Monday, June 27, 2011

Morality without God

I. Theists claim that there is no source of morality without God1 and therefore a) skeptics are "deluding" ourselves by acting moral, b) society would ultimately fall apart without belief in God, or something like that.

II. Let's put aside for the moment the fact that there are serious problems with the idea of God as a source of morality. (See, for example, the Euthyphro Dilemma.) The charge is wrong from the get-go because it misunderstands what morality is. Morality is a fundamental part of human social life--it never was a metaphysical set of commands. In the words of philosopher Patricia Churchland2, it is a "constraint-satisfaction problem" our brains solve: we have different needs and wants living within a society, and morality is the necessary way to balance them.

We are profoundly social creatures, wired to cooperate and flourish in a society. Indeed, cooperating with others has been found to activate pleasure and reward areas of the brain3. Interacting pleasantly with others is fundamental to who we are, and we need to belong with others: over a range of studies, the pain of social exclusion has been shown to activate areas of the brain associated with physical pain4,5. Moreover, social support is linked to many positive outcomes, including physical health6. (Of course, no one but theists in the heat of argument needs this research cited: would you rather go for coffee with your best friend or stab your best friend in the back over $100? Even if you are religious, does your answer have anything to do with God? If you were an atheist, would YOU now want to kill a person for monetary gain?)

Social and moral intuitions run deep: research has found that infants as young as 5 months old prefer a helper to a harmer7. Moreover, our empathic capabilities are impressive: when we see a relevant other in pain, overlapping emotional brain regions respond as when we are in pain8,9, and we feel motivation to respond. Descriptively, we have strong natural moral intuitions that guide us.

III. Prescriptively: The point is, we are very social creatures, and as social creatures, we need cooperation and trust. We all desire to live well and flourish, to borrow Sam Harris's terms10. Given these facts, there are certain things we ought to do to achieve those goals--such as cooperating with each other, creating social and legal institutions that regulate our interactions and create trust with strangers, obeying certain rules and laws, etc. These can be objective descriptions of the world: if we all decide to cheat and steal and kill each other, we will all have objectively less well-being than if we live together peaceably. (Consider: the maximally beneficial solution to a Prisoner's Dilemma is to cooperate). Why ought I not steal? Because I desire to live in a functional, friendly, and cooperative society rather than in a disjoint, terrorized, and broken society--and my not stealing is part of that.

IV. Objection 1: But, the theist may ask, why ought someone desire well-being of this sort? To that, you may answer: why ought someone desire health? Should we be afraid that without God, no one will take medicine prescribed by doctors because there is no objective command to be healthy? It's a silly question. We all want to be healthy. We all also want to live well and flourish as social animals (except for those with certain disorders, who have serious things wrong in their brain and are thus are not particularly relevant). Given that we desire this state, there are objective ways to achieve the goal and ways to get further away from this goal. If I see a tiger and have the goal of not being eaten, I ought to run away. If I am a social animal and have the goal of well-being as such, I ought to obey certain moral dictates.

Objection 2: "Not everyone wants well-being and flourishing! Religious extremists don't care about that stuff, for instance--they care about God's morality for it's own sake!" Answer: Of course they care about well-being. They just think they achieve the highest possible well-being by following certain dictates, i.e. not eating pork, blowing up infidels, disliking homosexuals. Imagine a religion that claimed the following revelation: "God wants you to do XYZ because it is Morally Right. But, if you do it, He will punish you with everlasting excruciating torment and distance from Him. If you violate these laws--which are still God's moral truths!--He will reward you with grace and closeness to Him and all goodness. Don't ask why--no one can understand God's logic!" How many people would follow the dictates of this religion?

V. In short:
1) We are wired to be social, cooperative creatures; we feel pain when we are socially excluded and when relevant others are in pain, and we feel pleasure when included or when cooperating successfully. Our physical and psychological well-being depends on successful social life.
2) Given that this is part of overall well-being we desire, just as we desire health, there are certain things we ought to do to achieve it and certain things we ought not do. The society in which women are mutilated at birth and free-thinkers are killed will objectively have less well-being than a free society, and we ought to move towards the latter.
3) We need no further metaphysical basis for morality; our everyday moral dilemmas are constraint satisfaction problems as we navigate solutions to our basic social needs.

1 I came to many of the general conclusions here on my own, but was also much influenced by Patricia Churchland's BrainTrust and Sam Harris's The Moral Landscape. I highly recommend both to anyone interested in morality, science, and religion.

2 BrainTrust.

3 Rilling, J. (2011). The social brain in interactive games. In: Todorov, A. Fiske, S, Prentice D., eds. Social Neuroscience: Toward Understanding the Underpinnings of the Social Mind. Oxford Press.

4 Eisenberger, N. al. (2003). Does rejection hurt? An fMRI study of social exclusion. Science 302, 290–292.

5 Kross, E. et al. (2011). Social rejection shares somatosensory representations with physical pain. PNAS, 108, 6270-6275.

6 Eisenberger, N. I. (2007). Using neuroimaging techniques to explore the relationship between social status and health. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 2, 159-160.

7 Hamlin, J.K., et al. (2007.) Social evaluation by preverbal infants. Nature, 450:22.

8 Singer, T. et al. Empathy for pain involves the affective but not sensory components of pain. Science 303, 1157–1162 (2004).

9 Ochsner, K., et al (2008). Your pain or mine? Common and distinct neural systems supporting the perception of pain in self and others. Social, Cognitive, and Affective Neuroscience 3, 144-160

10 The Moral Landscape.


MKR said...

Part III of your argument seems to be an attempt to found morality on self-interest. It fails because of the free-rider problem. You write: "If we all decide to cheat and steal and kill each other, we will all have objectively less well-being than if we live together peaceably." This only shows that it is necessary that human beings by and large abide by certain rules. It does not follow that every human being must abide by those rules. As long as most other people abide by them, I can benefit myself by cheating.

JewishGadfly said...

I'm oversimplifying somewhat. Part of the desire to achieve the society described involves setting up institutions that punish cheaters, as I mentioned, which then helps stop the free-rider problem and allows trust between strangers. Also, in addition to the other mechanisms I described, research has examined a strong sensitivity to punish cheaters, even at a cost to ourselves (altruistic punishment). Reputation is also key for social interaction: if someone gets a reputation as a cheater, it seriously impacts them and is hard to recover from. Another part is learning and socialization, which teach people to have a sense of guilt upon violating obligations.

So in a vacuum, the free-rider problem would be a bigger issue, but I think when you consider this within the context of human society it's less of an issue. (I.e., you can't benefit yourself that easily by cheating.) It is still within anyone's self-interest to have a society where the police capture and punish thieves; once that is true, I will be deterred more from stealing. When you consider the many other motivations to not cheat, including guilt and social consequences, I think there's plenty of motivation.

JewishGadfly said...

Also, it's not just about self-interest in the sense of material self-interest. The point is that social and emotional pleasures and pain are real and strong motivators. We feel the pleasures and pains of others, and feel pleasure and pain when we are socially connected or excluded. We expand our circle of self-care to include others. Given that, the point is that defining self-interest as monetary gain is too narrow to capture our natures.

MKR said...

The free-rider problem is not an instrumentally practical problem about enforcement but a theoretical problem about the binding force of moral rules. The question is not "How to enforce moral rules?" but "What gives moral rules binding force?" That, surely, is why you headed section III with the word "prescriptively." If you are not answering that question then you are not answering the theistic moralist. And proposing social institutions that punish cheaters does not answer the question.

Your argument, reduced to essentials, seems to be this:

(1) All human beings desire well-being.

(2) In order for human beings, by and large, to enjoy well-being, they must, by and large, abide by moral rules.

(3) Therefore, everyone must abide by moral rules.

The conclusion is a non sequitur. The provision of well-being for human beings by and large does not necessitate conformity to moral rules by all. The fact that institutions may be established to catch and punish violators is irrelevant. (Also, it is certainly not the function of civic institutions to enforce moral rules as such, but only to enforce laws which may have some basis in morality.) It will always be possible for some persons to benefit by violating the rules. So the conclusion simply does not follow. You have not shown that the human desire for well-being gives binding force to moral rules.

"It's not just about self-interest in the sense of material self-interest." I never said anything about material self-interest. I am talking about the concern with one's well-being. That is a pretty good definition of self-interest, I think.

JewishGadfly said...

But I disagree with the theist to begin with that morality is a set of rules requiring an Enforcer. Morality is a practical problem of social living. We have different interests and needs that we must balance living in society, and morality is how we do it. In that sense, as long as humans are social animals, we will have moral thought and action, as well as personal and collective motivation to behave morally. Moreover, civic institutions are thus very relevant to morality: they ARE forms of practical social problem solving.

The prescriptive part was to say that within this framework, we can still say that some options are objectively better than others--in opposition to relativism, not theists.

MKR said...

This is getting very discouraging. My criticism of your argument does not depend on any theistic notion of an "enforcer." That is your invention, without the slightest basis in anything that I wrote.

You pose the question "Why ought I not steal?" (emphasis yours). I take this to be a particularized way of posing the question "What gives moral rules (such as the prohibition on stealing) their binding force?" Your answer is that everyone desires a certain state of affairs which is unattainable unless a certain kind of social cooperation occurs, namely that people by and large abide by moral rules. Is this or is this not your argument? If it is not, then you have not shown how it is not. If it is, then your argument is patently broken-backed, as I think I made very plain in my three-step distillation of your argument.

JewishGadfly said...

I understand what you are saying. I am saying, that is not my project: I am not asking, "what is the theoretical, context-independent binding force for moral rules upon an individual?" I am asking, how do the practical context-dependent necessities and facts of social life lead to what we consider moral cognition and practices, without the need for context-independent rules? (A more casual, everyday sense of "ought," I suppose.)

In that vein, when I referenced why I ought not steal, I had in mind two things:

1) A rich contextual background for making that type of decision about social practices, including emotions, moral intuitions, personal relationships, cost-benefit analyses, reputation, social consequence, and yes, civic institutions.
2) A response to those who might claim, "Suppose a culture values thievery/wife-beating/murder as a moral imperative; who are you to say they are wrong and you are right?" The answer says, they are wrong in that those are bad ways to achieve the practical social outcomes we all seek.

James Jordan said...

"I. Theists claim that there is no source of morality without God1 and therefore a) skeptics are "deluding" ourselves by acting moral, b) society would ultimately fall apart without belief in God, or something like that."

Some may, but I reject this claim, in part anyway. I think really you are confusing two different claims. Of course there is no morality apart from God because there is nothing apart from God; nothing could exist without him. But of course there is morality without belief in God; because God has put morality in us all as a sort of innate time release capsule like in our DNA or our spirit of something. However, obviously, without belief in God people ultimately begin to reject that innate morality more and more in an every-increasing snowball into barbarity and insanity.