“No,” my friend insisted, “Morality is just a social construct. It’s a product of ‘group-think,’ a way for the herd to govern itself. It’s just part of the way the mind works, and like the mind, it evolves with the passage of time.”
We had been discussing (here) whether the existence of morality was evidence tending to show the existence of a supreme law-giver, God. I argued that morality is a message, a set of instructions influencing us in how we should act, and that messages only come from intelligent sources. Since moral messages are coming to us from outside of our cultural or temporal setting, there must exist, somewhere, a source for these messages. He disagreed, arguing that such “messages,” if they exist at all, come ultimately from us.
“Slow down a second,” I said. “Let me grant part of what you say. I agree that some rules, some instructions as to how we should act, come from us. We develop social conventions that help us navigate situations in ways that are mutually productive, and each culture may view these customs differently. Looking someone in the eye when discussing a contentious issue might be a sign of respect in one culture but a grave insult in another. We obviously have to know these things if we want to avoid unnecessary bloodshed.”
“Exactly,” he said, beginning to gloat that he had made his point.
“But,” I continued, “the issue here isn’t whether some rules are man-made. No, the question is whether there are any rules that don’t stem from us. Because, if there are, we’re back where we started, in need of an adequate explanation. So, even if I can identify only a handful, or perhaps even one, ‘message’ from an external source, my argument would retain its validity.”
“But you can’t,” my friend insisted. “It’s all just man-made.”
“I don’t think so,” I began. “What you’re not considering is the whole process by which we make moral decisions. It’s not simply learning rules of the road, or rules of behavior. Part of the ‘message’ that we’re receiving is that we really ought to act a certain way. We may disagree on what that way is, but we intuitively try to align ourselves with that ‘right way,’ all the while condemning others who view things differently, or who act differently. We want to not only do what we think is ‘right,’ but convince others of that as well. Why should that be so?”
“Evolution, of course,” he countered. “People who get along with others, who want to do the ‘right thing,’ will survive longer than people who buck the system, so they will produce more offspring over time.”
“Nice try,” I said, “but do you really think that’s an explanation? What makes you think that the guy who cooperates will get rewarded? Take a look at our early history. It looks like ‘might makes right’ was – and still largely is – the human condition. The history of humanity’s behavior is not one of compromise, but of conquest. It’s only with education and enlightenment that people began to change their views, to see the value in compromise. They needed to be taught a different way. And it’s taken us a long time to get here from there, but I don’t see any evidence that ‘evolution’ has much to do with it. Our capacity to judge situations and make moral choices seem to be intrinsic to us; it’s what informs those choices that has changed.”
“How so?” he asked.
“Take a look at what Christ’s message to the world did to the prevailing view of that day. Take any subject where you think we’ve made progress over the centuries, whether it’s slavery, equal rights for women, rights for children, care for the poor or help for the disadvantaged, and you’ll see Jesus’ radical message about universal brotherhood, about God and our need to heed God’s command to love one another. Our moral progress, to the extent that it exists, stems from a change in ideals. Our external behavior has changed, at least to some degree, because we have adopted a way of thinking that extols virtue, that encourages the value of service, that recognizes the equality under God and therefore under the law of all human beings. We’re still getting lots of stuff wrong, but he gave us a radically different value set as to these issues.”
“Wait,” he interrupted, “You can’t bring Jesus as God into the picture in order to prove that there is a God.”
“You’re right, ” I conceded, “But I’m not trying to do that. It doesn’t matter, for these purposes, whether Jesus was God in order to make this point. The change came in the things, or ideals, that we value, and that wasn’t the product of evolution. In fact, the ideals haven’t changed since Jesus’ time. We’ve just gotten better, in some areas anyway, of putting these beliefs into practice. And I can show you how that is.”
“I’m waiting,” he smirked.
“You think that what we view as morality is simply our genes operating as a product of cultural heritage. But the fact that we assess and condemn aspects of our own culture, of our current culture, is proof that something far different is at play. Lions never gather the pride and consider whether hunting prey could be done in a more ‘humane’ fashion. They operate on their internal programming, their instincts. If conditions change, they may learn to change their approach or their tactics. That would be ‘evolution.’ But we do more than simply change our customs; we ask the question, of ourselves and others, is this the ‘right’ thing to do? There is a part of our minds that engages the question from an ‘outside’ perspective: is this the way things ‘should’ be? This capacity in humans, however, does not itself change. We don’t evolve away from that question onto to newer or better questions. The question about right behavior always remains. If morality was simply a byproduct of ‘evolution,’ we would just act; we wouldn’t ask ourselves whether our current way of acting was ‘wrong’ or could be improved upon. What changes, in any particular time or place, are the situations we confront, and often what we consider to be ‘right’ in a particular situation. But the desire to ‘do right’ – even if only as we see it – remains. That’s what needs explaining. Why do human beings feel the need to justify their behavior? To compare it to a standard of right and wrong? To align themselves with the ‘right’? This never changes; the situations we confront are what change.”
“No, no, no,” my friend interjected. “You’re way off here. What you’re talking about is simply ‘reason.’ We each have the capacity to think, and all you’re describing are examples of thinking, of reasoning.”
“Really?” I paused, wanting him to think about it. “You say reason explains it, but reason is the tool by which we discern things, by which we come to know things. It is not an authority itself. What we’re looking for is not ‘how’ to think through a problem, but instead what the ‘right’ outcome is. For that we need to know the rules, what a right outcome looks like in the first place, where the ‘authority’ is for claiming that something is ‘right.’ We know ‘how’ to think – we do it naturally – which is what you are referring to with the term ‘reason.’ But those rules of ‘right’ behavior have to first come from somewhere for reason to start working on them, leading us to them. They must be fixed, or they’d be of little value to us. If I want to build a house, for example, the nails and hammer are the tools. I would use these things to reach a result. But it’s the blueprint that is the ‘authority,’ the thing I am following, and it must be set before we begin the work; it tells us what a ‘good outcome’ looks like. What I’m getting at here is how we all seem to agree – how we recognize intuitively – that there is an authority out there for us to access. Something – no, someone – is there, and we seem intent on justifying our behavior to him, even when we consciously reject his very existence.”
“I don’t know,” he countered, but he seemed a bit more hesitant.
Was I making progress? Probably not, but it certainly felt like the ‘right’ thing to do.
Posted by Al Serrato