say it cleverly enough, or prettily enough, to soothe those seeking validation for that particular answer to the mystery of our existence……

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