'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.