A recent article by Steven Pinker, reprinted in the Age last week, tried to explain morality from an evolutionary perspective. Steven Pinker is an evolutionary psychologist and an atheist. As an atheist, he is a philosophical naturalist and a materialist. Thus he believes that only the natural world exists, and that only matter matters. It is hard in such a scheme of things to argue for something manifestly outside of the natural order.
Yet he tries to do this in suggesting that moral realism might be true. Moral realism is the idea that real objective morality exists. Now Christians happen to be moral realists. We believe in objective moral laws. But we ground those in God himself. God is a moral being, and moral law is simply a reflection of who he is.
But people like Pinker are entertaining the possibility of a secular version of moral realism. They certainly do not believe in God, yet are open to the possibility of objective morality. This would seem to be problematic for Pinker. Moral facts of course are non material. So how can they exist in the world of the materialist? Good question.
Readers might recall that Pinker caused a bit of a stink when he said in a November 1997 New York Times article that women who murder their newborn babies may be just acting out their evolutionary design. Infanticide may be a hideous moral evil, but it may also simply be part of the way nature has designed us.
So it is clear that his naturalistic and evolutionary worldview has some real implications for morality. In the piece in the Age Pinker tries to wiggle his way around the implications of his worldview. He wants to let us know that there may be such a thing as morality after all, even though it does not easily fit into his own philosophical system.
The title of his article, “The evolution of morality,” gives the game away. Morality has evolved, like everything else, and that is the way it is. He seeks to show, under a Darwinian framework, how we can account for altruism, self-sacrifice, and good and evil in general.
Thus he suggests that some type of moral realism may have to be dragged into the picture. But the question remains: in an atheistic and naturalistic worldview, how can one even speak of an objective morality? Right and wrong are not material things, and should not even exist in a Darwinian world.
The more consistent Darwinists, such as Dawkins, simply concede the point: there is no such thing as right and wrong. As Dawkins put it in River Out of Eden, “In a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.”
Evolutionary biologist E. O. Wilson and philosopher Michael Ruse insist that morality is just a survival mechanism. Ethics “is an illusion fobbed off on us by our genes to get us to cooperate,” and “the way our biology enforces its ends is by making us think that there is an objective higher code to which we are all subject.”
Naturalist Simon Blackburn put it this way: “Nature has no concern for good or bad, right or wrong. . . . We cannot get behind ethics.” Evolutionary biologist Ernst Mayr says that “altruism toward strangers is a behaviour not supported by natural selection.”
Yet Pinker and other Darwinists speak of “reciprocal altruism,” the idea that we do “good” things in order to help our survival chances. Thus the survival of the fittest mentality is dragged in here to explain even altruism. Yet as Dinesh D’Sousa points out, reciprocal altruism is simply “the equivalent of ‘I’ll be nice to you, so that you be nice to me’.” He is worth quoting at length in this regard:
“The problem is that this entire framework of Darwinian analysis does not even come close to explaining morality. It confines itself to explaining altruism, but it only succeeds in what may be termed ‘low altruism.’ But humans also engage in ‘high altruism,’ which may be defined as behavior that confers no reciprocal or genetic advantage. A man stands up to give his seat on a bus to an old lady. She is nothing to him, and he is certainly not thinking that there may be a future occasion when she or someone else will give him a seat. He gives up his seat because he is a nice guy. There is no Darwinian rationale that can account for his behavior.”
Sorry, but try as they might, materialists and hard-core Darwinists simply cannot properly account for real altruism. Of course their reply is simply, “Yes, we may not have an answer now, but eventually we will have one”. This is really a type of “atheism of the gaps”.
Atheists accuse believers of using a “God of the Gaps” fallback when they have something they cannot explain. They claim that when science cannot explain something, believers smuggle God into the picture. Yet this is just what the atheists are doing here. When they have no clear scientific explanation for something (often for something which is actually outside the realm of scientific investigation in the first place), they just say, give us enough time, and we will cough up a good evolutionary and naturalistic explanation.
A system based on the concept of “selfish genes” simply cannot account for genuine altruistic behaviour. D’Sousa again: “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.”
Indeed, as R. C. Sproul notes, “If our convictions about right and wrong are nothing but chemical reactions, then there is no way for us to test their validity. They are necessarily arbitrary and non-binding.”
Charles Colson also picked up on the Pinker piece when it first appeared in the New York Times. Colson argues that the naturalistic worldview “leads Pinker, like other Darwinians, to redefine altruism and fairness as little more than enlightened ‘self-interest.’ We are generous toward others because evolution has ‘taught’ us that this is the best way to ensure their generosity toward us. What we call ‘fairness’ is really an unwritten pact not to cheat each other and, thus, promote social harmony and community.”
He continues, “The problem with these superficially plausible explanations is that real human beings, as opposed to theoretical ones, do not live this way. If altruism is ‘hardwired,’ many people are poorly wired, indeed: They are stingy and cheat their neighbors with regularity. Other people are profoundly generous, not only to their friends and family, but also to complete strangers. They are willing to make do with less and even go without, to help others in need. And they would much rather suffer an injustice than commit one.”
He concludes: “It is not that these people are unaware of the advantages to be gained from being selfish and unfair – it is that their morality is rooted in something that enables them to be good, even when being good comes at a cost. Because Pinker fails to describe people as they really are, he does not answer the question, ‘Why be good?’ Why be generous or honest when all the incentives point the other way? Why give your life for someone else? His utilitarianism can neither compel nor inspire people to go beyond self-interest. To do that, you need the Christian account. What Pinker calls ‘hardwiring’ is what we call being created in the image of God. Since we know that this life is not all there is, we can transcend self-interest.”
Indeed, the biblical account is the best explanation for good and evil. Being made in God’s image explains why we want to act altruistically. But the doctrine of the Fall explains why we usually don’t. The materialists will have to just keep at their “atheism of the gaps” to explain altruism. It just might take a very long time indeed.