Morals without God

'Tis the season to talk about morals without God, or so it seems.  Here's Frans de Waal discussing the continuity between chimpanzee morality and human morality, and this bloggingheads interview is interesting too.  de Waal thinks morality doesn't come from God; the rudiments of it evolved, but he still accedes that our morality today has been shaped by religion.  We shouldn't kick religion out the door and expect better guidance from science--
While I do consider religious institutions and their representatives — popes, bishops, mega-preachers, ayatollahs, and rabbis — fair game for criticism, what good could come from insulting individuals who find value in religion? And more pertinently, what alternative does science have to offer? Science is not in the business of spelling out the meaning of life and even less in telling us how to live our lives. We, scientists, are good at finding out why things are the way they are, or how things work, and I do believe that biology can help us understand what kind of animals we are and why our morality looks the way it does. But to go from there to offering moral guidance seems a stretch.
But who would say science is vying for religion as a source of moral guidance?  Oh, wait a second, Sam Harris is saying that, in The Moral Landscape!  (John Horgan thinks his focus on science rather than ethics is pernicious--see here.)

But what about ethics, or philosophy more generally?  Doesn't secular ethics obviate religious morality?  The next paragraph is interesting--
Even the staunchest atheist growing up in Western society cannot avoid having absorbed the basic tenets of Christian morality. Our societies are steeped in it: everything we have accomplished over the centuries, even science, developed either hand in hand with or in opposition to religion, but never separately. It is impossible to know what morality would look like without religion. It would require a visit to a human culture that is not now and never was religious. That such cultures do not exist should give us pause.
Of course, there are atheist individuals, and households, and mostly atheist societies.  Don't they show us what morality is like without religion--i.e. at least as good, and maybe better?   I think deWaal is right that everyone absorbs Christian ideas, whether they accept their religious foundations or not.  It's not obvious, either, which ideas have roots in religion.  Take the idea that each person, however lowly, is an "end"--with dignity, and deserving of respect.  This does not come from our animal ancestors. It doesn't even go as far back as Plato and Aristotle.  Ancient ethics had no concept of each person as worthy and inviolable.  That idea seems to have grown out of the Christian notion of each person as possessing a soul that can live on eternally.  The case for that is made persuasively by W. E. H. Lecky's marvelous History of European Morals.  (A great book, brought to my attention and frequently quoted by Peter Singer--no religious moralist!)

OK, so secular ethics has religious roots as well as evolutionary roots.  Praise be to both!  But now isn't it time to let secular ethics take over? Why not push away the ladder, so to speak--drop all the religious talk, and just keep secular concepts like respect, dignity, well-being, and so on?

Sure, except that philosophy departments don't do bar mitzvahs and funerals.  It's also not too common for philosophers to focus on the most life-relevant parts of ethics.  Then again, at the synagogue I attend, the sermons are 90% secular ethics.  I have heard great, thoughtful, well informed discussions about animals, the environment, the situation in Darfur, torture, the Iraq war, social networking, and many other subjects.  The trend toward secular ethics might actually be most successful if it (partly) takes place inside religious institutions.  Because man does not live by reason alone--most of us also want the singing and the celebrations.


Aeolus said...

That's an excellent bloggingheads discussion between de Waal and Robert Wright about the origins and function of morality. It seems to me that morality is somewhat like Kant's categories of the understanding: part of the operating system of our minds, hardwired by evolution in this case -- so that the question of whether morality has an objective existence as an intrinsic feature of the world is irrelevant: it is an intrinsic feature of our human existence.

I'm not sure what you mean by "mostly atheist societies" -- Buddhist? Daoist? Whatever the scholarly understanding of these philosophies in their pure forms, the folk versions have (inevitably) generated deities. People want their gods. (I can see the rabble with torches howling outside the New Atheist castle: "Give us back our gods!") Two things that humans don't want to give up: gods and meat.

Jean Kazez said...

I was talking about European countries where a high percentage of the population are agnostics or atheists. A fair number of people seem to be willing to give up their gods. What I think they don't want to give up is the singing:-)

Apparently in Denmark (was that it?) almost everyone belongs to the Danish church. They're happy to be involved on special occasions, God or no God. I think what's really crucial is having a place where (1) people get together, from cradle to grave, to celebrate, mourn, etc, and (2) there is talk about meaning and ethics, but in a palpable, colorful, emotionally accessible form. I think (1) and (2) meet deep needs, so they aren't go away. I suspect a lot of people keep belief just barely alive, because it feels to them like a passport to these appealing things. Personally, I don't see the problem with that.

Faust said...

"That idea seems to have grown out of the Christian notion of each person as possessing a soul that can live on eternally."

Isn't this what Johnston wants to preserve in his naturalist angle on "surviving" death? But you think we can kick away that ladder no? Or maybe that just some people never needed that ladder in the first place? Or is it really that this concept has been internalized under the name "intrinsic" (i.e. eternal) value and so we don't need to think about it in terms of "immortality" anymore.

Jean Kazez said...

Hmm...I was just making a historical point. If Christians way back when hadn't thought X, Kant wouldn't have thought Y, and we wouldn't be thinking Z. Can I, personally, believe in human dignity without believing in Christian souls or anything even close. Well...good question! Worthy of much thought...

Jean Kazez said...

To clarify that last comment...I certainly think so, but it's a juicy question, not easy to answer.

amos said...

God is dead, said Nietzsche, but no one wants to accept the consequences of that fact. I recall that you, Jean, had a post about Nietzsche arriving too soon with that message (as Nietzsche himself realizes in the Gay Science), perhaps here or in the TPM blog.

Faust said...

A reforumlation then:

"That idea seems to have grown out of the Christian notion of each person as possessing a soul that can live on eternally. [But now we may want to consider that this is a notion we can grow out of.]"

Jean Kazez said...

Ahhhh....I guess I really wasn't clear. I added a few more sentences. Thank you! I don't want to be read as saying we actually need to think about morality in religious terms, just that without religion as a stage, we'd probably be thinking about ethics today in a very different way than we do.