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On the Origins of Morality6 min read

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At the behest of our faithful and civil commenter Cineaste, I listened to a highly enjoyable Radiolabs show on morality, and wanted to comment on it.  Cineaste puts this show forth as his position on morality, and I believe, in some sense, is also using it to (a) propose that morality is biologically determined, and therefore, to (b) deny that there are some absolutes in morality, and (c) perhaps to contradict the "Christian" view of morality.

Cin, please note that I listened to and commented on this between 1:30 and 2:30 AM, so give me some slack on me not trying to answer you.  I have two small children and a job ;).  But I was up, so I figured I’d answer you, since you work hard at commenting (even if I do oft accuse you of non-sequiturs and lack of logical discrimination).

1. The "kill one man to save five, by action or inaction" quandary and what the brain is doing

What is interesting about this show is the idea that you struggle with moral decisions, and that certain parts of your brain are involved in this struggle.  The show argues that morality is biologically inherited from our "primate ancestors," in fact, that modern morality is really just that which natural selection preserved for us – that morality is only kept if it gave our ancestors an increased ability to survive.

I’m not sure how this plays into how you approach the Christian view of morality, but I found little that actually seriously challenged the Christian view – it was interesting, but I don’t think it really presents a cogent view of morality, and much less one that contradicts the Xian view.

1. Most of our characteristics have both nature and nurture components, so I am not averse to thinking that our sense of morality is affected by biology.

I suppose some would instantly say "no, morality is determined by God through revelation, not through biology."  I think that, regardless of the input, the revealed truths are the correct ones, esp. since nature, and human nature, are corrupted by sin, even if they bear the vestiges of the image of the Creator.

2. M orality is "pre-programmed" in.

Scriptures do teach that a sense of morality is built in.  However, it also argues that our sense of right and wrong is corrupted by sin, so that even though we are aware of what is right and wrong, we often deceive ourselves regarding morality so that we can excuse ourselves.  In fact, the bible clearly teaches that our consciences can become either hardened (failing to convict us of true moral impropriety) or weak/oversensitive (convicting us of things that are not really wrong).  Here are some scriptures on that subject:

Romans 2:14-15
(Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law, since they show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts now accusing, now even defending them.)

Psalm 19:1-3
The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork. 
Day to day pours out speech, and night to night reveals knowledge. 
There is no speech, nor are there words, whose voice is not heard.

Romans 1:18-20
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.

3. Assuming evolution to prove it is, of course, circular

First of all, this show assumes evolution, and then makes an argument that supports it.  It’s circular.  While morality may improve our survival, not all that helps animals survive, including infanticide, murder of the weak or infirm, are "moral."

It also uses the old "primitive v. modern" parts of the brain to emphasize the sense of morality ‘inherited from primates." 

4. There is a difference between looking at the animal world to determine morality and looking to the "laws of nature and Nature’s God."

The difference is, we appeal not just to the examples of animals, but rather, we appeal to the self-evident principles of human morality that should be beyond dispute, such as the equality of humans, the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. 

The show does mention that chimps have no sense of guilt or shame, and that makes us different.  Good for them. 

5. Morality is really just animal empathy in action.

While animals may engage in empathy, this doesn’t mean that morality is biological (and therefore we should look to nature to get morality, or that morality is subjective).  It merely means that they are capable of empathy.  Very nice.

6. The Development of Morality in Childhood

Of course, anyone who has studied this must have read Kohlberg.  And while studying the development of morality is useful and interesting, what does it say about the formation of morality, or more importantly, what is mature morality?

It certainly does not play into the idea that morality is entirely subjective.  It only shows that we grow in our ability to develop a more complex view of morality.  Simple rules may work in general, but reality is more complex, and a more complex view is needed if you want to be mature and effective.


So, Cineaste, I found it hard to distill a view of morality from this interesting report.  You wrote that it represents your view of morality. Just what is that view?  Is it somehow in opposition to the "Christian" view?