God is Dead! Long Live Morality!

27 04 2010

Once again, Michael Ruse plunges into the unfriendly country and ruffles the feathers of the natives with his rational and measured invective against the notion that morality is somehow not of this Earth. I couldn’t agree with him more.

His argument is strikingly similar to my own – although that’s no accident because I’m heavily influenced by Ruse’s writings. In fact, his classic declaration, that morality is “a collective illusion foisted upon us by our genes” (Ruse, 1986), is the starting point of my thesis. So, unsurprisingly, I think his message is one that needs to get out.

Michael Ruse

The argument is actually relatively straightforward. There is no God, so all we have is each other. And when it comes to living well, we do better in groups than as solitary beings. If we want to live in groups we need ways to discourage those who would disrupt the other members in the group. That’s the starting point of morality. And evolution has already equipped us with a slew of tools – emotions as well as reason – to help encourage prosocial behaviour and discourage antisocial behaviour.

But these tools are not perfect; they’re heuristics that are prone to error. So we can’t just trust our evolved moral sense exclusively, as argued by Matt Ridley. We also need to apply reason. But we also shouldn’t swing too far the other way and only rely on reason to the exclusion of emotion (i.e. Kant), because, for better or for worse, emotion is the true driver of behaviour.

What we need to do is develop a framework for morality that agrees on its purpose of helping people live and work together in harmony – and we already have such a framework, called the social contract. There’s no ultimate arbiter, no objective truth about values, it requires hard work, hard arguing, emotional and psychological buy-in, and compromise. That’s the only way to do it. We’ve tried all the other objectivist, absolutist, dogmatic ways and it only ends in tears.

But here’s the twist. Regardless of our mistaken metaphysical beliefs about morality in the past, we’ve always been doing it this way in practice – if poorly because of some erroneous guiding assumptions about objectivity. Even for those who believe there is an absolute morality handed down by a supernatural being – it still takes people to understand, interpret and enforce it.

As I’ve mentioned before, morality isn’t as special as we think – it’s not divine, objective, categorical, universal – but that doesn’t mean it’s any less important.

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One response

27 04 2010
Paul

If this is what you are thinking about, you should definitely check out the Straussians, or at the very least read the works of the cannon that they are always arguing about. While they have never really been into Darwin, they have always seen morality as basically a tool for cooperative living. This of course goes back to the death and trial of Socrates; their take on it being that Socrates, by questioning the assumptions that underlay the Athenian social contract, really was corrupting the youth, and in a sense deserved execution. Accordingly, all subsequent philosophizing, starting with Plato, has been a reflection on how the honest, unbounded inquiry of philosophy could co-exist with society and its often erroneous social contracts. That part of academy is an odd mixture of history of philosophy, metaphysics, ethics, theology, but mostly it is armchair psychology and moral sociology done by really well read, intelligent, but scientifically disinclined people. But I also can’t think of any other group of people who have spent nearly as much time on the intersection of psychology, moral sociology, and social contracts, or cared so much about it, however haphazard their approach has been.

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