Sunday, August 27, 2006

Response to "If there is no God, then why be moral?"

Fellow S.O.B. blogger Brain Shavings requests a further clarification on the argument for morality independent of 'God' (emphasis added):

I challenged my fellow conservative blogger over at Porkopolis to answer why I ought to be moral at all, if God really doesn't exist and there are no such
things as objective moral standards. He replies:
With regards to: "There is one question that can never be answered by any evolutionary assessment of ethics. The question is this: Why ought I be moral tomorrow?"

We ought to be 'moral' (treat others as we want to be treated) because it maximizes the outcomes (ala Game Theory) for all individuals involved as noted in the study referred to at: Generous Players: game theory explores the Golden Rule's place in biology .
That sounds persuasive at first, but it actually misses the point. Porkopolis assumes that I ought to care about maximizing the outcomes for all individuals. That's begging the question. He's saying that I ought to be moral because I ought to care about everybody else. I ought to because I ought to, apparently.

What's with this "ought" talk he's offering? Why should I care? Let everybody else care about humanity. I want to be selfish and mooch a free ride on everybody else's concern for me.

In fact, if his understanding of morality is true then I'm being rational by being selfish. I can do whatever I want to advance my own desires, and nobody has a right to claim that what I'm doing is "wrong" because the concept of "wrongness" is nonsense. I get to exploit a loophole in the "rules" that people like Porkopolis refuse to use.

I doubt that my colleague likes that arrangement, so again I ask the question: if there are no objective moral standards imposed by a transcendent Lawgiver, then why ought I behave in a "moral" way at all?

The 'challenge' was to provide evidence independent of a "transcendent Lawgiver" for "Why ought I be moral tomorrow/ Why I ought to be moral at all"; and the challenge was addressed directly with evidence.

The response was not "ought to because I ought to". Instead it was a reasoned argument for 'ought to' (Brain Shaving's original wording) because scientific evidence is revealing that the moral way (the Golden Rule way) is the strategy that maximizes everyone's outcomes.

It's an argument that doesn't resort to an unprovable, faith-based belief in a "transcendent Lawgiver". Instead it's an argument that appeals to rationality and reasoning. Furthermore, as will be reasoned in a moment, it's an argument that is in keeping with our 'selfish' nature.

"Why I ought to be moral at all", by definition, implies a decision point and a search for a rational argument.

It's the very 'moment of truth' that rational/reasoning humans are capable of. It's as if the mind is going through a decision tree and saying, "Now, I can easily see the immediate reward of a selfish action...but what's the case/argument for a non-selfish (moral) action...why even bother when the case for immediate 'reward' is self evident."

We 'bother', because rationality and reasoning is an integral part of our genetic makeup...an inherited trait that has made us successful, at least up to this point in evolutionary time.

Our ability to reason and rationalize complements our other inherited traits; like acting in a 'selfish'/self-preservation mode. It's not a question of whether humans are rational or 'selfish'...humans are both.

There is no guarantee that an individual will act morally once provided with the rational argument, just as there's no guarantee for morality once an individual is given the faith-based 'transcendent Lawgiver' argument. But the rational argument does have an added benefit. It goes as follows:

If indeed individuals have a predisposition to act in selfish ways to maximize the viability of their offsprings, then it can be argued that it is a 'selfish' act to work towards creating an environment (society) that will maximize the outcomes for future offsprings. Applying the Golden Rule is ultimately a 'selifish' act. This type of reasoning has been put forth by Richard Dawkins and his research into the 'Selfish Gene'.

The argument for those that recognize their 'selfishness' and seek to reconcile moral actions with selfish actions is: Don't be shortsighted in your selfishness. By all means, recognize it and take it to the next level on behalf of all the generations that follow you...apply the Golden Rule and maximize their potential survival and the propagation of your genes.

A counter argument to this would be, "What incentive would an individual that can't procreate have to act in this higher order of 'selfishness'?" Medical science is removing the obstacles to infertility and the counter argument's basis.

Here's some additional food for thought: The scientific research referred to in 'Generous Players: game theory explores the Golden Rule's place in biology' provides evidence that outcomes are maximized by the Golden Rule strategy even when rationality and reasoning are not factored in at all:


...It's not that a paramecium, say, mulls over possible strategies. "You don't need to assume that the players of a game are rational and are bent on out-thinking each other," says Karl Sigmund, a game theorist at the University of Vienna in Austria. "They just have to follow their inbuilt programs."

What's needed is for strategies to be predetermined by an organism's genes and inherited from one generation to the next. Then, if one strategy outperforms the others, the individuals using that strategy will tend to have more offspring, who will also follow the superior strategy. After many generations, the weaker strategies will have been weeded out, and the players will be using the strategies that rational thinkers would have come up with...

So, applying the Golden Rule is not only supported using rationality, but it is a superior strategy even when it is implemented by organism that don't possess human levels of reasoning.

Related: Letter to A Christian Nation and Religion in Public Policy discussed on Talk of the Nation (includes audio)

Update: Commentator Brenda Bowers shares an excellent point on the need for morality in a group setting:


One can only be 'selfish' in a group setting. And then it requires that the other members of the group be 'generous' to support the selfishness of the one. It can not happen if all members of the group are selfish. Thus the need in a group setting for what we term the moral values of caring for the welfare of others in the group. This applies to all bad behaviors: the group setting is necessary and the opposite response to the culprit is also necessary. (And the group setting is required for survival!).

Update 2: Diane Rehm Show: "Moral Minds" by Marc Hauser

Update 3: Response to "Why must I behave morally, if there's no transcendent moral Lawgiver?"

Brain Shavings requests a response to a restatement of his question:
When I first asked my question and used the word "ought", I meant it in its mandatory sense. Perhaps I should re-word my question. How about:

"Why must I behave morally, if there's no transcendent moral Lawgiver?"
Response: 'Must' implies a mandate (as in 'mandatory') and is a concept that would be inconsistent with the free will that is a precondition for moral choices. Even a 'transcendent moral Lawgiver', if it existed, would find a morality resulting from mandates/coercion to be diluted relative to a morality that comes from free will.

As noted above, there is no guarantee that an individual will act morally once provided with the rational argument for the Golden Rule; just as there's no guarantee for morality once an individual is given the faith-based 'transcendent Lawgiver' argument.

1 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

One can only be 'selfish' in a group setting. And then it requires that the other members of the group be 'generous' to support the selfishness of the one. It can not happen if all members of the group are selfish. Thus the need in a group setting for what we term the moral values of caring for the welfare of others in the group. This applies to all bad behaviors: the group setting is necessary and the opposite response to the culprit is also necessary. (And the group setting is required for survival!). Brenda Bowers

August 29, 2006 at 12:15 PM  

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