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Darwin vs. Morality: Trying to Find a Biological Basis for Morality

Darwin Vs. Morality: Trying To Find A Biological Basis For Morality

There are certain kinds of arguments philosophers call “self-defeating” because if you turn out to be right you are wrong and obviously if you turn out to be wrong you’re wrong. Trying to find biological foundations for morality is one of these kinds of arguments. A very clear example of a self-defeating argument would be to argue that rational argument is impossible. If I am rationally convinced by your argument, then rational argument is possible, not impossible and the argument is disproven. If you cannot persuade me because rational argument is impossible, then likewise the argument fails. The problem of course is that you must rely on the very thing you are hoping to prove does not exist.

One might wonder how any such arguments get propagated. Like a magician’s tricks, misdirection is needed. The audience for a self-defeating argument must have their attention fixed on one item before the very concept that is being rejected is reintroduced in support of the argument. Typically the reintroduced concept is not noticed because the concept is one that has won widespread acceptance and is used either implicitly or explicitly on a near daily basis. Ironically, the argument might excite our interest precisely because it seemingly challenges just such a foundational and fundamental assumption or set of assumptions.

Some years ago an acquaintance of mine sent me a newspaper article saying that Harvard researchers have discovered the biological foundations of morality. I read it out of courtesy and with increasing dismay. The confusions and logical inconsistencies steadily accumulated. Subsequently, I came to the conclusion that all such arguments for the biological foundations of morality are likely to suffer from the same or similar defects.

The defect I personally find the most irritating is when such an argument debunks morality by attributing our moral behavior to nonmoral or even immoral impulses, but then the arguer relies on the full ontological reality of morality by the end of the argument.

Imagine if you read someone claiming to debunk the existence of ghosts who, after several pages of skeptical debunking then says that he knows all this to be true because a ghost told him so. The truly worthless nature of the argument is not revealed until the end.

When self-defeating arguments pass unnoticed one is left with two alternatives. Either the people involved, both the arguer and the argued to are stupid, or the incentive to believe the argument is so strong that the argument’s defects are ignored in the rush to embrace the attractive conclusion. Having said that, it probably also takes a certain amount of practice to recognize when this particular trick is occurring.

I would argue that if you are an atheist and still hope to believe in the reality of morality it is likely that you will try to ignore what the basis for morality actually is, or you may turn to biology as a likely place to start. You cannot really turn to more basic sciences such as physics and chemistry since morality is presumably going to require you to think about living organisms at some point and physics and inorganic chemistry don’t deal with things at that level of complexity. In other words, they don’t include the category “life,” and thus morality and issues of life and how to live it do not arise.

Having chosen biology as your starting point, what are the likely sources of morality going to be? We can predict that the most likely candidate is that from a biological point of view, morality will turn out to be useful in some way. The choices are likely to be that morality will be useful for either individual well-being and survival and/or group survival and possibly genetic continuance. Human communities that don’t accept that lying and murder are morally wrong are likely to quickly self-destruct – hence the fitter societies, in some analogy to the survival of the fittest, are likely to promote morality.

Another possibility can be seen in a newspaper article discussed below called If It Feels Good To Be Good, It Might Be Only Natural by Shankar Vedantam. Here one finds biologists and neuroscientists claiming that morality is built into our brains in some fashion. Moral sentiments are the result of brain function, period. The journalist makes some attempt to make the moral nihilism of this claim ambiguous, without success. The neuroscientist quoted, who is also supposed to be a philosopher, seems eager to debunk morality. I have to admit that the article avoids being self-defeating in the usual manner. It’s novel approach, or perhaps not nearly as novel as I wish it were, is to entirely knowingly debunk its topic of study. In examining morality, it turns out that there is nothing to examine. They have explained that there is nothing to explain. No concern is shown about the possible moral consequences of the nonexistence of morality which is as it should be – moral consequences not actually existing according to the argument. The contradiction arises when the scientists claim to have identified the brain mechanisms that give rise to morality because actual morality does not exist according to their own thinking.

So, the two conclusions that trying to find the biological foundations of morality will result in are likely to be that morality is useful, or that morality does not exist. In finding morality useful, one is finding that morality is (morally) good. The judgment that the usefulness of morality is good, is a moral judgment that must be independent of biology to avoid nonsensical circularity. So if you are right that morality is useful and that this is a good thing, you are wrong that biology is the source of this goodness. Hence my claim that this kind of argument is self-defeating.

Likewise, it is a truism in moral philosophy that one is not morally responsible for one’s actions if one has no choice in how one acts. This notion is recognized in law and called “duress.” One is not legally responsible for one’s actions if one couldn’t have acted otherwise. If a biological mechanism is forcing us to act in a certain way, then we can neither take credit nor receive blame for our actions. If it makes no sense to ascribe moral goodness or badness to anyone’s actions ever, then morality does not exist. Also, part of what makes an action morally praiseworthy or not has to do with one’s motivation; the reasons for one’s actions. If I donate to charity because I have a gun to my head, I cannot be credited with acting morally. So, if one succeeds in finding a biological mechanism producing apparently moral behavior, then one will have proven that morality does not exist. You will not have explained the biological foundation of morality. You will have established that morality does not exist. If you win, you lose. Moral nihilism is indeed the conclusion of the Vedantam newspaper article.

In Part II, I use Richard Dawkins’ arguments from The God Delusion as an example of the “useful” variety of argument mostly because I happen to be familiar with it. But I am arguing that when it comes to this topic, one account is in principle as good as any other. All are likely to suffer from similar logical defects, so I am really critiquing a whole class of arguments.

Before I examine the arguments from Vedantam and Dawkins I will give a brief overview of the problems deriving from the supposed usefulness of morality.

A Summary of the Sorts of Self-Defeating Conundrums Generated by Trying to Found Morality on Biology

In my article God or Moral Nihilism, I argued that extrinsic goods are parasitic on intrinsic goods. Extrinsic goods are useful for some other end. Exercise is useful for health and health tends to be related to human happiness. Human happiness is not in turn useful for something else. Human happiness is intrinsically good. The extrinsic goodness of exercise derives its goodness from the intrinsic goodness of human happiness. If human happiness is not good, then neither is exercise. There is a means/ends relation and the means is worthless unless the end is valuable.

We have no trouble identifying candidates for what might be useful, extrinsic goods, but we run into logical difficulties in establishing that intrinsic goods are indeed good. As the title God or Moral Nihilism suggests, I argued that the existence of intrinsic goods will ultimately depend on some kind of transcendent, supernatural God or God equivalent, like Plato’s Form of the Good. Looking to biology is an attempt to provide a naturalistic, scientific ground for morality that will not involve invoking supernatural factors, but to keep the biologically minded philosophers honest we must keep our eyes peeled for any covert appeal to the supernatural.

As I have indicated, the first problem is in redefining morality as that which is biologically useful. To say that believing lying and murder to be wrong is useful because it produces good things creates two problems. One is that “useful” is not the same as “true.” If morality is not true, then the good things morality is supposedly producing are not good either. If goodness doesn’t exist, then biologically useful beliefs and behaviors can’t encourage it. If the goodness is supposed to be a nonmoral good, then we haven’t established that biology produces moral goods at all.

If morality is not true, then we have arrived at moral nihilism and hence the end of any discussion featuring the word “morality.” If morality is true, then we don’t need biologists telling us to be moral. Morality requires it.

If mere biology is the basis for morality, then morality is the result of mindless mechanistic compulsion. If our tendency to believe in the reality of morality is the result of a biological mechanism, then we are not drawn to moral perspectives by their truth, beauty or goodness. We are compelled and determined by a brute and mindless nature – suggesting moral skepticism and thus nihilism.

The biologist might retort that it does not matter what the ultimate ground of morality is, since the existence of morality is undeniably good. But this involves a vicious circle. If it is good that biology leads us to adopt moral perspectives, then the goodness of morality must be independent of biology. For if biology compels us to take moral perspectives, our judgment that this is good, is just another instance of the compulsion of biology. If biology compels us to judge that the influence of biology is good, then we are not arriving at our conclusion as the result of any kind of reasoned judgment. Our conclusion is biologically unavoidable. We are in the grip of mindless determinism. We have admitted that these conclusions are something that we are biologically driven to conclude. To rationally conclude that the influence of biology is good, we need to adopt a moral perspective which is not derived from biology.

The biologist might argue that morality is biologically useful because it promotes human welfare. This is incoherent. Promoting human welfare is a rationally unprovable moral, intrinsic, good, not a biological good. One is effectively saying that morality promotes moral goods, i.e., morality promotes morality – an empty truism. Morality is morally useful, not biologically useful. Biology does not establish the moral goodness of human welfare, or even survival. Like all sciences, it is neutral on questions of value.

If biology and morality coincide, that’s terrific. Sometimes what is morally good for ourselves and other people coincides with what is good for them biologically, sometimes not. But biology does not and cannot provide a foundation for morality. This becomes obvious when morality requires us to die, as it does on occasion.

“If It Feels Good to Be Good, It Might Be Only Natural”[1]

The article begins with neuroscientists at the National Institutes of Health seeing the brain scans of volunteers who were asked to think about donating money to charity or keeping the money:

“The results were showing that when the volunteers placed the interests of others before their own, the generosity activated a primitive part of the brain that usually lights up in response to food or sex. Altruism, the experiment suggested, was not a superior moral faculty that suppresses basic selfish urges but rather was basic to the brain, hard-wired and pleasurable.”

What the results suggest to me is that scientists and journalists can get quickly over their heads when it comes to issues involving morality. In this case we seem to have an instance of leaping to conclusions. The confused ideas come thick and fast and have to be carefully pried apart.

Note that the experiment begins with thinking; whether to donate or keep the money in an entirely hypothetical situation. The process starts with mind and thought. This aspect of the experiment is immediately lost sight of as the scientists focus on what they can see and measure – activity in the brain, the part of the brain associated with a response to food and sex.

At least in journalistic accounts of neuroscience, it sometimes seems that as soon as brain activity enters the picture, all is reduced to that activity. Brain scientists are not mind scientists. The brain can be studied objectively. The mind cannot. To find out what someone is thinking, one generally needs to talk to them. As Ken Wilber puts it in A Brief History of Everything, the brain can be studied monologically, the mind only dialogically.

Altruism and morality are not scientific concepts. Nor can they be measured objectively. Being invisible, they are simply dropped from the equation and the part that can be seen is treated as though it explains the entire situation. In fact, the activity in the brain is treated as a cause when it is in fact an effect, according to their own account. Cause and effect are reversed. Thoughts of altruism, the cause, generate visible brain activity, the effect. The brain activity is then described as producing altruism; the opposite of the situation as it was initially described.

If we saw that a farmer who had painstakingly cultivated a crop was deprived of this crop by an unjust act, we might feel anger. Witnessing injustice may give rise to outrage. We do not turn around and attribute my moral judgment to my anger center. This would not even make sense.

The only possible reason for the scientists to confuse cause and effect in this way is that they have introduced into their analysis the theory of hedonism. This is the theory that humans are motivated exclusively by the desire for pleasure. This is an example of a theory that seems interesting to people with below average emotional intelligence or who are young and inexperienced. It is not a scientific theory. It can be refuted, but it would involve too long a digression. It is sufficient for my purposes here to point out that the experiment is not proving or even pointing to a hedonistic theory of human motivation.

Confusing cause and effect and introducing an entire theory of human motivation that is merely assumed and not proven to be true are egregious errors.

It is described as highly significant that the same part of the brain associated with the pleasure of food and sex is involved in the pleasurable thoughts aroused by hypothetical generosity. It takes some effort to untangle this little mess too. It is not said that our desire for food and sex comes from this part of the brain. In fact, our desire for food comes from feelings of hunger presumably not being generated by the brain’s pleasure center. Again, cause and effect are confused. Eating some food may produce feelings of pleasure.

The supposed association between the feelings of pleasure generated by hypothetical generosity and those produced by food and sex is supposed to indicate that high-minded and heavily conceptually influenced thoughts about altruism can be reduced to simple brain functions. This is not shown to be true about altruism. But neither is it necessarily true about food and sex. Food and sex in humans often involve mental evaluations. We do not usually turn into automatons when these items are involved. For instance, we do not respond pleasurably to food that we do not judge to be appetizing and sexual arousal or the lack of it may include moral assessments of potential objects of desire. If someone has just revealed a very nasty side to them, for instance, if they engage in a character assassinating rant, thoughts of sex will tend to evaporate. Or if we judge someone to be stupid, ugly, boring, or humorless, thoughts of sex may also go out the window. If the person is a close relation, sexual activity is rejected as immoral. If food is badly prepared, staggeringly unhealthy or insipid we may reject it, if not ravenous with hunger. We as human beings are edible, but as far as I know, we don’t get hungry looking at other people. Prohibitions against incest and cannibalism are so fundamental to us that they usually aren’t even registered as possibilities.

The importance and relevance of genuinely mental items does not simply disappear once the pleasure center in the brain has been discovered to enter into the state of affairs. There is no reason for thinking that one item is sufficient to explain the entire complex.

Ken Wilber’s idea of the four quadrants seems relevant in unpacking this crass combination of science and journalism. Food and sex in humans have a biological component, but there are three other aspects of life that enter into the equation. One is personal tastes and preferences. We all have a sex drive and a desire for food, but we don’t all desire the same people or the same kinds of food. All sorts of nonbiological factors enter into these preferences. There are intersubjective, cultural factors too. If you are French, German or Italian, your ideas about sex and food will be influenced by pervasive cultural factors, some of which may be so taken for granted that they seem like purely personal preferences. Lastly, interobjective social and economic factors enter into our relationship to food and sex. The availability and cheapness of fast food may play a role in one society and be nonexistent or less prevalent in another. This objective factor will influence personal taste and the actual food that enters your body. Women who want to get married and have children may find that they need to consider the economic prospects of their marriage partner as part of their decision and thus their choice of sexual partner.

Focusing on the biological aspect of food and sex and altruism is to neglect other equally important contributions to our thoughts and behavior in relation to these topics. Identifying a biological component does not mean you are even close to having an adequate explanation of human behavior. It is a case of mistaking a partial truth for a complete truth. The latter may be an unachievable ideal, but settling for a frightfully partial truth will often prove to be more obfuscating than enlightening.

In the newspaper article altruism is described as being “basic to the brain, hard-wired and pleasurable” and “not a superior moral faculty that suppressed basic selfish urges.” If this were true, then acts of selfishness would be unfathomable. Given that selfishness exists, hard-wired and pleasurable altruism cannot be the whole story. Part of the explanation seems to lie in the fact that the case of the contemplated donation to charity, we are talking about a purely hypothetical donation. It would be interesting to see the results if the volunteers had to extract the funds from their own bank account in real life. Mere fantasies of being a generous benefactor may be pleasurable, the real thing may be less so. Some such problem suggests itself or we would all be amazing altruists glowing with pleasure most of the time. Since this is not the case, we can infer that there is a problem with the premises.

There is also an assumption typical of many twenty year olds. This is that feeling pleasure at being good makes the pleasure and us, selfish. It is entirely possible that a superior moral faculty is suppressing selfish urges and that being altruistic is pleasurable. We are allowed to benefit from being good people. Plato and Christianity suggest it and even rely on it. The definition of the word “selfish” is an exclusive concern for our own welfare. If you get pleasure from being altruistic, then you enjoy not being selfish. You wouldn’t get pleasure from caring about other people if you didn’t intrinsically enjoy helping other people. If you enjoy caring about others, then you are by definition not selfish. Benefiting in anyway is entirely compatible with altruism.

The pleasure from thinking about helping others is described as “hard-wired.” We know from our own experience that we don’t always feel pleasure when thinking about donating money, quite the reverse. So, if “hard-wired” is supposed to mean that free will is taken out of the picture and that we have no choices, then it is incorrect. If the pleasure by-passed any attempt to think about our actions and our upper-reasoning abilities were circumvented, then this could be the implication of the phrase “hard-wired,” but we have already been told that the volunteers were busy thinking about donating to charity. If it gives them pleasure to do so, all the better. The term “hard-wired” seems to be distracting hand-waving.

Bear in mind that the last several paragraphs have been written in an attempt to unpack the unfounded assumptions and confusions in just two sentences.

One very interesting statement that occurs is that animals can sacrifice their own interests: “One experiment found that if each time a rat is given food, its neighbor receives an electric shock, the first rat will eventually forgo eating.”

Some animals do seem to demonstrate some kind of proto-morality, or in this case, full-fledged empathy and self-sacrifice. Any surprise we might feel about the rats is probably not based on personal experience of rats, but due to considering them vermin; they are not unintelligent, as Tom Bertonneau commented to me. Again, the talk about rats is supposed to show how biological morality is, but this notion is premised on a conception of rats as mindless automatons driven only by biological concerns. This may make it easier to kill them and do experiments on them, but it does not seem to be true.

Vedantam writes, “What the new research is showing is that morality has biological roots – such as the reward center in the brain that lit up in Grafman’s experiment – that have been around for a very long time.” I hope I have indicated that the new research shows no such thing. It only shows that mechanism/brain function makes an appearance at some point in the process.

Vedantam states that empathy plays a fundamental role in morality and that, as Jean Decety, a neuroscientist at the University of Chicago comments “it is only a short step from this awareness to many human notions of right and wrong.” I agree with both statements, although the use of the word “human” has worrying implications. Either Decety has somehow managed to step outside the human condition and has his own notions of right and wrong, or he thinks right and wrong are peculiar fantasies dreamed up by humans. The latter is suggested in the following, at least by Vedantam who states:

“The research enterprise has been viewed with interest by philosophers and theologians, but already some worry that it raises troubling questions. Reducing morality and immorality to brain chemistry — rather than free will — might diminish the importance of personal responsibility. Even more important, some wonder whether the very idea of morality is somehow degraded if it turns out to be just another evolutionary tool that nature uses to help species survive and propagate.”

The comments about the pleasure center earlier suggested the morally nihilistic viewpoint being promoted. Here the nihilism is made even plainer. Like Dawkins below, we have assertions that have only one implication, like, as Dawkins will say, morality being a mistake and misfiring, made to seem ambiguous. “Reducing morality and immorality to brain chemistry – rather than free will – might diminish the importance of personal responsibility.” There is no “might” about it. Not only would there be no personal responsibility, there would be no morality per se. If we reduce morality to brain chemistry, then it is not morality anymore. If it were only a matter of brain chemistry being a part of a much larger story, perhaps playing a role in recognizing objective moral facts, then there is no problem. It’s the reductionism that gets Vedantam in trouble.

A favorite anti-reductionist slogan of mine is “everything is just what it is and not something else.” Love is not a chemical. Morality is not brain function. Love is love, morality is morality. Chemicals and brain function may enter the picture at some point but are not the whole story.

Likewise when Vedantam says “some wonder whether the very idea of morality is somehow degraded if it turns out to be just another evolutionary tool that nature uses to help species survive and propagate.” When phrased like that there is nothing to wonder about. The very idea of morality simply disappears as being anything real and objective if it is “just another evolutionary tool that nature uses to help species survive and propagate.” Hence the use of the word “just.” Either morality is worthy of love and reverence as something real and beautiful or it is “just another evolutionary tool.”

The lack of ambiguity of Vedantam’s claims can be compared to saying “This might be thought to indicate hostility on the part of the person saying these things” when people scream “I hate you, I hate you, I hate. I hope you burn in hell forever. I curse the day you were born. The world will be better off when you die. The stars will laugh with joy the day you leave the face of the Earth. All nature will rejoice with your departure.” Suggesting any ambiguity in such instances is playing with words.

The article mentions that emotions play a role in moral decision-making and that “when confronted with moral dilemmas, the brain-damaged patients coldly came up with “end-justifies-the-means” answers” and that “patients with damage to an area of the brain known as the ventromedial prefrontal cortex lack the ability to feel their way to moral answers.” I have no problems with this. Emotions play a crucial role in identifying moral features of the world. What makes a psychopath a psychopath is his inability to feel empathy. If you are not horrified by horrible violence, you haven’t really appreciated its moral unacceptability.

“’Eventually, you are bound to get into areas that for thousands of years we have preferred to keep mystical,’ said Grafman, the chief cognitive neuroscientist at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. ‘Some of the questions that are important are not just of intellectual interest, but challenging and frightening to the ways we ground our lives. We need to step very carefully.’”

In the paragraph immediately following this injunction to tread carefully, we find Joshua Greene treading with hobnailed boots.

“Joshua D. Greene, a Harvard neuroscientist and philosopher, said multiple experiments suggest that morality arises from basic brain activities. Morality, he said, is not a brain function elevated above our baser impulses. Greene said it is not ‘handed down’ by philosophers and clergy, but ‘handed up,’ an outgrowth of the brain’s basic propensities.”

“Moral decision-making often involves competing brain networks vying for supremacy, he said. Simple moral decisions – is killing a child right or wrong? – are simple because they activate a straightforward brain response. Difficult moral decisions, by contrast, activate multiple brain regions that conflict with one another, he said.”

An example is whether it “was right to smother the child to keep the soldiers from discovering the cellar and killing everyone?”

“The reason people are slow to answer such an awful question, the study indicated, is that emotion-linked circuits automatically signaling that killing a baby is wrong clash with areas of the brain that involve cooler aspects of cognition. One brain region activated when people process such difficult choices is the inferior parietal lobe, which has been shown to be active in more impersonal decision-making. This part of the brain, in essence, was “arguing” with brain networks that reacted with visceral horror.”

The quickest response to Greene might be to point out that all his talk about brains and impulses can be directed at Greene’s analysis of brains and impulses. If Greene can find a brain mechanism involved in moral reactions, then he feels entitled to stop taking the phenomena associated with the brain functioning seriously, but Greene’s own analysis of brain functioning must, according to his thesis, simply be the product of brain functioning. Hence we should not take his analysis seriously. His arguments have no implications for the real world, they are simply the products of neural mechanisms competing, suppressing and outdoing each other.

A key sign of a bad argument is when the first exception one needs to make is for oneself. Presumably, Greene wants us to take his arguments seriously and not simply as the random results of brain activity. Sure brain activity went into their production, but this does not mean his arguments are simply these brain activities and nothing more. For every inch Greene needs to give himself, he should extend to the full reality of moral phenomena.

If the concept of an argument failing the test of reflexivity is not clear, a comparison can be made with those who think that our ideas are the result of race, class and gender. This notion is extremely patronizing and dehumanizing. If our ideas are the result merely of the happenstance of race, class and gender then they need not be taken seriously. Omitted is any question of whether our ideas are true or not. However, no further discussion is necessary because if all ideas are the result of race, class and gender, then the notion that all ideas are the result of race, class and gender, is itself an idea and therefore the result of race, class and gender. The person making the claim of course wants to be an exception to the universal rule, except no reason is given for thinking that there are exceptions. If they are allowed to simply assert that this idea is not the product of race, class and gender, then I reserve the right to simply assert the same about my own ideas. It is of course true that some of our ideas are probably influenced by our race, class and gender, but the claim becomes dangerous nonsense when we attempt to universalize the claim for all thought.

Also, if the race, class, gender theory were true, then all of us of the same race, class and gender should have the same theories, which we do not. So, the theory applies to itself and is logically self-nullifying and it is also disproven empirically.

Greene’s descriptions of brain function are consistent with a full moral realism rather than his own moral skepticism and nihilism. We are all familiar with being in a moral quandary. If it pleases Greene to describe this phenomenon in terms of brain function, so be it. Does this mean that we are not to take the baby killing scenario as a genuine moral problem? If it is a genuine moral problem, then we are simply recognizing it as such. If brain function is involved in such a recognition, which it surely is, then we can retain our normal morally realist viewpoints. If killing babies is not in fact immoral, then Greene has no subject matter. He cannot study brain function as it relates to morality if morality does not exist.

Greene needs moral realism to make any sense of his research – in fact to have any topic of research. He takes his own arguments as valid in their own right and not merely as a window into the peculiarities of his brain function and is logically required to do the same for moral reasoning.

I fail to see the difference between Greene’s attempts to reduce moral reasoning to brain function and reducing speech to movements of the lips, tongue, diaphragm, mouth and vocal chords. The fact that speech involves a physical mechanism at some point doesn’t undermine its status as a means of communication. Speech does not originate in the throat, but in our mind and its purpose is to communicate meanings, ideas, commands, entreaties, etc., to other minds. Fixating on the physical methods of producing these communications may be helpful if, for instance, there is a speech pathology, just as pointing to a brain defect might make sense of a moral aberration. But the whole process of speaking loses its sense and purpose if we try to reduce the phenomenon to aspects of mere physical behavior. So too, focusing exclusively on brain function in a moral context means that the very moral phenomena that is giving rise to complicated thoughts involving pros and cons is omitted, invisible and ultimately seemingly debunked.

Greene gives us two weirdly tendentious choices when he says that “Morality . . . is not a brain function elevated above our baser impulses.” Greene said it is not “handed down” by philosophers and clergy, but “handed up,” an outgrowth of the brain’s basic propensities.” The choice is between a brain function elevated above our baser impulses and the brain’s basic propensities. So we begin with a false dichotomy between two brain items which seem indistinguishable at that level of description anyway. Then to say that morality is not elevated above our baser impulses is surpassingly strange. What could possibly be above our baser impulses if not our more elevated impulses? And what are our more elevated impulses if not those related to morality? And if nothing is elevated above our baser impulses then there are no differences of kind between behavior motivated by moral considerations and those by other base impulses which could presumably include the sex drive unmediated by moral concerns, i.e. rape.

Next, it seems like at best, philosophers and clergy might claim to be passing on moral insights derived from philosophical and theological reflection and revelation, but surely could not claim to be handing down morality. Philosophers and clergy are not the source of morality. Whatever they say, if it is to be effective, must be accepted by their audience who must ponder their assertions for themselves.

Contra Greene, I would assert that morality does not come bottom up from our brains. Morality is not the result of the brain’s natural propensities. If that were the case, morality would have no normative force, nor could we identify morality as such without being viciously circular. What is morality? That which our brains encourage us to regard as such. How have we identified that morality even exists? We haven’t. All we know is that our brains make us think good and evil exist, but according to this way of thinking these are not brain functions elevated above our baser impulses. They exist at the same level as our baser impulses and morality is therefore deprived of any special metaphysical or ontological status. Morality is whatever our brains say it is, presumably brooking no discussion, which would make moral disagreements very puzzling, certainly irreconcilable and completely pointless.

I would suggest instead that in order to preserve anything meaningful answering to the name of morality, we should think of morality as existing as an objective reality which we try to decipher to the best of our ability in a similar manner to mathematical truths. A large brain may be necessary to understand complex moral questions and mathematics, but in neither case are we simply inventing these truths. Interestingly, in an admittedly tiny sample, I have yet to meet a professor of mathematics who is a non-realist about mathematics and I suspect that at heart very nearly all of us are moral realists whether we know it or not.

Mathematical realism involves a belief in a Platonic realm of truth existing beyond the physical plane; something commonly believed in by professional mathematicians – even those who are atheists. Similarly, moral realism requires that morality be built into the structure of reality that must surpass the world of empirical facts discoverable by science.

Richard Dawkins: A Representative Example of Trying to Found Morality on Biology

In The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins attempts to describe the biological roots of morality. He begins by saying:

“Natural selection favors genes that predispose individuals, in relationships of asymmetric need and opportunity, to give when they can, and to solicit giving when they can’t. It also favors tendencies to remember obligations, bear grudges, police exchange relationships and punish cheats who take, but don’t give when their turn comes.” (Dawkins, p. 217)

One problem with these claims is that they beg the question. We do not know that morality is the result of genes and natural selection. He makes a factual claim without evidence. Dawkins is assuming the very thing he is supposed to be arguing for – the biological basis of morality.

It cannot be the case that all feelings, thoughts and actions concerning morality are the result of natural selection favoring genetic predispositions. If it were, our belief that all moral feelings, thoughts and actions are the result of natural selection favoring genetic predispositions would itself be the result of natural selection favoring genetic predispositions, putting this belief outside the domain of rational reflection. Some of our thinking about moral issues needs to be free from genetic predispositions in order to rationally believe that some of our thinking about moral issues is determined by genetic predispositions!

Once rational reflection enters the picture we are in a position to assess the truth claims concerning particular moral issues. Genetic predispositions seem likely to undermine these reflections rather than to assist them. If moral talk identifies real features of the world, then genetic predispositions ought to be inconsequential. And if, upon rational reflection, there are no features of reality corresponding to moral categories, then morality, and talk of it, ought to be abandoned. If you say that the truth of moral assertions is irrelevant because our belief in moral assertions is undeniably a good thing, then you are using moral realism to defend a morally skeptical position, which is incoherent. It’s akin to using a Lamborghini to jump start a motor scooter. Forget the scooter and just go with the sports car.

As we saw with the Vedantam article, introducing mechanism as an explanation for human behavior is a dangerous argumentative gambit. If the only reason we have for accepting moral categories is due to a genetic predisposition favored by natural selection, then morality is null and void. The more successful Dawkins is in positing biological grounds for morality, the more moral and epistemic skepticism is promoted. We cannot identify the biological foundation of something that doesn’t exist. His argument, like many such arguments, is self-defeating.

Later, Dawkins says: “Reputation is important, and biologists can acknowledge a Darwinian survival value in not just being a good reciprocator but fostering a reputation as a good reciprocator too.” (Dawkins, p. 218) Here Dawkins gives us “reputation” as an extrinsic value that derives its value from the intrinsic “Darwinian survival value.” Calling the survival value “Darwinian” makes survival value sound biological and scientific. However, intrinsic value is not discoverable using Darwinian evolutionary theory or any other scientific theory. Dawkins has succeeded in hiding his use of an unscientific intrinsic value by giving it a scientific sounding name.

On top of this, survival value is not and cannot be the foundation of morality. Whether biologists acknowledge survival value or not is irrelevant. Morality requires the notion that human life, at least, is valuable. If it is not, then murder is not wrong. Mere survival is morally neutral.

Moral and immoral people are likely to turn up to work on time, to do what is asked of them by their bosses most of the time and to work diligently. They are likely to do this because doing such things is necessary in order to keep one’s job and to get promoted. The moral may also do these things because since they are accepting payment for work, the work should be done and done properly as a matter of fairness. Additionally, job satisfaction requires it.

What is morally important is why one is acting in these ways. Do you care about other people and about justice, or are you perhaps entirely egocentric? The aim of getting promoted could be pursued by immoral means, such as taking credit for someone else’s work. Or, acting morally may mean becoming a whistle-blower, thereby jeopardizing one’s career forever. In some situations, getting ahead in one’s job is consistent with morality, in others, not.

As Boethius, in The Consolation of Philosophy, pointed out, it is when one’s apparent self-interest conflicts with doing the right thing, that one gets to reveal one’s true character. If one is being a good reciprocator merely to develop a good reputation, then morality doesn’t enter the picture.

The connection between reputation and morality was discussed in detail by Plato in The Republic. Dawkins writes as though Plato never existed, which I have to admit to finding frustrating. In The Republic, Plato sets himself the task of trying to prove that being a good person is a benefit to oneself even if one unjustly has a reputation for being a bad person. This is to counter the suggestion that the best situation would be to be a tyrant acting out of unscrupulous self-interest, killing, torturing, stealing property and exiling at whim and yet to have a reputation for justice.

In Plato’s Gorgias, Polus asks Socrates whether he would choose to be a tyrant unjustly burning an enemy to death after gouging out his eyes and doing the same to the enemy’s family before the enemy himself was murdered, or instead to be the victim of the tyrant. Socrates claims that though both situations are miserable and not to be desired, but that if a choice must be made, it is better to be the victim. The victim is innocent, the tyrant a monster.

Survival cannot be the end morality promotes because survival may or may not be consistent with moral behavior. If survival really is the be all and end all, then we can forget morality and simply act in the most cravenly self-serving fashion possible.

If the only thing making reciprocity good is that it promotes self-survival, then would anything adversely affecting survival be immoral? Dawkins is not committed to saying this, but he makes no indication that he is conceptually capable of condoning non-self-interested behavior. In fact, later in the chapter we will find Dawkins calling truly moral, non-self-serving behavior a mistake while simultaneously calling it morally good.

Evidence of Dawkins’ real attitude towards morality may be the following:

“In a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you don’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.” (Dawkins R., “River out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life,” BasicBooks: 1995, p.133.)

I agree entirely. This is the logical implication of the universe as Dawkins sees it. Similar statements can be found in Nietzsche. Dawkins, like Nietzsche, appears to relish his manly acceptance of these horrors. It’s a position that can be refuted by pointing to the fact that if even one person cares about you, then “the universe” is not indifferent to your existence. That person is part of the universe and that person cares; unless we are to think of people and their actions as the product of “blind physical forces and genetic replication.” In that case, the value of caring is eliminated, since it is not voluntary and doesn’t mean anything. Unfortunately for Dawkins, if he is correct, his own words are the product of the same, and are wasted on an audience which is also conforming to blind physical forces, which is the logical import of all arguments for physical causal determinism as well.

In the God Delusion, however, Dawkins is eager to distance himself from nihilism. He recognizes that identifying atheism with nihilism is hardly going to help win adherents to his attempts to debunk theism. Dawkins continues in The God Delusion: “Altruistic giving may be an advertisement of dominance or superiority.” (Dawkins, p. 218)

The sentence is ambiguous. There is no indication that Dawkins thinks there is anything ironic in what he is saying. Altruism involves caring more about someone else’s welfare than your own. Are we to think that altruism is really just an advertisement of dominance or superiority? If that is all it is, then altruism does not exist and is in no need of biological explanation. Nor can altruism, if it doesn’t exist, be said to be promoting any biological end. If altruism actually exists, it must be more than such an advertisement.

Alternatively, the advertisement of dominance or superiority might be an unintended side effect of genuinely moral behavior. However, evidence that Dawkins intends the former interpretation can be seen when he says “Chiefs might compete as to who is the most generous; really a kind of way of advertising your success.” (Dawkins, 218)

Again, generosity turns out to be a rather ugly thing with a nonmoral motive. Instead of explaining morality, Dawkins is explaining it away as being hypocritically self-serving.

Dawkins claims that Darwin would like reciprocity – note the scare quotes around “moral”:

“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 kinship. Second, there is reciprocation: the repayment of favors given, and the giving of favors 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 advertising.” (Dawkins, 219-220)

The limitation, Dawkins thinks, is that reciprocity and reputation depend on living in small groups where the individuals know each other and meet each other repeatedly. You can’t help me in turn if you never see me again and I can’t develop a good reputation if I am an anonymous stranger.

In this scenario, in our communal origins, in being moral we would be likely to help others who share some of the same genes. The moral virtues of kindness, generosity and giving back to those who have given to you, all benefit us.

However, Dawkins thinks that when we move to larger communities all this pseudo-Darwinian biological explanation of morality falls to pieces. We can’t rely on developing a good reputation in a large social setting and we are no longer primarily benefiting people we are genetically related to.

Dawkins thinks that natural selection has produced moral rules of thumb, but like feeding the squawking chicks in your nest, when a cuckoo gets in the nest, this rule misfires.

Morality as A “Misfiring”

“Could it be that our Good Samaritan urges are misfirings? . . . I must rush to add that “misfiring” is intended only in a strictly Darwinian sense. It carries no suggestion of the pejorative.

The “mistake” or “by-product” idea, which I am espousing, works like this. Natural selection, in ancestral times when we lived in small and stable bands like baboons, programmed into our brains altruistic urges, alongside sexual urges, hunger urges, xenophobic urges and so on.” (Dawkins, 220-221)

Dawkins then makes an analogy between sexual desire and procreation. He says that sex and procreation were once linked, but now, thanks to the pill, the connection is broken. “[Sexual desire] is a strong urge which exists independently of its ultimate rationale.” (Dawkins, 221) It’s a problematic analogy because we know that aspects of sexual desire do have a biological basis, but we do not know of any biological basis for morality:

“An intelligent couple can read their Darwin and know that the ultimate reason for their sexual urges is procreation. They know that the woman cannot conceive because she is on the pill. Yet they find that their sexual desire is in no way diminished by the knowledge. Sexual desire is sexual desire and its force, in an individual’s psychology, is independent of the ultimate Darwinian pressure that drove it. It is a strong urge which exists independently of its ultimate rationale.” (Dawkins, 221)

So, sexual desire is not diminished, though its ultimate Darwinian rationale is gone. Sexual desire is still a driving force in an individual’s psychology. It is just now devoid of purpose.

The argument is that Darwinian biology gives morality its ultimate rationale. But, now that we live in larger groups, that rationale is gone. There is no longer any reason to be moral. Morality is nothing more than a misfiring; a mistake.

“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 restriction is no longer there, but the rule of thumb persists. Why would it not? It is just like sexual desire. We can no more help ourselves feeling pity when we see a weeping unfortunate (who is unrelated and unable to reciprocate) than we can help ourselves feeling lust for a member of the opposite sex (who may be infertile or otherwise unable to reproduce). Both are misfirings, Darwinian mistakes: blessed, precious mistakes. Do not, for one moment, think of such Darwinizing as demeaning or reductive of the noble emotions of compassion and generosity.” (Dawkins, p. 221)

Dawkins apparently thinks that the fact that we have the opportunity to be altruistic towards people to whom we are unrelated is a good thing. From whence does he derive the judgment that it is a “good” thing? From an outmoded, defunct Darwinian urge, according to his argument.

Dawkins is employing a full moral realism, the notion that this opportunity for altruism is good, in order to explain why we shouldn’t worry too much about the morally skeptical implications of his Darwinian theorizing. Thus, as could be predicted, Dawkins is introducing moral realism and the existence of genuine intrinsic moral goods divorced from all the self-serving elements of the supposed Darwinian basis for morality!

Having effectively explained morality away, as having its basis in being self-serving and altruism as just the quest for dominance and superiority, Dawkins wants to say that our continued moral behavior is a truly good and beautiful thing, even though it has nothing to do with being self-serving.

Where is Dawkins getting this moral judgment from? According to his own argument, his belief in the goodness and rightness of morality is just a misfiring from tendencies developed long ago and no longer relevant. No wonder he assures us twice that all this Darwinizing is not reductive or demeaning. It is both reductive and demeaning. However, Dawkins is going to save us from this miserable consequence by claiming that morality is “good” using criteria entirely free from biological determinants and never mind the contradiction.

Dawkins can either acknowledge that we have no right to be moral anymore; morality is dead and redundant because divorced from the conditions that supposedly produced it, or he can introduce a concept of moral goodness not at all derived from biology, in which case morality does not require biology for its support and the whole discussion was a waste of time and a wild goose-chase.

This is entirely typical of many such discussions. They introduce moral skepticism by claiming that morality is really something else; for instance, that it’s just a genetic predisposition over which we have no control. Or it’s a convenient fiction that is a useful lie in continuing the species. Then, at the end, they tell us that these genetic predispositions or convenient fictions are a good thing, i.e., morally good, thereby introducing a concept of morality that is independent of their biological explanation. Again, if we take their biological explanations seriously, then we know that their assessment about the goodness of morality is simply the result of convenient lies, useful fictions and genetic predispositions. They have to introduce a nonbiological notion of morality or produce a morally nihilistic position.

The absurdity of Dawkins’ position should become evident when he says “Both [sexually desiring an infertile person and morality] are misfirings, Darwinian mistakes: blessed, precious mistakes. (Dawkins, 221) Calling morality a blessed mistake is particularly nauseating and provoking for someone writing a book called The God Delusion. There is an interesting analogy to be made, however. Just as Dawkins can no longer help himself to religious language like “blessed,” having attempted to debunk religious belief, Dawkins cannot call morality a precious mistake having debunked moral evaluations as misfirings stemming from conditions that don’t exist any longer.

What criteria is Dawkins using for assessing the moral worth, or “preciousness” of these misfirings? The very criteria he has explained away in the process of trying to explain the biological and Darwinian foundations of morality.



[1] Shankar Vedantam, The Washington Post, May 28, 2007, Start Page A. 1 Section A section.

Richard CocksRichard Cocks

Richard Cocks

Richard Cocks has been a faculty member of the Philosophy Department at SUNY Oswego since 2001. Dr. Cocks is an editor and regular contributor at the Orthosphere and has been published at The Brussels Journal, The Sydney Traditionalist Forum, People of Shambhala, The James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal and the University Bookman.

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