“Natural Law” and Other Rationalizations of Morality

People worry about a “grounding” for morality.  There’s really no need to.  As Marc Bekoff and Jessica Pierce pointed out in Wild Justice – The Moral Lives of Animals, there are analogs of moral behavior in many species besides our own.  Eventually some bright Ph.D. will design an experiment to scan the brains of chimpanzees as they make morally loaded decisions, and discover that the relevant equipment in their brains is located more or less in the same places as in ours.  Other animals don’t wonder why one thing is good and another evil.  They’re not intelligent enough to worry about it.  Hominids are Mother Nature’s first experiment with creatures that are smart enough to worry about it.  The result of this cobbling of big brains onto the already existing mental equipment responsible for moral emotions and perceptions hasn’t been entirely happy.  In fact, it has caused endless confusion through the ages.

We can’t just perceive one thing as good, and another as evil, and leave it at that like other animals.  We’re too smart for that.  We have to invent a story to explain why.  We perceive Good and Evil as things independent of ourselves, so we need to come up with some kind of myth about how they got there.  It’s an impossible task, because Good and Evil don’t exist as independent things.  They are subjective impressions.  It is our nature to perceive them as things because morality has always worked best that way, at least until now.  That fact has led to endless confusion over the ages, as philosophers and theologians have tried to grasp the mirage.

We are much like the patients described in Michael Gazzaniga’s The Ethical Brain, who had their left and right brain hemispheres severed from each other to relieve severe epilepsy.  According to Gazzaniga,

Beyond the finding…that the left hemisphere makes strange input logical, it includes a special region that interprets the inputs we receive every moment and weaves them into stories to form the ongoing narrative of our self-image and our beliefs.  I have called this area of the left hemisphere the interpreter because it seeks explanations for internal and external events and expands on the actual facts we experience to make sense of, or interpret, the events of our life.

Experiments on split-brain patients reveal how readily the left brain interpreter can make up stories and beliefs.  In one experiment, for example, when the word walk was presented only to the right side of a patients’s brain, he got up and started walking.  When he was asked why he did this, the left brain (where language is stored and where the word walk was not presented) quickly created a reason for the action:  “I wanted to go get a Coke.”

We constantly invent similar stories to rationalize to ourselves why something we have just perceived as good really is Good, or why something we have perceived as evil really is Evil.  Jonathan Haidt describes the same phenomenon in his The Emotional Dog and its Rational Tail:  A Social Intuitionist Approach to Moral Judgment.  Noting that he will present evidence in the paper to back up his claims, he writes,

These findings offer four reasons for doubting the causality of reasoning in moral judgment: 1) there are two cognitive processes at work — reasoning and intuition — and the reasoning process has been overemphasized; 2) reasoning is often motivated; 3) the reasoning process constructs post-hoc justifications, yet we experience the illusion of objective reasoning; and 4) moral action covaries with moral emotion more than with moral reasoning.

The most common post-hoc justification, of course, has always been God.  Coming up with a God-based narrative is a piece of cake compared to the alternative.  After all, if the big guy upstairs wants one thing to be Good and another Evil, and promises to fry you in hell forever if you beg to differ with him, it’s easy to find reasons to agree with Him.  Take him out of the mix, however, and things get more complicated.  We come up with all kinds of amusing and flimsy rationalizations to demonstrate the existence of the non-existent.

Consider, for example, the matter of Rights which, like Good and Evil, exist as subjective impressions that our mind portrays to us as objective things.  The website of the Foundation for Economic Education has a regular “Arena” feature hosting debates on various topics, and a while back the question was, “Do Natural Rights Exist?”  The affirmative side was taken by Tibor Machan in a piece entitled, “Natural Rights Come From Human Nature.”  If you get the sinking feeling on reading this that you’re about to see yet another version of the naturalistic fallacy, unfortunately you would be right.  Machan sums up his argument in the final two paragraphs as follows:

We are all dependent upon knowing the nature of things so that we can organize our knowledge of the world. We know, for example, that there are fruits (a class of some kind of beings) and games (another class) and subatomic particles (yet another class) and so on. These classes or natures of things are not something separate from the things being classified, but constitute their common features, ones without which they wouldn’t be what they are. Across the world, for example, apples and dogs and chickens and tomatoes and, yes, human beings are all recognized for what they are because we know their natures even when some cases are difficult to identify fully, completely, or when there are some oddities involved.

So there is good reason that governments do not create rights for us—we have them, instead, by virtue of our human nature. And this puts a limit on what governments may do, including do to us. They need to secure our rights, and as they do so they must also respect them.

Is it just me, or is this transparent conflation of “is” and “ought” sufficiently obvious to any ten-year old?  Well, it must be me, because according to the poll accompanying the debate, 66% of the respondents thought that Machan “won” with this argument, according to which Natural Rights “evolved” right along with our hands and feet.  Obviously, since people “know in their bones” that Rights are real things, it doesn’t take a very profound argument to convince them that “it must be true.”  In a word, if you think that the world will sink into a fetid sewer of moral relativism and debauchery because there is no “grounding of morality,” I have good news for you.  It ain’t so.  If our moral equipment works perfectly well even when the only thing propping it up is such a flimsy post-hoc rationalization, it can probably get along just as well without one.

 

An Appeal to Conservative Atheists: “C’mon, Man!”

No doubt sports fans are aware of the “C’mon Man” collections of the sports week’s worst bloopers and blown calls on ESPN.  That was my reaction on reading a piece entitled Yes, Atheism and Conservatism Are Compatible by fellow conservative atheist Charles C. W. Cooke at National Review Online.  The article was a reaction to the recent unceremonious eviction of the atheist group American Atheists from a booth at CPAC after they had been invited to attend by current Chair of the American Conservative Union, Al Cardenas.

Cooke started out well enough, quoting the Interdict by fire-breathing Christian zealot Brent Bozell that led to the eviction:

The invitation extended by the ACU, Al Cardenas and CPAC to American Atheists to have a booth is more than an attack on conservative principles.  It is an attack on God Himself.  American Atheists is an organization devoted to the hatred of God.  How on earth could CPAC, or the ACU and its board of directors, and Al Cardenas condone such an atrocity?

to which Cooke quite reasonably responds,

The particular merits of the American Atheists group to one side, this is a rather astounding thing for Bozell to have said. In just 63 words, he confuses disbelief in God for “hatred” for God — a mistake that not only begs the question but is inherently absurd (one cannot very well hate what one does not believe is there); he condemns an entire conference on the basis of one participant — not a good look for a struggling movement, I’m afraid; and, most alarmingly perhaps, he insinuates that one cannot simultaneously be a conservative and an atheist. I reject this idea — and with force.

and

If atheism and conservatism are incompatible, then I am not a conservative. And nor, I am given to understand, are George Will, Charles Krauthammer, Anthony Daniels, Walter Olson, Heather Mac Donald, James Taranto, Allahpundit, or S. E. Cupp.

He continues with the same point that I made in a recent post:

One of the problems we have when thinking about atheism in the modern era is that the word has been hijacked and turned into a political position when it is no such thing. The Oxford English Dictionary defines an “atheist” as someone who exhibits “disbelief in, or denial of, the existence of a god.” That’s me right there — and that really is the extent of it.

Cooke continues with an assessment of the Christian legacy in world history which is rather more benevolent than anything I would venture.  And then he goes completely off the tracks.  As readers of this blog might guess, it happens in the context of an issue that speaks to our moral emotions – the question of Rights.  Again quoting Cooke,

A great deal of the friction between atheists and conservatives seems to derive from a reasonable question.  “If you don’t consider that human beings are entitled to ‘God given’ liberties,” I am often asked, “don’t you believe that the unalienable rights that you spend your days defending are merely the product of ancient legal accidents or of the one-time whims of transient majorities?”  Well, no, not really.  As far as I can see, the American settlement can thrive perfectly well within my worldview.  God or no God, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and the Declaration of Independence are all built upon centuries of English law, human experience, and British and European philosophy, and the natural-law case for them stands nicely on its own.

Not really.  Sorry, but without a God, the “natural-law case for them” collapses as a non sequitur.  Without a God, “natural law” can’t grab a single Right, Good, or Evil out of anyone’s subjective consciousness and magically transmute it into a thing-in-itself.  And in spite of the fervent wringing of hands of every conservative on the face of the planet, the fact that it can’t won’t cause a God to miraculously spring into existence.  The subjective perception of rights in the human consciousness will continue to function just as it always has.  That perception isn’t going anywhere, and neither requires, nor will it pay any attention to the Christians who are disappointed because there’s no God to transmute the perception into an independent Thing, nor to atheists, conservative and otherwise, are disappointed because they can’t transmute it into a Thing by invoking equally imaginary “natural laws.”   Adding insult to injury, Cooke continues,

“Of the nature of this being (God),” Jefferson wrote to John Adams in 1817, “we know nothing,”  Neither do I.  Indeed, I do not believe that there is a “being” at all.  And yet one can reasonably take Jefferson’s example and, without having to have an answer as to what created the world, merely rely upon the same sources as he did – upon Locke and Newton and Cicero and Bacon and, ultimately, upon one’s own human reason.  From this, one can argue that the properties of the universe suggest self-ownership, that this self-ownership yields certain rights that should be held to be unalienable, and that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.  After all, that’s what we’re all righting for, Right?

(Pause for loud forehead slap.)  Locke, Newton, Cicero and Bacon?  Smart men, no doubt, but what on earth could they conceivably have known about the evolutionary origins of such concepts as Rights?  Good grief, Locke was a Blank Slater, albeit one of a much different color than the likes of John Stuart Mill or Ashley Montagu.  Are we really to believe that one can become enlightened concerning “Rights” by reading Locke, Newton, Cicero, and Bacon until one reaches a state of Don Quixote-like stupefaction?  “Human reason?”  Hey, I’m game, as long as the chain of rational arguments doesn’t include the “miracle happens” step introduced in one of Gary Larson’s “The Far Side” cartoons.   And the leap from “human reason” to “self-ownership” as a property of the universe?  All I can say is, Cooke should have stopped while he was ahead.  C’mon, man!