Is morality something that is a part of our very being, or is it something that is learned from our culture? From a scientific point of view, that is a hard thing to answer. Data exist that could support either argument, so often the conclusion that is drawn from the scientific evidence tells us more about the interpreter than the data. A very interesting article in the New York Times illustrates this in very stark terms.
Before I start discussing this article, there are two things I want to make clear. First, I got this article from PZ Myers’s blog. As anyone who reads this blog probably knows, he is my favorite atheist. More than anyone else, he demonstrates how the atheistic worldview is based on irratonaility. As I have written before, there are serious scholars who are atheists, and their arguments need to be heeded. There are also hacks that are atheists, and their arguments make it very easy to be a theist. PZ Meyers is, indeed, one of the hacks. Nevertheless, I read his blog because it is fun to see the mental gymnastics through which a scientist must go in order to be an atheist.
The second thing I want to make clear is that I do not think that the argument from morality is a reasonable argument for the existence of God. While there is ovewhelming scientific evidence for the existence of God, the argument from morality simply isn’t one of them. Indeed, in my experience, some of the most immoral people I know call themselves Christians, and their “morality” is put to shame by many atheists.
So…while I don’t think the argument from morality holds much weight, I do think that the interpretation of any data related to morality (like the interpretation of many other kinds of data) is heavily influenced by whether or not you think God exists. This New York Times story demonstrates that in no uncertain terms.
The article is fascinating, and I strongly recommend that you read it in its entirety. Essentially, the author makes a very good case that you can judge a baby’s interpretation of events by measuring things such as how long a baby looks at the event as well as certain things the baby does related to the event. If you believe that this is the case (and I think it is), some amazing things are revealed by the ingenious studies that the author describes.
Essentially, the author says that if you accept the described methods as measures of a baby’s evaluation of certain situations, you find that even very young babies (10-month olds, for example) have a sense of morality. For example, babies indicated that they preferred to reward those who were portrayed as “helpers” in a given situation, and they preferred to punish those who were portrayed as “hinderers” in the same situation. Indeed, the babies would even reward a third party who was nice to the “helper” and punish a third party who was mean to the “helper.” In the same way, they would punish a third party who was nice to the “hinderer” and reward a third party who was mean to the “hinderer.” As the author says:
This wasn’t a subtle statistical trend
In other words, it wasn’t the case that 55% favored the helper and 45% favored the hinderer. It seems that the overwhelming majority of babies understood that the helper should be rewarded and the hinderer should be punished.
Now…I think these results are fascinating, but I think the reaction to the results by others is even more interesting. The author of the article says that even though these experiments indicate that very young babies have a sense of morality, it is “primitive” at best. Indeed, the author says that there are some behaviors that babies exhibit, such as the tendency to favor their own race over another, that are clearly not moral. He says:
The aspect of morality that we truly marvel at — its generality and universality — is the product of culture, not of biology. There is no need to posit divine intervention. A fully developed morality is the product of cultural development, of the accumulation of rational insight and hard-earned innovations. The morality we start off with is primitive, not merely in the obvious sense that it’s incomplete, but in the deeper sense that when individuals and societies aspire toward an enlightened morality — one in which all beings capable of reason and suffering are on an equal footing, where all people are equal — they are fighting with what children have from the get-go. (emphasis mine)
PZ Myers agrees, stating:
Evolution has granted us a general “Be nice!” brain, and also that we acquire capacities that put up boundaries and foster a kind of primitive tribalism…Again, no gods or spirits or souls are required to understand how any of this works.
However, looking at it from my point of view, I find that the data say quite the opposite. It seems to me that it is very hard to justify the moral sense we see in babies from an evolutionary point of view. Certainly there is no survival advantage in trying to reward the helpers and punish the hinderers. Indeed, it would seem that the most reasonable course of action from a survival standpoint would be to avoid the hinderers altogether. While you could make a reasonable argument that rewarding the helpers might make the helpers more disposed to help you, that same argument would lead you to conclude that punishing the hinders would make the hinderers predisposed to be against you, which would lead to them hindering you even more.
As to the idea that babies seem to be “tribal” (preferring their race or group over another one), I would say that this is a reflection of the same moral sense that the experiments discussed above indicate that babies have. After all, most likely, babies generally experience love and nurturing first from those of their own race or group. As a result, they are predisposed to prefer their own race or group because they are predisposed to prefer the helpers.
In the end, then, I see these data as indicating that we have been designed to be moral agents, even at a very young age. While I reject the notion that morality cannot exist without God, I do think these data indicate that morality exists so early in human life that it cannot be adequately explained by evolution. The best lesson to draw from these data, then, is not related to whether or not God exists. It is related to how your preconceptions affect how you examine the data. Given the same data set, I see evidence against evolution and for divine creation. Others see evidence for evolution and against divine creation.
Is it any wonder, then, that scientists disagree so strongly about evolution?