Posts Tagged ‘morality’

“[D]reams of perfecting human society always runs smack into human nature.”

— Thomas Lifson, editor and publisher at American Thinker

When I hear people from other countries bad-mouthing the U.S., it bugs me. Don’t they see that we’re the good guys? Can’t they see what a great society we have here? But, what really bothers me is when Americans bad-mouth America. These people actually live here, yet, to hear some of them talk, you’d think we were the equivalent of Apartheid South Africa or Nazi Germany. Why is that? Why do these people only see evil and corruption and all the imperfections?

In a debate with Gore Vidal and Richard Higgs about why America is hated, Hoover Institution scholar and author Dinesh D’Souza was asked by the moderator why he thought that very bright, literate, and well-spoken people such as Vidal and Higgs could feel so profoundly “alienated” from the United States as it exists now.

Dinesh D'Souza

A very youthful-looking Dinesh D'Souza

D’Souza’s response:

One reason they are alienated is that they are Americans. And, by this I mean it is a peculiarity of America to generate within the country a kind of anti-Americanism that I don’t see other countries generating. And I’ve asked myself why that is. I think one reason is that I’m comparing America to other countries. I’m using an historical or comparative standard. Americans tend to use a Utopian standard. They tend to judge America by a standard that no other country could survive, and therefore they smearingly say, ‘Well, Americans are only pursuing their self-interests. They’re only after oil. They’re only after resources.’ But we expect everybody else to pursue their self-interests. So, the very fact… I mean, if the Chinese or the Arabs killed 10,000 of their own people, what is the world reaction? Most people sigh and then they go back to eating their breakfast. And why? Because people kind of expect the Chinese and the Arabs to do that. But, if America in the middle of a war accidentally kills 200 people — bombs a school or hospital — it’s a worldwide outrage, there are protests, there’s an investigation, people are halled before the Hill.

What does this mean? This, to me, testifies to the moral superiority of America, because it is judged by its own residents (and by others) by a standard that no other country could meet.”

I think D’Souza is definitely onto something here. (Although, I might have qualified that it is more often those Americans on the political “center-Left” who tend to use a Utopian standard. The farther Left, the more irrational the expectations. But, I digress….) Despite all the good the U.S. has done and continues to do — e.g., provide its citizens unmatched freedoms and opportunities; fight fascism and remove brutal dictators; donate billions of dollars’ worth of food, medicine, construction materials & labor, and other aid (from both the government and private citizens & organizations); forgive debts of poor nations; etc. –, it is never sufficient for those looking for perfection and constantly suspicious of our nobler motives.

Of course (and D’Souza has said as much elsewhere), this is not to say we should ignore the shortcomings of the U.S., both present and historical. President Obama certainly likes to apologize to the world for America whenever he travels, just as he continuously pointed out America’s shameful imperfections — or, at least, what he perceives them to be — while on the campaign trail. (Which he still seems to be on, come to think of it.) But, whereas the Left tend to harp on the negative and accuse and self-flagellate and dwell in the past, the Right tend to acknowledge — that is, when it can be agreed that injustice has been done — and press forward, striving to do better. (Ironic that the Left likes to be called “Progressive”, huh? Who are they trying to convince?)

Alright, I’ll stop before I get off on a tangent. (F.y.i., I am planning a multi-parter on American exceptionalism in the next few weeks, so stay tuned for that….)

Now, maybe my “right-wing bias” is showing, and I am generalizing, but that’s how I see it. Anyone agree? Disagree? Half ‘n half? Is D’Souza off his rocker? Am I? (No comments from my relatives, thank you very much.)

Last time (Part 1 & Part 2), Beckwith & Koukl demonstrated how the evolutionary approach to explaining morality actually denies it. Now, for an even bigger problem…

Why Should I?

This third observation uncovers the third and most serious objection to the idea that evolution is adequate to explain morality. One question can never be answered by any evolutionary assessment of ethics: Why ought I be moral tomorrow?

One of the distinctives of morality is its ‘oughtness,’ its moral incumbency. Assessments of mere behavior, however, are descriptive only. Since morality is essentially prescriptive — telling what should be the case as opposed to what is the case — and since all evolutionary assessments of moral behavior are descriptive, then evolution cannot account for the most important thing that needs to be explained: morality’s ‘oughtness’.

Chimpanzee in deep thought

Chimpanzee in deep thought

One question really needs to be answered: Why shouldn’t the chimp (or a human, for that matter) be selfish? The evolutionary answer might be that when we’re selfish, we hurt the group. That answer, however, presumes another moral value, that we ought to be concerned about the welfare of the group. But why should that concern us? They would say ‘because if the group doesn’t survive, then the species doesn’t survive.’ But why should we care about the survival of the species?

Here’s the problem. The responses intended to explain morality ultimately depend on some prior moral notion to hold them together. Based on an evolutionary view, it is difficult to explain why we should not be selfish, or steal, or rape, or even kill tomorrow without smuggling morality into the answer.

The evolutionary explanation disembowels morality, reducing it to mere descriptions of conduct. The best the Darwinist explanation can do — if it succeeds at all — is explain past behavior. It cannot inform future actions. But prescription, not description, is the essence of morality. As we have seen, evolution may be one explanation for the existence of conduct we choose to call moral, but it gives no reason why we should obey any moral rules in the future. If one countered that we have a moral obligation to evolve, then I’ve won my point. If we have moral obligations prior to evolution, then evolution itself can’t be their source.”

Hah! I love it.

Earlier in the chapter, the authors point out:

Evolutionists may be right when they say that we’re not compelled to adopt the morality of evolution. The danger of social Darwinism, however, is not that society must adopt the law of the jungle but rather that it is allowed to. The exploitation of the weak by the strong is morally benign according to Wright’s evolutionary view of morality.

What Darwinists cannot do is give us a reason why we ought not simply copy nature and destroy those who are weak, unpleasant, costly, or just plain boring. If all moral options are legitimate, then it’s acceptable for the strong to rule the weak. No moral restraints would protect the feeble, because moral restraints simply wouldn’t exist….

Bongo is not a bad chimp; he’s just a chimp. No moral rules apply to him. Eat the banana, Bongo.”

Chimp sitting and eating

Bongo the Chimp finishes his banana

In my last post (Part 1), Koukl & Beckwith explained why morality entails more than mere conduct; motive and intent are also parts of the equation.

Denial by Neo-Darwin

This leads us to the second problem, which runs much deeper than the first. When morality is reduced to patterns of behavior chosen by natural selection for the survival value, then morality is not explained; it’s denied. Wright admits as much. [This is a reference to Robert Wright, journalist and author of The Moral Animal — Why We Are the Way We Are: The New Science of Evolutionary Psychology.] Regarding the conscience he says: ‘The conscience doesn’t make us feel bad the way hunger feels bad, or good the way sex feels good. It makes us feel as if we have done something that’s wrong or something that’s right. Guilty or not guilty. It is amazing that a process as amoral and crassly pragmatic as natural selection could design a mental organ that makes us feel as if we’re in touch with higher truth. Truly a shameless ploy’.

Evolutionists like Wright are ultimately forced to admit that what we think is a ‘higher truth’ or morality turns out to be a ‘shameless ploy’ of nature, a description of animal behavior conditioned by the environment for survival. We’ve given that conduct a label, they argue: morality. But they say there is no real right and wrong.

Comtemplative chimp

Contemplative chimp

Does Bongo, the chimp, actually exhibit genuine moral behavior? Does he understand the difference between right and wrong? Does he make principled choices to do what’s right? Is he worthy of blame and punishment for doing wrong? Of course not, Wright says. Bongo merely does in a primitive way what humans do in a more sophisticated manner. We respond according to our genetic conditioning, a program ‘designed’ by millions of years of evolution.

Philosopher Michael Ruse admits that evolution and objective morality are at odds: ‘Considered as a rationally justifiable set of claims about an objective something, ethics is illusory. I appreciate that when somebody says, ‘Love thy neighbor as thyself,’ they think they are referring above and beyond themselves…. Never the less… such reference is truly without foundation. Morality is just an aid to survival and reproduction… and any deeper meaning is illusory.’

The evolutionary approach does not explain morality: it denies it. Instead, it explains why we think moral truths exist when, in fact, they don’t.”

Go here for Part 3.

Every once in awhile, you hear someone trying to describe how evolution/Darwinism — really, the Neo-Darwinian Synthesis — explains “morality”. Often the explanations involve recent observations of “morals” (or the rudiments thereof) among one or another type of animal — elephants, whales, birds, cats, dogs, apes, etc. But, IMHO, there is always something missing. The naturalistic philosophers and scientists never really explain the concept of the transcendant, objective morality. At best, all they can do is suggest why certain individuals or communities — human or perhaps not — may adopt a certain code or guidelines to live by. Why is that?

Rather than try to piece something together myself, I’d like to address this issue, at least in part, by quoting from a couple philosophers. (Don’t worry; they are quite readable for us layfolk.) The next three posts will constitute a passage — roughly 3 pages’ worth — from Relativism: Feet Firmly Planted in Mid-Air (1998), by Francis C. Beckwith and Gregory Koukl. Hope you enjoy it!

More Than What You Do

Recent studies have attempted to show that animals exhibit rudimentary moral behavior. In one case, a group of chimpanzees ‘punished’ Bongo, a ‘selfish’ member of their band, by withholding food from him. Apparently the moral rule was this: Chimps shouldn’t be selfish.

Chimp eathing a banana

Chimp eathing a banana (ooh-ooh! yum!)

This assessment has serious problems. First, drawing conclusions about animal morality simply from behavior reduces morality to conduct. But true morality also entails nonbehavioral elements, too, like intent and motive.

We can’t infer actual moral obligations from the mere fact of a chimp’s conduct. We can observe that chimps in community share food and that when they do they survive better. But we can’t conclude from this that Bongo ought to share his bananas or else he’ll be immoral because he hasn’t contriguted to the survival of his community.

Further, in fixing blame we distinguish between an act done by accident and the same act committed on purpose. The behavior is the same, but the intent is different. We don’t usually blame people for accidents: If the boy didn’t intend to trip the old lady, we don’t fault him.

We also give attention to the issue of motive. We withhold blame even if the youngster tripped the elderly woman on purpose if the motive is acceptable: He tripped her to keep her from running in front of a train….

Motive and intent cannot be determined simply by looking at behavior. In fact, some good behavior might turn out to be tainted, depending on the motive and intent: giving to the poor when one wants to be well thought of, instead of having a genuine concern for the recipients. Indeed, it seems one can be immoral without any behavior at all, such as plotting an evil deed that one is never able to carry out.

Morality informs behavior, judging it either good or bad; it’s not identical to behavior. Rather it is something deeper than habitual patterns of physical interaction. Therefore we can’t draw conclusions about animal morality simply based on what we observe in their conduct.”

Go here for Part 2 and Part 3.

I don’t think I’ve ever heard or read anything by radio-host & columnist Andrew Tallman before. But, I was impressed with his current article at Tallman clearly explains not only the hypocrisy of those who complain about those on the political Right trying to “legislate morality” but also why legislating morality is OK. In fact, as Tallman says, “Simply put, we legislate morality because it’s the only way to get some people to behave.”.

This isn’t the first time I’ve heard/read this clarification about the character and purpose of (good) laws, but it is a good reminder and well done. I could say more, but it would be better if you just click on the link and read the article. You will be glad you did.

Did you ever hear someone say “All religions are the same.”, or something along those lines? Or, maybe you’ve said it yourself. Did you ever really think about that statement? Does it make sense?

I say, “Not even close.” Hear me out….

Sure, religions have some things in common. That’s why they are all called ‘religions’. For example, each religion has some sort of belief system about physical and metaphysical issues, often expressed in rituals and ceremonies. This belief system in turn influences a broader worldview, a picture of reality.

Then there are “organized” religions, which have a few more things in common, like hierarchies of authority, “official” creeds, scriptures, perhaps special buildings where adherents gather to worship (something/someone) and/or receive teaching. Some religions also share certain basic beliefs and values. For example, many espouse love, justice, the Golden Rule (i.e., “Do unto others…”), strong family ties, etc.

But, are they all the same? No. In some cases, there may be a few similarities, but it is really the differences that matter. Even in regards to those “common” things I mentioned, each religion has a somewhat different idea of what each thing entails. Different religions make different truth claims. Some religions believe in many gods (polytheism), some believe in one God (monotheism), while others say there is no God (atheism). Among monotheists, there are differing concepts of the nature and abilities of that God. For example, some say He/She is personal (i.e., an intelligent, self-identifying “person” or entity), and others say God is an impersonal “it”. Of the former (e.g., Jews, Muslims, Christians, etc.), one teaches that Jesus Christ is/was God incarnate (among other details), while the rest do not.

Some religions believe in an afterlife; some do not. Some say the world of matter/energy/space we live in is infinite and eternal; some say it is finite in both space & time. Or, even that it is all illusion. And there are often different branches, sects, denominations within a religion. They branched off because one group held a strong opinion or conviction on one or more issues that differed from the rest of the adherents. One may teach that it is OK to murder people in God’s name, while others hold such an act to be terrible and immoral. Most of these are either/or issues. In each case, either one is true or the other, but they can’t both be true. Many of them are very important details — crucial differences, in fact, that can have significant consequences in both life and death. And there are MANY other examples….

So, you see, all religions are NOT the same.

“OK,” you say, “but all religions are still the same, in that they are equally good (or bad), moral (or immoral, or amoral). No religion is really better than any other.” But, that’s a topic for another day….