Darwin vs Morality: Part I

Trying to Find a Biological Basis for Morality

There are certain kinds of arguments philosophers call ‘self-defeating’ because if you turn out to be right you are wrong and obviously if you turn out to be wrong you’re wrong. Trying to find biological foundations for morality is one of these kinds of arguments. A very clear example of a self-defeating argument would be to argue that rational argument is impossible. If I am rationally convinced by your argument, then rational argument is possible, not impossible and the argument is disproven. If you cannot persuade me because rational argument is impossible, then likewise the argument fails. The problem of course is that you must rely on the very thing you are hoping to prove does not exist.

One might wonder how any such arguments get propagated. Like a magician’s tricks, misdirection is needed. The audience for a self-defeating argument must have their attention fixed on one item before the very concept that is being rejected is reintroduced in support of the argument. Typically the reintroduced concept is not noticed because the concept is one that has won widespread acceptance and is used either implicitly or explicitly on a near daily basis. Ironically, the argument might excite our interest precisely because it seemingly challenges just such a foundational and fundamental assumption or set of assumptions.

Some years ago an acquaintance of mine sent me a newspaper article saying that Harvard researchers have discovered the biological foundations of morality. I read it out of courtesy and with increasing dismay. The confusions and logical inconsistencies steadily accumulated. Subsequently, I came to the conclusion that all such arguments for the biological foundations of morality are likely to suffer from the same or similar defects. 

The defect I personally find the most irritating is when such an argument debunks morality by attributing our moral behavior to nonmoral or even immoral impulses, but then the arguer relies on the full ontological reality of morality by the end of the argument.

Imagine if you read someone claiming to debunk the existence of ghosts who, after several pages of skeptical debunking then says that he knows all this to be true because a ghost told him so. The truly worthless nature of the argument is not revealed until the end.

When self-defeating arguments pass unnoticed one is left with two alternatives. Either the people involved, both the arguer and the argued to are stupid, or the incentive to believe the argument is so strong that the argument’s defects are ignored in the rush to embrace the attractive conclusion. Having said that, it probably also takes a certain amount of practice to recognize when this particular trick is occurring. 

I would argue that if you are an atheist and still hope to believe in the reality of morality it is likely that you will try to ignore what the basis for morality actually is, or you may turn to biology as a likely place to start. You can’t really turn to more basic sciences such as physics and chemistry since morality is presumably going to require you to think about living organisms at some point and physics and inorganic chemistry don’t deal with things at that level of complexity. In other words, they don’t include the category ‘life,’ and thus morality and issues of life and how to live it do not arise. 

OK. Having chosen biology as your starting point, what are the likely sources of morality going to be? We can predict that the most likely candidate is that from a biological point of view, morality will turn out to be useful in some way. The choices are likely to be that morality will be useful for either individual well-being and survival and/or group survival and possibly genetic continuance. Human communities that don’t accept that lying and murder are morally wrong are likely to quickly self-destruct hence the fitter societies, in some analogy to the survival of the fittest, are likely to promote morality.

Another possibility can be seen in a newspaper article discussed below called If It Feels Good To Be Good, It Might Be Only Natural by Shankar Vedantam. Here one finds biologists and neuroscientists claiming that morality is built into our brains in some fashion. Moral sentiments are the result of brain function, period. The journalist makes some attempt to make the moral nihilism of this claim ambiguous, without success. The neuroscientist quoted, who is also supposed to be a philosopher, seems eager to debunk morality. I have to admit that the article avoids being self-defeating in the usual manner. Its novel approach, or perhaps not nearly as novel as I wish it were, is to entirely knowingly debunk its topic of study. In examining morality, it turns out that there is nothing to examine. They have explained that there is nothing to explain. No concern is shown about the possible moral consequences of the nonexistence of morality which is as it should be – moral consequences not actually existing according to the argument. The contradiction arises when the scientists claim to have identified the brain mechanisms that give rise to morality because actual morality does not exist according to their own thinking.

So, the two conclusions that trying to find the biological foundations of morality will result in are likely to be that morality is useful, or that morality does not exist. In finding morality useful, one is finding that morality is (morally) good. The judgment that the usefulness of morality is good, is a moral judgment that must be independent of biology to avoid nonsensical circularity. So if you are right that morality is useful and that this is a good thing, you are wrong that biology is the source of this goodness. Hence my claim that this kind of argument is self-defeating.

Likewise, it is a truism in moral philosophy that one is not morally responsible for one’s actions if one has no choice in how one acts. This notion is recognized in law and called duress. One is not legally responsible for one’s actions if one couldn’t have acted otherwise. If a biological mechanism is forcing us to act in a certain way, then we can neither take credit nor receive blame for our actions. If it makes no sense to ascribe moral goodness or badness to anyone’s actions ever, then morality does not exist. Also, part of what makes an action morally praiseworthy or not has to do with one’s motivation; the reasons for one’s actions. If I donate to charity because I have a gun to my head, I cannot be credited with acting morally. So, if one succeeds in finding a biological mechanism producing apparently moral behavior, then one will have proven that morality does not exist. You will not have explained the biological foundation of morality. You will have established that morality does not exist. If you win, you lose. Moral nihilism is indeed the conclusion of the Vedantam newspaper article.

In Part II, I use Richard Dawkins’ arguments from The God Delusion as an example of the ‘useful’ variety of argument mostly because I happen to be familiar with it. But I am arguing that when it comes to this topic, one account is in principle as good as any other. All are likely to suffer from similar logical defects, so I am really critiquing a whole class of arguments.

Before I examine the arguments from Vedantam and Dawkins I will give a brief overview of the problems deriving from the supposed usefulness of morality.


A Summary of the Sorts of Self-Defeating Conundrums Generated by Trying to Found Morality on Biology

In my Brussels Journal article God or Moral Nihilism, I argued that extrinsic goods are parasitic on intrinsic goods. Extrinsic goods are useful for some other end. Exercise is useful for health and health tends to be related to human happiness. Human happiness is not in turn useful for something else. Human happiness is intrinsically good. The extrinsic goodness of exercise derives its goodness from the intrinsic goodness of human happiness. If human happiness is not good, then neither is exercise. There is a means/ends relation and the means is worthless unless the end is valuable.

We have no trouble identifying candidates for what might be useful, extrinsic goods, but we run into logical difficulties in establishing that intrinsic goods are indeed good. As the title God or Moral Nihilism suggests, I argued that the existence of intrinsic goods will ultimately depend on some kind of transcendent, supernatural God or God equivalent, like Plato’s Form of the Good. Looking to biology is an attempt to provide a naturalistic, scientific ground for morality that will not involve invoking supernatural factors, but to keep the biologically minded philosophers honest we must keep our eyes peeled for any covert appeal to the supernatural.

As I have indicated, the first problem is in redefining morality as that which is biologically useful. To say that believing lying and murder to be wrong is useful because it produces good things creates two problems. One is that ‘useful’ is not the same as ‘true.’ If morality is not true, then the good things morality is supposedly producing are not good either. If goodness doesn’t exist, then biologically useful beliefs and behaviors can’t encourage it. If the goodness is supposed to be a nonmoral good, then we haven’t established that biology produces moral goods at all.

If morality is not true, then we have arrived at moral nihilism and hence the end of any discussion featuring the word ‘morality.’ If morality is true, then we don’t need biologists telling us to be moral. Morality requires it.

If mere biology is the basis for morality, then morality is the result of mindless mechanistic compulsion. If our tendency to believe in the reality of morality is the result of a biological mechanism, then we are not drawn to moral perspectives by their truth, beauty or goodness. We are compelled and determined by a brute and mindless nature – suggesting moral skepticism and thus nihilism.

The biologist might retort that it does not matter what the ultimate ground of morality is, since the existence of morality is undeniably good. But this involves a vicious circle. If it is good that biology leads us to adopt moral perspectives, then the goodness of morality must be independent of biology. For if biology compels us to take moral perspectives, our judgment that this is good, is just another instance of the compulsion of biology. If biology compels us to judge that the influence of biology is good, then we are not arriving at our conclusion as the result of any kind of reasoned judgment. Our conclusion is biologically unavoidable. We are in the grip of mindless determinism. We have admitted that these conclusions are something that we are biologically driven to conclude. To rationally conclude that the influence of biology is good, we need to adopt a moral perspective which is not derived from biology. 

The biologist might argue that morality is biologically useful because it promotes human welfare. This is incoherent. Promoting human welfare is a rationally unprovable moral, intrinsic, good, not a biological good. One is effectively saying that morality promotes moral goods, i.e., morality promotes morality – an empty truism. Morality is morally useful, not biologically useful. Biology does not establish the moral goodness of human welfare, or even survival. Like all sciences, it is neutral on questions of value.

If biology and morality coincide, that’s terrific. Sometimes what is morally good for ourselves and other people coincides with what is good for them biologically, sometimes not. But biology does not and cannot provide a foundation for morality. This becomes obvious when morality requires us to die, as it does on occasion.


“If It Feels Good to Be Good, It Might Be Only Natural”

The article (by Shankar Vedantam, Washington Post Staff Writer, The Washington Post, May 28, 2007) begins with neuroscientists at the National Institutes of Health seeing the brain scans of volunteers who were asked to think about donating money to charity or keeping the money.

The results were showing that when the volunteers placed the interests of others before their own, the generosity activated a primitive part of the brain that usually lights up in response to food or sex. Altruism, the experiment suggested, was not a superior moral faculty that suppresses basic selfish urges but rather was basic to the brain, hard-wired and pleasurable.

What the results suggest to me is that scientists and journalists can get quickly over their heads when it comes to issues involving morality. In this case we seem to have an instance of leaping to conclusions. The confused ideas come thick and fast and have to be carefully pried apart.

Note that the experiment begins with thinking; whether to donate or keep the money in an entirely hypothetical situation. The process starts with mind and thought. This aspect of the experiment is immediately lost sight of as the scientists focus on what they can see and measure – activity in the brain, the part of the brain associated with a response to food and sex. 

At least in journalistic accounts of neuroscience, it sometimes seems that as soon as brain activity enters the picture, all is reduced to that activity. Brain scientists are not mind scientists. The brain can be studied objectively. The mind cannot. To find out what someone is thinking, one generally needs to talk to them. As Ken Wilber puts it in A Brief History of Everything, the brain can be studied monologically, the mind only dialogically. 

Altruism and morality are not scientific concepts. Nor can they be measured objectively. Being invisible, they are simply dropped from the equation and the part that can be seen is treated as though it explains the entire situation. In fact, the activity in the brain is treated as a cause when it is in fact an effect, according to their own account. Cause and effect are reversed. Thoughts of altruism, the cause, generate visible brain activity, the effect. The brain activity is then described as producing altruism; the opposite of the situation as it was initially described. 

If we saw that a farmer who had painstakingly cultivated a crop was deprived of this crop by an unjust act, we might feel anger. Witnessing injustice may give rise to outrage. We do not turn around and attribute my moral judgment to my anger center. This would not even make sense.

The only possible reason for the scientists to confuse cause and effect in this way is that they have introduced into their analysis the theory of hedonism. This is the theory that humans are motivated exclusively by the desire for pleasure. This is an example of a theory that seems interesting to people with below average emotional intelligence or who are young and inexperienced. It is not a scientific theory. It can be refuted, but it would involve too long a digression. It is sufficient for my purposes here to point out that the experiment is not proving or even pointing to a hedonistic theory of human motivation.

Confusing cause and effect and introducing an entire theory of human motivation that is merely assumed and not proven to be true are egregious errors.

It is described as highly significant that the same part of the brain associated with the pleasure of food and sex is involved in the pleasurable thoughts aroused by hypothetical generosity. It takes some effort to untangle this little mess too. It is not said that our desire for food and sex comes from this part of the brain. In fact, our desire for food comes from feelings of hunger presumably not being generated by the brain’s pleasure center. Again, cause and effect are confused. Eating some food may produce feelings of pleasure.

The supposed association between the feelings of pleasure generated by hypothetical generosity and those produced by food and sex is supposed to indicate that high-minded and heavily conceptually influenced thoughts about altruism can be reduced to simple brain functions. This is not shown to be true about altruism. But neither is it necessarily true about food and sex. Food and sex in humans often involve mental evaluations. We do not usually turn into automatons when these items are involved. For instance, we do not respond pleasurably to food that we do not judge to be appetizing and sexual arousal or the lack of it may include moral assessments of potential objects of desire. If someone has just revealed a very nasty side to them, for instance, if they engage in a character assassinating rant, thoughts of sex will tend to evaporate. Or if we judge someone to be stupid, ugly, boring, or humorless, thoughts of sex may also go out the window. If the person is a close relation, sexual activity is rejected as immoral. If food is badly prepared, staggeringly unhealthy or insipid we may reject it, if not ravenous with hunger. We as human beings are edible, but as far as I know, we don’t get hungry looking at other people. Prohibitions against incest and cannibalism are so fundamental to us that they usually aren’t even registered as possibilities.

The importance and relevance of genuinely mental items does not simply disappear once the pleasure center in the brain has been discovered to enter into the state of affairs. There is no reason for thinking that one item is sufficient to explain the entire complex.

Ken Wilber’s idea of the four quadrants seems relevant in unpacking this crass combination of science and journalism. Food and sex in humans have a biological component, but there are three other aspects of life that enter into the equation. One is personal tastes and preferences. We all have a sex drive and a desire for food, but we don’t all desire the same people or the same kinds of food. All sorts of nonbiological factors enter into these preferences. There are intersubjective, cultural factors too. If you are French, German or Italian, your ideas about sex and food will be influenced by pervasive cultural factors, some of which may be so taken for granted that they seem like purely personal preferences. Lastly, interobjective social and economic factors enter into our relationship to food and sex. The availability and cheapness of fast food may play a role in one society and be nonexistent or less prevalent in another. This objective factor will influence personal taste and the actual food that enters your body. Women who want to get married and have children may find that they need to consider the economic prospects of their marriage partner as part of their decision and thus their choice of sexual partner.

Focusing on the biological aspect of food and sex and altruism is to neglect other equally important contributions to our thoughts and behavior in relation to these topics. Identifying a biological component does not mean you are even close to having an adequate explanation of human behavior. It is a case of mistaking a partial truth for a complete truth. The latter may be an unachievable ideal, but settling for a frightfully partial truth will often prove to be more obfuscating than enlightening.

In the newspaper article altruism is described as being “basic to the brain, hard-wired and pleasurable” and “not a superior moral faculty that suppressed basic selfish urges.” If this were true, then acts of selfishness would be unfathomable. Given that selfishness exists, hard-wired and pleasurable altruism cannot be the whole story. Part of the explanation seems to lie in the fact that the case of the contemplated donation to charity, we are talking about a purely hypothetical donation. It would be interesting to see the results if the volunteers had to extract the funds from their own bank account in real life. Mere fantasies of being a generous benefactor may be pleasurable, the real thing may be less so. Some such problem suggests itself or we would all be amazing altruists glowing with pleasure most of the time. Since this is not the case, we can infer that there is a problem with the premises.

There is also an assumption typical of many twenty year olds. This is that feeling pleasure at being good makes the pleasure and us, selfish. It is entirely possible that a superior moral faculty is suppressing selfish urges and that being altruistic is pleasurable. We are allowed to benefit from being good people. Plato and Christianity suggest it and even rely on it. The definition of the word ‘selfish’ is an exclusive concern for our own welfare. If you get pleasure from being altruistic, then you enjoy not being selfish. You wouldn’t get pleasure from caring about other people if you didn’t intrinsically enjoy helping other people. If you enjoy caring about others, then you are by definition not selfish. Benefiting in anyway is entirely compatible with altruism.

The pleasure from thinking about helping others is described as “hard-wired.” We know from our own experience that we don’t always feel pleasure when thinking about donating money, quite the reverse. So, if ‘hard-wired’ is supposed to mean that free will is taken out of the picture and that we have no choices, then it is incorrect. If the pleasure by-passed any attempt to think about our actions and our upper-reasoning abilities were circumvented, then this could be the implication of the phrase ‘hard-wired,’ but we have already been told that the volunteers were busy thinking about donating to charity. If it gives them pleasure to do so, all the better. The term ‘hard-wired’ seems to be distracting hand-waving.

Bear in mind that the last several paragraphs have been written in an attempt to unpack the unfounded assumptions in just two sentences. 

One very interesting statement that occurs is that animals can sacrifice their own interests:

One experiment found that if each time a rat is given food, its neighbor receives an electric shock, the first rat will eventually forgo eating.

Some animals do seem to demonstrate some kind of proto-morality, or in this case, full-fledged empathy and self-sacrifice. Any surprise we might feel about the rats is probably not based on personal experience of rats, but due to considering them vermin; they are not unintelligent, as Tom Bertonneau commented to me. Again, the talk about rats is supposed to show how biological morality is, but this notion is premised on a conception of rats as mindless automatons driven only by biological concerns. This may make it easier to kill them and do experiments on them, but it does not seem to be true.

Vedantam writes,

What the new research is showing is that morality has biological roots -- such as the reward center in the brain that lit up in Grafman's experiment -- that have been around for a very long time.

I hope I have indicated that the new research shows no such thing. It only shows that mechanism makes an appearance at some point in the process.

Vedantam states that empathy plays a fundamental role in morality and that, as Jean Decety, a neuroscientist at the University of Chicago comments “it is only a short step from this awareness to many human notions of right and wrong.” I agree with both statements, although the use of the word ‘human’ has worrying implications. Either Decety has somehow managed to step outside the human condition and has his own notions of right and wrong, or he thinks right and wrong are peculiar fantasies dreamed up by humans. The latter is suggested in the following, at least by Vedantam who states:

The research enterprise has been viewed with interest by philosophers and theologians, but already some worry that it raises troubling questions. Reducing morality and immorality to brain chemistry -- rather than free will -- might diminish the importance of personal responsibility. Even more important, some wonder whether the very idea of morality is somehow degraded if it turns out to be just another evolutionary tool that nature uses to help species survive and propagate.

The comments about the pleasure center earlier suggested the morally nihilistic viewpoint being promoted. Here the nihilism is made even plainer. Like Dawkins below, we have assertions that have only one implication, like, as Dawkins will say, morality being a mistake and misfiring, made to seem ambiguous. “Reducing morality and immorality to brain chemistry – rather than free will – might diminish the importance of personal responsibility.” There is no ‘might’ about it. Not only would there be no personal responsibility, there would be no morality per se. If we reduce morality to brain chemistry, then it is not morality anymore. If it were only a matter of brain chemistry being a part of a much larger story, perhaps playing a role in recognizing objective moral facts, then there is no problem. It’s the reductionism that gets Vedantam in trouble.

Likewise when Vedantam says “some wonder whether the very idea of morality is somehow degraded if it turns out to be just another evolutionary tool that nature uses to help species survive and propagate.” When phrased like that there is nothing to wonder about. The very idea of morality simply disappears as being anything real and objective if it is “just another evolutionary tool that nature uses to help species survive and propagate.” Hence the use of the word ‘just.’ Either morality is worthy of love and reverence as something real and beautiful or it is ‘just another evolutionary tool.’ 

The lack of ambiguity of Vedantam’s claims can be compared to saying “This might be thought to indicate hostility on the part of the person saying these things” when people scream “I hate you, I hate you, I hate. I hope you burn in hell forever. I curse the day you were born. The world will be better off when you die. The stars will laugh with joy the day you leave the face of the Earth. All nature will rejoice with your departure.” Suggesting any ambiguity in such instances is playing with words.

The article mentions that emotions play a role in moral decision-making and that “when confronted with moral dilemmas, the brain-damaged patients coldly came up with "end-justifies-the-means" answers” and that “patients with damage to an area of the brain known as the ventromedial prefrontal cortex lack the ability to feel their way to moral answers.” I have no problems with this.

"Eventually, you are bound to get into areas that for thousands of years we have preferred to keep mystical," said Grafman, the chief cognitive neuroscientist at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. "Some of the questions that are important are not just of intellectual interest, but challenging and frightening to the ways we ground our lives. We need to step very carefully."

In the paragraph immediately following this injunction to tread carefully, we find Joshua Greene treading with hobnailed boots.

Joshua D. Greene, a Harvard neuroscientist and philosopher, said multiple experiments suggest that morality arises from basic brain activities. Morality, he said, is not a brain function elevated above our baser impulses. Greene said it is not "handed down" by philosophers and clergy, but "handed up," an outgrowth of the brain's basic propensities.

Moral decision-making often involves competing brain networks vying for supremacy, he said. Simple moral decisions -- is killing a child right or wrong? -- are simple because they activate a straightforward brain response. Difficult moral decisions, by contrast, activate multiple brain regions that conflict with one another, he said.

An example is whether it “was right to smother the child to keep the soldiers from discovering the cellar and killing everyone?”

The reason people are slow to answer such an awful question, the study indicated, is that emotion-linked circuits automatically signaling that killing a baby is wrong clash with areas of the brain that involve cooler aspects of cognition. One brain region activated when people process such difficult choices is the inferior parietal lobe, which has been shown to be active in more impersonal decision-making. This part of the brain, in essence, was "arguing" with brain networks that reacted with visceral horror.

The quickest response to Greene might be to point out that all his talk about brains and impulses can be directed at Greene’s analysis of brains and impulses. If Greene can find a brain mechanism involved in moral reactions, then he feels entitled to stop taking the phenomena associated with the brain functioning seriously, but Greene’s own analysis of brain functioning must, according to his thesis, simply be the product of brain functioning. Hence we should not take his analysis seriously. His arguments have no implications for the real world, they are simply the products of neural mechanisms competing, suppressing and outdoing each other.

A key sign of a bad argument is when the first exception one needs to make is for oneself. Presumably, Greene wants us to take his arguments seriously and not simply as the random results of brain activity. Sure brain activity went into their production, but this does not mean his arguments are simply these brain activities and nothing more. For every inch Greene needs to give himself, he should extend to the full reality of moral phenomena.

If the concept of an argument failing the test of reflexivity is not clear, a comparison can be made with those who think that our ideas are the result of race, class and gender. This notion is extremely patronizing and dehumanizing. If our ideas are the result merely of the happenstance of race, class and gender then they need not be taken seriously. Omitted is any question of whether our ideas are true or not. However, no further discussion is necessary because if all ideas are the result of race, class and gender, then the notion that all ideas are the result of race, class and gender, is itself an idea and therefore the result of race, class and gender. The person making the claim of course wants to be an exception to the universal rule, except no reason is given for thinking that there are exceptions. If they are allowed to simply assert that this idea is not the product of race, class and gender, then I reserve the right to simply assert the same about my own ideas. It is of course true that some of our ideas are probably influenced by our race, class and gender, but the claim becomes dangerous nonsense when we attempt to universalize the claim for all thought.

Greene’s descriptions of brain function are consistent with a full moral realism rather than his own moral skepticism and nihilism. We are all familiar with being in a moral quandary. If it pleases Greene to describe this phenomenon in terms of brain function, so be it. Does this mean that we are not to take the baby killing scenario as a genuine moral problem? If it is a genuine moral problem, then we are simply recognizing it as such. If brain function is involved in such a recognition, which it surely is, then we can retain our normal morally realist viewpoints. If killing babies is not in fact immoral, then Greene has no subject matter. He cannot study brain function as it relates to morality if morality does not exist.

Greene needs moral realism to make any sense of his research – in fact to have any topic of research. He takes his own arguments as valid in their own right and not merely as a window into the peculiarities of his brain function and is logically required to do the same for moral reasoning.

I fail to see the difference between Greene’s attempts to reduce moral reasoning to brain function and reducing speech to movements of the lips, tongue, diaphragm, mouth and vocal chords. The fact that speech involves a physical mechanism at some point doesn’t undermine its status as a means of communication. Speech does not originate in the throat, but in our mind and its purpose is to communicate meanings, ideas, commands, entreaties, etc., to other minds. Fixating on the physical methods of producing these communications may be helpful if, for instance, there is a speech pathology, just as pointing to a brain defect might make sense of a moral aberration. But the whole process of speaking loses its sense and purpose if we try to reduce the phenomenon to aspects of mere physical behavior. So too, focusing exclusively on brain function in a moral context means that the very moral phenomena that is giving rise to complicated thoughts involving pros and cons is omitted, invisible and ultimately seemingly debunked.

Greene gives us two weirdly tendentious choices when he says that “Morality . . . is not a brain function elevated above our baser impulses. Greene said it is not "handed down" by philosophers and clergy, but "handed up," an outgrowth of the brain's basic propensities.” The choice is between a brain function and the brain’s basic propensities. So we begin with a false dichotomy between two brain items which seem indistinguishable at that level of description anyway. Then to say that morality is not elevated above our baser impulses is surpassingly strange. What could possibly be above our baser impulses if not our more elevated impulses? And what are our more elevated impulses if not those related to morality? And if nothing is elevated above our baser impulses then there are no differences of kind between behavior motivated by moral considerations and those by other base impulses which could presumably include the sex drive unmediated by moral concerns, i.e. rape.

Next, it seems like at best, philosophers and clergy might claim to be passing on moral insights derived from philosophical and theological reflection and revelation, but surely could not claim to be handing down morality. Philosophers and clergy are not the source of morality. Whatever they say, if it is to be effective, must be accepted by their audience who must ponder their assertions for themselves.

Contra Greene, I would assert that morality does not come bottom up from our brains. Morality is not the result of the brain’s natural propensities. If that were the case, morality would have no normative force, nor could we identify morality as such without being viciously circular. What is morality? That which our brains encourage us to regard as such. How have we identified that morality even exists? We haven’t. All we know is that our brains make us think good and evil exist, but according to this way of thinking these are not brain functions elevated above our baser impulses. They exist at the same level as our baser impulses and morality is therefore deprived of any special metaphysical or ontological status. Morality is whatever our brains say it is, presumably brooking no discussion, which would make moral disagreements very puzzling, certainly irreconcilable and completely pointless.

I would suggest instead that in order to preserve anything meaningful answering to the name of morality, we should think of morality as existing as an objective reality which we try to decipher to the best of our ability in a similar manner to mathematical truths. A large brain may be necessary to understand complex moral questions and mathematics, but in neither case are we simply inventing these truths. Interestingly, in an admittedly tiny sample, I have yet to meet a professor of mathematics who is a non-realist about mathematics and I suspect that at heart very nearly all of us are moral realists whether we know it or not.



Excellent article


Your article exposes the regression in  human understanding that we have experienced since humanities were abandoned. These positivistic reductionist ignorant scientists who forget completely the concept of mind (formerly known as soul) are the equivalent of soviet computer engineers who try to figure out how Microsoft Excel works by measuring electric tensions in the hardware of a Personal computer.

The mind is not the brain. A hard monistic reductionist  must accept that is possible to substitute small areas of the brain of a person without being noticed. Proceeding progressively, all the brain can be changed by a silicon counterpart while the person´s mind stay unnoticed. So paradoxically the hard monistic reductionist is forced to accept a dualism mind-brain. Where the mind-soul comes from?. This is long to argue about, and it does not connect easily with the second part I want to comment.

The problem with positivistic reductionism is not their scientific method, but their philosophical stance which, for a natural inclination of human nature, wrongly identifies the current state of knowledge at a certain time with all that is worth to be known. Instead of that, the basic tenets of scientific naturalism should make us approach what we still don´t know with curiosity and respect in order to see the phenomenon not trugh the glasses of prejudice, but with an inquisitive wondering.

If morality, Man and Society is regarded as part of nature with all its complexities, then it is not bad to try some reductionism for the shake of advancing knowledge without presuposing that the reductionist model is all that be said about the matter.   With these precautory considerations, Morality may have a mathematical-phisical nature if nature includes the human society.

Morality may be related with the Nash equilibrium strategies in every stable human society, given our human nature of inclinations, desires etc. In game theory, Nash equilibriums are the stable strategies that optimize the outcomes of two or more players in a game. For example, for biological reasons, a man may desire to have many women and a woman may desire the best man available, but if they act according with their theoretical individual inmediate interests, the war among men, woman slaveness and other kinds of primitive regressions would follow. The cooperation os society will collapse and boht men and women would be in a far worse state than with monogamy. Since monogamy favours collaboration, peace stability and security better than any other strategy, monogamy is a Nash equilibrium strategy. Because this has been realized practically countless times in the past, we have a moral, that is a mix of biological and cultural predisposition to accept monogamy as the moral rule. These equilibriums are universal but the real circunstances may make the peaks of equilibrium not very sharp and clear.  The fact that some societies are monogamous and some others are slightly poligamous does not matter as long as monogamy is considered the norm and poligamy the exception. In a desert with extremely low human density, poligamy may be a matter of survival, not moralty. The same may happen in case of extreme hunger with the prohibition of canibalism. The fact that later a society moralizes these deviations in not so stringent circunstances does not make these alternatives moral, but instead makes the society that accept them less stable (that, is more violent, poor etc).




Professor Cocks writes:  "However, I’ve taught enough classes to know that although students can often tell you what you should do morally, perhaps eighty percent of them couldn’t tell you why..."

If the split is really 80-20, then that is perhaps not too bad. At least as far as behavior goes. The ground of morality cannot, I don't think, be very encapsulated, while the many ideas about it underscore an elusiveness inherent within the notion. For some its explication will be rote religion, for others a consideration of the inspired poets. Philosophical work is always limited to a very few, and in any case must be derived from an initial denial of traditional ground, even if it ultimately ends up supporting tradition. [This is because the premise of philosophy is a search for truth, which presupposes that there is something yet unknown.]

Be that as it may, in most cases, the premise of the possibility of morality is not denied by the the three above-mentioned ways, in spite of certain philosophical attempts to do so. Yet modern positive science, whether biology or physics, is different, and hardly has much to offer the science of ethics, since positivism is closely tied to the fact-value distinction. It was not always so in the study of nature, and certainly does not have to be.

As long as science proceeds within the limits and limitations of a truncated notion of causality—the efficient, we can only expect more of the same. On the other hand, the recovery of a more organic notion of causation, an Aristotelian and Scholastic (Aquinas) view embracing not only the efficient, but the formal, the material, and most importantly the final cause, would go a long way in fixing the dilemma. But then science would have to learn (once again) of things like essence and existence, act and potency, and so on and so forth, and today all of this is understood (if it is understood at all) to be rather quaint, but hardly worth considering.

@mpresley 80/20

Agreed. And I'm in complete sympathy regarding final causes.

I admit to believing that life and the universe has a telos/point/purpose/goal. The motive to deny this eludes me. It seems like resentment must figure into the answer and as Traveller comments, an attempted evasion of moral responsibility.

Just a few random bio-chemical neuron firings:

Nice article.

Regarding the notion of biologists claiming that,

"moral sentiments are the result of brain function, period...,"

the obvious point is that these folks confuse a quantity with a quality.  As I understand their arguments, bio-chemical processes are associated with thinking, hence thoughts are simply the result of this biological process.  But here,  an association becomes an instance of conflation. Certainly there is a relation, but how is it ever possible to parse the "content" of the thought, and the quality therein, by considering essentially identical bio-chemical reactions taking place along a neuron?

"I would suggest instead that in order to preserve anything meaningful answering to the name of morality, we should think of morality as existing as an objective reality which we try to decipher to the best of our ability in a similar manner to mathematical truths. A large brain may be necessary to understand complex moral questions and mathematics, but in neither case are we simply inventing these truths."

I am not certain how far I would push this analogy.  First, it does not take more than an average brain to understand moral concepts, and very few moral questions are really complex ones.  They are only complex if one abandons what has gone before, and if one attempts to start all over.  And even the "complex" moral questions can usually be understood in a way that complex mathematical equations cannot.  Finally, the moral realm has meaning within a strictly human behavioral realm, a realm of social action, and I am not sure how relevant the ethical realm could ever be to the world of mathematical quantity.

Much of this nonsense, and the resulting mass confusion, can be laid on the doorstep of Nietszche, a man who wanted to revalue values, but at the same time a man who had a major distaste for the aesthetic results of pure scientism.  At least he was an interesting writer, which is more than can be said for many others.

We must also understand that biological reductionism is really only a stop-gap measure.  Because if intentionality is simply the result of physical processes, then there is no good reason to end with biology, but one must, to be sure, move downward toward the electronic level.  But the farther down we go, the more ridiculous the claims become, eventually forcing one to wind up losing all intentionality and all meaning whatsoever.

As I said, nice article.  As far as neuron firings go, at least.



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Thank you for your response and your nice comments.

You and I are in agreement, I believe, about the mind/brain problem. In case you’re interested, I subscribe to the transmission theory of mind which points to a correlation between brain and mind, but not a straight-forward causal relationship.

Concerning the math/morality analogy, I suppose I’m thinking more about the ultimate ground of morality and our moral practices being approximations of, say, justice itself. Just as mathematical axioms approximate Platonic mathematical realities.

In the end, I was really trying to argue for the objectivity of mathematical and moral truths, more than how smart you need to be to understand them.

In other words, point taken!

If a rat can figure out that it should stop eating when its neighbor gets electrocuted every time he consumes, the brain power can’t be too enormous.

However, I’ve taught enough classes to know that although students can often tell you what you should do morally, perhaps eighty percent of them couldn’t tell you why, even if they don’t have to “start all over.” But many of them quickly get the hang of it if you give them a few examples to get them started.

I also agree about the problems of reducing intentionality to physical processes. I tried to indicate some such problems in the article. The discussion in that direction quickly becomes incoherent and self-contradictory. Materialists accuse theists of being irrational in believing in a God, lacking definitive proof of his existence, and then go about breaking the law of non-contradiction! I’m convinced that theists are committed to fewer, hopefully no, contradictions than any materialist who even attempts to explain how his position applies to life as we know it.

Moral Dimension

This article is wonderfully crafted and tightly reasoned.  It was a pleasure to read.  I agree with the author's purpose, which I infer to be a rejection of materialist explanations of moral behavior.  Yet I find myself affirming, at least in part, the biological arguments.  But not at the cost of affirming all the conclusions drawn from them.

It seems to me that the concept of morality has to be predicated upon our understanding of good and evil.  What is good, as I have come to understand it, is what promotes survival, security, prosperity and happiness for myself, my family and my tribe.  Tribe being defined, according to circumstances, as either a closely held group or a community indefinitely extended.  From that premise, then, moral decisions are those that are in aid of our individual and collective well-being.  They may be as automatically instinctive as killing a rattlesnake, taking cover in a storm or as abstractly reasoned as the careful preparation for the future of our children or determining the best way to assist a neighbor in distress.  Or deciding what is to be done with the baby in the cellar.

One could argue that my conception of morality is no more than an expression of Darwinian materialism, and, taken alone at its most fundamental level, perhaps it is.  As to hard-wiring, I believe that the model includes two foundational traits that are often in conflict -- basic survival instinct, on the one hand, and empathy (altruism) on the other.  Out of that conflict, and how we choose to balance it, comes the necessity of moral choice.  Empathy, I believe, is the voice of God within us all; it is both a gift and a burden.  But it is the balancing of empathy against basic survival needs that is crucial.  While empathy may (and should, I would argue) inure to the benefit of one's self and others, if taken to extremes, it may lead to destructive behaviors.  Civil societies, for example, are strengthened by the unselfish cooperation of its members, but if -- out of an excess of empathy -- we fail, say, to regulate uncivil behavior in society, we are collectively weaker.

I think the association between altruism and pleasure is useful for its potential explanatory power.  One wonders whether that pleasure (endorphin release) may become addictive.  If so, it would help us understand why people make decisions that are clearly contrary to the interests of their own survival.  That would include the willful failure to recognize existential threats and the felt need to withhold judgment in regard to what is good and what is evil, true and false.

If I differ from the author's views, I suppose it is in the matter of hard-wiring.  I accept the idea that survival instinct and empathy fall -- among other things not relevant here -- into that category.  That is the deterministic component.  Beyond that, I believe, we exercise free will in our judgments and moral decisions.  Put another way, I believe we are born with certain predispositions that -- taken together -- account for the human condition.  Our moral choices are those that best improve our individual and collective well-being.


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Thank you for your comments. I wondered if the article was a little too densely argued to be readable, but it seems not!

Thank you for taking the time and trouble to write such a well-thought out reply.

You’re right about my intentions as being “a rejection of materialist explanations of moral behavior.”

You write:

What is good, as I have come to understand it, is what promotes survival, security, prosperity and happiness for myself, my family and my tribe.  Tribe being defined, according to circumstances, as either a closely held group or a community indefinitely extended.  From that premise, then, moral decisions are those that are in aid of our individual and collective well-being.

I’m a little worried about the possible ethnocentric overtones here, which ‘a community indefinitely extended’ might remedy. The pre-Platonic ethic was ‘help your friends, harm your enemies.’ I like to think that Socrates/Plato and Jesus made an improvement when they upped the moral ante to ‘harm no one.’ In the Gorgias, Plato pointed out that punishing wrongdoers is not harming them, but administering justice and providing the opportunity for reform.

I’m also a little concerned about the utilitarian implications of the quotation. I think that generally one might expect morality to promote “survival, security, prosperity.” But I always want to leave room for the caveat – ‘except when it doesn’t.’ To speak in a perhaps overly shocking manner, the reward for being a morally good person can be crucifixion. One can include vilification, a ruined reputation and unemployment; I’m thinking about whistle-blowers here.

Notice that I’m not including ‘happiness’ among my caveats. If we take happiness as eudaimonia, as flourishing, then this can take place amid material destruction. It can include a soldier killed in battle, the Son of God getting nailed to a cross, Socrates drinking the hemlock and a whistle-blower getting axed.

I guess I’m attracted to the notion that what is morally good is good for us even if it sometimes means our destruction, though I’m none to eager to try this for myself!

I’ve argued that a morality of the ‘useful,’ begs the question, to speak colloquially, ‘useful for what?’ We can argue that we wish for survival, security and prosperity, but are we right to do so? If survival, security and prosperity is the aim, then evil means can be employed to achieve them. I don’t think we can argue that this is never the case. Generally, however, we can expect morality to further these ends. And yet, if these ends are the only reason for our actions, the morality of our actions can still be called into question. Actions that are purely self-serving or pragmatic seem likely to ignore moral considerations as irrelevant.

You write:

As to hard-wiring, I believe that the model includes two foundational traits that are often in conflict -- basic survival instinct, on the one hand, and empathy (altruism) on the other.  Out of that conflict, and how we choose to balance it, comes the necessity of moral choice.  Empathy, I believe, is the voice of God within us all; it is both a gift and a burden.  But it is the balancing of empathy against basic survival needs that is crucial.

I don’t know that the actual article referred to includes the survival instinct as one of the hard-wired items, but I’m happy to entertain the concept.

I would argue that empathy is more than altruism. It’s an important part of our mental well-being. Without it we are alone, friendless, alienated. Our jobs have no meaning if we don’t care about the people they benefit. I wonder if ‘love your neighbor as yourself’ might serve your rhetorical needs better, if you don’t mind a slightly tongue in cheek comment. The injunction involves loving yourself every bit as much as your neighbor. I wonder if the survival/altruism dichotomy doesn’t assume a little too much atomism.

We want to grow and flourish, more than just surviving. And we find ourselves surrounded by people, some of whom we actively care about, with similar desires. It seems like as we journey towards enlightenment, assuming that is our ultimate destination, then it sometimes seems that our interests are in conflict with the interests of those around us. If I supervise my son’s piano and violin practice, I’ll have less time for myself. The less enlightened, the more the happiness of others seems to be at my expense. The more enlightened, the less true this may seem. If altruism is simply a matter of pleasure, then I can install an electrode in my brain to stimulate the pleasure center directly. If altruism is related to the mystical realization that all is one and that my neighbor is myself it seems like little balancing needs to be done and morality is true because it corresponds to reality, just like any other truth.

I’m strongly sympathetic to your concerns about an excess of empathy leading to collective problems such as failing “to regulate uncivil behavior in society,” except I would prefer to rephrase it as ‘compassion.’ Or as the Christian tradition refers to it, “agape.” Ken Wilber makes a nice point about the need to combine Agape, as pure accepting unconditional love, with what he calls Eros, which has a more masculine tinge. It’s a conditional love that pushes for development and achievement. If you wish someone well, including yourself, you hope for them to grow and develop and that will take hard work. A balance must be struck between acceptance just as we are, with the need to develop. In our role as parents and educators we may need to more or less compel striving for attainments of various kinds in the best interests of those under our charge. But we don’t disown our children for failing to achieve everything we may have dreamed for them. True compassion (Agape) requires wisdom achieved through Eros, and Eros without compassion is not wise at all.

You write:

Beyond that, I believe, we exercise free will in our judgments and moral decisions.  Put another way, I believe we are born with certain predispositions that -- taken together -- account for the human condition.  Our moral choices are those that best improve our individual and collective well-being.

This seems pretty close to the truth.  It just seems that these dispositions can change as we mature morally, until the disjunction between our interests and the interests of others disappears.

Too long, too tedious

Thank you, sir, for your kind response to my comments.  I have written, point-by-point, a reply to address your doubts, questions and worries, but upon reviewing it, I find it altogether too long for this venue.  I think readers would find it tedious, at best, self-serving at worst.  Email, I think, would be more appropriate.  So, here, I will say only that you raise a number of good questions -- some unanticipated -- that have caused me to re-think, but not significantly alter, my position.  For now, I leave my comments to stand or fall on their merits, and I look forward to Part II of your article. 

@ Prof. Cocks

Thank you very much for this beautiful essay.

You made me think there is some hope yet for philosophy.

The fake fight of biological morality against mental morality is the same fight of Darwinism at any cost to eliminate the Creator.

Some (many) people are horrified by the slightest possibility of a Creator, I don't understand why but it must have something to do with Crime and Punishment, "modern" people can't imagine to be responsible for anything towards their own Creator inspired conscience.


Please keep it coming Professor, our time needs your writings.


Thank you for your comments. I don't really understand some people's abhorrence of the Creator either. You might be right about the reason. My students come armed to the teeth with reasons why they shouldn't be held morally responsible for their actions; all provided gratis by their social milieu. 'We are all selfish' (therefore, don't complain if I behave in a bestial manner). 'We are all equal' (so don't you dare compare me with someone much nicer morally than myself), etc., etc.