Inescapably moral

“The garden of earthly delights” by Hieronymus Bosch

By Ignacio Gonzalez.

About a week ago I stumbled upon an article published online in “The daily beast” . In it, the author examined a recent scientific study that reached the following conclusion: religious people are not more moral than atheists (nor do atheists have a heavier moral inclination than religious folks). When it comes to morality none of these groups (on average) holds the upper hand.

My first thought about the article and thus about the study itself was, I must admit, rather dismissive: “no big news here” I told to myself, the punchline did not immediately hit me. Perhaps, the reason why the outcome of the study did not precisely “rock my world” was because it portrayed a notion that I have been sternly advocating for already quite a while. Thus, a fastidious flash of self-ingratiation blinded my judgement if at least for some minutes.

Luckily we are all haunted by second thoughts. Soon, I came back to my senses and saw the obvious: these kind of studies are important, they are not redundant and their conclusions do deserve to be launched into the public debate from as many platforms as possible. In good part because moral precepts are (or ought to be…) the foundational cornerstones of penal codes and other behavior regulatory tools that steer (or ought to steer…) the everday affairs of each one of us as members of a modern society. Every step we take towards a robust understanding of how moral impulses come about can in principle be translated into policies that better encompass our human nature. After all, a legislation less alienated and more resonant with human nature could help to alleviate all sorts of conflicts arising from moral dilemmas hatched in our minds. In his book “The blank slate” Prof. Steven Pinker swiftly exposes many of the dangers in which societies may incur if they are to deny or, at the very least ignore the existence of an innate human nature. Acknowledging our nature, in particular the moral side of it, should be the very first step taken by the architects of policy whenever they put themselves to work.

So, where do we get our morals from? as with many other questions religion and science presents us with mutually exclusive answers. First, what has religion going for it?

Unfortunately for the religious cause “to stand in the way” of access to verifiable knowledge about anything in the real world has been among the most prominent talents of religion from its very origin. The quest to gain insights into the roots of morality is not one that has been left untouched by religion, quite the contrary, it is one of the few remaining islands in which the religious attempt to hold their ground while debating against science. I want to contend that this is an island made of fog, much too thin to support anyone’s feet.

What do the three great Abrahamic religions (namely: Judaism, Christianity and Islam) have to say about the origin of moral values? Simple, they are graciously handed down to us by a supernatural, omnipotent and personal God. To deem an action as moral or immoral with impunity is just one among the infinite list of powers assigned to God. Actually I am falling a little too short here. In the religious view, morality itself unfolds naturally as a direct consequence of God’s own existence, or, as the christian pundit Dr. William Lane Craig puts it “if God does not exist then objective moral values do not exist” (my emphasis). By “objective moral values” he means precepts that are “valid and binding whether we believe in them or not”, in other words, they are indisputably absolute. The universe is morally biased and the deeds of every sentient being within it are to be measured against a one-size-fits-all moral yardstick. In this view, the Big Bang was not only the beginning of time and space but also of right and wrong. So, if you happen to follow one of the above mentioned faiths then you have reached the end of the road in the origin of morals quest. What is to be considered good and bad behavior can be extracted from the preaching of a priest, an imam or a rabbi, or if you prefer to play safer, from the pages of an ancient holy book.

Now, the scientific counterargument. Moral precepts do not reach us by divine decree, instead, the seeds of morality have been inoculated into us by natural processes such as evolution by natural selection. Evidence to support this claim comes from a multitude of sources such as the findigns of evolutionary biology, evolutionary psychology, genetics and others. However, one does not need to be a well-trained biologist or geneticist to at least awaken the suspicion that human morals might come from somewhere else other than from religious scripture and its analysis. When reflecting upon the biblical account of the delivery of the ten commandments (the very epitome of morality according to the religious dogma) by God onto Moses’s hands at Mount Sinai, the late Christopher Hitchens raised the challenge that if people would have “believed that perjury, murder and theft were alright” before that event took place, then, “we wouldn’t have got as far as the foot of Mount Sinai or anywhere else”. In other words, humans did not need to be told that those hienous acts were better to be avoided at all costs cause we already knew that. A moral sense must have been already ingrained in our ancestors if they had been able to make a living in the merciless African savannas of the pleistocene.

The question is then: “is it feasible that a mindless process such as evolution by natural selection can produce organisms with a sense of right and wrong?” and if so “how?”. The hopes seem to flicker almost to a vanishing point when we take into account that the majority of modern evolutionary theorists look at evolution though the so-called “neo-darwinian” lense. In this picture, the central role in the evolutionary drama is not played by the organism but instead by the genes contained within it, and, the gene’s deeds are better understood if one bestows upon them with a selfish personality as did Richard Dawkins in his 1976 benchmark book “The selfish gene”. (Please keep in mind that genes cannot be in fact selfish – or funny, or merciful, or anything else – as obvious as this may seem Dawkins himself has been forced to go to great lengths to explain that the term “selfish gene” is purely metaphorical). Put in the most simplistic terms a gene acts as if  it had a single purpose in mind: to successfully transmit copies of itself into the next generation of organisms in which it inhabits. This seems problematic if we seek to dig out the foundations of a biologically-based morality… how on Earth an organism programmed by selfish little demons which only care about their own survival (in the form of copies) could ever behave altruistically towards a rival organism with equally selfish little bastards operating its “control room”?

To understand altruism from the gene’s perspective it is only necessary to grant either of two things: organisms can be genetically related to each other (as in siblings, parents and offsprings, cousins…) and/or the organisms happen to be inescapably engaged in the kind of relationships that a game theorists would call “non-zero sum games”. In the first case we are talking about the theory of “kin selection” (largely put into rigurous genetic grounds by W. D. Hamilton). Although the mathematical underpinnings can be laborious, the idea behind the theory is quite familiar to us all: it is okay to behave altruistically towards your kin even at the expense of your own fitness, because, while doing so you are increasing the fitness of an individual who carries copies of a fraction of your own genetic material. From a given gene’s point of view there is a good chance that fitness is not created neither destroyed during a kin altruistic transaction, it is merely transmitted from one body to another.

What about non-zero sum games as a suitable scenarios for altruistic behavior? for starters, what the hell is a non-zero sum game? a non-zero sum game is set whenever the players are better off when they decide to cooperate, converesely, they end up all worse whenever they decide to defect. These kind of games are of the uttermost importance in evolutionary biology because it turns out that nature just loves to play them with all kind of creatures. An hypothetical example of our own evolutionary past: even for the most self-centered and independent member of the Homo habilis crew it is more convenient to band up with his pals to hunt for large preys. A group of Homo habilis working in conjunction can hunt a much larger prey that any of the individual members would be able to take down on his own. Through cooperative hunting the food share for each individual can easily exceed whatever is obtainable by any member of the gang left to its own devices (provided that the gang is not that numerous). When hunting our ancestors were faced an undebatable truth: cooperation pays off.

Thus, with only a couple of strokes we have sketched a feasible, if paradoxical, framework in which via the interaction of self-iterested agents qualities regarded as moral such as altruism and cooperation can naturally emerge. Reciprocity is yet another moral feature that can be explained along these same lines, unfortunately (or fortunately for the reader) I am running out of time (and the reader out of patience) and will have to let this one pass.

True, human morality is much more complex than altruism, cooperation and reciprocity, but the point that must not be missed is that neo-darwinistic reasoning (putting all its misinterpreted social and political overtones aside) has been very successfull at assembling a comprehensive picture in which moral tendencies stand on purely naturalistic grounds. Once again, as it happened when Pierre-Simon LaPlace put up his “celestial mechanics”, the God hypothesis is not needed.

So why do we have a sense of right and wrong? well, it seems that natural selection left us with no choice but to have it. We do not have to worry about looking outside the window and contemplate our fellow humans engaged in an all-out nihilist carnival as it was the concern of Hieronymus Bosch when he painted “The garden of earthly delights” (on top) if divine moral edicts were suddenly found to be hollow.