Good without God? The roots of morality

By Paul Braterman

Firstly, God doesn’t help any. The proof is known as the Euthyphro dilemma, after the character who in Plato’s dialogue of that name rashly tried to tell Socrates what it is to be pious. In present-day terms, does God want what is good because it is good, or is it good simply because God wants it? Most of us (including Socrates and Euthyphro) would reject the second alternative, because it would make goodness depend on God’s arbitrary decision. But that means that goodness is defined independently of what God wants, even if (for a certain kind of believer) God always wants what is good, and we are no further forward. Some believers invoke the brotherhood of man, as a consequence of the fatherhood of God. Humanists may find such people natural allies, while claiming to have reached the same conclusion more quickly, by cutting out the middleman. Finally, there are those who believe, like the philosopher Alvin Plantinga, that our intellectual and moral faculties were divinely implanted by some supernatural process. To those who find this a satisfactory explanation, I have nothing useful to say.

If our moral sense is not a miraculous implant, it must be the product of our evolution. Regarding this, we have two very different schools of thought, which I shall call the hardheaded and softhearted (or, if you want to be cruel, hardhearted and softheaded), rather like the psychologists’ dichotomy of tough- versus tender-minded.

The hardheaded view is that the natural condition of humanity is a brutal and lawless selfishness, developed in response to a hostile and indifferent Nature, which must be kept in check by a recently involved veneer of civilisation. A decade before the publication of The Origin of Species, the poet Tennyson had written of “Nature, red in tooth and claw”. Herbert Spencer, a believer in individual competition and a minimal role for the State, referred to “survival of the fittest” when challenged by “the aggregate of external forces” (he had been a railway engineer before he developed his own theory of evolution). T. H. Huxley, remembered today as a leading advocate ofDarwin’s ideas, actually held different views toDarwin’s on the nature of morality, regarding it as something imposed by society on our natural individual selfishness. Similar views had been expressed much earlier by Hobbes, for whom human life in a state of nature would have been “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short”.

The softhearted view, which I find far more attractive (though this has nothing to do with whether or not it is correct), is that our capacity for morality is a hardwired product of our evolution. This is what Darwinthought, and in The Descent of Man he speaks of our moral sense as the noblest and most evolved part of our nature, arising from the combination of what he called the “instinct of sympathy” with our use of reason. This view also has deep roots. Hobbes himself spoke of relieving his own distress by giving money to a beggar, and Adam Smith, in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, regards concern for others as an essential part of our humanity. Kropotkin, a biologist as well as a revolutionary, gave such sympathies, even in animals, a central role in biology, in his 1902 work, Mutual Aid, A Factor of Evolution. Very recently, E.O. Wilson, in The Social Conquests of the Earth, has argued that social instincts explain the remarkable evolutionary success both of insects, and of humans.

Before considering the merits of these two viewpoints, there is one misunderstanding that we need to clear out of the way. We have all heard of the “selfish gene”, but the selfish gene is not a gene for selfishness. We can see this even at the molecular level. All of us have, within our own DNA, sequences derived from viruses that infected some remote ancestor. Such sequences are passed down from generation to generation and even species to species, and can persist, recognisable but mutating, for millions or tens of millions of years. We can even construct an evolutionary tree (Fig. 1) based on the acquisition of these “endogenous retroviruses”, ERVs, and it should surprise no one (except a creationist) that this agrees with the trees based on anatomy and the fossil record, or on molecular phylogeny.

Fig. 1. Retroviral insertions in DNA (courtesy John Wiltshire, after Theobald)

Now consider the eventual fate of an ERV. Given enough time, it will mutate beyond recognition, or perhaps disappear altogether. But if it should, in the course of this random mutating, chance to adopt a form that is of some value to the organism, then it will itself become subject to the normal processes of natural selection and refinement of function. In extreme cases, it may even become essential to the organism, as is the case with an ERV that now directs the construction of the placenta in Carnivora. When your cat has kittens, she has this ERV to thank, as well as the tom next door. The parasitic intruder has become an essential member of the household.

So is the ERV driven by some sense of sympathy for the host, or a sense of fairness or duty that makes it determined to pay for its board and lodging? Of course not. Nothing is involved beyond simple natural selection. What works, works; all living things are in competition for resources; and at times, the best way to compete is to cooperate. To put it rather differently, the struggle for existence always takes place within an environment; for a piece of DNA, the environment is the individual organism; and for simians such as ourselves, the environment is the social group, outside of which any individual would be hard put to survive.

But when we try to map the evolution of human morality, we run into an immediate problem. We know of some 20 distinct species more or less intermediate between our own species, and our last common ancestor with chimpanzees. The trouble is that what a skull or a toe bone might tell us about its owner’s behaviour is strictly limited. We have fossils of molars, but not fossils of morals. We can infer what food our ancestors ate, but not how generously they shared it.

So we have to use a range of more indirect approaches, such as comparison with our closest animal relatives, careful analysis of actual human behaviour, and consideration of what life must have been like, and what strategies would have favoured survival, when we lived as groups of hunter gatherers, or indeed for gregarious species in general.

This approach suggests a number of different precursors for human morality, many of them recognised by Darwin himself in The Descent of Man. Firstly and most obviously, we have kin selection. Obviously, if we do not succeed in caring for our offspring, our line will go extinct. Slightly less obviously, each of our siblings shares as much of our DNA as our own children. When the biologist J.B.S. Haldane was asked whether he would lay down his life for his brother, he said no, but he would lay it down for three brothers, or for five cousins. Next we have reciprocal altruism. You scratch my back, and I’ll scratch yours, and if your back doesn’t need scratching today I will bear your helpfulness in mind tomorrow. Thus returning favours is simply a matter of enlightened self-interest. Very intelligent animals, like us, will generalise beyond the individual occasion, so that we can build up reputations if we seem generous and trustworthy, and the easiest way to seem generous and trustworthy is to be generous and trustworthy.

Then there are matters involving the group as a whole. If you run away when the group is closing in on the mammoth, you won’t get invited to future hunting parties. Everyone in the group has an interest in avoiding destructive conflicts, but also in ensuring that other members pull their weight. This would explain the sense of fairness, the urge to punish, and, since punishing itself is difficult and dangerous, the urge to punish those who don’t want to do their fair share of punishing.

We could consider these things in terms of the survival and reproductive chances of individuals, or of the welfare of the group as a whole. Indeed, the quickest way to start a fight among biologists, is to ask about the relative importance of individual and group selection. I am not well-informed enough to contribute greatly here, beyond pointing out that humans, like ants, practice genocide. This can alter the genetic composition of a region’s population within a single generation, as claimed (mendaciously, I trust) in the Book of Joshua, and as seems to have happened in central Asia during the Mongol invasions.

If we are looking for hardwired elements of morality, we should consider the behaviour of children, and of animals. We know that babies can imitate expressions within an hour of birth. Humans at age one show concern at another’s distress, and consoling behaviour such as cuddling, and, by age two, have a clearly developed sense of fairness. So do chimpanzees, and even monkeys, along with cooperation, reciprocity, and peace-making, as Frans de Waal shows in a not-to-be missed 15 minute TED lecture. There is plenty here, without invoking the supernatural, for our evolving moral sense to build on, and the softhearted, it would seem, have the better of the argument.

But what is good?

Evolution, as we have seen, can explain many desirable moral traits, such as sympathy, a sense of fairness, and forgiveness. But it can equally well explain nepotism, xenophobia, and vengefulness. Nepotism is just kin selection in action. Xenophobia is preference of our own group to other groups, and vengefulness will quickly show those around us that we are not to be messed with. What about the double-edged virtues of loyalty, obedience, physical courage, and patriotism? We recoil with horror from the physical courage of the suicide bomber, and can no longer understand the devotion to country that led millions inBritainand continentalEuropeto volunteer for the trenches in 1914. As for obedience,Darwin gave this a central place in his account of morality, but we, after the horrors of the past century, immediately ask, obedience to what, and loyalty to whom?

And when it comes to religious faith, or even to political ideology, we find what seemed to be unbridgeable gaps. We can all understand the value of shared beliefs in establishing a group identity, but we still have the comical spectacle of those who insist on membership, while denouncing the group’s religious underpinnings.[1] Most readers of this column will regard beliefs without evidence as unwarranted, and think it virtuous to discard them. Yet there are others who claim that accepting this or that set of beliefs without evidence is the very basis of virtue, enough to justify the difference between salvation, and eternal torment. Or, perhaps more acceptably to some readers, there are the self-styled objectivists, such as Ayn Rand, who regard selfishness as both rational and moral, and sympathy as a form of weakness. J.K. Galbraith ridiculed such positions as “one of man’s oldest exercises in moral philosophy; that is, the search for a superior moral justification for selfishness”, but I do not see how to refute it. I accept Hume’s distinction between factual and moral judgements, between “is” and “ought”, and as a result, much to my discomfort, I find myself with no way of claiming that my personal morality has any more validity than my aesthetic preferences. I do not like this conclusion, and would be grateful to any reader who can rescue me from it.

This piece developed from a panel discussion with Keith Gilmour (RMPE teacher, Glasgow Brights, Centre for Unintelligent Design) and Simon Barrow (theologian, Ekklesia) at the Edinburgh International Science festival. My first general interest book, From Stars to Stalagmites, will be published by World Scientific in June;


[1] For example, atheists, such as Jerry Coyne or myself, who insist that they are “cultural Jews”.

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0 Responses to Good without God? The roots of morality

  1. Thanks for this Paul,

    In particular your succinct explanation of the Euthyphro dilemma, which always gets me tongue tied.

    As to your question I know that Sam Harris claims progress ( or glimpses of such on the horizon ) on this front with the aid of brain scanners to identify if people do enjoy or register agreement when they claim they do.

    He is trying to set up a way of gaining evidence that is independent of mere verbal claims that for e.g. women really do not mind being put in Hijabs or Burkas.

    It is an interesting avenue but far from uncontroversial.

    I hasten to add that not having read his book, my comments are based on reviews and discussions of his book and from viewing his TED talk about it:

  2. Paul Braterman says:

    Thanks, Mark. I’m always suspicious of interpretations of what are still very coarse physiological probes in terms of finely shaded emotions, but fMRI may indeed be about to tell us a great deal to tell us about the nature of or judgments: see e.g. Neural basis of egalitarian behavior, PNAS doi:10.1073/pnas.1118653109

  3. Malin says:

    Good job on noticing – evolution explains why we act with consideration, but not why we should.

    There have been many attempts to secure a good foundation for morality. I have looked over the arguments for some years and this is my conclusion. I’ll be brief, but if you have any interest I’d be happy to elaborate.

    1) Definitions.
    The good and the bad are nothing but pain and pleasure, attraction and repulsion from things. This is not overly simplified because the theory has emergent complexity.
    When something is good for us (e.g. good wine) then it’s good in a practical sense. When it’s good for other people (e.g. generously giving someone a bottle of wine, or money to a begger, or any act which people say is virtuous) then we call it a moral good. This distinction is helpful in certain ways – primates such as we need to be able to distinguish who accrues pleasure for everyone and who hoardes for sirself only.

    2) The Arguments
    i) Epicurus said that he could not conceive of the good without the taste of find fruits, without sunshine or sexual pleasure. He spent a lot of time wandering over what’s good in life, and I think he’s as close to an expert as we’ve had since records began.
    The challenge is this: imagine I do not know what you mean by morality – I’m not evil, I just don’t know this word. Explain morality to me without referring to pain or pleasure. What should you do to people? What does ‘helping someone’ mean? What does ‘care’ mean? Without the bare instinct of good and bad, known even to monkeys, cats and squid, there is no evil or good.

    ii) Pleasure is something you want, and pain you don’t want, right? Why is pleasure good? Take a glass of water when thirsty, and tell me it’s not good – it just *is* good. Why is pain bad? If you bang your head on the table enough you will learn soon enough.

    iii) Your pain is bad and your pleasure is good. You have already established this. Everyone else’s is just as important. Why is this? I prove it in the following way: X and Y are both numbers. X = 5 and you don’t know what Y is. Whenever you use the variables X and Y they act in similar ways. Which is the greater number? You have no proof, but it’s reasonable to say that they’re about the same. That is, your good and bad are as valuable to you as everyone else’s is to them.
    Technically this is wrong. Everyone has a map of good and bads which fluctuates slowly. Now I want sleep, later I will want company. Now you want food, later you will have no use of food. Still – you have as much interest in escaping pain as anyone else does.

    So here comes the crux of the matter: If you prefer your own good and bad to other people’s then the choice is arbitrary. You know your own X values, but you cannot prefer it to someone else’s. This is inconsistent. It is arbitrary. Therefore respect others’ good and bad, not because being good is good, but because being nice is theoretically consistent.

    3) Basic Consequences
    i)Everyone should be treated equally, but some people have more use in helping others. If you can save the life of a useless and violent person or a doctor, save the doctor. Why should you? Because everyone’s equally important, and because the doctor can save more people from death and misery. With everyone being treated equally, some are still more important than others, because they provide for more people. The more you help and nurture those around you, the more important you are, from an impartial and logical point of view.

    ii) Animals require less consideration than people due to a number of factors, but still require *some* consideration. It is not ethical to raise them in hellish environments simply in return for a few burgers.

    iii) We now have an objective way to determine the answer to every moral question ever. Economists can measure pleasure and payoff (it’s not perfect, and it’s *very* time consuming and complicated, but it can be done). We can say why abortion is good (it reduces crime) and why it’s bad (it upsets the pregnant woman – but not half as much as an unwanted kid would). We can provide a mathematical proof for justification for going to war, or for not going to war, as long as we get enough information.

    iv) For the most part, you should look after yourself. Everyone’s happiness is equal, but most of us are better at taking care of our own desire than anyone else. Imagine Christmas day every day. Terrible, right? That’s because we’re better of looking for ourselves. You should help others when you can give only a little effort in return for a great benefit to everyone else.

    4) Closing Statements
    Some may want some extra ineffable special, metaphysical, pink and fluffy, ‘above and beyond’, divine something special, which is not presented here. Ignore such nonsense. There is nothing which you want in a moral schema which cannot be provided with this theory. The theory is not arbitrary or subjective.

    If anyone wants to deny this theory, they have to deny either that (a) they think that pain is bad or (b) their pain is just as valuable as anyone else’s pain (assuming the pains are equal).

    Hope this answers the question.

  4. Charlie says:

    Thanks Paul for your helpful article, and Malin for picking up the ball and taking it further. Thought-provoking stuff.

    Malin, I had 2 things I wondered if you could you elaborate on…

    1. Your ideas about how we decide good and bad in the first place. Are you saying that altruism (eg giving someone a bottle of wine) is a “good” because it brings us pleasure?

    2. What place would moral obligation or moral imposition have in your understanding of how we decide good and bad? I’m trying to think through the practical implications of “respecting others good and bad…because it’s theoretically consistent”. What about when we think others are doing something bad but they think they’re doing something good? Eg Tory tax cuts – just to take a random example! Tories think they’re doing a good – say stimulating the economy – but I think they’re hammering the underprivileged. But what can I actually say or do about that? To quote Paul’s original statement – “I find myself with no way of claiming that my personal morality has any more validity than my aesthetic preferences.” What’s the difference with the way you’ve laid things out?

  5. Paul Braterman says:

    Charlie, let me comment on your second point. Your disagreement with Tories is, on the surface, one of fact; they think that their policies will strengthen the economy and thereby increase total well-being. At a deeper level, people believe what they want to believe, especially about facts with emotional implications, even trivia like was that player off-side. Some people really believe that the rich deserve their wealth, and therefore owe no more than the rest of us to the society that enabled them to create it (Thatcher: “There is no such thing as society”, after having had her University fees and expenses paid by the State). I see this as a mixture of factual and moral confusion. Finally, there are those who for reasons of self-interest want to deceive us about the facts.

    You can respect someone, think they’re totally wrong, and regard it as your moral duty to try and thwart them. As I respect some Creationists and, for that matter, some Tories.

  6. Sriram Ambadapadi says:

    Prof. Braterman,
    Even while we realize that “what works, works..”, the moral compulsion to “thwart” the wrong thought means the hunt has moved on from the mammoths to the realm of ideas like creationism and its ilk. Game bigger than the mammoth, indeed.
    An expansion of the last paragraph, I my view, if it helps in explaining God by Evolution (like you try to do with sympathy, sense of fairness, and forgiveness) would go a long way in exposing the fallacy in creationists’ claim to parity with scientific thinking. It at least should deny them the higher pedestal they seem to be hankering for.
    But your initial thoughts about God being redundant for the Good we can believe in, would not really tell us why the idea of God originated at all. Is it the Bad, not Good that compels Belief?

  7. Sriram, good to hear from you, and very good to know that 21st Floor has made it to Florida.

    Many excellent points. We see ourselves as agents, and children accept explanations in terms of purpose at a younger age than explanations in terms of mechanism, which makes the idea of God or gods seem credible. One prominent philosopher whom I briefly mentioned, Alvin Plantinga, argues that if our minds are simply the product of evolution, there would be no reason to believe that they had evolved to perceive the world as it really is, so that science, which depends on how we perceive the world, can only be justified by invoking creationism. There are of course environments where it is possible to survive using a worldview that is unconnected with reality, such as the philosophy department of an American university, but I don’t think the African savannah was one of them. However, the evolutionary approach would predict precisely the kind of defects that we observe in both moral and factual reasoning; nepotism, xenophobia, deference to group or individual authority, self-serving judgements, willingness to leap to conclusions, and resistance to change. Julian Baggini, a very readable atheist philosopher, finds the picture I present closer in spirit to that of the doctrine of Original Sin, than to naive optimism about human perfectibility.

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