Morality and the Dilemma of the Pious Atheists

If Jonathan Haidt is right, we are a pathologically pious species, with logical minds that evolved mainly to serve our innate self-righteousness.  Contemplate the behavior of modern atheists, and it seems plausible enough.  After all, they realize, or at least the more intelligent among them do, that we are an evolved species.  If they’ve looked at any of the recent flood of books on the subject, they also realize that our morality is the expression, not of the opinion of some supernatural being, but of evolved behavioral traits.  It exists because it promoted our survival at times when our mode of existence and environment were radically different from what they are now.  Good and evil are not objects and things-in-themselves.  Rather, they are subjective perceptions in the minds of individuals.  As such, they have no existence independent of those minds.  The odd thing (or perhaps the predictable thing, given the nature of our  species) is that these perfectly straightforward, rational conclusions seem to matter hardly at all.

Consider, for example, the case of Jerry Coyne, like me, an atheist, and a latter day Darwin’s bulldog.    He rejected the notion of objective Good and Evil in a recent post on his blog.  For  example,

Now, I maintain that there is no objective morality: that morality is a guide for how people should get along in society, and that what is “moral” comports in general with the rules we need to live by in a harmonious society—one with greater “well being,” as Harris puts it.  A society in which half the inhabitants are dispossessed because they lack a Y chromosome is not a society brimming with well being, and I wouldn’t want to live in it.  And yes, what promotes “well being” can in principle be established empirically. But that still presumes that the best society is one that promotes the greatest “well being,” and that is an opinion, not a fact.

And yes, of course moral judgments can hinge on matters of real scientific truth! If you think that abortion is wrong because fetuses feel pain, that’s something that science can, in principle, find out. But in the end that still depends on an opinion: causing a fetus pain, even though doing so comports with the mother’s wishes, is immoral.  Just because a disagreement is “substantive” (whatever that means) does not mean that it can be resolved by determining objective truths.

Now I agree, of course, that throwing acid in the face of Afghan schoolgirls for trying to learn is wrong. But it is not an “objective” moral wrong—that is, you cannot deduce it from mere observation, not without adding some reasons why you think it’s wrong.  And those reasons are based on opinions.

Here we have an “is”:  Moral judgments are based on subjective perceptions or, if you will, opinions.  Nowhere does Coyne address the problem of “ought”:  how these subjective judgments might acquire the power to leap out of the brain of one individual and become applicable to other individuals as well, whether that other individual likes it or not.  Yet a couple of posts later, his own judgments have magically acquired that power! Referring to a little girl who was bitten by a dolphin at Seaword, he writes,

I’m sorry the little girl was bitten, but that’s only the human side of the equation. What about the sufferings (yes, I think they suffer) of animals like dolphins, sea otters, and beluga whales forced to endlessly swim in circles in small tanks? (I once was moved almost to tears by watching an otter do this at the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago. I filed a complaint with a person in charge, but they completely ignored me.)  As a biologist, this outrages me.

Let us make no mistake here: this is not about conservation, and only pretends to be about education. In the end, it’s all about money.

This begs the question, “So what?”  Of course, Coyne could always beg off by claiming that he was merely describing his own, personal state of mind.  To that, I would reply, “Nonsense!”  His “outrage” is not a clinical description of his subjective state of mind at a particular moment, but a moral judgment directed at the “person in charge.” His comment that the behavior he is outraged about is “all about money” is not just a neutered opinion, but a moral judgment.  How is it that Coyne’s state of mind has acquired this power over others?  In fact, if we are to believe what he has written on the subject himself, no such path to power and legitimacy exists.  The “person in charge” cannot be bound by Coynes “opinion,” any more than the managers of Seaworld and the Shedd Aquarium.  In spite of that, he has elevated his own perceptions of good and evil to the status of the very “objective truths” he denied a couple of posts earlier, as binding on others as on himself.

I don’t mean to single out Coyne.  His irrational behavior is pervasive, and predictable, given the nature of our species.  I, too, experience outrage at the maltreatment of animals.  Rationally, however, I realize that my outrage is a mental phenomenon that is in no way connected to a “Good” that exists independently, outside of my own brain.  The fact that Good and Evil don’t exist as independent objects in no way depends on acceptance of the hypothesis that human morality represents the expression of evolved behavioral traits, or on acceptance of the theory of evolution.  It does not even depend on whether a God exists or not.  A hypothetical super-being might have the power to fry me in hell for quadrillions and quintillions of years for failing to share his opinion, but his opinion, his “subject,” would not become an “object” for all that.

Why do I bother to bring this up?  I certainly am not immune to the “Coyne syndrome,” as readers of my blog will be quick to detect.  However, having long ago concluded that there is no rational basis for self-righteousness, I find it very tiresome, at least in others.  Beyond this personal whim, there is the matter of survival.  If, in fact, morality exists because it evolved, and it evolved because it promoted our survival, it would be somewhat incongruous if it became the ultimate cause of our extinction.  In the last century alone, the Communists murdered tens of millions for what they saw as the highest of moral reasons, and when Hitler exterminated the Jews, as he wrote in Mein Kampf, he believed he was doing “the Lord’s work.”  Under the circumstances, it seems to me that it would behoove us as a species to cultivate a lively awareness of the subjective nature of morality.  We must apply morality in our routine interactions with other individuals, because there is no alternative.  We should be leery of applying it outside of that sphere, or at least those of us should who, like me, subjectively prefer that our species not become extinct.