In my years of debating with theists, one of the most common accusations leveled at atheists is the trap of moral relativism. Without a system of absolute beliefs about morality, they claim, society will descend into anarchy. There will be no way to decide what is right and what is wrong, and we will have to accept everyone’s individual moral decisions at face value.
On the other side of the fence, I have spent many hours fielding accusations from non-Christians claiming that morality really is relative, and that they have the right to do whatever they want. Marriage is just an artificial construct. Sexual morality is nothing more than repression hoisted onto our backs by pious Christians. It’s a dog eat dog world, and there’s no reason why we all shouldn’t do anything and everything necessary to get ahead, morality be damned.
In the next few paragraphs, I intend to show you that they’re both right, and they’re both wrong. Morality is far more complex than either side realizes, but in a very real way, it’s extremely simple. This is the paradox of morality.
Morality is Interaction
Though many people find morality hard to define, I believe a very simple definition will serve us the best: Morality is the measure by which we judge the relative value of human interactions. In other words, a moral act is one in which the action of one individual causes a change in the environment of another individual. Morality does not exist in a vacuum. Unlike the proverbial tree which still causes a sound if there are no ears to hear, the spoken lie which is not heard has no moral value.
In this framework, morality is also much broader a concept than is commonly accepted. While some people think of morality as only concerning “crises of conscience” — the difficult decisions — I maintain that it governs nearly every action we perform nearly every day of our lives. Many moral actions are hardly noticeable because they are so mundane. But even the most basic of human interactions can be judged by the same standards as the worst crimes or most benevolent acts.
Morality is Not Arbitrary
Before we get into all of that, we need to establish one very important characteristic of morality. I said that both sides of the debate are partly right, and they are. Morality is subjective. However, it is also absolute. This seems contradictory, but when we add one more characteristic, we will see that the two sides are actually quite compatible. Besides being both absolute and subjective, morality is also non-arbitrary. That is to say, it is subjective within absolute limits.
When we say that morality is not arbitrary, we are acknowledging that it comes from human nature, which is not infinitely flexible. Human nature evolved because it was the most effective way for our genes to program us to be good reproducers. There are some ideas that virtually all humans agree on as general principles. If you think about it for a second, you’ll realize it’s almost a tautology — humans can only do what humans are capable of doing. As an example, we will never encounter a stable culture in which cutting off a random family member’s hands every morning after breakfast is considered the highest of moral virtues. Sure, some particularly charismatic cult leader might be able to convince a small number of humans for a short time, but his reign would end and the cult would die as all such cults die. On the other hand, we’re quite capable of maintaining a culture in which female genital mutilation is considered good. This is an example of the absolute limits of human nature which still allow subjective differences.
Morality is Environment-Dependent
Another factor that cannot be overlooked is external circumstances. In any situation with a moral element, there are external factors that are real and objective. These impose real limits on the flexibility of human morality. Let’s consider a simple example. Across all cultures, it is generally considered immoral to kill one’s own children. This makes sense, of course, for evolution has programmed us to do everything in our power to keep our children alive. Now, suppose that a mother is presented with a dilemma. She has twin children, each of whom has the same chance of growing up and being successful, happy, and fertile. A crazed gunman captures the mother and daughters, and tells the mother that she has one minute to decide which daughter he will kill. If she does not decide, he will kill both daughters.
This is a horrible situation to consider, but let’s examine it as calmly as possible. The mother has only two options. One of her daughters must die, and she must choose which one it will be. In doing so, she will also be saving the life of one of her daughters. Suppose that she gives in to the gunman and chooses one daughter, who is then killed. Is she an immoral person for making that decision? Anyone with half a heart would say that she is certainly not. She has made a horrible choice, but it was the best thing she could do under the circumstances.
We can make this even worse. Suppose that instead of choosing which daughter the gunman will kill, the mother is told that she must kill her own daughter by strangling her with a bit of rope. Now, instead of just being an accessory to murder, she is a murderer herself. Will we still hold her unaccountable for the act that is ordinarily seen as immoral? The sad truth is that many people will not. There are many who feel that murdering one’s children is always wrong, no matter the situation. I’ve asked this question of many Christians, and an alarming number of them have said that the mother should trust God to work the situation out for the best, and refuse to kill either of her daughters. The gravity of this statement should not be overlooked. When we believe in an absolute standard for all situations, we can justify the position that allowing two children to be killed is more good than preventing one child from dying.1
Let’s suppose for the moment that the mother decides to kill one of her daughters. We can look at this situation objectively and say that in terms of the survival of her family, she did the best thing she could do. On paper, it’s an easy answer. In our guts, though, we may find that we still harbor some disapproving feelings towards her. Worse still, if this woman is a normal human, she will feel extraordinary guilt, and will probably be plagued by her conscience for the rest of her life. Far less traumatic situations have driven people crazy from guilt.
This is where we see the hand of instinct stirring and muddying up the waters of rational morality. One of our strongest instinctual drives is the impulse to protect our offspring. It is so strong because it is of paramount importance to our genes. It is literally why we are alive. To reinforce this genetic dictate, we have been programmed with a “guilt module” that delivers intense negative feelings if we even entertain the thought of harming our own children.2
Unfortunately for our hypothetical woman, our genes have not had the foresight to program us with an “In case of coercion” module that will suspend the judgment of our conscience when we have no choice but to kill our own offspring. It’s doubtful that even one out of a hundred million women have been put in this painful position. There’s simply nothing for natural selection to work with.
We can take a valuable lesson away from this gruesome scenario. Our genes have not programmed us to feel good about making the correct logical choice in every situation. Instead, they have given us general guidelines that will benefit the species as a whole, though some individuals will suffer from the broad brush strokes of instinctive moral judgment. To put this in very simple language, our conscience is not a reliable judge of rational morality.That is so important, it needs to be repeated. Our innate feelings of guilt and pleasure are general guidelines, and will not be accurate in every situation.
Here, we have a great example of the absolute and subjective aspects of morality working together in harmony. Humans have an objective sense of immorality about killing their own children. It is biological in origin, and practical in nature. If humans had no qualms about killing their own children, our species would likely have died tens of thousands of years ago. The first serious famine would have led to all the children of the tribe being killed by the more powerful adults. However, the complexity of culture has opened up new avenues for creating situations for which natural selection could give us no preparation. In these cases, the correct answerto the moral question is the one that directly contradicts our objective instinct.
In all fairness, some might argue that this is not really a subjective issue. Subjective applies more to things that have no correct answer. Whether or not a person likes spinach is entirely subjective. There’s no imperative that they enjoy it, and enjoyment is something that varies between individuals. Any mother, faced with the choice of saving one daughter or letting both die ought to save one. There is some truth to this objection. In this instance, I am using the word subjectiveto mean “variable depending on the circumstances,” not “variable depending on the individual.” My goal is to convince you that sweeping moral generalizations are not adequate for the complexity of human experience, and that emotions are not an effective judge of moral correctness.
Let’s suppose there is another circumstance with less drastic choices. If a man discovers that his next door neighbor sells marijuana to the neighborhood school children, he might be immediately inclined to go to the police and report him. However, if the man also knows that the drug dealer has five young children, and that the income from the marijuana is the only thing keeping the rent paid, he might think again. Is it worse for five children to be homeless and destitute, or for school children to be able to buy pot?
As illegal drugs go, marijuana is far less dangerous than many others. In addition, there aren’t many choices for the woman if her husband goes to jail. Poor women with husbands in jail and five children have a very hard time finding jobs or men to help care for and support the children. Her odds are not good. However, the drug dealer might be selling pot to ten children. Are ten children smoking pot worse than five homeless children?
Which answer wins the day? Is the rule of law more important than the welfare of five children? Is pot smoking a lesser evil than homelessness? Does civic duty trump charity? The man must make a decision. Inaction on his part ensures that the rent will be paid but that schoolchildren will have drugs. Action on his part doesn’t prevent the children from getting drugs from another dealer, but then again, if nobody does their part to stop drug dealers, the larger problem of drugs in schools will never be solved.
This is indeed a very difficult question. In an informal survey among college students, I received nearly equal votes for each side. In each situation, some good and some bad consequences result from either action, and there is no objective way to measure the value of poor children against children with drugs. Sure, many people feel very strongly about their own opinions, but in the end, the question is too complex to have a single answer. In this case, the man’s decision is entirely subjective. He might well turn the drug dealer in, and another man, put in exactly the same situation, would remain silent. Neither person can be called truly immoral, for both are trying to accomplish a goal that is generally agreed upon as good.
Notice that this second example has many of the same elements as the first. The welfare – not the lives – of children is at stake, and protection of offspring is innate, or objective, in humans. Again, a choice is offered between children who will suffer and children who will escape. This time, however, the relative value of the decision is not clear cut, and there are both good and bad elements to either decision. Finally, there is still the element of forced choice. Inaction has consequences, and once the dilemma has been presented, there is no escape from responsibility.
Morality Is Internally Contradictory
Remember that morality is the name we give to our value judgments of human interactions. The key word here is value. Before we go any further, we need to establish just what kinds of things are valuable to humans. In order to do that, we need to go to the source. If a human finds a thing valuable, it is because his genes have programmed him with the capacity to find it so. This isn’t a small point. Things very seldom happen for no reason in evolution. Natural selection has a way of weeding out traits that don’t directly contribute to their own best interest, and extraneous hangers on are usually dropped off at the nearest evolutionary junkyard.
At the base of our genes’ list of desires is the continuation of the species. Genes want us to reproduce. It doesn’t stop there, though. Every species on earth reproduces, but there is incredible diversity. Diversity is very useful in adapting to different environments. We can say, then, that genes want to create organisms that fill niches. This is common sense. If there are two creatures fighting over the fruit from one tree, and there’s a different kind of tree a mile down the road, it benefits genes to make a new kind of creature that can eat the fruit of the other tree. Instead of having one population fighting over limited resources, there are now two populations fighting over two limited resources. Economics gives us a clue. Diversification is always a great investment strategy. That way, all our financial eggs aren’t in the same basket. It’s the same with evolution.
As creatures adapt to new environments, sometimes it becomes necessary to change the way they reproduce. What works for a fish in a calm pond hardly works for a mammal on dry land. If a species cares for its young, it gains the advantage of high survival rates, but it loses the advantage of producing hundreds or even thousands of young. Primates are a perfect example. The brains of primates are very large, and cannot develop fully in utero. They also take much longer to develop to maturity than those of less intelligent animals. Therefore, more parental investment is necessary. As parental investment goes up, the number of young goes down.
Some species, then, evolved into long term parents. When that happened to humans, it became advantageous to the genes to encourage parents to doggedly stay with their children, even when it presented potential physical danger – especially when it presented physical danger. The best way to do this was to instill parents with a sense of attachment to their children. The best vehicle for this is emotional attachment. Genes want us to love our children.
In some species, including humans, the investment in the young is so high that having two parents conveys a strong evolutionary advantage.3In these cases, it is in the best interest of the genes to inspire both parents to not only form attachments to their children, but to each other as well. So, we see that our genes want us to survive, to produce children, to care for children, and to care for our mates. Already we see the beginnings of conflict.
It gets more complicated still. In social animals, the genes have a vested interest in maintaining the group. A single ant is doomed to death. So, too, in our ancestral environment, a single human was doomed to death and genetic oblivion. Our genes have a great interest in maintaining social unity. To that end, it was in their best interest to give us a sense of obligation and respect towards our social group. In the beginning, this was almost certainly restricted to kin, as all members of a small tribe would be related.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t stop there. As our species multiplied and began to compete for limited resources, it became necessary for the more remotely related members of the tribe to either be banished or killed. Those who were good survivors were banished, and inter-tribal competition was born. The genes gained a new imperative. Instill in us the tendency to protect our group against other members of our own species in rival groups. The instinct for war became a survival advantage.
Human nature is not a precise formula detailing the best solution to every problem. Instead, it is a set of general guidelines. Humans who form loving bonds, raise children together, and band together with relatives to protect the tribe will tend to be good survivors. While this is true, there is another set of variables operating simultaneously. Our genes have also programmed us to compete for mates. Men want to impregnate as many females as possible to continue their line as prolifically as they can. Women want to monopolize one man to have access to all of his resources.
Both sets of programs are necessary. Competition for mates ensures better offspring, but the desire for as many mates works against the instinct to stay with our mates. Our instinct to banish or kill outsiders is necessary, but in a society where everyone is distantly related, if at all, it becomes detrimental. The instinct for males to form social bonds with other males is critical to our social system, but it is detrimental to the interests of females who would benefit from more complete parental investment.
In short, each of our instincts serves a distinct purpose, but most of them are at odds with one or more of the others. And these are not our only instincts. This is but a small sampling of the ways in which our sense of morality derives from instincts that are beneficial and yet internally contradictory. We must, if we are to be intellectually honest, admit that morality is a highly complex system without cut and dried answers.
Is There A Way Out of the Dilemma?
I’ve presented a rather daunting view of morality so far. If there are situations where there is no “correct” answer, and our instincts cannot be trusted, what are we to do? There is no way to make an absolute yardstick by which we can measure our morality, and our conscience is unreliable, so we’re left in a moral limbo. Perhaps the Christians are right, and there is no way for us to truly be moral people.
Of course, we all intuitively know that this isn’t so. The most obvious answer lies in simple observation. As individuals and as a species, we aremostly good. If you think about your own life for a moment, you will see the truth of this. Think back on the last week of your life, and remember as many moral situations as you can. I’m not talking about just the big, tough decisions. I mean every single chance you had to do a morally good thing or a morally bad one. When you ate at a cafe, did you automatically leave a tip? That was the right thing to do. Did you listen politely when your mother called, even though you needed to be doings something else? Did you take the children to school every day? Did you pick them up? If you’re married, did you remain faithful to your spouse?
Most likely, you answered yes to most or all of these questions, but this is just the tip of the iceberg. We make moral decisions almost every time we interact with other humans, either directly or indirectly. Odds are, you’ve never stolen money from an ATM. You probably always treat your friends and neighbors with respect and honesty. You teach your children to respect their elders. You encourage your daughters to be safe about sex, and you teach your sons that it’s wrong to use impressionable young women for sex without thinking of their emotions.
In short, most people do the morally correct thing most of the time. It doesn’t take knowing all the answers. It just takes being human! Game Theory predicts that social species who cooperate with each other will be more successful than species who don’t. The fact that we’re here indicates that we are from the successful ancestors, so we would expect to have an innate tendency to be morally good – and we do.
Ironically, the TV news is one of the best indicators that we are generally good. News is interesting because it is out of the ordinary. We hardly ever see feel-good reports of how Suzy Johnson spent her day taking the kids to and from school, playing bridge, and going shopping, or how Nancy Johnson went to work for the three hundredth day in a row, doing her job with quiet efficiency. We don’t want to hear about these things because they are the norm. Almost everyone conforms almost all of the time. When someone defects from the cooperation strategy, it’s news.
It makes sense that we would sensationalize deviance. Social stigma is one of the most powerful incentives to cooperate with others. In America, when a man has been labeled as a sex offender, everyone in the neighborhood is notified of it. His life becomes much more difficult and lonely, as few people are willing to be around him or to trust him around their children, or even themselves. The publicity of deviance has deep evolutionary roots.
To put an even finer point on the issue, think about World War II. This was the worst and most widespread fighting that man has ever seen, with over 62,000,000 deaths. The total population of the world was around 2.5 billion. If murder is the worst crime one man can commit against another, then the worst mass murder in the history of humanity accounted for about 2% of the population.
In conversations about the current conflict between Islamic Nations and the United States, I am constantly reminded by sensitive journalists and concerned friends that mostof the Muslims are not bad people. They’re just trying to live their lives, and they probably wish there was no reason to fight. Indeed, even though I am a career activist for atheism, I regularly admit that I believe the vast majority of theists to be good people who believe in a god who doesn’t exist.
In America, most everyone has been brought up in a Christian culture that tells us that humans are inherently evil and in need of salvation, and where News services sensationalize bad behavior. It’s difficult to accept the notion that people are in fact inherently good, and only occasionally do bad things, but a look at the statistics bears this notion out. Between our innate sense of conscience, social stigma, and legal punishment, we live in a culture where it is in nearly everyone’s best interest to be morally good most of the time – and we are.
When Innate Morality Isn’t Enough
Even so, there are times when we are faced with decisions that seem to defy the normal wisdom. We know our guts can’t be trusted, and we know that there is no guarantee of the outcome no matter what we choose. It is in these situations that rationalist materialism shows its true value as a philosophy. When we realize that morality is contradictory, and that we do have quite a bit of subjective leeway on a lot of issues, we are left with the beautiful conclusion that we can base our moral decision on our own priorities, and so long as our action is well intentioned and we have no intention of doing a great injustice, we can sleep comfortably at night. We can also rest easily knowing that many circumstances — perhaps most circumstances — provide us not with a list of “absolutely right” and “absolutely wrong” answers, but rather a wide number of options which can be described as “better” or “worse” based on their predicted outcome and our own assessment of the values involved.
In contrast, the idea of an immobile, constant set of moral absolutes leaves us with nothing to base our decision on. If we blindly follow a set of rigid guidelines, we will be no better than our genes, which have played roulette with each of us. The reason natural selection works is that it doesn’t care at all about any individual. The “goal” is for a species to survive, and individuals are completely expendable. Worse, their wants and desires are irrelevant so long as they obey the dictates of the genes – reproduce and ensure the survival of your offspring. Fortunately, evolution has blindly stumbled upon higher intelligence as a marvelous adaptation. By instilling each of us with enough brain power to evaluate each situation as it comes up, natural selection has killed two birds with one stone. Instead of programming us with an intensely complicated and ultimately unworkable set of reactions for every conceivable situation, it has given us the freedom to deviate wildly from our instincts. In this way, individuals become more likely to survive an unforeseen crisis, and the species as a whole benefits.
Like all other ‘higher’ animals, humans are programmed with a set of instincts, and we follow them without thinking most of the time. This is normal and expected, for most of the time, our activities are rather mundane. However, unlike less complex animals, we have the ability to think beyond our own instincts and make decisions that contradict them. It isn’t a perfect system, since many of our instincts are contradictory, and many situations are very complex, with no clear answer. Even so, the net result is that the entire species benefits, and individuals have a chance to avoid the uncaring mandate of evolution and find personal happiness in defiance of the biological ‘norm.’
Where Do We Go From Here?
Ethicists have been working for centuries to come up with the “best” moral algorithm. Concepts like utilitarianism, pragmatism, egalitarianism, epicureanism, hedonism, consequentialism, etc, are the brainchildren of these attempts. As most philosophers are quick to point out, each of them is limited in its ability to describe every conceivable moral dilemma and prescribe the best possible choice. This is to be expected, based on our observation that morality is internally contradictory.
There is great promise from the unification of the sciences. Psychology has benefited enormously from the invention of the fMRI, which allows us to see how the brain works in real time. We can – for the first time in human history – literally look into our minds to see how they work. We can give concrete answers to many questions of moral reasoning that have been largely guesswork until now.
Biology and zoology have given us great insight into the dynamics of social systems. Reciprocal altruism is now recognized as a system of economics, which brings Game Theory and the study of stochastic systems into the picture.
In the end, it is unreasonable to suppose that we will build the perfect prescriptive system of ethics. But what we can work towards is a very, very good one. The more we know about ourselves, the clearer we can see the consequences of our actions both on the micro and macro levels. History bears out the principle that with more understanding comes better morality. It is inconceivable today to speak of blacks as a “lesser species.” Science has erased any pretense for discrimination. While this doesn’t mean that science has ended discrimination, it does mean that it has made it extraordinarily difficult to justify it. So too with women. (If we were relying only on Biblical principles and not science, we’d still be keeping slaves and owning wives. Isn’t it great that we’ve moved past that?)
It might feel a little scary to admit that morality will always have fuzzy edges, but that is the reality that science has shown us. There will always be some immorality in the world. It’s just part of the human condition. And we will always fight about the fringe issues. But with more knowledge comes the ability to improve ourselves through a combination of instinct and higher intellect.
1I realize that there are other ways to justify inaction and call it good, and I don’t wish to nitpick them. I am presenting a case for morality in which there are different yardsticks available, so if you’re going to make this objection, you’re simply arguing for my point.
2The concept of “modules” in Evolutionary Psychology has come under considerable, and I think well deserved, criticism. I am using the term as a colloquialism and not a scientific term. I simply mean that humans are hardwired to have a strong desire to protect their own offspring.
3We need to remember that modern society is much different than our early evolutionary environment. Egalitarian cultures with laws designed to make women more self sufficient are incredibly new to humans. We are fortunate to live in a time when our brains have extended us opportunities that we would not have had at virtually any other time in history.