12 April 2012

Thoughts on that old morality thing

If you haven't watched Frans de Waal's excellent TED talk I post the other day, do so now – it's very provocative and informative.

De Waal's central point, which he emphasizes in his books as well, is that human conceptualizations of morality are not uniquely human at all, but form a continuity with our evolutionary ancestors. The pillars of morality, as he calls them – a sense of fairness and justice, and empathy and cooperation – are deeply embedded in many of our modern evolutionary cousins. While deWaal rightly points out that morality is more than these two foundational pillars, he notes that without them it is nothing at all.

The religious claim to moral authority is perhaps the single most vacuous argument for religious belief that exists – arguments that only religion provides an "objective" standard of morality, and without religion no one has any reason to treat other kindly instead of cruelly.

The most obvious elephant in the room is that even if it were true, nobody has direct, objective, and independently verifiable access to the mind of God. Few agree on what God is, much less what God wants. All religions are subject to a virtually endless parade of very subjective interpretations, and people simply impose their own sociocultural biases onto their holy text of choice. 

The second most obvious fact is that there's no evidence that humans do, or ever have, adhered to any objective, fixed set of moral standards. Moral standards have varied wildly throughout human history and from one culture to the next. What is evident, rather, is that given a certain set of circumstances and the specific information available, most rational humans will arrive at similar conclusions regarding the best course of action.

The beginning of the end.
Thirdly, the notion that moral virtue is best defined as obedience to authority fundamentally confuses what morality is. Morality is not taking the right course of action because it is coerced out of the promise of reward or the threat of punishment; moral action is done regardless of either. The story of Abraham sacrificing his son to God is a fine example of an antiquated belief that blind submission to authority was more virtuous to taking what any rational person would consider the right course of action. Christopher Hitchens famously opined that if God demanded that he sacrifice his son to prove his piety, he would respond to God with, "no, fuck you!" – and that would be the right thing to do.

The fact is, we humans – being social, bonded, unequal and interdependent – have innumerable rational reasons to respect and value one another. We accomplish more when we share resources and work together. We create a better world for everyone when we're altruistic (since it could just as well be us or our loved ones in need). The existence of rational reasons for treating others the way we wish to be treated removes any necessity of an absolute moral authority. That's only necessary when you have to rationalize horrible things, like total war, slavery, and the subjugation of women.  

I wrote about this a while back, and re-reading the subsequent conversation in the comments section, I spotted a quote in defense of religion that caught my eye:
[You] are right that mere obedience to an authority would not in and of itself be moral. However, we could rationally consider our obedience moral if the standard (or the authority) to which we were obeying was always moral.
This defense fails for a ridiculously obvious reason: it's relying upon an external source of moral standards by which to judge this authority. The whole point of religious moral authority is that the essence of morality itself is derived from this authority. But if we can judge for ourselves whether the standard set by this authority is good or bad, we are appealing to our own moral reasoning. Any way you slice it, religion can make no claim to being a moral compass for humanity – people just mold religion to fit their own biases.

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