By Mark Esposito, Guest Blogger
For eons, defenders of the monotheistic religions have cited the introduction of morality to the human species as the unquestionable foundation for the belief in a deity that moves with humanity through time and intervenes in human affairs to fulfill his will. Philosopher Robert Adams has asserted that human moral properties “cannot be stated entirely in the language of physics, chemistry, biology, and human or animal psychology” but require a divine perspective to be understood. (The Virtue of Faith (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987)). No less a pillar of Christianity than C.S. Lewis, opined that the existence of seemingly universal laws of morality contrary to the selfish laws of nature such as survival of the fittest, implied that an intelligent creator served as the foundation and basis. To Lewis and those of his ilk, the best and simplest explanation was God as author of the good in the human heart. Lewis’ ideas were not new.
Building on Aristotle’s definition of morality as human happiness or eudaimonia, Thomas Aquinas, had contended centuries before Lewis that, ”If we speak of the ultimate end with respect to the thing itself, then human and all other beings share it together, for God is the ultimate end for all things without exception.” The thirteenth century monk therefore concluded, “There can be no complete and final happiness [beatitudo] for us save in the vision of God”; “the human mind’s final perfection is by coming to union with God.” Thus communion with the deity was the fountainhead of all human goodness and subscribing to the religion that best mapped the revelations of that deity onto human experience was the true path to human happiness and ultimate morality.
But since the time of the ancient Greeks, philosophers have been asking if religion was truly necessary for the existence of morality. Plato’s famous Euthyphro Dilemma seeks an answer to the question: ”Is the pious man loved by the gods because he is pious, or is he pious because he is loved by the gods?” Despite the efforts of generations of theist philosophers no satisfactory answer to the question has been proffered by their Divine Command Theory. Natural law theorists such as Hugo Grotius seeking to resolve the dilemma, have argued that morality existed above the will of any deity and was more like unchangeable mathematical truths than divine commands.
Other thinkers like Thomas Hobbes dismissed the innate morality of man in a state of nature altogether. Hobbes subscribed to the view of the Roman playwright, Titus Maccius Plautus, usually stated as homo homini lupus
(man is wolf to man), and that morality is but an enforced construct of the ruling class in an environment where man is perpetually in a state of war. Hobbes is a tad obscure about the role of religion, arguing that it is a foundation to enforce the morality of the ruling class as it seeks to promote cooperation among its subjects. However, Hobbes never quite deals with the fundamental tenet of religion that believers owe a paramount duty of loyalty to the deity and not the earthly powers that comprise the sovereignty of their state.
Modern humanists like Paul Kurtz contend that neither God nor religion is necessary for the introduction of human morality. For these humanists rationality and experience are the basis. Kurtz writes in his book Forbidden Fruit: The Ethics of Humanism (Prometheus Books, 1988),” One needs no theological grounds to justify these elementary principles. They are rooted in human experience. Living and working together, we test them by their consequences; each can be judged by its consistency with other cherished principles. A morally developed person understands that he ought not to lie – not because God or society opposes lying, but because trust is essential in human relations.”
In his 1994 book, The Moral Animal, humanist Robert Wright suggests that we have been conned into our reliance on divine origination of morality but not by others bent on domination via theology but by nature itself:
“Here the contention is not just that the new Darwinian paradigm can help us realize whichever moral values we happen to choose. The claim is that the new paradigm can actually influence — legitimately — our choice of basic values in the first place. Some Darwinians insist that such influence can never be legitimate. What they have in mind is the naturalistic fallacy, whose past violation has so tainted their line of work. But what we’re doing here doesn’t violate the naturalistic fallacy. Quite the opposite. By studying nature — by seeing the origins of the retributive impulse — we see how we have been conned into committing the naturalistic fallacy without knowing it; we discover that the aura of divine truth surrounding retribution is nothing more than a tool with which nature — natural selection — gets us to uncritically accept its “values.” Once this revelation hits norm, we are less likely to obey this aura, and thus less likely to commit the fallacy.”
This modern humanist view may be receiving some unexpected support as divine command theory as well as Hobbes’ bleak view of humanity come under attack. Emanating initially from a zoological park in Arnhem, Netherlands, the charge being leveled by soft-spoken biologist and primatologist, Dr Frans de Waal, is that morality is an evolutionary development in most primate species. Dr. de Waal has spent a lifetime studying the habits of primates including those at the Burgers’ Zoo in Arnhem. Eschewing the classic notion that all primates — including humans — are fundamentally aggressive and competitive, de Waal has discovered that reconciliation is at least as important as domination and control.
If you ask anyone, what is morality based on? These are the two factors that always come out: One is reciprocity … and a sense of fairness, and the other one is empathy and compassion.
~ Frans de Waal
de Waal contends that human morality is, at its essence, premised on reciprocity and empathy. His observations have led him to the believe that all primates recognize that aggression necessarily damages valuable relationships within the group and that there is a natural desire to reconcile. He supports his theory with fascinating videos of chimps learning to cooperate even when it is against their personal self-interest and even after aggressive behaviors. Another illuminating (and hilarious) video of monkeys experiencing the concept of unfairness involves two subject primates receiving different and unequal rewards for performing the same task. That sequence starts about 13:50. It’s must viewing.
Here is the fascinating video from TED:
~Mark Esposito, Guest Blogger