Thursday, June 23, 2011

Radical Corruption and Knowledge of Morality

"Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made."
Immanuel Kant Idea for a General History with a Cosmopolitan Purpose (1784), Proposition 6

"For we too were once foolish, disobedient, deceived, captives of various passions and pleasures, living in malice and envy, hateful, detesting one another."
Paul Titus 3:3, HCSB translation

The Apostle Paul and philosopher Immanuel Kant have a similar view of the morality of mankind, i.e., mankind is like a crooked piece of timber, i.e., mankind's moral inclination is bent toward evil or radically corrupted. Some would say that man is totally depraved and I would agree that, spiritually, mankind is totally depraved, but I prefer to say mankind is radically corrupted. Why? I think we all know even the most heinous person, e.g. Hitler, could have been even more morally depraved than he really was, there is always room to grow, right? So, we can't say that mankind is totally depraved morally speaking, so I will use radical corruption for my description of man's state before regeneration.

Given the warped timber of humanity, it's difficult to imagine how we can even acknowledge morality. If we are indeed radically corrupted people, "...foolish, disobedient, captives of various passions and pleasures, living in malice and envy, hateful, detesting one another," then how do we even know such actions and behaviors are wrong? My dog doesn't know his actions are wrong. When he "steals" my other dog's food, he hasn't a clue that such an action was wrong. Or when a dog attacks a cat for no reason, he doesn't know such an action is "bad." Humans know good from bad. We know morality is selflessness. Why would morality develop in creatures who are obsessed with survival and reproduction? Why would creatures be selfless? There are natural explanations.

Charles Darwin developed the group-selection argument in The Descent of Man: "“although a high standard of morality gives but a slight or no advantage to each individual man and his children over the other men of the same tribe, yet . . . an advancement in the standard of morality will certainly give an immense advantage to one tribe over another." This argument was popular for some time as it seemed to reconcile evolution and morality. However, as we now know, the argument is flawed and has been abandoned due to questions such as, "Why would the tribe be self-sacrificing in the first place?"

Atheist Richard Dawkins stepped up to the plate to answer the question. In Dawkins' book The Selfish Gene, he develops the argument, you guessed it, that our genes are selfish. He says individuals are, "survival machines — robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes." The selfish gene argument is not without merit. Think of a mother rushing into a burning building to rescue her children. Is she acting out of motherly instinct to save her children? Is that why she is putting herself in danger for her children? According to the selfish-gene argument, no she is not. Fifty percent of a child's genes come from the mother. What may look like a mother acting selflessly to save her children, is actually a mother's genes acting selfishly to ensure their survival through the offspring. To us, such an action of bravery seems altruistic, but genetically the action is selfish.

Kin-selection is another label for selfish-gene morality. Kin-selection is also observed in nature. Animals of a same kind, e.g. prairie dogs, give warning calls to each other if a predator is nearby. The one giving the warning call is putting its life in danger. Why? Kin-selection tells us the one giving the warning call is not maximizing its individual change of survival, but the survival of its genes living on in the next generation. Helping one's kin is actually, genetically, helping oneself.

At this point, one realizes human beings don't only help their relatives, they also help strangers; what about that? Well, naturalists have an answer for that form of morality too, which is called "reciprocal altruism" and that simply means: you do something nice for me, I'll do something nice for you. This explains that what seems to be sacrifice, is actually selfishness. 

I've talked about the naturalist answers for morality elsewhere on this blog and have attempted to show why those arguments are wrong. You may remember me dubbing such answers as "low-end" morality and I'm sticking with that label because I think it's quite good at describing such moral actions. There is also "high-end" morality, which is morality that cannot be explained by kin-selection or reciprocal altruism. A man gives up his seat on the bus for an 80 year old woman who is not his grandma, she is a complete stranger, why does he do that? A woman gives blood at a blood drive. She does not know the blood is going to; it's a selfless action that has no naturalist answer. Dawkins, again in The Selfish Gene, writes that giving blood is "disinterested altruism." Altruism of this sort occurs on a regular basis, in everyday life all over the world. People volunteer their time to help the impoverished in third-world countries, those that cannot receive anything in return. Others sacrifice their lives to save strangers, such sacrifices cannot be reciprocated. 

Naturalists admit they are at a loss when it comes to high-end morality. James Rachels writes, "...a Darwinian may conclude that a successful defense of human dignity is most unlikely." Ernst Mayr writes, "Altruism toward strangers, is a behavior not supported by natural selection." There are more examples of naturalists stumped by high-end morality here. When at a loss for an answer, naturalists and atheists have explanations like the one given by atheist Michael Ruse in a column he wrote for the Guardian:
"God is dead, so why should I be good? The answer is that there are no grounds whatsoever for being good. There is no celestial headmaster who is going to give you six (or six billion, billion, billion) of the best if you are bad. Morality is flimflam.
[...]Morality is just a matter of emotions, like liking ice cream and sex and hating toothache and marking student papers. But it is, and has to be, a funny kind of emotion. It has to pretend that it is not that at all! If we thought that morality was no more than liking or not liking spinach, then pretty quickly it would break down.
[...]So morality has to come across as something that is more than emotion. It has to appear to be objective, even though really it is subjective.
[...]Now you know that morality is an illusion put in place by your genes to make you a social cooperator, what’s to stop you behaving like an ancient Roman? Well, nothing in an objective sense."
When morality cannot be explained naturally, one is left with feeling based morality that appears to be objective and binding by our genes, but it's actually an illusion so there is no objectivity to it. My question is why cooperate with it? What is stopping us from behaving like an ancient Roman? This still doesn't answer our question of how we came to know of high-end morality and how it's binding whether we acknowledge it or not. 

Michael Shermer, an evolutionist, gives his argument for the apparent objectivity of morality and why persons perform high moral actions. Shermer writes, "The best way to convince others that you are a moral person is not to fake being a moral person but actually to be a moral person." We act moral so we can gain reputation points with others, which will give us a higher status in society. Reputation is important for one's place in society, benefiting not only your image, but also there is a possibility for better mating prospects. So, again, the seemingly high-end morality is explained away as a disguise for the selfish gene. 

Dinesh D'Souza in his article for the Natural Review found a flaw in Shermer's argument. He writes:

"Machiavelli argues that “the man who wants to act virtuously in every way necessarily comes to grief among so many who are not virtuous.” A rich man who is habitually generous, Machiavelli remarks, will soon become a poor man. Much better, Machiavelli craftily counsels, to acquire the image of magnanimity while giving away as little as possible. In other words, it is preferable to seem virtuous than to actually be virtuous. “Everyone sees what you appear to be, few experience what you really are.” Machiavelli insists that the people who prosper most in the world are the ruthless people who employ virtue only occasionally and instrumentally for strategic gain. If Machiavelli is right, then under the rules of natural selection it is the moral pretenders, not the truly moral, who will prosper and multiply. And for empirical evidence Machiavelli could surely point to the successful connivers in our society and every other one." 

I agree with D'Souza's point, if I understand him correctly, that the truly moral will not prosper from such generous acts of selflessness. Only ruthless, selfish people who use virtue will gain from moral actions. Once again, high-end moral actions cannot be explained by arguments supported by natural selection. So, we can see that objective moral values and duties cannot be explained by naturalists, which brings me again to the question of how do such morally depraved persons recognize objective morality? 

Kant and Paul would agree with naturalists that man in his state is self-serving, totally void of morality and not likely to help others. Where they differ, however, is in their view of morality. Paul argues that man is made in the image of God, which is where we get our sense of a binding morality in the world. Even the most morally depraved person knows of "good," of "justice," "mercy," etc., the knowledge doesn't of such virtues doesn't change the depraved person, but it doesn't eliminate the oughtness of morality either, which is the key to understanding objective morality. The objectiveness of morality doesn't mean everyone will acknowledge it and follow it. It exists whether we acknowledge it or not. We have morality engraved in our minds. Some call it the "voice within." Adam Smith called morality the "impartial spectator." Paul explained it as being made in the image of God, as I understand it. 

Since man is made in the image of God, we have a moral stamp on our minds/hearts, and we can recognize morality, but we don't always follow it, which explains our condition. We lie, cheat, murder, and a myriad of other unmoral things. Shouldn't our knowledge of morality help us be better human beings? It does for some folks. Objective morality keeps us in check. You can think of it as God being merciful even to those who won't put their faith in his Son for salvation. How is it merciful? Well, think for a moment if morality wasn't objective. Our state of life would be a lot different. What if you didn't have the impartial spectator that made you feel remorseful or regret? Or rather, what if you didn't have compassion? Or even love? The world would be a much darker place. Our moral stamp keeps us in check. It keeps us from being totally depraved, but doesn't keep us from being radically corrupted. 

Our knowledge of morality comes from God. The moral standard given to us by God is expressed in his moral law. It exists and is binding on us whether we acknowledge it or not. This is the best explanation for the objectivity of morality and our knowledge of it. If God does not exist, then moral values and duties wouldn't exist. So far, evolution and other moral arguments have not provided good answers for the objectivity of morality.

Morality goes against the laws of evolution. Our moral stamp tells us to do the opposite of what the laws of evolution have us to do. It goes against our selfish inclination. We are to be selfless when everything in us wants to be selfish. Listening to your impartial spectator usually will not profit you anything at all, but the conscience will be at peace. I'll finish this post with a quote from Dinesh D'Souza, "The whole point of morality is that you are doing what you ought to do, not what you are inclined to do or what is in your interest to do. Morality is described in the language of duty, and duty is something that we are obliged to do whether we want to or not, whether it benefits us or not."


1.Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989) 

2. Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex, 2nd edition (New York: D. Appleton & Company, 1909)

My other posts on morality here.

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