The Edge Conference on “The Science of Morality:” The Nature of Good and Evil

The Edge Foundation recently hosted a conference with the moniker, “The New Science of Morality,” It included addresses by nine eminent biologists, psychologists, and philosophers, all but one of whom were drawn from the ranks of academia. Their remarks, which can be found at the Edge website, were an interesting reflection of current thinking on the subject from a preponderantly left of center ideological perspective. As I share their interest in the subject I will post some comments on their talks on my blog. However, before plunging ahead, I will follow E.O. Wilson’s advice to those who would address the subject of morality, and “lay my cards on the table.”
Before one presumes to speak of morality and the categories good and evil that are associated with it, it is useful to first establish what morality is. As an atheist, I base my opinions on the subject on the following two assumptions:

• Morality depends for its existence on innate predispositions hard-wired in the human brain.
• The features of the brain responsible for morality exist because they evolved.

It follows from the first of these assumptions that morality, with its inherent categories of good and evil, has no objective, independent existence of its own. In other words, good and evil do not exist independently as other than mental constructs, nor would they continue to exist absent a mind capable of giving rise to them. As a consequence of this, good and evil cannot be derived or identified logically or scientifically as things in themselves, nor can they in any way acquire validity or legitimacy in their own right.

These conclusions seem counterintuitive to creatures like ourselves because good and evil seem real. We are wired to perceive them as real, presumably because they are most effective in promoting our survival when they are perceived as real. However, their only reality is as emotional responses derived from innate features of the brain. These emotional responses are present in nascent form even in human infants. They evolved in times utterly unlike the present for the sole reason that they promoted the genetic survival of individuals during those times. They can possess no intrinsic or transcendent validity or legitimacy not based on those origins, and it is questionable whether they even continue to promote our survival in the context of the modern world.

There is no such thing as “moral progress.” There can be no progress unless there is some goal towards which one progresses. In the case of moral progress, that goal can only be to approach the “real” good and move away from “real” evil. For that to happen, “real” good and “real” evil must necessarily have an independent existence and legitimacy of their own, but, as noted above, that is impossible. What we describe as “moral progress” is merely the expression of the evolved mental traits responsible for moral behavior in the context of rapidly changing human social organization, culture, and technological advances. The evolved mental traits in question themselves have changed little if any in the process.

It is interesting that conservative religious believers find it much easier to understand the reasoning behind and accept the above hypotheses than the type of people who attended the Edge conference. They, of course, base the legitimacy of their moral claims on the existence of a God. Remove God, and they have no trouble perceiving the fact that those who continue to claim that there can be such things as real good and real evil are sitting out on a limb with no tree attached to it.

In contrast, none of the academics and scientists at the Edge Conference, or at least none I am aware of, would argue that real good and real evil derive from a Supreme Being. In spite of that, they come from an ideological milieu that is heavily invested in the belief in its own moral superiority. Individuals in that milieu routinely refer to the actions and beliefs of others as “moral” or “immoral,” indicating acceptance of some moral standard that is applicable to everyone, and not just themselves. I am not aware of anyone among them who has explicitly rejected the notion of “moral progress.” However, if morality is the expression of evolved traits hard-wired in the brain, this presumption of moral superiority becomes indefensible. The extreme reticence of those at the conference to face these implications is quite evident in the remarks of the nine keynote speakers.

In later posts I will comment on the remarks of each of those speakers in the context of my own understanding of morality.

Author: Helian

I am Doug Drake, and I live in Maryland, not far from Washington, DC. I am a graduate of West Point, and I hold a Ph.D. in nuclear engineering from the University of Wisconsin. My blog reflects my enduring fascination with human nature and human morality.

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