So it appears that my last post has struck a nerve amongst a few readers, whom I suspect are atheists. That’s not really surprising as I have encountered so many atheists in the past who account morality to evolution. For these folks, at least the ones I have encountered, they do not subscribe to universal values and truth. Also for them, there is no objective truth. I guess it is perfectly understandable for the atheist position to reject objective truth. Bertrand Russell, author of the “Why I Am Not a Christian”, contended that with God out of the picture, no other objective standard for morality (which he called “The Good”) could be found. J.L.Mackie, one of the greatest minds of atheism in recent times also admitted, in his book “Miracle of Theism”, that moral value is most unlikely without a God to ground it. He wrote that if there really is objective value, it would make God’s existence more probable than if there weren’t. He said this is a defensible argument from morality to the existence of God. Mackie rejected the notion of a universal value because as an atheist, well he had to! He adopted the evolution-based morality model and believed that we all have the feeling and sense that there is objective value but that this is only a feeling developed over a long evolutionary process. Perhaps there is more to evolution-based ethics than meets the eye. Let’s assess, shall we?
However, before my atheist readers go ballistic on me, let me first state that this article does not intend to make any claims on the existence of an objective truth or value or even universal truth. It does, however, present some arguments against some questions we may have in mind. It also intends to incite critical thinking and assessments on what atheists may adhere to and some ideas that the readers may consider under an open mind. Atheists, afterall, pride themselves to be critical thinkers and open-minded, right?
So is there such a thing as “universal value or universal truth or universal morality”?
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A reader of my last post commented:
“Morality is just a human concept.
I think the connection between evolution and morality lies on brain chemistry. If certain chemicals in the brain can control the mood and behavior of human beings (serotonin, dopamine, oxytocin, etc), then I think we can say that “moral characteristics” can be developed throughout the span of human evolution. If humans evolved from the primitive Neanderthals to the intelligent Homo Sapiens, then surely brain chemistry can also develop in humans? But then again, when dealing with morality we must always remember 3 words: “Truth is relative.” No one concept, theory, and not even dogma can conclusively point to what is moral.”
What an interesting take! It does sound plausible, doesn’t it? But let’s nitpick a little bit and see if it does hold water. Paul Chamberlain, author of the book “Can We Be Good Without God?”, offers an excellent argument questioning evolution-based morality and I credit his arguments in this piece.
So my reader is basically suggesting that our moral sense, which we humans merely conceptualized and created, was a result of our value creation stemming from our brain chemistry and evolutionary process. So if that is the case, does this make truth a creation of the mind? If we accept this, as well as the notion that truth is merely passed on from one generation of human beings to another, one could say that this truth must be nothing more than a human invention. It originated from humans and could have been thought up differently from the way it is. Like the idea that a red light means stop and a green light means go; humans invented that and could easily have reversed that if it was favored by the human mind (and brain chemistry). However, not all things we have learned from humans (e.g. our parents and ancestors) are human inventions that could have been different from what they are. There are some things that we learn from others that are not human inventions; humans teach them but we don’t necessarily invent them. They could not be different from what they are. Take for example, basic logical truths such as “a whole is greater than any of its parts” or “a thing cannot both exist and not exist in the same sense at the same time”. We learned these from our schools, our parents, other people; but it doesn’t follow that these people (or the people before them) invented these or that they could be different from what they are. It also doesn’t follow that these truths would be any different regardless of the levels of serotonin, dopamine, and oxytocin we have. We only recognize such things as truths that exist apart from us and pass them along to other people.
So now is truth really relative? Some readers may agree that it must be true since we see moral practices in different parts of the world. Doesn’t this prove ethical relativism? I do agree that we see different moral practices by different cultures at different places. However, different moral practices do not necessarily contradict the notion of a universal truth. Anyway, given the differences in moral practices that we see in different societies, what is remarkable is not really how different these are but how similar they are. In fact what we do find are fundamental value systems around the world.
If we take the UN Declaration of Human Rights that was drawn in 1948, as an example, we would recognize the demonstration of this fundamental similarity in value systems around the world. Human freedom, dignity, life, liberty, security, and many other things are said to be morally good. Racial and gender discrimination, slavery, arbitrary arrest, torture, all forms of degrading treatment and other acts are condemned. Some may say that the UN Declaration is relatively modern and it may have evolved through preceding generations. But as the English writer, C.S. Lewis’ compilation of a list of ancient moral codes, we see a highlight of fundamental similarities between them. The moral imperative against murder or cruel treatment of other human beings is found in the moral codes of the ancient Egyptians, Jews, Babylonians, Hindus, and Chinese. The command to honor and respect others is found in the moral codes of the ancient Hindus, Babylonians, Greeks, Jews, Egyptians, and Chinese. Values such as honesty, mercy and care are likewise found in a wide spectrum of ancient codes. I guess the point here is that despite the radically different conditions and situations we find people in, it is not the difference in moral practices that are remarkable, but the similarities.
Now, one may surely ask: “Ok, if there is indeed a universal truth (or value, if you will), and if people are truly guided by this set of objective and common moral principles, then how can different moral practices still exist?”
Well, it is one thing to recognize or know about an objective and universal moral standard, it is quite another to follow it. It is possible that when we find certain people who do things we condemn, they are acting in violation of moral standards that they recognize. But what about the societies that, without any remorse or any thought of wrongdoing, carry out practices that we condemn? A good example would be the classic case of the Eskimo societies recorded by anthropologists, as discussed in our Philosophy 101 courses. Anthropologists have found that in the past, infanticide was quite common amongst the Eskimos. They would leave their infant children out, to freeze to death. This was permitted by the parents and no social stigma was attached to it, yet we condemn this practice.
In assessing these kinds of things, I think it isn’t enough to ask what practices people do but also why they do it. We have to realize that a difference in moral practice may not always be because of a difference in moral principles held by the people. Different practices may be due to a difference in a group’s circumstances or conditions in life.
Considering the Eskimo example above on infanticide practice, people who hear of this practice may be quick to judge that Eskimos do not love their children as much as we do or that they do not have the same level of respect for human life as we do have. But if we ask the question why they did such things, we would see if they really love their children less than we do or whether they did have less respect for human life than we do. Perhaps this is just because they have different circumstances that forced them into such practice? Until we can answer that “why” question, we can’t really say for sure that they are following different moral values from ours.
The Eskimos in the anthropology study example lived in a harsh environment. Food was scarce in their region and mothers would often breastfeed their young much longer (up to 4 years). In addition, they were a nomadic people, unable to farm. They were always in a move to search for food. Infants had to be carried, and a mother could only carry one in her parka. In other words, these people lived on the margin of existence.
Let’s ask ourselves these questions:
1. What if I had more children than I could support?
2. What if I knew one was going to die because there simply was no way to keep that child alive?
3. What if neither I nor my community had the means to care for all my children?
4. What would we do in such situations?
Would we not search for the most painless way to bring about a child’s death because we do love our children? I think we might. That is what the Eskimos did, freezing to death, for them, is a relatively painless way to die. The child falls into a deep sleep and then dies in its sleep.
My main point is not that such practice is morally good but that it does not necessarily prove that the Eskimos held different moral values from what we hold. In other words, if we find ourselves in the same kind of situation as them, we would probably do the same. What we can learn from this is that infanticide did not signal a fundamentally different attitude toward children. Instead, we recognize that it was because of their love for their children and their respect for human life that they looked for the most painless way for them to die. So the question of “what” in differences in moral practices isn’t always sufficient, we also have to dig deeper and ask the “why” question.
Using another example, there are cultures in the world where it is believed that it is wrong to eat cows. This belief is held despite the hunger its people are suffering from. Such a society where killing cows is always wrong would appear to have different moral values from ours. It would appear that they have a greater respect for animal life than human life.
With a case like this, a person’s belief about reality makes a lot of difference. These people believe that after death, the souls of humans inhabit the bodies of cows. So a cow that we see may be our grandpa. But with this, can we really say that their moral values are really different from ours? No. The difference lies elsewhere. It is in our belief systems, not in our values. We both agree that we shouldn’t eat grandpa; we simply disagree whether or not the cow is or could be grandpa. The status of whether or not the cow is grandpa or could be grandpa does not have anything to do with morality.
Okay, let’s still say that all this philosophical mumbo-jumbo is non-sense and we really should stick to the evolution-model explaining morality. Afterall, evolution is scientific and science should and must trump any philosophical or metaphysical explanation. (Darwin and Dawkins said so, right?) So if we take the evolution-based morality as gospel truth, the question is: ““Can we condemn anything via evolutionary morality?”
Suppose aliens from Planet X came to Earth one day and interacted with us, would rape be wrong for them? Suppose that the aliens have an entirely different evolutionary history and brain chemistry from ours, wouldn’t it be conceivable that rape would not necessarily be wrong for them? If rape is wrong for us humans, we cannot just say that rape must be wrong for the aliens as well if they have a different evolutionary history and brain chemistry. On the evolutionary model, we cannot assume that the aliens’ morality would be like ours. It would depend on how their evolutionary process went and how their brain chemistry developed.
Suppose that these aliens can have sex with us, how should they act towards us? Suppose they decide to begin raping humans at will and suppose we complain that rape is wrong and that they should stop, they would have a ready response to us by saying: “Your morality is just a product of your evolutionary process and brain chemistry. They are only like your other adaptations. Any other meaning is an illusion. It doesn’t affect us”.
If morality were strictly an evolutionary or brain chemistry product, they would be correct. If morality is only an evolutionary product, then acts like rape would not really be wrong, we just have the conviction, the feeling, the emotion that say that it is wrong. So in the case of the alien rapists, they would be fully justified and we would have nothing to say to them. So with evolutionary morality, it appears that there is no basis for condemning such acts. On the evolutionary model, acts such as rape are no more wrong for us than they are for the aliens. The fact that we are humans does not make an act any more wrong in itself. It just means that we happen to have the feeling or emotion that it is wrong because of our evolutionary development and brain chemistry.
Why shouldn’t we rape, and maim, and steal, and lie, and do anything else that we want to do? We may have a feeling that such acts are wrong but in the view of evolution, it is merely a biological adaptation or brain chemistry development passed onto us over millions of years. It’s a feeling, nothing more. There is no reason to regard any act as really right or wrong.
An evolution-based ethics, although interesting, I think has its share of flaws as well. It appears that there may be arguments worth considering that point towards universal values or truth. It appears that there may be arguments worth considering that point towards universal values or truths not necessarily having been invented or created by the human mind. Lastly, with an evolution-based ethics we may not be able to really condemn a morally reprehensible act because such an immoral act may be merely accounted to a feeling or emotion due to our evolutionary development (and brain chemistry). So if you’re abducted by aliens and sent to some alien prison out in galaxy XYZ, just make sure you don’t pick up the soap dropped by another alien inmate when you guys are in the shower.
Calling a spade, a spade…